When it comes to explaining one's devotion to Mary, or why, for instance, we pray the rosary, Catholics are not always the most articulate of defenders of this particular practice. Perhaps one reason for this lack of eloquence has to do with the fact that Marian devotion comes so naturally to them that they have never really thought about the "why" of it all. And when something becomes second nature to an individual, presumption can be a dangerous thing. For example, a child would probably be left speechless if you were to ask him or her to explain why they love their mother so much. Why? "Because she's "mommy" of course. By the same token, Catholics rarely contemplate Marian devotion because, well, she's our mother, so what else is there to say? Protestants, on the other hand, don't think much about Marian theology because they are taught as children that to do so could lead to some form of idolatry. Their reasoning is that God is God so why waste time on the Mother of Jesus? Hopefully, they would not regard it a waste of time to ask their own biological mother to intercede for them with Jesus. At any rate, Catholics have a most useful and simple resource when it comes to easing concerns about Marian piety. Certainly one can attempt in their own way to help their Protestant brethren to understand where they are coming from when they "pray to Mary", but there is an even easier resource at their disposal: Catholic prayers. Indeed, it is through the different Marian prayers that the Church articulates her relationship with Mary and reveals most succinctly how it is that we can devote special attention to her without simultaneously ignoring God. Below are 5 classic examples of Marian prayers which reveal the true nature and purpose of our devotion to her. The truth is if you want to learn the art of true devotion to God you must learn why Catholics devote so much of their energy to Mary.
The Stabat Mater
For those unfamiliar, the "Stabat Mater" means "the mother stood" and is sung as the priest or deacon processes from one station to the next during the Stations of the Cross; "At the cross her station keeping, stood the mournful mother weeping, close to Jesus to the last". By itself, the notion of a human being "standing" is quite unremarkable, but when put in context, it says everything that needs to be said about a disciple. Indeed, this brings new meaning to the words "stand by your man" or as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders put it, "I'll stand by you". The fact that Mary stood at all must of required unimaginable courage and strength. But whatever the case, Mary reveals here what it means to be a true devotee of God. She cannot save the world, nor can she carry Jesus' cross for him, but she can remain "close to Him to the last"; she can "suffer with" her Lord, Savior, and Son until the he breathes his last. To stand with Christ at his most godforsaken moments and look upon his wounds with perfect love and adoration is a summary of the Law and the prophets. And of course as Christians this compassion extends to our neighbors as well, for they too represent to us Christ incarnate. "Make me feel as you have felt. Make my soul to glow and melt. With the love of Christ my Lord... Let me mingle tears with thee, mourning him who mourned for me, all the days that I may live." The goal of discipleship consists in acquiring a Marian heart, a heart which not only loved him more than any other human being on the face of the earth, but who also grieved him as one grieves the death of an only Son. Hence, our prayer to Mary is that she allow us to partake in "her pain", not because her pain is valuable in itself, but rather because she is the only human being who has complete knowledge of what it means to love God without reservation. We, like John, accompany her at the cross, and learn the proper disposition and response in the face of so great a love. Jesus can tell us how to love him, but even he cannot do it for us. Thus, when it comes to showing the rest of humanity what it means to love God, who else should we consult but the one who loved him from the very first moment of his conception?
The Hail Mary
It is utterly amazing how few Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, seem aware that the Hail Mary is a prayer taken straight from Scripture; "Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art though among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." When Catholics pray this all they are doing is reciting the plain words of Scripture. Granted, these words are taken from two different sections in the Gospel of Luke, but they nevertheless relate to the same thing, namely Mary and her subsequent part in the conception of Jesus. A Protestant might concede that the Hail Mary is primarily a Biblical prayer, and that Scripture does indeed declare that the "all generations should call Mary blessed" (though this part might be accepted more begrudgingly), but what they will likely still complain about is the amount of Hail Marys that a Catholic prays. First of all, it may be just a shortcoming of our humanity, but it is undeniable that when we have certain types of troubles we go straight to mom. Even in modern parlance, especially in football, it has been referred to as a kind of "Hail Mary". But there is a better theological reason for this (though it would seem that the instincts of love have a great deal to say themselves). There is something profoundly logical about the fact that Catholics say so many Hail Marys (incidentally we say quite a few Our Fathers and Glory Bes as well). However, I think the problem is not so much the prayer itself, as with what it begins with. Nevertheless, if one actually pays attention to the logic of the prayer then they will also recognize what it ends with, namely Jesus. This is the point of all Marian prayer and theology in general. We ask Mary to lead us to Jesus, just as the prayer itself "leads to Jesus". In fact, there is a sense in which all things on earth are meant to begin with the world and end with God. Anyhow, the ultimate point of every created thing is that it must find its ultimate meaning in God. What is the purpose of repeating this prayer then? To put it plainly, the Annunciation is the pivot point of History, it is the moment when despair was transformed into hope, when death became life. It is the Headline of History, the only bit of Good News ever to come across the wire (besides the Resurrection) that bears repeating ad nauseam. It is that moment when you hear the words 'I love you' for the first time, or that instant when you see your bride walking up the aisle. It is the moment you find out your going to be a father, or the words "we've found a cure...". Can those moments be repeated enough? Do we not spend a good bit of our lives trying to re-capture them? All Marian prayers are ultimately related to her role as the one who delivers Christ to us. Hence, the "Hail Mary" is fundamentally a prayer of the Incarnation. In a sense we are like spiritual midwives asking/pleading with her to deliver our Lord to us. Perhaps that is the best way to think of Mary as the one who "delivers" Jesus to us in the midst of our earthly "labor" and strife. And so as a consequence of having Jesus delivered to us, we are ultimately delivered from whatever is weighing us down. It is a prayer which is almost priestly, for it petitions Jesus to make himself concretely present to us in a given moment. She is like a priest during the consecration who, by her simple words makes Christ incarnate upon the altar. A similar way to envision the prayer is to put yourself in the shoes of Gabriel, asking this "gifted lady" if she will once again bring to us the Son of God, which she no doubt obliges. In the end the goal of the prayer is not to dwell on the power of Mary, but to dwell on and make present, that very moment which irrevocably changed the course of history.
The second part of the prayer is perhaps more controversial because some of it involves words which are not taken directly from Scripture. Historically speaking, it makes perfect sense that the latter part of the prayer was a later addition and was not part of the initial prayer. For this reason, some may conclude that this "add on" is unbiblical and therefore doesn't belong. Yet if this is our conclusion, then we are missing the whole point about how, and to what end, the Church does theology. Simply put, the Bible did not come with a commentary. The commentary of the Bible is, and has always been, what the authoritative Church has to say about Scriptures. If not for this authoritative voice, we would never really know what the Bible meant in the first place. If this sounds strange, just remember that the Church has done this with just about every major teaching in the deposit of faith; from the Trinity, to original sin, to grace and salvation. Despite what some Protestants suggest, the "plain words of Scripture", are far from plain. Just ask ten different people the meaning of a particular passage, and expect ten different explanations. The point is if it took five hundred years to settle the central doctrine of the Christian faith (viz. the Trinity), then it stands to reason that the work of theology, or interpreting the truths of revelation, is part of a lengthy process that must be worked out with the help of the Holy Spirit. For example, it is not enough to say that God is a Trinity, there must be some subsequent explanation of how that is possible- along with why it is necessary to believe in it at all. Hence, the Church gave us the Creed. In the same way, from the beginning of the Church, Mary was recognized as having a special role in the life of the Church because of her intimate role in the Incarnation. As a consequence, the Church asked, just as Mary did, what the significance of the angel's greeting to her meant, and what it implied about her part in the economy of salvation. Far from jettisoning the role of the Virgin Mary postpartum, the Church concluded that based on the teachings of the Apostles, Mary would remain forever that "Woman" whose vocation it was to help "deliver us" by virtue of the Son she herself delivered. Her "yes" to God is simultaneously a "yes" to humanity. Therefore, the second part of the Hail Mary might be considered something of a logical and theological explanation of that original Scriptural event. No doubt, it is a recollection of the angel's announcement to her, but even more importantly, it is a plea for Mary to impart to us her immaculate "yes", so that we might receive the fruit of her womb "now", and especially "at the hour of our death".
Complaining that Mary serves as an obstacle to authentic worship of Jesus is a bit like saying that a womb is an obstacle to the conception of a child. No one who strives for holiness themselves would ever complain that a truly righteous man obscures the glory of God. Rather, if they have any brains in their head at all, they will thank that individual for making the Gospel of God more clear and intelligible to them. They are a spotlight and a beacon which illuminates the truth of God, not some kind of lunar eclipse. In the same way, Mary is a magnifier of God. Whereas the sinner makes God microscopic, if not invisible, by his deeds, Mary by her praise and her witness, makes God so present in fact that you must in essence pluck out your own eyes in order to miss him. And even then, because of her witness, you still just might find yourself tripping over him. Another Marian prayer taken directly from the Scriptures, these words are subsequent to Elizabeth's remarkable greeting to her; "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me... blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb..." How does Mary respond? She responds with unmitigated praise for the God "who has done great things for me". Mary has won the divine lottery, and so like a Biblical Cinderella she can do naught but express full-throated gratitude; "My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior! For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed..." She says this not as a boast, but rather in disbelief at the inevitable consequence of bearing God into the world. Here is a nobody, a Jewish handmaiden whose destiny prior was so insignificant that to even declare it so would be sheer redundancy. From a flake of ash in the dust bin of history, to the queen of heaven who is enthroned above the angels- it is a story that frankly makes the Brothers Grimm version seem almost mundane and cynical by comparison. By saying this prayer we at once acknowledge the Biblical fact that Mary had a special part in the economy of salvation and that she is truly set apart and/or "blessed among all women". We also say it because they should be our words as well. Though the words "the Almighty has done great things for me" apply first to Mary, they apply as well to us as well by implication. And as we learn to form our own "yes" to God with our lips, we too participate in this exuberant celebration, this dance of joy which once saw David leaping before the Ark of God.
This is not technically a Marian prayer, but it does have elements which help to articulate in a simple fashion that Catholics do not believe that Mary is divine, though we do believe that she deserves her own category of respect. Catholics explain this with three Latin words; "Latria", Dulia, and Hyperdulia. Latria means "worship", which, according to Catholic teaching, is due God alone. Dulia is translated to mean "veneration", a sort of special respect afforded those who have successfully "finished the race". And lastly "hyperdulia", which is a special veneration afforded to the lady who with God helped to re-open the gate of heaven for us. The prayer itself is penitential and meant to be a kind of antidote to Adam and Eve's denial in the garden, wherein they failed to take responsibility for their failings, and instead blamed someone or something else. Through this prayer we take full responsibility for the only thing that we control, namely ourselves, and we admit that the sins our own fault, and not to be attributed to anyone else. The second half of the prayer is a call for mercy, and in particular a plea for help from all of our baptized brothers and sisters, as well as the angels; "And I ask you blessed Mary, ever Virgin, all the angels and saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God." Yes there is a pecking order of importance in this prayer, but notice with what solidarity we ask Mary, angels, saints, brothers and sisters, not to "have mercy on us", but rather "to pray for us". It's a family thing, and what a great joy it is to know that I have a people on my side in high (and low) places. If this can be recognized, who in truth can feel alone? Incidentally, is it even possible to commit the sin of idolatry when one is asking for prayers from another? Indeed, were I to ask a golden calf to pray to God for me, I doubt even that could be considered idol worship. Sure it might be ignorant (but let's face it- we are all ignorant in divine matters), but what it can't be by its very definition is an attempt to bypass God in order make manifest my own will.