Is devotion to the Virgin Mary an unsafe path?
If your answer to that question is yes, don’t worry: so is mine. I know this from experience.
It all started when I was 21 years old and doing a year of full-time retreat youth ministry. It was a year that changed everything for me because I was surrounded by peers who were authentic and fully alive. We shared daily contact with God in prayer, which sparked in me a curiosity about Jesus and what it would be like to have an intimate relationship with him. I wouldn’t have been able to describe it this way back then, but I wanted to follow Jesus. A path was opening before me like a shady trail that leads around a bend: you can see just enough to make you curious about where it leads, but not enough to predict where the trail will lead you. I was looking down the path and, like Jesus’ first disciples, hearing him say “come and see,” (John 1:39). I sensed that around the bend there was something mysterious and special waiting for me. In short, I was beginning to believe that following Jesus was the way to address the desires for love and wholeness that were being stirred up in me.
Despite this blossoming curiosity, I was also intimidated by the potential difficulties that I feared were around the bend. Because of my distorted image of God and sense of inadequacy, I was afraid that I would be exposed as a fraud if Jesus demanded too much of me. I was also afraid that I would come to a fork in the road, one leading toward happiness and the other toward Jesus. I think part of my intuition was correct: following Jesus is not easy or safe. This is something Mary knows a little bit about.
If you are like me, then you often forget what Mary hazarded by agreeing to bear Jesus. She risked alienating her fiancée, being stoned death, and lifelong stigma for apparently being pregnant out of wedlock. She endured an arduous trip in the late stages of pregnancy and gave birth in the unsanitary conditions of a stable; not to mention a king was hell-bent on murdering her infant son, forcing her and Joseph into exile. And let’s not forget about her having to witness the horrific torture and execution of Jesus as an adult. Mary is no stranger to the difficulties of following Jesus.
Toward the end of that year, several of my peers were introduced to Marian devotion and they were eager to share it with the rest of us. This approach to Marian devotion emphasizes entrustment. This means that we entrust ourselves to Mary the same way that God the Father entrusted Jesus to Mary. Jesus, as son, depended on Mary for everything, that’s why we follow his example when we depend on Mary as her spiritual children. Devotion to Mary is like devotion to your own mother or mother figure who mentors and nurtures you: you can entrust yourself to her similarly to the way you trust and entrust yourself to the maternal figure in your life.
A trusting relationship was exactly what I needed. In fact, I don’t think I would have been able to give myself over to following Jesus without Mary as my “in”. Despite the apparent dangers, I trusted that she, as my mother, would protect me and be understanding of my weakness and fear; after all, she, more than most, knows the challenges of following Jesus. I was more confident with her as my companion on the path because, out of the abundance of her own experience, I trusted she would help guide me. Also, I came to believe that by entrusting myself to her I was just following Jesus’ example.
It was my trust in Mary’s motherly care that gave me the courage to start on the path. But my intuition was correct, it’s not been a safe journey. I haven’t had to face physical danger or social exclusion like her, but I am facing my sense of inadequacy, particularly in my Jesuit vocation. I fear that I don’t have what it takes to follow Jesus as a Jesuit. Despite how calm and capable I may appear on the outside, I fear that sooner or later people will see the real me, the disappointment. I’m being formed to be a public leader in the Church, yet, on the inside, I’m crumbling from insecurity.
Often to my surprise, my insecurities have assisted me in my vocation to walk the path with people who feel like their life is falling apart, like the man in the ER suffering from a panic attack. Through tears and trembling voice, he lamented being reduced to this state after feeling “invincible” in his youth. There was no room in me to judge him. I could easily see myself on that table, feeling like everything that held my world together was disintegrating before me. I felt a deep empathy for him that I don’t think would have been possible without my personal struggle. Like that man, my absolute emotional vulnerability has cracked me open. This openness has allowed me to see Jesus’ desires for me.
On the path I’m discovering that Jesus actually wants me to be happy. He knows me inside and out, including my insecurities. And he doesn’t find me a disappointment, even in my weakness. In fact, his heart is bursting with life for me in the areas that I’m weak – because it’s especially there that I need his love.
Indeed, devotion to Mary is not safe. She wants us to follow Christ, whose path is the way of suffering and death of the cross. But the cross is also a path, mysteriously leading to a life where Christ gives us the fullness of his joy (John 15:11). With Mary as your spiritual mother, I invite you to “come and see” what Jesus has in store for you on the path that follows after him.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Emil Manolov.