Saints

A Letter to Mary, Queen of Heaven

Dear Mary,

I have so many questions. I must admit that, for as long as I can remember, I’ve seen you as an amazing but also baffling woman. In many ways, your story is like a fairytale—and your unrelenting faith is like a superpower. How could I ever begin to understand you, let alone emulate you, in my own life?

As a young girl on the cusp of a new marriage—challenges all their own—you faced one of the most profound trials ever presented to mankind: you were asked to carry, bear, and raise the Son of God. You, Mary, were visited by an angel and told that this heaviest of burdens—and greatest of privileges—would be placed squarely on your shoulders. And you said yes. You pronounced your fiat and said “I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from you abruptly; what went through your mind? Did you wonder if it had all been a dream until your body started changing and there was no denying the Truth? Did you fret over what your new husband would think? Did you quake in anticipation of the judgment you might receive from others? Did you struggle to picture yourself, a first-time mother, as the caretaker of the most important child ever to enter this world?

Now that I am a mother myself, and have felt the joy and anxiety of very conventional pregnancies, I can only wonder at what you must’ve felt in your position—to be so truly gifted with this immense role in Salvation History, and yet struck by what an unthinkable responsibility it must be.

When you visited your relative, Elizabeth, and she sang your praises and greeted you with joy as the child in her womb leaped at the closeness of the child in yours, did it feel real? You were perhaps too early in your pregnancy to feel your child moving within you. So, when Elizabeth reacted so vividly to your new identity as the Mother of God, how did it strike you? What knowledge did it place in your heart about the fruit of your womb?

With both of my babies, things didn’t seem real to me that early on. Even after I could feel their kicks and rolls, I couldn’t help but wonder at the individuality and separateness of those babies who lived and grew in my body. How on earth could such a miracle be real?

Is that how you felt, too?

As your husband contemplated quietly sending you away upon discovering your pregnancy, were you anxious? Did you wonder, even for a moment, what would become of you and your child? Did you doubt the path that you had accepted? And when Joseph had his own encounter with an angel and trusted in God’s instructions to start a life with you as planned, what did your smile look like? Did you know that this gentle and selfless man would be on your side all along?

My husband is my greatest partner, friend, confidant, and supporter in life. The briefest thought of losing him makes me shiver. I hope that you felt warmed by God’s reassurances all along during what must have been a very stressful time.

During your ninth month, large with child and fleeing to safety with your husband through an ancient landscape, were you frustrated when you were told all of the inns were full? Did you feel the gradual rise and fall of labor pains even then, as you trekked with Joseph from place to place and found nowhere to rest your weary, swollen body? Did the pain frighten you? And when you found shelter in the company of livestock and hay and a lowly manger, did you wonder at the irony of your position?

What joy and relief did you experience when that miraculous child made His way into the world, and you were finally able to hold Him in your arms? The two of you were the perfect pair—spotless and selfless. I have long thought that, if I could go back in time to any one moment, it would be to the Nativity. I imagine the mere sight of the delight on the face of each member of your Holy Family must’ve been enough to erase many years of pain and suffering.

In the following years, watching your son grow from a helpless newborn to an energetic child and, finally, to a serene and hardworking young adult, how often did you wonder at His godliness?

Was the Trinity any easier for you to comprehend than it is for me? In some ways, I imagine your proximity made it harder, for how could a child who refused your meals and laughed at your jokes and wept in your arms with the pain of a bump on the head be both human and God? And yet you knew of His two natures, and you trusted in that transcendent reality and the path God had laid out for your family.

Jesus as a boy sat in your lap—a true Throne of Wisdom—and learned from you. In those days, a mother took responsibility for the care of her young children—she was their teacher, leader, friend, and caretaker as they grew and learned to live in this world. Though He was always God, Jesus was also always human, and needed His mother just like any of us would—needed her guidance, her soothing voice, her discipline, her compassion.

At some point during Jesus’s childhood, you lost your husband. How painful it must have been to mourn him while a child—this child—depended on you constantly. How scary it must have been to be alone in the raising of your son for the rest of His life.

Despite all of this, you and Jesus emerged from His youth just as the Father intended: perfect, without stain, unfailingly loyal to the ultimate destiny of this most precious Lamb of God.

Both guests at the wedding at Cana, you and Jesus must’ve made an inspiring duo. You, the greatest mother, proudly encouraged your grown son, who, in His humility, hesitated to perform the miracle you knew He could enact. And He, the greatest man, complied—though not without a bit of protest (was it playful?)—and made someone else’s wedding day quite memorable, to say the least.

What does perfect motherly pride feel like? To know that your child is quite literally wonderful in every way, to be happy for your part in that wonder, and yet to retain the wisdom that these facts can only be a gift from God?

And then there’s the question I’m most afraid to ask: what did it feel like to see this precious child, grown into a man, rejected, humiliated, and crucified by people He could only ever love? Selfishly, as a mother myself, I hesitate to know the answer. I can only hope the glory of His resurrection overshadowed immediately that pain for you. And, of course, I can thank you for your part in His sacrifice—the role of a mother who must let her only child die for the sake of so many children she doesn’t even know.

I can’t wait to ask you all of this when, hopefully, someday, I am blessed to meet you. In the meantime, I pray that your example makes me a stronger woman, a more patient and selfless mother, a more loyal daughter, and a more faithful child of God. Truly, thank you.

With love,

Your daughter

How and why Catholics are devoted to the saints.

Catholicism is unique for a myriad of reasons, but one of my favorites is our devotion to the saints.

I know that’s sometimes a misunderstood quality of my faith, and that breaks my heart. The most common misconceptions, in addition to being inaccurate, truly miss the point at the heart of this devotion.

Saintly devotion, for Catholics, is not equivalent to the worship of the Trinity (or any of its persons). Let’s make that clear right off the bat. Catholics define three types of worship. The highest form is latria, and is reserved for God and God alone. Latria is adoration, which can only be given to God—given to anyone else, it is idolatry and, therefore, a grave sin.

The Church describes adoration in a few ways, but here are some of my favorite for this context:

  • “Adoration is the acknowledgement of God as God, creator and savior, the Lord and master of everything that exists as infinite and merciful love.” CCC 2096
  • “Adoration is homage of the spirit to the King of glory, respectful silence in the presence of the ever greater God.” CCC 2628
  • “True adoration involves a docile heart, an assent to God’s sovereignty over our lives, a constant posture of humility before Him, and gifts of love offered in homage.” CCC 2111
  • Adoration is “the highest reverence to be offered only to God, our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, who alone should be worshiped and glorified.” Concise Dictionary of Theology

This worship can be given, inherently, only to God. It is one of the four ends of prayer (comprised also of atonement, supplication, and thanksgiving), and captures our respect, love, and subjection for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The two other forms of worship—hyperdulia and dulia—are directed toward Mary and the rest of the saints, respectively.  Both are defined by reverence, as opposed to the adoration involved in latria. Catholics are not called to pay homage to the saints, nor are we praying for them to perform any kind of miracle on their own.

Here’s the thing about saints: we ask them for their intercession, not their intervention. The saints intercede for us by praying for us to God. They are credited with miracles not because of their own power or ability, but because God responded to their devotion by sharing His gifts with and through them. In fact, many saints objected to being credited with miracles because they insisted their actions were performed by God’s hands alone.

Though it sounds complicated, sainthood comes down to a simple principle: it means we’re confident—based on their actions and devotion to a life lived for God—a person is truly in heaven. That’s why people aren’t made saints until after they die; it’s why it takes a long time for the Church to canonize anyone, since some investigation is required to make this statement confidently; and it’s why we have All Saints Day, which recognizes and shares love with the saints whose names we don’t know.

The short of it is that everyone in Heaven is a saint and, because they’re in Heaven, they’re closer to God than we can ever be whilst here on earth. Since we know they are close to God, we ask for their intercession because we know their prayers on our behalf will be heard. We all have a penchant for making mistakes and breaking promises, so we can use all the help we can get. Prayers of intercession from souls who may literally be sharing a table with God at this very moment certainly couldn’t hurt our hopes of staying on the righteous paths we are made to walk.

In their incredibly helpful roles as prayerful supporters, the saints aid our efforts to seek forgiveness, of course, but also to be stronger, to improve ourselves as people, and to be closer to God. They do this by praying for and with us, as well as by serving as examples of holy living here on earth. What I mean is that saints are brothers and sisters whom we can look up to, both literally and figuratively. There is no better role model than a person who’s won the true battle and made it to the ultimate realm of happiness, love, and spiritual “success.”

While we’re admiring the saints, we’re also invited to identify with them. They struggled and misstepped and tripped just as we do; they know our suffering. Fortunately for us, they—and their real compassion and wisdom—are always there to help.

Celebrating Valentine’s Day for What it Is

This week is a doozy for my husband and me—both of our birthdays and Valentine’s Day fall in this little stretch of early- to mid-February. Because it’s so packed, it can be tough to balance all the special stuff. In the past, we’ve been tempted to more or less ignore Valentine’s Day. But if I’m honest with myself, I’d be disappointed if we did.

I know a lot of people complain about Valentine’s Day. Friends call it a Hallmark Holiday, or find it depressing if they’re single. And, in a lot of ways, I can see where they’re coming from. The materialism of it is both unfounded and unfortunate. After all, men and women shouldn’t feel boxed into “proving” their love with gifts. And no one should feel excluded just because they don’t have a romantic interest every February 14.

But I like to think of it this way: in an increasingly self-centered culture, what’s the harm in a chance to tell the people around us we love them? To give gifts of one kind or another, or create new memories that make the day special? Though it may seem like an excuse to go through the motions of gift exchanges and fancy dinners, at its heart, Valentine’s Day is much more meaningful as an opportunity to extend an expression of love to the people who are dear to us—whatever that means to each of us.

It’s also a feast day to celebrate a saint, who is ready and able to intercede for us if we ask him. History isn’t exceptionally clear about who St. Valentine (Valentinus in Latin) was, though they do have some clues. He was arrested and martyred in about the year 270 for marrying and otherwise aiding Christians living under Emperor Claudius in Rome. (Traditional stories suggest he attempted to convert the emperor himself to Christianity, which also contributed to his death sentence despite the emperor’s initial affinity for him.) While awaiting his execution, legend says that Valentinus restored the sight of his jailor’s blind daughter. [Source: Catholic.org.]

The Church calls St. Valentine the patron of love, happy marriages, lovers, and engaged couples, yes. But did you know he’s also patron of bee keepers, epilepsy, fainting, greetings, plague, travelers, and young people? So Valentine’s Day doesn’t just have to be about romance. You can celebrate by greeting a stranger with kindness, thinking of loved ones who are traveling, praying for the sick, or sending a care package to a college friend or doing something nice for your younger siblings. That’s not too difficult, is it? And there’s nothing Hallmark about that.

There are many kinds of love. Don’t feel like Valentine’s Day is all rose bouquets and jewelry and greeting cards. Be genuine however you like. If you don’t have a spouse or significant other at your side today, don’t hesitate to tell your family you love them. Thank your friends for their presence in your life. Pray for the needy out of the goodness of your heart. And, though it may seem silly and contrived, take a moment to enjoy the frilly examples of love all around you. Love isn’t something to be scoffed at or ignored. Embrace it, let it fill you up, and be generous enough to spread it around.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and God bless!

Love and Beauty