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WWMD: Of Jeeves, Thomas à Kempis, and the Imitation of Mary

24 Apr

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The whole life of the Church is indeed the imitation of the life of Jesus Christ, but it is not a copy of that life.
~ Louis Bouyer,
The Paschal Mystery

It is a science to know how to regard a model; it is an art to be able to reproduce it.
~ Albin de Cigala,
The Imitation of Mary

Spring semester is always more stressful for me than fall. For one thing, “spring” semester begins in January, and January ‘round these parts (namely South Bend) is no treat. Plus, spring is when I transition with my sophomore nursing students from their previous semester’s clinical experiences in a nursing home to much more advanced clinicals in a hospital – where the pace is often frantic and the student nurse learning curve significantly steeper.

That being the case, it’s spring semester that often prompts me to pick up P.G. Wodehouse for respite and refreshment – and he’s never failed me yet. Wodehouse’s fluid prose and arresting images draw me into his idyllic Victorian cosmos, and his humorous plots and sympathetic characters are like a literary balm. In fact, I keep a copy of Wodehouse’s The World of Jeeves permanently reserved at my bedside – the very copy my mom gave me decades ago as a Christmas gift. When I return home from a rough night at the medical center – weary and worn out, but too frazzled to sleep – I’ll frequently turn to that volume for solace. It works like a charm, and within a story or two, I’m snoozing – much better (and safer) than Benadryl or booze.

At some point this past January as I stumbled late into bed, I grabbed the volume and settled on “Scoring Off Jeeves.” I won’t try to summarize the entire convoluted plot for you, but it involves Bertie Wooster’s attempt to avoid marriage to Honoria Glossop by re-directing her attentions to love-struck Bingo Little. Normally, he’d depend on the ingenious Jeeves, his valet, to solve such conundrums, but in this story, Bertie tries to go it alone. Here’s how Bertie put it to his hapless friend:

‘Bingo,’ I said, ‘what would Jeeves have done?’

‘How do you mean, what would Jeeves have done?’

‘I mean what would he have advised in a case like yours?’

Then, it dawned on me: Here is the original WWJD! Of course, Wodehouse used a slightly different form of the conditional tense, but it’s the same idea, and it predated the “What Would Jesus Do” craze by several decades. I’m thinking Wodehouse could’ve made a killing selling “WWJHD” wrist bands and t-shirts!

jw13Note the similarity in philosophy as well. Both forms are grounded in two assumptions: First, that one can predict how a superior being would act under a variety of circumstances, and, second, that one both could and ought to do likewise. Yet, in Bertie Wooster’s case, that didn’t turn out to be the case. Not only did he fail to anticipate how Jeeves would’ve handled the Honoria Glossop/Bingo Little predicament, Bertie’s own solution resulted in a huge mess that Jeeves ended up having to disentangle anyway.

Why? For Wodehouse fans, it’s painfully obvious: Bertie Wooster is no Jeeves, and he never will be. There’s no question Bertie has good will and generosity in spades, and his loyalty and forbearance are legendary, but he’s not exactly a front runner when it comes to mental acuity and finesse (much to the delight of Wodehouse’s readers, I assure you). The bottom line though is that, despite his best efforts, there simply wasn’t a high degree of likelihood that Bertie could ever know “What Jeeves Would Have Done,” and, even if he could, he was even less likely to have pulled off the same course of action himself.

That’s how I always felt about the more recent WWJD movement: Given my own mental and moral limitations, how was I to figure out “what Jesus would do” in the conflicts and problems I confront every day? It’s the same sentiment that I heard my friend Fr. Rich Simon express on his Relevant Radio broadcast around the same time I read the Wodehouse story. “All those bracelets that say ‘What would Jesus do?’ I don’t care what Jesus would do,” Fr. Simon flatly stated. “He was the only begotten Son of God by nature. I will never be that.”

Louis Bouyer said as much in his book, The Paschal Mystery:

Rightly understood, the imitation of Jesus Christ is the very essence of the Christian life…. This, of course, does not meant that we fallen human beings are to copy clumsily the God-Man. The whole matter is a mystery signifying that we are to be grafted upon Him so that the same life which was in Him and which He has come to give us may develop in us as in Him and produce in us the same fruits of sanctity and love that it produced in Him.

Still, we could use some guidance – and that’s where the saints come in, particularly Mary. Here’s Fr. Simon again: “Mary is what I can be,” he explained. “Mary is just a human being. Her holiness is the holiness to which you and I aspire.” Yes, she was conceived immaculately and born without any trace of original sin, sure enough, but she’s still human, with a totally and exclusively human nature like yours and mine, so she is the Christian template par excellence!

Even Thomas à Kempis, author of the WWJD-esque Imitation of Christ, arguably the most popular work of Christian piety ever, might’ve been inclined to agree – at least if we trust the word of Albin de Cigala who assembled The Imitation of Mary from Thomas’s voluminous writings. Kempis died in 1471 before completing The Imitation of Christ, and later editors were content to publish just the four chapters he’d put together. Cigala detected in Kempis’s other writings that a final, fifth chapter on Mary might’ve been in the works, and his Imitation of Mary fills the bill. Rooted in Thomas’s vision, Cigala wrote that the “Christian soul” who encounters Mary “exalts itself to the practice of the virtues which it admires in her who is, at the same time, a sublime model and an admirable mistress, an example and a mother.” A direct imitation of Christ might be too daunting or even forbidding for most of us, as Fr. Simon suggested, but imitating Him indirectly by imitating Mary seems right up our alley.

It comes down to this then: WWMD – What Would Mary Do? That seems like a much more reasonable and even achievable goal for us to “clumsily copy,” in Bouyer’s words. And just what does Mary do? We’ll let St. Luke and St. John be our guides.

  1. She spoke up: Mary was in her teens when she became the Mother of God, but she had pluck beyond her years. An Archangel appears and announces the impossible, and she asks, “How?” He fills her in a bit, and she responds, “Let it be so.” Later, sharing this spectacular news with her cousin Elizabeth, she bursts into song: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1.46-47). Unlike Joseph, her silent husbanGerard_David_-_The_Marriage_at_Cana_-_WGA6020d, Mary is depicted in the Gospels as someone always ready to speak her mind – particularly when it concerned her Son and savior. “They have no wine,” she tells him at Cana, and then to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2.3, 5).
  2. She acted: The Blessed Mother not only spoke up, but also followed up her words with deeds. As I mentioned, as soon as Gabriel brought her the time-shattering news of the Incarnation, she hightailed it over to her cousin’s house – for camaraderie and companionship, no doubt, for mutual support as they both navigated extraordinary pregnancies (Lk 1.39). At the end of Jesus’ life, we also see her attending him at the Cross and receiving the Apostle John as her surrogate son (Jn 19.25-27), and then participating in that unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which equipped her and the Apostles for their evangelistic task (Acts 1.14, 2.1).
  3. She pondered: As Gabriel announced Mary’s divinely appointed role as the vessel of the world’s salvation, Mary didn’t panic or bolt – she pondered (Lk 1.29). Then, after the birth of her man-God Son, as the angel-inspired shepherds proclaimed God’s praise, she pondered again – “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2.19). Mary readily spoke up and acted, but she seemed inclined to process events internally – a prerogative that Jesus himself took full advantage of by leaving the crowds with their needs and going off to pray to the Father in quiet and solitude from time to time (Lk 5.16).

So, WWMD? She’d give voice to truth when required, embody that truth in action without hesitation, and yet withdraw into hidden places with the Lord whenever possible. It’s the pattern the early church followed after the Pentecost Paraclete infusion: preaching boldly, traveling and ministering everywhere, even pondering from time to time – like in Acts 15 where the Apostles gather for the first ecumenical council in Jerusalem.

It’s this last point that is especially important for us moderns to consider – we who presume that “to be” is “to do.” Mary’s example should serve to remind us that the best thing we can do sometimes is stop talking and doing, and just listen…and wait on God.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of the Advent Swell and the Pregnant Pause

23 Dec


Do you not know that your body is a temple
of the Holy Spirit within you?
~ St. Paul

Read more…


Two Thoughts About Mary (since it’s October)

4 Oct

With Elizabeth we marvel, “And why is this granted me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (
CCC 2677).

She Who Must Be Obeyed

When I can’t sleep, my go-to is P.G. Wodehouse. I’ve read and re-read the dozen or so Jeeves and Wooster novels scattered around our house countless times, not to mention the ones I’ve checked out from the public library. They’re literary comfort food, and intrinsically peaceful. Nobody gets killed; happy endings are inevitable; and Bertie’s quirks mirror my own quirks – like therapy and sleep aid rolled into one!

rumpoleHence, the other night, probably around 2 a.m. or so, I ambled downstairs to the living room to track one down. In the dim light, I grabbed a volume with that familiar orange spine and Penguin trademark, but – alas! – it wasn’t Wodehouse. Instead, it was Rumpole of the Bailey, a book adaptation of John Mortimer’s British TV series that I must’ve snagged from my brother some years ago.

I gave it a glance: “Rumpole is worthy to join the great gallery of English oddballs,” reads the blurb from the Sunday Times, “ranging from Pickwick to Sherlock Holmes, Jeeves and Bertie Wooster.”

“Hmmph,” I grunted to myself sleepily, “we’ll see about that.” I headed back upstairs to bed.

Horace Rumpole is a criminal defense attorney – a “barrister at law” in British parlance – and an irascible character who quotes poetry, enjoys his tobacco and red wine, and never surrenders in the courtroom. Also, he’s the father of one son, Nicholas, and the husband of one wife, Hilda – whom he refers to as “She who must be obeyed.”

Apparently, that’s a title that Rumpole borrows from a popular Victorian novel entitled She, by H. Rider Haggard. In that case, the epithet applied to the novel’s eponymous “she,” a tyrannical African queen – which gives you some idea as to why Rumpole applies it to his spouse. Hilda Rumpole is, shall we say, a formidable woman who generally gets her way, and the banter between Mr. and Mrs. Rumpole provides for some genial moments in the novel.

As I read and nodded, and the words “she who must be obeyed” danced in my drowsy consciousness, a thought jostled me awake: That title meant pejoratively in Hilda’s case could easily be applied in a more positive sense to our Blessed Lady.marriage-feast-at-cana

For isn’t it practically a direct import of John’s commentary on the wedding at Cana? We see Mary implicitly telling Jesus what to do (“They have no wine”), and Jesus, after objecting to the mandate (“O woman, what have you to do with me?”), extravagantly carrying it out. It’s a picture of Jesus deferring to Mary as “she who must be obeyed” – we should do likewise.

“A-ha!” my Protestant friends will object. “It’s just as we thought: You Catholics treat Mary as if she were a goddess!”

Not at all, I’d argue, and a further look at John’s depiction of the Cana story provides the necessary clarification.

Once Jesus acquiesces to Mary’s request, she then immediately turns to the household servants and gives them a very direct order: “Do whatever he tells you.” It’s the same order that Mary has been giving her spiritual sons and daughters ever since, for two thousand years. Unlike the servants at Cana, who snapped to it and obtained the jugs required for the Lord’s water-to-wine miracle, we drag our feet and falter and forget…and Mary has to remind us again and again: “Do whatever he tells you!”

Oremus, Orans, and Acolytes

This is the season at our parish when the sixth-graders are training to serve at altar. They’re generally short of stature, and I have to admit it’s fun to see them swimming in their albs as they meander about the sanctuary, trying to remember where to go, what to do. (Believe me, I’m sympathetic!)

Seeing them recently, it reminded me of when a friend pointed out that my diminutive daughter could hardly hold up the censer (or ‘thurible‘) – that mini metal stove used for burning incense during the liturgy. It hangs from a chain, and one of the duties of RE-Roman-Missal-Changes-001_t598the designated acolyte (or, “thurifer” as she’d be called) is to suspend it in front of the priest so that he can spoon in an adequate amount of fuel.

The thurible can be weighty, sure – but not that weighty, as I assured my friend. Besides, the altar servers only have to hold it up to the priest briefly – along with the short ritual when they’re sent forward with the smoky bowl to incense the congregation: a few short swings to and fro, back and forth – a cinch!

But what about holding up the sacramentary during the collect? That’s got to be another matter altogether, because, unlike the incense gadget, the sacramentary is an uncommonly big book – dense, oversized, and heavy!

It’s because of the liturgical “orans” (or orantes) posture that the altar servers have to heft this weighty book during the Mass. Just before the opening prayer of each Mass (the “collect”), the priest intones the oremus – the formula “let us pray” with his hands folded. Then, as he recites the collect, he spreads his hands apart with palms upraised – the orans stance of pleading that figures prominently in Catacomb illustrations and other ancient Christian drawings.

The orans tradition can tolerate a number of legitimate interpretations, but the way it’s used today is pretty clear. “The liturgical use of this position by the priest is spelled out in the rubrics (the laws governing how the Mass is said),” writes Colin Donovan. “It indicates his poransraying on behalf of us, acting as alter Christus, as pastor of the flock, head of the body.”

Thus, we can see how vital the acolyte’s humble duty becomes at this point. By holding aloft the sacramentary, the server frees up the priest’s hands to intercede for the congregation. This is in keeping with the instructions we find in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal:

189. Through the entire celebration, the acolyte is to approach the priest or the deacon, whenever necessary, in order to present the book to them and to assist them in any other way required. Thus it is appropriate, insofar as possible, that the acolyte occupy a place from which he can conveniently carry out his ministry either at the chair or at the altar.

It strikes me that this is also an apt description of Mary’s subservient, yet essential, role in God’s plan: to assist her divine son in any way required, and to stay close to him so as to always be available. Mary herself spelled these ideas out in her Fiat (“Let it be to me according to your word”) and Magnificat (“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”).


  1. Mary is “she who must be obeyed,” and she commands us to “do whatever he tells you.”
  2. Mary, the first altar server, models for us that “whatever” in staying close by the High Priest and facilitating his salvific actions in any way she can.

Shouldn’t we do likewise?

October is dedicated to Mary and the Rosary. Let’s see…where are my beads…. It’s the least I could do.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of May Crowning, Corniness, and the 4-H Fair

17 May

“It turns out that Mary is a really big deal for the Catholics.”
~ Dave Barry

What a sap I am.May-Procession-005

Last Friday was May Crowning at my parish, and so I arrived loaded for bear: Two clean hankies at the ready, not to mention optimal pew positioning – close to the center aisle, but not too close to anyone I knew.

Why? It’s so predictable: Once the procession begins and we start singing those corny Marian songs, I commence blubbering – like clockwork, every year. Usually I can hold off through “Immaculate Mary” and “Sing of Mary,” but the clincher is always “Queen of the May:”

Bring flowers of the fairest,
Bring flowers of the rarest.

Picture the children in their Sunday best, with hands pressed together and eyes (for the most part) directed forward, solemnly approaching the statue of Mary in the sanctuary.

Our full hearts are swelling,
Our glad voices telling,
The praise of the loveliest
Rose of the vale.

And then there’s us in the back pews, the moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, oohing and aahing, snapping photos, recording videos.

O Mary! we crown thee with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May.

Even with the distractions and the pictures, how can we resist being drawn into the schoolchildren’s sweet devotional gesture? I know I can’t. I sob, dry my eyes, and sob some more – a  mawkish mess. Sure it’s sentimental, saccharine even, but how any Catholic can withstand that surge of emotion is beyond me.

G.K. Chesterton had a similar idea when he wrote about Marian devotion – particularly the over-the-top sentimental variety:

In people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed. I want it to be what the Protestants are perfectly right in calling it; the badge and sign of a Papist. I want to be enthusiastic about the existence of the enthusiasm.

maycrowningHence enthusiasm (complete with sobs) at May Crowning, and almost without regard to one’s typical level of Marian fervor. It’s all about mom, after all – like Mother’s Day for Mary. We’re so glad to be doing something simply to please her and thank her. And like any good mom, Mary isn’t all that particular. She doesn’t care if it’s a dozen roses or a dandelion from the backyard – an expensive Hallmark card, or a scribbled crayon drawing on a paper scrap. What matters is that we remember – not for her sake, of course, but for our own. It’s good for children to remember their mothers.

It’s good, first of all, because gratitude is a character trait that must be cultivated, beginning with gratitude to our mothers. Our human moms gave us life; Mary gave us Jesus. “Let it be to me according to your word,” was her reply to Gabriel, and it was in that simple Fiat that we have any access to spiritual life at all. Moreover, not to be outdone in generosity, Jesus in turn gave us Mary. “Behold, your mother,” he told the Beloved Disciple, and, through him, all of the church – which is only fitting, given that the church is her own son’s Body.

As my pastor pointed out at Friday’s May Crowning, Mary’s care for us is an extension of the care she provided Jesus throughout his earthly life because now we are truly part of him, the Mystical Body of Christ. As such, we seek to be ever more conformed to his likeness, and it is here that Mary’s maternal care is preeminently manifest. John Paul II, quoting Lumen Gentium, wrote:

As Christians raise their eyes with faith to Mary in the course of their earthly pilgrimage, they “strive to increase in holiness.” Mary, the exalted Daughter of Sion, helps all her children, wherever they may be and whatever their condition, to find in Christ the path to the Father’s house.

Therein lies the second reason it’s always good to lavish our affection on Mary at opportune moments like a May Procession – when it’s easy, for example, and everybody is doing it. Such tokens establish (or reinforce) the habidorothyt of turning to her when it’s not so easy or pleasant. “Wherever they may be or whatever their condition,” the Pope noted. That means the mom who receives our blossoms and childish sentiments at May Crowning will also receive our pleas for assistance when our situations are much more dire and disturbing. “She is the Mother of fair love,” wrote Servant of God Dorothy Day, “of fear and of knowledge and of holy hope.” The former Bohemian and socialist, no stranger herself to the rougher sides of life, further expanded this theme:

No matter where it is, no matter how perverse and distorted, no matter how dark and tortured, there is still in all love a suggestion, a hint of this love of God.

Once again, we do well to remember that she is not particular, and her acceptance of our meager gestures, no matter how broken or bent, can and will transform them into glorious tributes.

That brings me to the St. Joseph County 4-H Fair. For the last few years, I’ve had the privilege, along with several local Knights of Columbus, of manning the Legion of Mary’s Catholic Information fair booth in the evenings. It’s a blast, and I look forward to it every year – almost like a mini-retreat. The Legion provides a wealth of pamphlets and written material about the Catholic Faith as well as information about various Catholic practices and prayers – all to the good. But my favorite part are the Rosaries – loads of them, and all free! When I relieve the Legion ladies who’ve been occupying the booth all day, the first thing I do is load up my arms with a variety of Rosaries – blue, pink, green, purple – and then stand out in front of the booth to pass them out.

This is when the fun begins, for it’s simply amazing how many folks will take them: Young, old, girls, boys, from every culture and walk of life, and certainly Catholics (regardless of how active they’ve been) as well as non-Catholics. “Really, it’s free?” they’ll ask.grange-fair-2

“You bet, and here’s a little booklet to tell you how to use it,” I’ll say, usually with the follow-up, “in case you’ve forgotten.”

Sure, some of the younger fair-goers will take a Rosary as a joke, but not as often as you’d think. Instead, when the non-Catholics hear about using the Rosary for prayer instead of just wearing it as an ironic accessory, quite a few grow curious and want to hear more.

“The Rosary isn’t about worshiping Mary,” I’ll tell them. “It’s actually about praying with Mary to her son. In fact, it’s asking the Mother of Christ to be our mother, too!”

Do they all get it? Will they all go home and pray their pink and green and purple Rosaries that night? Probably not – maybe never. Some of the Rosaries will collect dust in forgotten junk drawers; some will be discarded; others might be retained as good-luck charms. Yet the fair-goers who accepted them did so freely, and at some level the idea sunk in that an unwavering mother’s love was involved. That’s not mere sentimentality. It’s a seed that, with time and grace and Mary’s care, just may germinate and grow.

“All I think I ever asked of her,” Dorothy Day observed of Mary, “was that she should take care of me.” That’s not just a comforting notion for schoolchildren, and we needn’t be ashamed that it brings tears to our eyes.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Christmas Movies for Annunciation Day

25 Mar


Lent is a favourable time for letting Christ serve us so that we in turn may become more like him. This happens whenever we hear the word of God and receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.

There we become what we receive: the Body of Christ.

~ Pope Francis

Read more…

Our Lady of the Overgrowth – Winter Edition

10 Jan


It’s nice to see Mary again.

Of course, she hasn’t gone anywhere since I positioned her in that nook out front a decade ago. She stands watch around the clock, poised and serene, although half the year she’s completely obscured by vegetation (we take a very minimalist approach to groundskeeping).

Then, a month or so ago, we got hit with a preliminary dose of that Polar Vortex we remember oh-so-well from last winter, and the overgrowth started to recede. And now we’re in the thick of wintry things – with sub-zero overnights and a base layer of snow everywhere – and Mary is back in plain sight.

I’m glad to see her as I drive past to and fro every day. It’s comforting and reassuring – like calling mom just to hear her voice. Yet, there’s an awkwardness as well: Seeing that statue of Mary reminds me that I haven’t exactly been faithful in my prayers, and that I’m overdue for making my resolution to say the rosary every day…again.

It was way easier to slack off when the overgrowth was thick.

Such was the story in the Gospel yesterday:

It happened that there was a man full of leprosy in one of the towns where Jesus was; and when he saw Jesus, he fell prostrate, pleaded with him, and said, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do will it. Be made clean.”

Note that Luke depicts the encounter between the Lord and the leper as something that just “happened” – a fluke, maybe, or a coincidence. The other Evangelists tell it differently: “A leper approached,” St. Matthew records, and St. Mark? “A leper came to him….” In their telling, the leper was assertive and motivated: He sought Jesus out for healing.

ChristCleansingNot so in Luke’s version. There, the diseased man is depicted as relatively content with his lot…until confronted by the sight of the Divine Physician. It was as if seeing the healer reminded the man that he even needed to be healed. This is all the more intriguing if we consider that Luke himself was a physician – could it be that he had patients like this? You bet, and we know them today: Nagging symptoms, pain and disability, but go see a doctor? Naah.

In any case, that sounds a lot like me and our Mary statue: Driving by in the spring, when the weeds are having a heyday, it’s all “la-de-da,” and “anything good on the radio?” and “what’s on my to-do list today?” Then, winter arrives, and Mary reappears: Have you said your rosary today? No! Do you have stuff to pray about? Yes! So, then do it – pray. Now! The radio and to-do list can wait!

We need the snow and the cold sometimes, miserable as it all is, to make the essential things plain. We need hardships and setbacks and disappointments to strip away everything that obscures our spiritual line of sight – how are we going to clear up the sin and mess in our lives if we’re able to blithely go about ignoring it?

Timothy Keller, pastor of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, said pretty much the same thing in a recent interview:

“Cheer up, you’re worse than you think,” Rev. Timothy Keller says with a smile. He’s explaining that humans are more weak, more fallen, more warped than they “ever dare admit or even believe.” Then comes the good news: At the same time people are “more loved in Christ and more accepted than they could ever imagine or hope.”

That being the case, why wait for the chill of catastrophe and misfortune to clear away the weedy camouflage of our souls? Why not get out there and mow it all down, right?

No matter. If my spiritual sloth gets the best of me, I just have to wait: Winter is always right around the corner.


A version of this story appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Even When He Tells You, It’s Still a Mystery

5 Oct

Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19.14).

1528CorregioNativityOn the way to Mass last Wednesday for the feast of St. Thérèse, Nick and Katharine were in the back seat having a debate about God’s relations.

“God doesn’t have a mother,” Kath lunged, apparently in response to something Nick had said.

“Yes, he does,” Nick parried. “Jesus is God, and Mary was his mother.”

Not bad for a ten-year-old, and pretty much the reasoning of the Council of Ephesus. In 431, the Council confronted the Nestorian heresy by adopting a Marian title proposed by St. Cyril: TheotokosMother of God. Really, it’s a name that boils down to a simple syllogism: (a) Jesus is truly God; (b) Mary is Jesus’ mother; (c) thus, Mary is God’s mother. Q.E.D.

“I meant God the Father,” eight-year-old Kath answered Nick, unwilling to yield. “God the Father couldn’t have had a mother because then he wouldn’t be God.”


In fact, Katharine’s objection is a fairly common one, and it summarizes very neatly a complicated philosophical argument against the “Mother of God” appellation. It’s an argument that involves differentiating between function and ontology, and it requires a grasp of formal logic that is beyond me and, presumably, way over the head of my two grade-school theologians sitting in the back seat…or maybe not.

In any case, I diplomatically affirmed both children, and praised them for their acumen and orthodoxy. They’re the youngest of our seven children, and they’re the best of pals. They play and fight, giggle and argue, but even when they disagree, there’s an amiability between them that serves as a constant bond.

That’s good, because they live in a household full of big ideas, loud opinions, and strong personalities. Nick and Kath’s friendship provides them with an oasis of mutual support and age appropriate interaction amid the maelstrom of a domestic environment otherwise populated by teens, pre-teens, and aging, cranky parents.

Yet, despite the intense and sometimes conflicting messages regarding school and work, politics and religion, and just plain living, I’d like to think there’s an underlying framework of faith that connects it all, even when it doesn’t always macyrilke sense. It’s not a forced framework  it just is, even when we disagree with it or rebel.

That my youngest children have at least integrated this idea somewhat was made clear when Kath made her parting shot as we arrived at church. “It’s all a mystery anyway,” she observed. “You can never figure it out, because even when he tells you, you’re going to get confused.”

Ah, yes, that standard aphorism of Catholic apologetics: It’s all a mystery. It’s also a parenting expedient I don’t know about you, but we trot that one out pretty regularly with our kids. “But, WHY?!” comes the plaintive cry of the rebuffed adolescent suppliant. “It’s all a mystery,” I’ll sometimes reply, especially when I’ve tired of the standard, “Because I said so.”

I should be more careful, I suppose, because “It’s all a mystery” is also the conclusion of many a dinner conversation that drifted in the direction of convoluted doctrinal conundrums. “How can God be outside of time and still become incarnate?” It’s a mystery. “Why do we pray if God already knows what we’re going to say?” It’s a mystery. “If God really all good and all powerful, then why is there so much suffering and evil in the world?” It’s all a mystery.

My Protestant students also get used to hearing this phrase once they find out I’m a practicing Catholic and they get up the courage to ask hard questions: How can Mary be sinless if the Bible tells us that everyone is a sinner? What about purgatory and indulgences – what’s the point of praying for the dead if they’re already destined for heaven? And do you really believe that wafer is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? Really? How come Catholics don’t act like they believe it?

All good questions my students are a smart bunch and I do my best to explain, but more often than not, I’m forced to come down to the old stand-by: It’s a mystery. It’s never satisfying, of course, and they roll their eyes as do my teens. But, look, all of us who profess any kind of religion get to the same place eventually, right? Even if you limit yourself to Christianity, consider the biggies we all hold in common  Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, the Blessed Trinity. They all require a shrug in the end, and a demurral that, ultimately, they’re matters that are beyond our human understanding. In essence, that’s exactly what Katharine voiced: You can’t know everything, so don’t expect to.

But it’s faith, after all, not math. There’s always a leap involved, as Kierkegaard insisted, and there’s no guarantees that we’ll figure it out this side of heaven.

And perhaps it’s no mistake that I overheard Nick and Kath’s exchange on the feast of St. Thérèse the Doctor of the “Little Way.” As Monsignor later explained in his homily, “The essencelaundry of St. Thérèse’s Little Way is this: Let God love you, and let God love others through you.” Should we devote ourselves to theological inquiry? Should anyone invest time and energy in deciphering the mysteries of God? Yes, to be sure, but not at the expense of adopting the childlike surrender of Thérèse. She wrote:

I leave to great souls and lofty minds the beautiful books I cannot understand, much less put into practice, and I rejoice that I am little because children alone and those who resemble them will be admitted to the heavenly banquet.

Anyway, Nick and Kath and I arrived at Mass, found our seats, and waited for God to appear. There, up in front of the church, the lector would enunciate God’s word, and then, after that, the priest would turn bread and wine into the Bread of Life. This is all a big mystery; we can never figure it out; we still get confused.

And it’s alright.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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