Mary, Mother of Mercy
Reflections from Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.
When we pray the "Hail Holy Queen," we address Mary as "Mother of Mercy." These are far more than elegant words; they describe the active role Mary plays in our life, for our theology teaches us mercy is sorrow for another’s distress, coupled with an active will to relieve it. The will to relieve distress is a crucial element in this definition. We are not being merciful when we cry at the movies; to be merciful, our sorrow must be united with action. Mary is merciful precisely because, as the prayer continues, she shows us Jesus, her son.
God wants for nothing, so our relations with God cannot be governed by mercy. But in God’s relations with us, and in our relations with one another, mercy is the greatest gift we can experience and the greatest gift we can offer, because mercy moves God, and us, to supply the wants we see in others. For this reason, Shakespeare observed
The quality of mercy is not strained...
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
For this reason, too, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus promises mercy to those who show mercy to others.
In this issue of Light and Life we honor Mary as Our Lady of Lourdes, and in my reflection I will remark our Holy Father’s calling Mary the model of our Christian life, especially the Mother of Evangelization. She is the first to preach the Good News, and she is also the Church’s first tabernacle. Mary shows us that we must take God’s word into our hearts. We must let it grow there, take on flesh and blood until, like her, we can present Christ to the world.
What this requires is the poverty of spirit Jesus commends in the gospel - emptying ourselves of "us" so that we can be filled with God. This opens up all sorts of hopeful possibilities, but it is also closely allied with humility. I cannot pretend to preach the last word on this virtue, but I can say it is commonly misunderstood. The humility that makes us God’s handmaids is not the lack of a good self-image; the poverty that will get us into Christ’s kingdom is not just economic necessity.
What Mary calls us to is a radical honesty: realizing that compared to the rest of God’s creation we are magnificent beings, but acknowledging that next to God we don’t count for very much - until God decides to use us.
One of my Dominican brothers was preaching one day and read the gospel about the first being last and the last first. He got to the final sentence and said, "those who exalt themselves shall be humbled; those who humble themselves shall be exhausted." In a similar vein, my novice master once told me, "I prayed for humility, and God gave it to me. That’s when all my trouble began."
Mary, I think, would understand. Allowing God to determine our best and highest use is a risky and exhausting business. It means giving up the one thing we value above all others, which is control. A friend once gave a calendar that contained a quote each day from the saints. One day I encountered someone I’d never heard of, John of Rysbroeck. He said
Christ’s love is both avid and generous....His hunger is incomparably great: He consumes us right to the depths of our being, for he is a voracious glutton, suffering from bulimia and consuming the very marrow of our bones.
The mystics can be as uncomfortable to read as the prophets. They mince no words. St. John’s imagery may be offensive, but it leaves no doubt that to be humble means to be poor - to allow ourselves to be devoured by God. The world continues to long for the human face and the human touch of Christ, and Mary’s example shows us that we have to provide them, at the cost of ourselves.
This, no doubt, is the reason Mary repeatedly commanded Bernadette at Lourdes to urge her neighbors to express sorrow for their sins. When we think of Lourdes the first image that comes to mind is probably its water, revered for its power to heal. Lourdes is indeed a place of healing, but Mary’s primary message to Bernadette was "Repent!" This is a reminder that true healing comes from our humble encounter with God’s mercy.
2 Novenas of Masses in honor of
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