Opinion & Features

The devotion that gives me blisters

There is a small chain around my ankle. It’s been there for five years. It blisters when I wear ski boots and sets off alarms at airport security – but it ought to blister my mind and set off alarms in my soul.

I wear it as a reminder of my consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, an act of devotion performed by the method of St Louis de Montfort, who died 300 years ago this month. Louis was a firecracker. A poet-priest, he preached radical devotion to “God alone” among the poor in France, faced down poisoning and Church politics, built free schools, established orders, and burnt out like a matchstick at the age of 43.

His teachings confuse and attract because they advocate a lofty mysticism (communion with Divine Wisdom) by means of a lowly, common path: Marian devotion.

Louis exhorts me to imitate Mary, who is, in comparison to Jesus Christ, “of less worth than an atom”, for the very simple reason that Christ did the same. He was knitted together in her womb. Her education formed his mind. When he spoke the words that would shatter princedoms and set up the Church, he did so with the language Mary taught him. When he gave up the life of his body on the Cross, he did so with the body Mary prepared for him. When he looked on the poor with love, the poor would have every reason to speak among themselves: “He has his mother’s eyes.” Marian devotion was the first act of the incarnate God. If to be Christian is to imitate Christ, then there can be nothing more fundamentally Christian than to love his mother.

This all seemed simple enough in high school. I cried like a child when, after 40 days of preparation, I finally made the consecration; I cried all the more when, as something between a consolation and a joke, I was given the distinct feeling of being led through my public school corridors, and life itself, by the chain on my ankle.

It’s been five years now, and though I have tried time and time again to renew the consecration … I’ve been unable to. I always screw it up. It’s not for wimps – it involves a laundry list of daily prayer, reading and spiritual exercise. Besides, cynicism has sowed doubts in me. Ought I to imitate Mary? Montfort calls her the mould of God, and urges me, having broken myself through asceticism into liquid, to pour myself into that same mould, that I might share in his divinity. But is she all that important?

An answer came, as they tend to, at Mass: “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church.” Who knows how many times I had let the priest suggest this to God without considering how problematic it is: how can we beg God to turn away from our sins and consider instead the “faith of the Church”, if it is we – misers, lechers, oppressors all – who make up the Church? Are we asking God to selectively attend to the more pious parts of our week: “Look not on our evil works, but at the times when we believed in you?”

How could we ask God for such a selection when, as Catholics, we know that faith without works is dead? To believe otherwise, that somehow our one-time assent to the proposition that “Jesus is Lord” need not become the content of our entire existence, but instead shoots out pure and undefiled against our daily blasphemy against that self-same Lord – well, it ain’t Catholicism.

Perhaps we mean that the Church, considered as a whole, is faithful, even while its members are sinners. But this makes no sense. An act of faith can only be made by an actual person. The abstract entity “Church” cannot say “I believe in God, I trust in Him, I will do His will.” If we really mean what we say, “look not on our sins but on the faith of your Church”, then there must be some manner in which a perfect, personal act of faith, free from any sin that would contradict it, is always being made. I looked to the left of the priest and saw an image of Mary.

Mary is the avant-garde of humanity. She “goes before us, marked with the sign of faith”. She is the “hope of sinners”, not because she offers salvation, but because her act of faith was total, without blemish, and is still being made in eternity. When we ask God to look on the faith of his Church, we are asking him to look upon Mary, who gives him her perfect “fiat”, and thus stands up for us sinners who have fallen yet strive to rise again. The Church has perfect faith, despite the failings of its members, in and through the person of Mary, member and Mother of the Church, who, without sin, says “yes” to God – a pure note of assent rising out of our cacophony of now “yes”, now “maybe”, now “no”.

With this view, with Mary as the avant-garde of humanity and the presence of true faith in the Holy Church, many of Montfort’s quaint suggestions take on a newfound solidity. He writes: “She embellishes our works, adorning them with her own merits and virtues. It is as if a peasant, wishing to gain the friendship and benevolence of the king, went to the queen and presented her with a fruit which was his whole revenue … The queen, having accepted the poor little offering from the peasant, would place the fruit on a large and beautiful dish of gold … Then the fruit, however unworthy in itself to be a king’s present, would become worthy of his majesty because of … the person who presented it.”

If our legs tremble to stand before God, we ought to stand with Mary, who has been given the grace that we all long for – friendship with Our Lord.

Marc Barnes is author of the Bad Catholic blog at patheos.com. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio