As a young very young child I was so close to God. I spoke to him in a very natural way and He too spoke plainly to me. I have very few memories of early childhood but surely one of my most vivid is how close I was to God. But somewhere, as early puberty approached, I slipped away from God, drifting into the rebellious and angry years of my teens. As the flesh came more alive, my spirit submerged.
The culture of the time didn’t help. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s and rebelliousness and the flesh were celebrated as “virtues.” Somehow we thought ourselves as being more mature than our pathetic forbearers who were “repressed.” But at that time there was the attitude around among the young that we had come of age somehow and we collectively deluded ourselves through the message of rock music and haze of drug use that we were somehow better.
So it was the winter of my soul. The vivid faith of childhood gave way to a kind of indifferent agnosticism. Though I never formally left Church (mother would never had permitted that as long as I lived in under my parents roof!) I no longer heard God or spoke to him. I may have told you that I joined the Church Youth Choir in High School. This was not religious passion but passion of another kind. There were pretty girls in the choir and I sought their company, shall we say. But God has a way of using beauty to draw us to the truth and week after week, year after year as we sang those old religious classics a buried faith began to awaken.
But what to do? How to pray? I heard I was supposed to pray. But how? As a child it was natural to talk with God. But now he seemed distant, aloof, and likely angry with me. And I’ll admit it, prayer seemed a little goofy to high school senior still struggling to be “cool” in the sight of his friends and in his own eyes. Not only that but prayer was “boring.” an unfocused, unstructured and “goofy” thing.
But I knew someone who did pray. My paternal grandmother “Nana” was a real prayer warrior. Everyday she took out her beads and sat by the window to pray. I had seen my mother pray now and again, but she was more private about it. But Nana, who lived with us off and on in her last years just knew how to pray and you could see it every day.
Rosary Redivivus – In my parish church of the 1970s the rosary was non-existent. Devotions and adoration were on the outs in that sterile time. Even the Crucifix was gone. But Nana had that old time religion. So I asked her one day to show me how to pray the rosary. My mother had taught me as a little child but that was over ten years back. Nana gave the technical details but more importantly she gave me the vision. She said, “Holding these beads is like holding Mary’s hand. You just put your hand in hers and let her lead to Christ.” She went on to say, “You’ll be fine.”
Ad Jesum per Mariam – There are those, non-Catholics especially, who think that talking of Mary and focusing on her at all takes away from Christ. It is as though our hearts were a zero-sum game and we could not do both. But my own experience was that, just as my grandmother said, Mary led me to Christ. I had struggled to know and worship Christ but somehow a mother’s love felt natural, safer, more accessible to me. So I began there, where I could. Simply pole-vaulting into a mature faith from where I was did not seem possible. So I began, a little child again, holding my mother’s hand. And gently, Mother Mary led me on to Christ, her son. And through the rosary, that “Gospel on a String,” I became reacquainted with the basic gospel story.
The thing about Marian devotion is that it opens a whole world to you. For with this devotion comes an open door into so many of the other traditions and devotions of the Church: Eucharistic adoration, litanies, traditional marian hymns, lighting candles, modesty, pious demeanor and so forth. So as she led, she also reconnected me to many things I only vaguely remembered. The 1970s suburban Catholicism had all but cast these things aside and I too had lost them. Now in my late teens I was going into the “Church attic” and taking things down. Thus, little by little, Mother Mary was helping me put things back in place. I remember my own mother being pleased to discover that I had take some old religious statues out of a drawer in my room and placed them again on my dresser. I also took down the crazy rock and roll posters one by one and replaced them with traditional art, to include a picture of Mary.
Praying the Rosary and talking to Mary began to feel natural. And, sure enough, little by little, I began to speak with God. In the middle of College I began to sense the call to the priesthood. I had become choir director by now and took a new job in a city parish at, you guessed it, “St Mary’s Parish.” There the sterility of suburban Catholicism had never taken hold. The candles burned brightly at the side altars. The beautiful windows, marble altars, statues and the traditional novenas were all on display in Mother Mary’s Parish. The rest is history. Mary cemented the deal between me and her Son, Jesus. I became his priest and can’t stop talking about him. He is my hero, savior and Lord. And praying again to God has become more natural and deeply spiritual for me.
It all began one day when I took Mary’s hand and let her lead me to Christ. And hasn’t that always been her role? She, by God’s grace, brought Christ to us and showed him to us at Bethlehem, presented him in the Temple, ushered in his first miracle even despite his reluctance. Said to the stewards that day and to us now, “Do whatever he tells you.” And on account of that miracle the text says. Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him (John 2:11). And so her intercession strengthened the faith of others in her Son. That has always been her role, to take us by the hand and lead us to Christ.