An Anglican woman once told me about an ecumenical meeting she had attended. During a discussion about prayer, she had said: “I was once praying to Jesus, and …” Before she could finish, a Methodist woman interrupted, saying: “And Mary appeared to you.” She was amazed that the Methodist had known exactly what she was going to say.
“Yes! How did you know I was going to say that?” she asked the Methodist, who answered: “Because I’ve had exactly the same experience myself.”
On another occasion, a university professor – a scientist – came to see me. He told me that he had had a vision of Mary. He said he had seen the crib in which Jesus lay, with Mary at the side. He was a Protestant and said that he did not feel able to speak about his experience in his own church.
So why do Protestants, who do not inhabit a culture of Marian devotion, have visions of her? I believe that the reason is that Our Lady is central to the Christian faith as such, and so anyone who has a true faith in Christ may become aware of the presence of the woman whom God chose from all creatures to be the agent of his Incarnation.
Catholics, like Protestants, are sometimes tempted to think that Christianity is a religion concerned with Jesus of Nazareth as a lone individual, and that the saints are honoured by becoming cults for those Christians who have particular devotions to certain holy men and women. In this scheme, Mary is often seen as the “biggest and best” of the saints – the one whose cult is most prominent – but not as essential to Christian theology and worship. This, however, is not the tradition of the Church, and it is not good theology.
Human beings are essentially social creatures: we live and thrive and form our identities through our relationships with other people, and with other creatures in general. When the Word of God became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, he entered a world of human society, and of companionship with the plants and animals upon whom he depended for his survival. The communion of saints is the communion of the Church, in whom Christ lives, and which we depend upon for our lives as baptised members, re-born in Christ from the font that is the Church’s womb. Without the saints, both living and departed, our Christian lives would be like the lives of friendless folk with no relatives.
Yet Mary’s importance is greater than this, going way beyond that of the other saints. All the saints contribute to the work of salvation, by their prayers, their example, and their good works. Christ’s mother, however, is unique. For if she had not accepted God’s will in her life, the Word of God would not have been made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth – in that particular human being whose divine presence we know in the Scriptures and liturgy, and in whom we are saved. Mary is an indispensable agent in the Incarnation of God in Christ: morally, because she accepted God’s will that she should be the mother of the Lord; and physically, because she gave him his human flesh – the flesh in which we are redeemed.
If we ignore the fact that Mary is the Mother of God, we easily forget that Jesus is God incarnate. If we forget that Jesus has a human mother, we may come to think of him as being purely divine, and as having no intrinsic connection with our own humanity (a false belief that has been quite common in the history of Christianity). Conversely, if we forget that Mary conceived the Son of God, and did so miraculously, we are in danger of thinking that Jesus was just a good man, and of forgetting that he was able to work our salvation because he was also divine. For this reason, devotion to Mary is part and parcel of our love for Christ.
Mary’s bond with Christ is such that, wherever she is, there we will find her son. Once when I was leading a parish discussion group, a man said: “When I say the Hail Mary, that’s when I feel closest to Christ.” St Louis de Montfort encourages us to lead “Mariform” lives: that is, lives that are conformed to the spiritual likeness of Mary’s, because, by being like her, we attract Christ to come and live within us.
If it is through Mary that God makes himself present throughout creation, then it is not surprising that people find her in many particular places. Most Christian nations have claimed her special patronage: she is Queen of Poland and Queen of Ireland, for example. England, however, has a more curious tradition, namely, that our homeland is Our Lady’s Dowry.
To be Our Lady’s Dowry is an enormous responsibility. We need to ask ourselves whether we care sufficiently for our beautiful land – for its wildlife, for example, or the fertility of its soil, or for those who are suffering the diseases of drug addiction and the blight of homelessness that we find in all our cities and towns. The list of concerns is almost endless, and you can draw up your own.
But we have a sacred trust to make ourselves worthy of the privilege that we claim. We have a duty to make our land truly Mariform, so that all nations will be able to see that Christ is alive and well in England and in the whole island of Britain.
Dr Sarah Boss is director of the Centre for Marian Studies at the University of Roehampton