Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Protestant's Journey to Mary

And not just any Protestant either: I grew up a five-point Calvinist in the Presbyterian tradition and, as if that wasn't enough, I went to a Southern Baptist school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I can safely say I never heard a good thing about Catholics until I was college. I wasn't taught that Catholics were the whore of Babylon, but it was a close thing. Catholics were wrong because they tried to earn their salvation; because they thought the Pope was sinless; because they had priests when we were all a holy priesthood; because they added to Scripture, etc. You've heard it all before. Even Lent was verboten because of its links to Catholicism, and my grandmama was unhappy when her church started using an Advent wreath.

As far as Mary went, we couldn't be too careful to avoid giving her honor - except at Christmas. Suddenly, images were allowed - we could have wooden manger scenes, Christmas cards with pictures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, and every church staged Nativity scenes with the kids dressed up in homemade costumes. (As a girl, I was typically made to be an angel, with a wire halo pinned in my hair. And if you haven't read the classic "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," your life lacks meaning). But as soon as Christmas was over, which for evangelical Protestants is December 26, Mary was packed away for the year and never spoken of again. (This sort of perspective was typical.)

When I was in graduate school I began to feel a strong emotional connection to Saint Monica, mother of Augustine. It came out of the blue and made no sense: at the time I wasn't even married, much less a mother to anyone, wayward or otherwise. However, I think it was one of the few real spiritual experiences I've ever had, precisely because it came out of the blue. My mama had just told me bad news about friends of ours, and I felt rudderless in the storm. Standing in the hallway with my eyes closed, my heart said Monica please help them. Only a day later I remembered this and thought where the hell did that come from? As the weeks passed, I began to feel an emotional, deep connection to this ancient mother, and I found myself seeking her intercession before I even (began) to understand on an intellectual level what the communion of saints is all about.

As I continued with graduate school, my flexible schedule allowed more prayer time than I had had in undergrad since my classes were all online. The backbone of my prayer life then and now is the Episcopal Daily Office, which I highly recommend even to Catholics (but that's a post for another day!)  As I began to understand the power of liturgical or "rote" prayers, which were verboten in my childhood, I wondered about the famous Rosary. It was forbidden fruit, idolatrous, and I'm afraid to admit that the rebellious side of me was drawn to it merely on those terms. But hey, God works with us where we are, right?

Still, I have the Reformation in my genes, even if I no longer counted myself a strict Calvinist. Most of my ancestors were Scottish Presbyterians who retained their traditions once they got off the boat; others had relatives slaughtered in the Bartholomew's Day massacre. I was also turned off by many of the websites that I found about the Rosary, with the Catholic kitsch, flowery backgrounds, and talk of "Mary will give you this if you pray the Rosary so many times." It sounded pretty manipulative to me, like a slot-machine Mary. But I was willing to try out the Rosary on my terms.

Note to Protestants: if you want to keep Mary at arm's length, do not pray the Rosary at all. Even if you pray an ecumenical version, without the beads, or cut out the last two glorious mysteries, it will bite you in the ass. Mary is sneaky that way.

At the beginning of the rabbit hole, I liked the idea of mediating on different mysteries about Jesus on particular days, except for those ludicrous last two Glorious mysteries of course. I didn't own the beads, and I didn't want to succumb to vain repetitions, so I tried out a Protestant version of meditating on the mysteries. As I washed dishes, rode the bus to work at the library, took showers, I would think about the appointed mysteries for the day. I kept an index card in my purse with the list until I had it fairly well memorized. I would always forget about Monday because, you know, Monday, so I was most likely to do Tuesday than any other day of the week. As a result, I memorized the Sorrowful mysteries pretty quick.

At length, I decided that praying the Lord's Prayer (that's what we call it instead of the Our Father) before each mystery was OK. If I was working the reference desk on Saturday and had no customers, I would put on headphones and listen to the Lord's Prayer set to music, or listen to instrumental music while doing the meditations. My attention span is atrocious, so I would get distracted and often pick up again several hours later.

Finally, I decided that maybe doing the set of prayers at the beginning (the Creed, Lord's Prayer, Gloria Patre) minus the Hail Marys of course, would be OK. And instead of doing that sentimental ending I would just pray another Lord's Prayer, or sing a hymn if I was at home alone. (For irony sake I sometimes sang "A Mighty Fortress is Our God.") And then one day I made the fatal mistake of actually reading the Hail Mary.

Most Protestants don't really know what it says. The very title, "Hail Mary," sounds idolatrous, because most of our Bibles have a different translation of the angel's greeting. The popular NIV says "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." It leaves out the "blessed are you among women." The equally popular New King James version retains the blessing part, but it renders the greeting as "Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you!" Now, the more classical Authorized King James Version says the word "hail," but the wording is different: "Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee." So most Protestants don't see the connection between the words "Hail Mary full of grace" and the angel's greeting, because none of them are told, and most of our translations don't include it. (Forgive the repetition, but it is crucial to understanding the Protestant mindset, in which Biblical translations are many, and interpretations can hinge on the wording of a single verse).

But I took the plunge, read the Hail Mary, and with a little help from a website explaining the Rosary, discovered the Biblical quotations from both the angelic greeting and the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth. I was shocked: Catholics are supposed to hate the Bible! This is what I had been told all my life - why else would they have opposed vernacular translations back in the day? So why would they quote the Bible in this most Catholic of prayers?

I still didn't like that second part though, because how would Mary pray for us? "For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus" was a verse I digested with my baby food. It's even set to music so as to instill it deeply in our conscious, and it is a popular proof-text among evangelicals. So I took another baby step and recited the first half of the Hail Mary during my meditations. I started doing the decades now (albeit with the cut-off Hail Marys), but those last two Glorious mysteries still rankled, so I used substitutes from ecumenical sites, or just substituted my own. I settled on using The Lord's Future Return for the fourth, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb for the fifth. And I still steered clear of that ending prayer.

Gradually though, it dawned on me that I had been sub-consciously seeking the intercession of Monica, so why not Mary? They were both in heaven and loved by Jesus, right? I did some more research and learned about the intercession of the saints. I already believed that the dead in Christ were actually alive in Christ, and I already believed that we the living should pray for each other. So if the "dead" are actually alive, why not ask the saints to pray for us? How is that being any more of a "mediator" than if I ask my mama to pray for me? The whole "at the hour of our death" wigged me out, but I decided to give it a shot.

(For any Catholic readers, let me say something a little controversial: the term "praying to the saints" is really, really bad evangelism. It sounds like you're praying to them like you would God, rather than asking for their prayers like you would ask a friend to pray for you. It would really help your apologetics to say "ask the saints to pray for me" or something similar, especially when you're talking to your Protestant friends or writing on your *public* blogs. Ok, rant over.)

So there I was, playing with fire, while Mary just laughed at me. And y'all, I don't know, somehow I just fell the rest of the way. While the first part of this journey was primarily with the intellect, my heart finally followed, and I felt loved by Mary. It became a joy and comfort to say "O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary!" On days when I really was in a vale of tears, the poignancy of that previously despised prayer rang true. And I finally started praying the last two mysteries of the Glorious mysteries, even though I'm still not quite sure about the fourth one on an intellectual level. I finally now recognize Mary as my true Mama, the mother who breastfed God.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting. I have a similar trajectory to yours. Child of a Calvinist pastor to Catholic, and Mary had a lot to do with it. It's true that Catholics could rephrase "praying to Mary" as "ask Mary to pray for me," which is what we're actually doing. However, the word "pray" simply means to ask. (especially more in old English usage) Another key difference is that for many Protestants prayer=worship. For Catholics, prayer is just a part of worship, and praying to the saints (or asking the saints to pray for us) is different from worship. *WE* know that, but giving the best possible witness to our Protestant friends would help. However, lots of Catholics are unaware of the Protestant mindset in this objection. It takes an outsider sometimes (like yourself, or like me) to know exactly what such objections are because we can still hear the words with the other set of ears, if you will. Interesting reading here.