Friday, April 20, 2012

The Blessed Mother's Salvation Insurance, Customer Satisfaction Guaranteed

Bear with me, I plan on jumping around and treating this much like a post on my personal blog which means I will focus on a handful of issues that I found particularly interesting and discuss them as they come up.

In class, we began by discussing how easy it is to fall into the black and white idea that Mary will save anyone, regardless of their sins as long as they send up a desperate prayer in a moment of panic. And sure, after reading story after story where the incestuous woman is kept safe, the thief is protected, and the most sinful men on earth are saved instantly, it hard not to just throw in the towel and question why it even matters to try and have morals if Mary will just save your soul anyway.  It’s not that easy though, is it? Among all those stories, there are ones where the people pray for years, suffer through extended periods of awful disease and series of terrible events. Sometimes, Mary even creates the situation the sinner needs to be saved from. So what’s there to make of that?  Before class, I couldn’t really figure this out. It seemed so unfair, the most inherently bad people suffer the least and the decent hearted people have to bear these awful diseases and punishments. It reminded me of the following verses from the Bible:

Romans 5.3:
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,

Romans 8.18:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

Romans 12.12:
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.

As well as

Matthew 5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

All of these verses express that suffering is a necessary part of being a human and being a Christian and that, in some respect, the amount you suffer correlates with your reward in heaven and your dedication to your faith. In class we came to the conclusion that these varying situations of suffering were tests of a person’s faith. The entire time, while reading these miracles I was so focused on the lack of equality amongst the punishments that I forgot how personalized and unique every person’s journey in faith is.  Since every person is at a different place in their faith they require different situations, lengths of suffering, and quantities of trials to adequately strengthen their faith. For a particularly sinful person, a one shocking incident is enough to shock them into faith and remind them that humanity is fragile and not in our control as well as to provide them with a reminder of how they are indebted to Mary and consequently God.  Those who are more dedicated won’t have their faith rejuvenated the same way unless they really focus their thoughts on their faith in an extended time of suffering.  If you have a debilitating disease and can do nothing but sit and contemplate  all day, what better time to truly focus on healing yourself from the inside out with prayer and to truly revel in the power of God. Then, when you’re healed you appreciate the healing so much more for the journey it allowed you to take and the opportunity to test yourself and your faith. Also, sometimes a person’s suffering functions outside of their personal relationship with God because their suffering becomes an example to other people.

I touched on a concept I think the miracles emphasize often that we didn’t discuss with as much and that is the frailty of humanity. Caught up in day to day activities, humans get it in their head that they can solve any problem with enough brain and brawn, either individually or in a group. These miracles consistently challenge this independent and self sufficient mentality that could easily become a block to personal faith.  With a moment’s notice Mary can go beyond the limits of science, manipulate the physical situation, and work in a realm unfathomable by human capacity. Whether these miracles are factual or not, the need to emphasize our complete dependence on God by proving the fragility of the human body and the inferiority of our mind is so strong and over bearing that it can be a humbling experience just to read them. You finish the stories and are just awed. As a human, you are so weak and disgustingly fragile and yet you are worthy of a personalized focus and “training plan” of sorts, customized to allow you to trade your sins for eternal life. Each story is so specific and humbling that in one instant it’s hard not to feel tiny and sinful but also unique and special.

For this same kind of reason, the miracle of the Tumbler captured my heart in a way the others didn’t. It exemplified the individualization of faith and devotion. Even though he didn’t follow the standard practices of prayer, he still was able to give the unique gift he had to the Blessed Virgin and he gave it with all of his heart.  I can see this story, along with the other miracles about the people who only said their Hail Mary’s and Ave Maria’s could be reassuring to the lay people. Similar to the Little Office being filtered out to the laypeople as a means for them to daily engage themselves in prayer and devotion, these miracles were also leaked out from the monasteries in a situation that seems to foster the same idea, to make religious devotion accessible to the working class people.  I can imagine that for laypeople, in a time where religion was such a huge focal point of daily life it would frighten me to think that because I am supporting my family and have to dedicate my time to work and cleaning, etc. that I may not receive the gift of salvation because I don’t dedicate adequate time to prayer.  In a sense it seems like a marketing plan for the Little Office as an insurance of sort by the Blessed Mother guaranteeing the protection of your soul for a monthly payment of Little Offices.  Here the miracles function as the “real “customer satisfaction stories . I’m a sucker for those early morning infomercials and I’m sure these miracles were even more effective.

Even reading these convincing advertisements for Mary, I find my Protestant up-bringing questioning the whole thing in the back of my head. How similar are these Mary miracles to all the Greek myths I’ve read. Let’s see, if Mary is a goddess of sorts, she would save those who she pities or those who promise her something or just her favorite people. Likewise, she would punish those who offend her. Yep, sounds about right. She has the ability to manipulate nature, converses with the other “gods” and their associates ( i.e. God, saints, angels, demons, etc.). Perhaps this, like in the Greek myths, is the result of a humanization of the mystical. In an effort to explain religious figures we have to fit them into a semi-human mold and give them human motivations and emotions. However, where in the case with the Greek gods this humanizing works against them, for Mary it fortifies her story. She was human. That’s what’s so incredible about her position now and her role in Jesus’ birth and what not.  So maybe this functions as a reinforcement of who she is. Another aspect of her position is that she never loses her devotion to God. Everything she does and every exacting of punishment is done either to fulfill the will of God or to gather more of his flocks. The Greeks gods, even under Zeus, did whatever they pleased for themselves. They were not servants of anyone. And so my Protestant worries about the pagan qualities of Mary’s miracles are subdued for the time being.

Have a good weekend!

God willing and the river doesn’t rise,


  1. I like very much your reading of the miracles as individualizations of the journey of faith: this is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, that each of us matters to God, but each as our own self. It is likewise the mystery of the saints, particularly why there are so many of them. Each of them follows Christ, but as a perfect realization of him or herself, not as a carbon copy of someone else. Taken in the context of those who aren't saints, perhaps this is in fact what we see in the variety of miracle stories: the necessary variety of devotion as realized by each individual. As for the appeal to the laity, I agree, but it is interesting that Gautier tells the story from the perspective of a monk (the tumbler is a novice at Clairvaux, but too old--he fears--to learn the texts of the prayers). It would be interesting to contrast Gautier's version of the stories with Alfonso's, as the latter were written from a lay context more so than Gautier's. As for the Greek gods, it is interesting that you use the phrase "humanization of the mystical." This is, after all, the central Christian mystery (God becoming man), and yet what that means theologically is not the same thing as what it means in the history of religions where the tendency is to read religion as a human creation, rather than as something revealed by God. And, yet, oddly, yes: how else are we going to understand God except through our experience as human beings? We have no other perspective from which to understand!


  2. LLD: Very nice post. Your thoughtfulness here expands our thinking on Mary. And through your use of scriptures and stories that treat suffering, you address the most famous (and for many, intractable) theodicy (which can be summarized as “the problem of pain”). Your post and these stories of Mary’s intercession give me another angle to think about “faith vs. works.” I mentioned in an earlier comment that the “works” problem central to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation has (to my thinking) been distorted, perhaps because of the popularity of Weber’s accounting for works in his Protestant Ethic and the Sprit of Capitalism. But, in simple terms, “works” was the Catholic side, i.e., works *through* the Church. Do these stories help us to think about the way one’s works can only be made efficacious to salvation when “added upon” or ratified by Christ, Mary, saints, the priesthood? I.e., our works may be a lifetime’s worth, or they may be of a moment, but Mary’s “stamp of approval” (to continue your manufacturing and marketing metaphors) is what really matters, what makes them really “count.”