Amidst the bombs and bullets, that unfortunately were an almost daily feature of life in West Belfast in the 1970s, came the arrival of the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Fatima. I am unclear on the actual date, but I remember the great excitement that accompanied the procession through the streets. I remember the comfort of the Marian hymns that we sang: O Mary of Graces, I’ll sing a Hymn to Mary, The Bells of the Angelus, and of course the bursting pride in our hearts, when we sang loudly, the great anthem, Hail Queen of Heaven. I remember the incense, a smell I love to this day. I remember the soothing murmur of the crowd at prayer. The drone of the ever vigilant helicopter, deadened by our prayer, and the stink of burning tyres from the riot up the road, was slowly ushered away by the rich sacred holy smoke. The whole thing, which was led by a holy Dominican, was meant to give us hope, and a little taster of peace. It did just that, and more. After all, was not the title, Queen of Peace, one of the special names we gave to Mary. This beautiful statue stayed in our parish for a week or ten days, but when it left us, it left behind a powerful legacy. Small little groups of people began gathering at street corners to say the rosary together. This praying of the rosary was always offered for peace. I remember well, my maternal grandmother, long after she was diagnosed with throat cancer, going down faithfully to the bottom of the street, to participate in this ritual. These women, and men, gave us an example, never to be forgotten. They sanctified the war torn streets of the beleaguered city with their prayer. In their prayer they asked Mary to intercede for us. This was one of my earliest experiences of people turning to Mary in a time of trouble, both personally and communally. All that is over forty years ago, and I have said many Hail Marys, and often sang Marian Hymns since then. I have had the privilege of being in Lourdes, Medjugorje and of course Knock, many times. Yet, with all this, as we begin another May I find myself reflecting somewhat wistfully on my relationship with Mary.
I find it difficult to separate out a rather sugary, nostalgic devotion from a healthy gospel based relationship with the mother of Jesus. I mean this in my own life, I am not commenting on how you relate to Mary. Whether I am that little boy, standing on the edge of those street rosaries for peace, or I am that young Christian Brother, watching Brother Aidan with such energy, and absolute love for, as he called her the Blessed Virgin, building his famous May altar, or maybe it was the little tear for another Mary, Mary Bridget, my own mother as I listened to Canon Sydney MacEwan sing ‘Bring Flowers of the Rarest’ on the radio last night. Whatever it is, I ask myself have I lost the real Mary? Indeed did I ever find her? Sometimes I find myself setting up a false dichotomy, along the lines of: Mary in popular devotion versus the Mary in the gospel. Of course the reality is, there is only one Mary. It’s not either or, but in fact, Mary is all of this, the Gospel, the Apparitions, the messages, the devotions and much more besides. However, my contention is, that without Mary as revealed in the Gospel we are on shaky ground. I believe that the acid test as to how sound and healthy our Marian devotion is, is the degree to which it is rooted in sacred scripture. So, who then is this Mary in the Gospel?
The truth is, she is more beautiful than we can actually take in. It is a beauty that has a depth and mystery that immediately singles her out. In his memorable poem, The Virgin, Wordsworth describes her as ‘our tainted natures solitary boast.’ This places her at the centre of our broken humanity. Just, as when we leave Jesus confined to the tabernacle, we fail both him, and ourselves, so to, when we leave Mary in the grotto, or swirling around in the clouds of the fantastic, we are the ones who lose out. She is more real than that. Perhaps more than anything else we need Mary. We need Mary because she is the one who always, and resolutely, brings us to Jesus. When we forget about her we neglect our greatest spiritual life line. Without Mary we tread water. If we let her, she will bring us to her Son.
I am in awe as she holds up the newly born little infant. Look, this is Yeshua. I hear her lightly call the boy into their Nazareth home. I see her smile at Cana, with quiet confidence, ‘Do whatever he tells you’. I find it hard to look at her, as she looks at him, bloodied and battered, and her poor heart broken. Yeshua she gasps, my beautiful Yeshua! As we wait on the Holy Spirit, next week at Pentecost, as they remained locked in that Upper Room, terrified, what sustained them? What kept them going? The promises of Jesus saw them through, and no one kept those promises more alive than his mother. I see her in the Upper Room, moving from one to the other, lovingly reminding them of all that he had done and said: ministering love, hope, and joy to them: nurturing the infant Church, as she had nurtured the infant Jesus.
So my friends this May, by all means, bring the flowers, say the rosary, sing the hymns, but let us resolve by the end of the month to know Mary that little bit better: to know her courage, strength, service, obedience and above all the purity of her love: to meet her afresh and to hear her gently whisper our name, as she whispered Yeshua’s: to befriend her again, as our greatest guide and companion, on this our pilgrim journey.