Sunday, December 20, 2009

Because of the Day I Finally Met Our Mother

Posted by Webster 
A snowstorm in New England brings out shovels, not Catholics. After an all-night storm, with high drifting winds, we didn’t have our usual compliment at the 8:15 (where I read with Ferde) or the 10:30 (where our choir was reduced to a few hardy souls). But the Blessed Mother was in the house. I know that now.

Two years back, at a family picnic, I wasn't so sure. My wife's cousin, a devout Catholic, asked me why I had converted. She ran through a few possible reasons and finally came to Mary. Was it because of Mary that I became a Catholic, she asked? I now know that others, like Mitch, have been brought to the Church by a devotion to Mary, pure and simple. For me, though, I had to tell my wife's cousin that, in all honesty, I wasn't even sure who Mary was.

In fact, it was because my reasons for becoming Catholic were so many, so odd and personal, so interconnected yet disparate, that I started this blog in the first place.

In this blog, I have written just once before about the Blessed Mother. And in that post the Virgin Mary shared billing with another Mary, my grandmother. Reviewing that post today, I realize that, where the Virgin Mary is concerned, my writing was more or less theoretical, offering good reasons for Catholics' devotion to Mary. That post boils down to a personal philosophical spin job.

Today, it was just personal.

It began with the Gospel and homily at 8:15. Of the twenty Mysteries in the Rosary, I have, for unaccountable reasons, always loved the Visitation—not because of Mary so much as because the Visitation represents the most remarkable and charitable fruit of the Angel Gabriel's visit. What is the first thing Mary does when she finds out that she is going to give birth to God? Hop on a donkey and ride off into the hills of Judea, to help her pregnant, elderly cousin Elizabeth. That was today's Gospel reading, for the Fourth Sunday in Advent.

Father Barnes's homily was about joy, real joy, a joy not dependent on the circumstances of our lives but on God's gifts and grace, on participating in the fullness of God's kingdom. Such joy is founded on humility, Father said, the same humility with which Mary met the archangel's message. By this time, or about 8:40 by the clock, Mother Mary was starting to make her presence known to me.

At the conclusion of communion, Meredith, our cantor, sang the “Ave Maria” from the choir loft as we all sat, silently meditating. About ten measures in, my dear friend Ferde, my fellow lector for the Mass, began singing along by my side. Where Ferde is concerned, singing is frankly a euphemism. Ferde is tone deaf because, from birth, he has been, not exactly stone deaf, but significantly impaired in the general department of hearing. So while Meredith, from above, sang beautifully, Ferde, to my right, grumbled unmercifully. And the effect was miraculous. I have never heard such a beautiful “Ave Maria,” and I am not being ironic. My friendship with Ferde is real enough to me that his “harmony” actually enhanced the moment.

Jump ahead to 9:50 and again to 11:05, when we, the choir, rehearsed and then sang the Canticle of Mary. I have been moved by many of the pieces we sing under Choirmaster Fred’s direction. I have written before of singing the “Gloria” here. Nothing has moved me, though, as the Canticle of Mary moved me today. As a fairly regular reader of the Liturgy of the Hours, I have an opportunity to read these words every evening (though I often am truant). But they have never touched my heart as they did twice today:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. 
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant; from this day all generations will call me blessed:
The Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. 
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. 
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, for he has remembered his promise of mercy, 
the promise he made to our fathers, to Abraham and his children forever. 
Glory to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
As it was in the beginnning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

With cantor Mark Nemeskal, we all sang the first and last verses (in bold). The women sang the verses in red. We men sang the remainder. Most touching were the women's voices, from a group reduced to just five by the snowstorm. The sound was pure, plaintive, praiseful. Mary had entered my heart at last.

Asked by journalist Peter Seewald how many ways there are to God, my pope, Benedict XVI, gave one of the thousand surprising answers to be found in his dialogue with Seewald, which extends over three volumes,* from 1996, when the pope was still known as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, to 2007, two years into his papacy.

Seewald: How many ways are there to God?
Cardinal Ratzinger: As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one. . . . 

I can attest to the truth of my pope's statement. In a church where many, if not the majority, feel a tremendous debt and devotion to Mary, I had been frankly out of the loop. Today, for the first time, I think I understand a bit better what all the fuss is about.

* The three Seewald volumes are: Salt of the Earth, God and the World, and Benedict XVI: An Intimate Portrait. They are a small miracle in themselves. Seewald began interviews for the first volume as a young, single skeptic. He published the third volume as a father and a Catholic.