Having lived in London a while, I take pride in my ability to get from A to Z (train strikes notwithstanding). At the tail end of a Christmas dinner party, you might even hear me claiming to have that much-fabled item of London street lore, “The Knowledge”, bequeathed mysteriously (like the apostolic succession) to black cab drivers since time immemorial (or rather, the 1950s). It is a strange fact, which I repeat far too often, that I only get lost in London when using a satnav. Maybe The Knowledge is a bit like a gift of the Spirit; imparted to instinctual levels of awareness, implicitly guiding us but different from explicit, factual knowledge.
Whether I truly have an internal compass to rival even the most hardened black cab driver is open to debate (and ridicule), but that our faith touches on instinctual levels is much less debatable. This is nowhere more true than in images of Marian piety. These speak directly to the intuition – resonating strongly in the deep mind of the Church – yet are difficult to articulate explicitly. Think of “star of the sea”, or “tower of ivory”, or the more recent “star of the new evangelisation”.
This last image seems to make sense, but is difficult to explain, like the Catford Gyratory, the Strand underpass, or the maze of bollarded junctions just south of the British Museum. After all, Mary doesn’t do much explicit evangelising in the New Testament. She is a far cry indeed from the tireless activity of, say, St Paul.
The image of Mary as “star of the new evangelisation” calls to mind the star that led the Magi to the infant Christ, like a target leading them across the Middle Eastern desert. Some may think that the word “target” explains why Mary’s title of “star” speaks deeply to the contemporary mind. If there’s one thing that is ubiquitous today it is surely targets. There are the endless growth projections of the British economy, NHS waiting times and Ofsted league tables, all thrusting us abruptly into 2020, 2025 or beyond. I need not labour the point that this shows the values of our age to be attainment, achievement and acquisition.
The seductivity of target-driven practices might lie deep in our Christian heritage. The Greek word for sin means literally “missing the mark”, falling short of a fulfilled life; or, as St Irenaeus describes it, “the glory of God is a human being who is fully alive”. The target mentality of this age even affects our desire to bring others to their own fulfilment in Christ – or rather, evangelisation. We needn’t look far to find evangelising initiatives in most dioceses and many parishes. But the question arises here as to whether evangelisation can be brought into this way of thinking. An evangeliser is not merely a “doer”, but someone who must also adopt a certain passivity, not merely advancing active initiatives, but stepping back so the “message in all its richness” can take root in human hearts.
Stepping back could involve asking oneself how the ground can be laid to enable someone to respond to the message of salvation, how best to “till the soil” so the seed of the Word can take root. Here we gain insight into why the Catholic faith is concerned with the general health of society, with the cultivation of virtue, the quality of public discourse and the sophistication of the arts. That is, souls that are already adjusted to the good, the true and the beautiful make a fertile habitation in which Christ can make his home.
This unlocks some of the rich potential of Mary as star of the new evangelisation. While observing the plethora of evangelistic initiatives on offer in today’s Church might call to mind St Louis de Montfort’s quoting of Haggai 1:9 (“you do much, but nothing comes of it”), Mary radiates the great virtues of waiting, patience, expectation and hope; a quiet attentiveness to tending the soil of humanity: encouraging right action, practising honest and truthful speech, while celebrating the best in music, literature and art.
This is not to say that active, outward evangelising is not vital and important. But Paul VI said that the message needs to be “as understandable and persuasive as possible”, and a concern for the common good of humanity, in all spheres, can do just this.
By concentrating on the receptivity of Our Lady, we are reminded of a salient truth of our Catholic faith which stands in stark opposition to today’s target mentality: that if we decrease, Christ will increase – and be found in the least likely of places, if we let the instinctual mind of the Church be our leading light.
So I will be leaving my satnav at home this winter – but if I’m late for Mass on Sunday, please don’t show this article to my parish priest.
Jacob Phillips’s book Mary, Star of Evangelisation: Tilling the Soil and Sowing the Seed is due for release by Paulist Press in autumn 2017
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.