The Hail Mary: Keeping God’s Word in Our Heart

Hail Mary ImageBut Mary kept all these sayings, considering them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

We pause this week in our meditations on the Hail Mary to consider what we are doing, and why.

Mary is a model of Christian spirituality. As we considered at the end of our meditation last week, Luke’s Gospel constantly presents her as meditating on the Word.

In fact, it goes deeper than that. Jesus says, “blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:28). The Greek word he uses here for “keep,” phulasso, is about guarding: keeping watch, protecting. Earlier on, Luke gives several variations on, “Mary kept all these sayings, considering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Here the word for “kept” is syntereo, similar, though slightly different: here we are “protecting” by holding everybody together – like a shepherd. It is also a word used for remembering.

It then adds that Mary “considered” these sayings, symballo. This word means putting things together; it can be used of two people in conversation, putting their heads together, or of one person pondering, putting it all together in their mind. It is similar to dialogizo – when she saw the angel she was stirred up at his greeting, and “deliberated” what sort of greeting this could be (Luke 1:29). Here too the idea is of putting things together, as in dialogue with another person, but also in our own mind: ruminating on the words we have heard, pondering them, meditating on them.


This is how traditional Catholic spirituality works. It is profoundly Scriptural. First, we “guard” the words of Scripture, hold them within us, fight to protect them from corruption, and not to lose them. We cling to the words of Scripture.

Next, we ponder them, putting them together, considering.

The tradition makes the Psalms the heart of its prayer life: memorizing, meditating, pondering, savoring, digging deeper into their meaning. Then lectio divina, which is simply meditative reading of the Bible. Also the rosary, which is a meditating on key phrases and events from the Bible. (And the original core was meditation on the words of the Our Father and the Hail Mary – the mysteries were added to help us ponder those words, not to substitute for them.) Various types of meditation, like the Ignatian exercises, are also just meditation on Scripture. In all of this we imitate Mary, who hears the word and keeps it (Luke 11:28), and indeed goes farther, keeping the word and pondering it (Luke 2:19, 1:29, etc.).

Somehow in modernity Catholics came to think of vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplation as three different types of prayer. But in the tradition – and, indeed, in the Catechism – they are all one, perhaps summarized better in St. Benedict’s admonition, “let us consider how we ought to be in the sight of the Divine and his angels, and when we say the Psalms, stand in such a way that our mind may harmonize with our voice.” Vocal-mental-contemplation doesn’t mean we should seek contemplation apart from vocal prayer, any more than it means we should have vocal prayer without using our mind. Rather, when our mind attends to the words we are saying, that is the path to true contemplation. To be a contemplative is to pray like Mary: pondering the words of Scripture.


So when we meditate on the Hail Mary, we are imitating Mary, learning to draw our spiritual sustenance from the words of Scripture.

But in imitating Mary’s meditation on Scripture, we also discover Mary herself. Or rather, in meditating on the Gospel, we find the Gospel—and we find Mary as the personification of the Gospel.

Mary shows us the reality of grace, and the power of the Lord’s being with us. When we look at Mary, we discover more profoundly that he really is with us: that God himself has become Mary’s son, our brother in the flesh. And when we look at Mary, we see what God-made-flesh comes to do: to transform us, to make us holy, to fill us with his presence.


The Gospel has content. Christian contemplation, and Christianity itself, is not like Buddhism, where our minds check out and we fade into abstract unity. The Gospel – the presence of God, and the work of his grace – is something to be heard, received, and meditated on. It is like the rosary: a meditation on specific words and actions of God.

But that meditation is not just for scholars. The Gospel, and Mary herself, is as simple and profound as the Hail Mary: simple words, rich in meaning, to be kept and pondered in our heart.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

The Spirit of Acedia (or sloth)

image for vicesPart 4 in our Friday series on the vices.

Our continuing series on the vices brings us next to the vice of “acedia,” sometimes translated as “sloth.” Put simply, acedia is sadness at the idea of doing what we ought to do.

We now come to a vice directly related to ourselves. Gluttony, lust, and avarice (or greed) are about how we relate to physical goods, things. (Lust, of course, involves a person – but viewed as a thing.) The last three vices we will consider, wrath, envy, and pride, have to do with how we view other people. But sloth is about ourselves.

All seven of these vices just show us obstacles to love. We live to love. But we find our love particularly hindered in these seven ways. Strangely, in acedia we find, when we look at ourselves, that we ourselves are a hindrance to love. Acedia is nothing more than our inclination not to love.


Acedia, according to John Cassian, who summarizes the teachings of the desert fathers of fourth-century Africa, has two parts. The first, perhaps more obvious, is simple sadness.

It is useful to distinguish what we mean by sadness. We can quibble about which English words to use, but perhaps we should say there is “sorrow,” where we recognize something as bad; there is “depression,” which is a clinical, chemical problem; and then there is “sadness,” or dejection. Not all sadness is depression.

What the spiritual tradition wants us to see is that sadness – not sorrow or depression, but dejection – is a kind of passivity rooted in selfishness. A coworker treats you wrong. Of course that should arouse sorrow: you don’t want it to be that way, for his sake even more than yours. And okay, perhaps you have something physical going on, either real clinical depression, or you are just tired, or hungry, or whatever. But sadness is when you just give up.

Most prominently, you are saying there is nothing I can do. I will not pray, I will not work, I will not go on with my life. He is so bad, I will do nothing. You view yourself as purely passive, and you fail to take responsibility for doing your part to love and to heal.

More deeply, you are refusing responsibility for love. Love, you are saying, is something the world owes you. If they don’t give it to you, it is not your fault, and there is nothing you can do about it. Sadness, by its very nature, covers itself with such a mantle of passivity that it pretends it is not a choice. But deep down, it is: it is self-worship, self-focus, a simple failure to love.

This is the opposite of sorrow. Sorrow motivates us to action: to pray, to love, to help. Sadness says we don’t have to, because it’s not our fault. Poor me.


The other side of acedia looks like the opposite. The monks call it “the noonday devil” (from a line in the Psalms), and it is that restlessness that refuses to dig in to the task before us. This doesn’t only hit us in the early afternoon, but it does hit especially then. It is like what a priest once told a friend of mine in confession, “you are like the person at a party who is always looking over the shoulder of the person you are talking to, looking for who you’ll talk to next.”

This too is acedia: rather than loving, rather than embracing the task before us, the noonday devil chases us off, and we are always somewhere else. The noonday devil likes the internet and our text messages: always an excuse to be somewhere else.

But though it looks the opposite of sadness – super active rather than super passive – both amount to a refusal to embrace the task before us, a refusal to love. We look inside and find . . . we just don’t want to love, don’t want to give ourselves: to our work, to our prayer, to the people before us.


All of these vices are nothing but obstacles to love. The spiritual life is really nothing but love: to love God, and to love the people he has given us, the people he has called to be his own mystical body, through whom we can better love him.

And so the solution to all the vices is nothing but love. We overcome both our passivity and our restlessness by loving him, and them, ever more deeply.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Universal Call to Holiness

St Dominic with Bible

This reflection refers to the readings for next Sunday, September 29, 2013.

AM 6:1a, 4-7; PS 14:7, 8-9, 9-10; 1 TM 6:11-16; LK16:19-31

Many people know that the Second Vatican Council spoke of “the universal call to holiness” (an utterly traditional doctrine). But sometimes we are lazy in thinking about what words mean.

They did not proclaim “universal holiness”: they did not say everyone is holy, as if to pat ourselves on the back. They said everyone is called to holiness.

Nor did they just say everyone can be holy, though this is closer to the point. Part of what they are saying is that holiness (that is, to be a saint: by an accident of its history, English has two words, “holy” and “saint” for what is one word in other languages) is possible for everyone, in every state of life, with whatever natural endowments. But that’s not their main point.

The main point is that holiness is the call of every person. In fact, this is just another way of talking about the Christian doctrine of judgment, heaven, and hell: if you’re not heavenly, you’re hell-bound. There is no in-between, because God is everything.


Next Sunday’s readings take us into this teaching.

The first reading, from the prophet Amos, scolds us for laziness. Life is not about putting our feet up and eating grapes. Amos puts a point on it by saying, “yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph” – that is, by the destruction of Israel, image of the Church. Sin should bother us! If we don’t love the Church, love all that the Church is – that is, the Body of Christ – enough to be wounded by her wounds, sick at her sickness . . . well, then, we will get what we want: “Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile.” If we don’t love Christ and his Church, we will lose them. And that isn’t a happy thing.


The second reading, from Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, puts an even sharper point on it. First he tells Timothy to be vigorous: “compete well for the faith!” Fight! “Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called” – by that universal call to holiness.

But then he makes it vivid: because we look forward to “the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We live our life not just in the humdrum of this world, but in the expectation that we will see him “who dwells in unapproachable light.” He is real! He is the ultimate! “The king of kings, and lord of lords.” Always we live in the expectation of one day seeing his face. The universal call to holiness means we will all see his face: the televisions will fade away, but Jesus remains. To love him or not is everything.


And then, as always, the Gospel makes it very real. The story is the rich man and Lazarus. As in Amos, the rich man is scolded for his laziness. But here “the collapse of Joseph,” the ruin of Israel, is made very personal in the poor man, Lazarus. Whatever you have done to the least of these my brothers . . . .

The point is that living holiness does not just mean mystical prayer. It certainly doesn’t mean hearing angelic voices. It means seeing the face of Jesus in the poor man before us: in the sufferings and weakness of our families and our colleagues, in the stranger who needs help and the homeless woman who knocks on our car window. That is where we live out this universal call. That is where we prepare for the eternal vision of Jesus: in the way we treat one another, especially the least of these.


The story ends with Jesus’s apparent lack of mercy for the rich man. The rich man asks for miraculous revelations for his family members.  But “Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”  The point is not God’s lack of mercy. The point is our lack of love. Christianity isn’t about miracles – not about God proving himself to us, by rising from the dead or anything else. Christianity is about “Moses and the prophets”: about love, living itself out practically. Resurrection only follows on love.

The reading from First Timothy makes the same point with a fabulous intertwining of the sublime and the ordinary: “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”  Yes, we chase after righteousness, we give our all to be a saint. But what does that mean?  Love, patience, and gentleness.

Looking for last week’s readings?  Reflection for Sunday, September 22.

No Room in the Inn

The great moral question of our attitude towards the homeless, towards refugees and migrants, takes on a deeper dimension: do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself?

We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full.

–Pope Benedict, Christmas Eve, 2012

The Lord is With You

Hail Mary ImagePart 3 in our series on the “Hail Mary”.

Last week we looked at the angel’s title for Mary, Full of Grace. Today we consider his next words, which are far more common (the Latin Dominus tecum is the same thing the priest says to all of us at Mass), but also take us deeper into the meaning of “full of grace.”

The two phrases are like two sides of a coin. “Full of grace” describes Mary on the inside (beloved of God, and gifted by God), whereas “the Lord is with you” describes her in relation to someone else.

But in fact, the greatest gift God gives her is precisely his presence – there is no greater gift possible, no greater good, than to be with God. And Mary is beloved, “in God’s favor,” precisely because she is with God. In fact, Mary is totally relative to Jesus: we look to her to look to Jesus, to see who he is (God-with-Mary – God become man) and to see what he does (he fills us with grace, transforms us, brings us into his favor).

Grace is nothing other than the presence of God. Grace is being made present to God. But let us consider what that means.


The Fathers of the Church notice something funny in the story. “The Lord is with you” obviously refers to Jesus, right? He is Emmanuel, God with us. The Lord is with Mary because he takes flesh in her womb.

But in fact, when the Angel says this, Jesus has not yet taken flesh. “The angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . . . And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for you have found grace with God. And, behold, you shall conceive in your womb . . . . The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.” The Lord is already with her before he comes to be in her womb. Augustine says, “Mary conceived in her heart, before she conceived in her womb.”

When she stops to ponder this enormous greeting, this fabulous title given her by God, full of grace, she is not yet the Mother of God. He is already with her in a different way. And so it’s important that we pray, “the Lord is with you” not only during the mysteries of Jesus’s life, but also in his absence. The Lord is with her before he is in her womb; when she is searching for her child, disappeared into the Temple; in his agony in the Garden; and when he has gone up to Heaven, leaving her behind.

In fact, meditating on how he is with her at these times helps us penetrate more deeply how he is with her in his physical presence. He is not only in her womb, but also in her heart, and in her voice, so that the infant John the Baptist leaps at her words: “as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy” (Luke 1:44).

When he is with her before her eyes, dying on the Cross, he is also with her in her heart, giving her the courage to stand. Indeed, everyone who approaches Jesus is drawn from within: he acts in their hearts before he acts in the flesh: “No man can come to me, except the Father which has sent me draw him” (John 6:44).


This is the real meaning of that strange encounter later in Luke’s Gospel. “And it came to pass, as he spoke these things, a certain woman in the company lifted up her voice, and said unto him, Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27-28).

Those who read the Bible quickly and carelessly think this is a rebuke to Mary. Far from it. For this is Luke’s Gospel, where we have seen Mary say, “be it to me according to thy word”; Elizabeth tell her “blessed is she that believed that all those things will come about which were said to her by the Lord”; Mary respond to Elizabeth, “he has raised up Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, Abraham and his seed forever” (thus showing Mary the new Abraham: who believes what the Lord says, and it is counted to him for righteousness: Genesis 15:6); after the shepherds came, “Mary kept all these words in her heart,” and then again when she finds him in the temple, “Mary kept all these words in her heart.”

The deeper mystery of Mary is not what happens in her womb, but what happens in her heart. And in this, she is model to us all of perfect faithfulness, of living the true presence of God. That is what grace means. That is what Jesus means.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

The Spirit of Avarice

image for vicesPart 3 in our Friday series on the vices.

St. Paul says, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). The statement is nice, nicer than it at first appears.

First of all, he does not say that the love of money is the greatest evil, the ultimate evil, or even the cause of all evil. He says it is the root. St. Thomas’s commentary on this passage has us consider what a root is. Fundamentally, a root supplies nourishment for everything else.

This is a good opening for thinking about money, and property in general. These goods are entirely relevant. We cannot go without food or we would starve, and at least the race in general cannot go without sex or we would die out. But property is only needed to support other things – and so every kind of property is possible to go without, and some people are able to go without owning anything at all. This includes not only the most radical Franciscans, but also children. As long as what they need is supplied, they don’t actually need to own anything, and they certainly don’t need money. Money, and all property, is always in order that – we need money in order that we can get something else.

A funny consequence of this is that there is never “enough.” When you eat, you get full, because you only need a certain amount, and at some point you are so full that you can’t cram anything more in. This is because food is directly related to a particular need. But there is a kind of infinity about money. You can keep accumulating more and more precisely because you are always saving for other things. There is no “enough,” no “full.” This is true of other property, too. You have a house for living in – but though you can have enough food, you can always have a bigger, or fancier, kitchen to cook it in.

Because money, and indeed all property, is a supplier for other things – a “root” – we have to be careful. We have to keep an eye on this desire, and make sure our focus is on what we’re supplying – actual living – rather than on the money that lets us get it.

Somewhere in here fits Pope Francis’s nice line of Argentine hospitality: “you can always put more water on the beans.” That is, to some extent, hospitality, and life in general, doesn’t actually need that much stuff.


Second: Paul says the problem is the love of money. Money isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, things are not bad – we are! In fact, property is a great good, something worth defending with a Commandment (Thou shalt not steal), and a whole aspect of Church teaching (Catholic social thought). We should fight to make sure people have enough. But indeed, the primary reason we don’t is because of where our hearts are. When we love people, we work to care for them, and provide for them. (And when we love God, we love people.)

But when we love money, our heart is not in the right place. And, indeed, just as money itself is a root for other things, the love of money is a root of evil. It is a root of evil because it is idolatry: setting our hearts on what is not in itself loveable takes us away from loving what is. You cannot serve both God and mammon. This is an excellent reminder of what the moral life is all about. The focus is on the heart, what we love. When we love wrong, we act wrong, and we go wrong. We are commanded to act right so that we will love right.


Third: how should we relate to things? Earlier in First Timothy, Paul warns us of “seducing spirits, and doctrines of the devil” (4:1). These spirits, he says, will teach us that the material world is evil: “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats” (4:3a). (Note that he points to sex and food: the most basic bodily needs of the individual and of society.)

But this is wrong, says Paul, because these are things that “God has created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (4:3b-5).

The key point is thanksgiving. The bodily world is good when we rise with thanks to God; but we are evil when we forget him who is the source of all good.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.

The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Preferential Option for the Poor

St Dominic with Bible

AM 8:4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-6, 7-8; 1 TM 2:1-8; LK 16: 1-13

Our readings this Sunday take us into what has been called the preferential option for the poor. It is worth noticing that America today is really the only time in Catholic history that being “orthodox” and being, as our holy father Francis says, “poor and for the poor,” are seen as somehow unrelated. I challenge you to find ANY saint, ever, who was not radically poor and for the poor.

To pick some unlikely examples: Thomas Aquinas was known to regularly give the cloak off his back to beggars. His vocation as a Dominican radically undermined his ability to do intellectual work; he was supposed to be Abbot of a powerful monastery endowed by an Emperor who was one of history’s greatest patrons of scholarship; instead he chose to own nothing and to be at the service of his order (often annoying). The poverty of the Dominicans when he joined was radical, including a rule against riding horses – which is highly annoying when your most prized possession is books, and you have to travel to find them.

Cardinal Newman’s most defining choice in his life as a Catholic priest was to go far from Oxford and London and live among the dirty, indigent Irish immigrants of Liverpool. He is reported to have said something like, “those people have souls too.”

And Saint Therese’s holy father made a habit of seeking out beggars so his girls could give them money. Read Manuscripts B and C of Story of a Soul with this in mind, and you see how radically formative it was for her. Poor and for the poor.


Our Old Testament reading puts an interesting point on it. Those who “trample upon the needy, and destroy the poor of the land” are accused of eagerly anticipating the end of religious holidays and Sabbaths, so that they can get back to hurting the poor. Somehow there is a connection between how we treat the least of these and how we relate to Our Lord. The connection, we might say, is idolatry. We only cheat when our heart is not set on the Lord, but on wealth.

Jesus says the same thing in a different way in our Gospel. “No servant can serve two masters. . . . You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

And the Psalm gives us another angle. “God, who is enthroned on high . . . raises up the lowly from the dust; from the dunghill he lifts up the poor, to seat them with princes, with the princes of his own people.” This is a major theme of Scripture. Note that Mary’s one prayer in Scripture, the Magnificat, is entirely about how God lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty.

There are two points, I think. The first is that God does not see as we see. Our standards of valuation – including our crass desire for material things – are not his. To be a Christian is to see as he sees, to love as he loves. That means loving everyone – but loving everyone means especially loving those who have nothing to give to us in return. The preferential option for the poor is proof of our love.

Second, we see that God is our sufficiency. To cheat in any way is, fundamentally, to deny the providence of God. I can go poor – poor, and for the poor – if I have God, because he will satisfy my every real need. (He might not give me a fancy house – but he will give me my daily bread, and himself.)


The first part of the Gospel and the Epistle extend this more broadly into what we call Catholic Social Thought. We are to pray for everyone, says St. Paul. But here, he says we are to pray especially for those in power. The Church has always emphasized this. Caring about the poor, caring about other people, also means caring about, praying for, and working for good government. To love others is also to love the society in which we live. You cannot love the poor and leave in place abusive structures. And the Catholic Church absolutely rejects the libertarian claim that government is necessarily oppressive. Often it is, certainly – but we should pray for and work for good government.

And so too, as Jesus says, we should “make friends with dishonest wealth.” That is, we should make all the wisdom of our worldly dealings opportunities to grow in love for all, especially the poor, and for their God.

Looking for last week’s readings?  Reflection for Sunday, September 15.

Ember Days

This Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, the Church (in theory) celebrates the Fall Ember Days. Their official name in Latin is Quatuor Tempora, the four annual times of fast and abstinence.

Ember Days are a very old tradition. I recently listened to Pope Leo the Great’s sermons on the Fall fast; by his time (440-461), he believed it was something that began with the apostles, though we do not know. (Leo’s sermons, by the way, are available for free download at Librivox; they are easy to follow and full of spiritual riches.) The Ember Days were fast days set against the ancient Roman harvest ceremonies, one of many examples of taking a pagan practice and finding a way to turn it to Christ.

They take place on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14), St. Lucy (December 13), Ash Wednesday, and Pentecost, thus linking them both to the turning of the seasons and to the bigger liturgical calendar.

The Triumph of the Cross, echoing the Jewish high holy days, sees an image of the Cross in the end of summer and approach of winter – and also in the harvest. The feast of the third-century virgin martyr St. Lucy – whose name means light; who saw with the light of faith, so that she would consecrate her virginity to God, give all her possessions to the poor, and be willing to die for Christ; and who had her physical eyes gouged out as a punishment for her faith – is a fine introduction to the darkness of winter and the Christian’s way of seeing through it to the light of Christ. Lent is a way of sowing our own spiritual harvest and finding rebirth in total consecration to Christ. And Pentecost symbolizes the true bounty of summer.

At each of these times, the Church pauses to fast. It is a nice little spiritual discipline, an opportunity to consecrate the coming season to Christ, to ask his blessings, and to sprinkle fasting throughout the year. As is so often the case in the traditions of the Church, it is prudently measured: three fast days, with a break on Thursday, is hard, but not too hard; four times a year is enough to make fasting part of life, but not too much.

Though we are not farmers, my family finds that there really are distinct seasons in life. “Ember” is from an Old English word for “cycle”: it is nice to mark the turning of the seasons with a quiet time of fasting.


In the liturgical reform after Vatican II, local churches were given the option of rethinking how exactly Ember Days would be celebrated. This flexibility makes good sense. For example, the post-Vatican II 1983 Code of Canon Law, says, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (can. 1251).

In different places, different things make sense. In the United States, having lobster on Friday, for example, is not a very good way of making Friday a penitential day – whereas in places where meat is rarely part of the diet anyway, perhaps a different form of abstinence would make better sense. We are still called to give something up every Friday, but different places might want to celebrate that penance in different ways.

In the case of Ember Days, the post-Vatican II norms (the Normae Universales de anno liturgico et de calendario) state, “In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the petitioners.”

In other words, Vatican II did not abolish Ember Days. It just gave national bishops’ conferences the option to think through how best to celebrate them in each country. Unfortunately, as has too often happened, the bishops decided to do absolutely nothing, and so most Catholics are ignorant of this wonderful tradition – and norm of the post-Vatican II liturgy.

But there is no reason we cannot embrace these traditions ourselves, and make them the nourishment of our own spiritual lives and rebirth of a Catholic culture.

“Full of grace”

Hail Mary ImagePart 2 in our series on the Hail Mary.

Today we continue our journey through the Hail Mary, with the most important part of all.

The phrase is from the Angel, who addresses her, “Hail, full of grace: kecharitomene.” It is a strange greeting. According to St. Luke, “and at his word she was troubled, and cast about in her mind what manner of salutation this might be” (Luke 1:29). The Greek is quite nice: it is at his word (logos) that she is troubled – Greek lets you put that forward and emphasize it in a strong way – and her grappling is die-logiz-eto: “dialoging,” but more to the point, bumping around this logos, grappling with the strange word that he uses. Why has he called her this?

This is the name he gives her. He doesn’t say, “Greetings, you who are highly favored.” He says, “Greetings Highly-Favored,” or “Full-of-Grace,” as if it is her name. At Lourdes Mary told St. Bernadette, “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  This is similarly bizarre language: not “I was immaculately conceived,” but I AM the Immaculate Conception. It’s who I am, what I am. Our Lady of Lourdes was just glossing this strange greeting of the Angel.

Luke’s narrative is nicely crafted – sometime we can explore this at length – with parallels between Mary and Zechariah, in order to show how they are alike and how they are different. It’s interesting to compare here: Mary struggled with the word he used, but “when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.” The difference is intentional – just as when Zechariah is struck dumb, but Mary’s mouth is opened in the Magnificat. Mary isn’t scared, she’s just overwhelmed at this magnificent name she has been given: kecharitomene.


“Full of grace,” gratia plena, is St. Jerome’s lovely attempt to translate this loaded Greek term. Isn’t gratia plena just about the most beautiful phrase you’ve ever heard?

Let’s break down the Greek ke-charit-o-men-e – Greek lets you cram all sorts of information into a single word. The central concept is charis (the ending changes to a –t in most of its grammatical forms): grace. We will have to talk about what that means in a minute. The -o- indicates that something has happened to the subject. She is “be-graced” or just “graced”: there’s something that has happened to her. Ke- and -men- indicate the grammatical tense called “perfect.” That doesn’t mean (by itself) that she’s perfect. It means that the action is completed. Not “on the way to being begraced,” or “half way begraced” but “all the way begraced.” And, just a small nice note, the -e is a feminine ending. Because Mary is feminine.

Not easy to translate, but you see how nice St. Jerome’s option is. Fully graced. Full-graced. But gratia plena is so much more beautiful. And you see how insufficient is the Protestant translation, “Highly favored.” Well, sure, but that does not signify (a) that this is a personal transformation, that has happened to her; (b) that it is complete (try “totally favored”!); (c) that it is given to her as a personal name, or title (maybe “Highly-Favored”?); or (d) that we are talking about grace, the core concept of the whole New Testament.


So what is grace? Well, in fact, that’s what everything about Mary is meant to reveal – what the rest of the Hail Mary helps to reveal. But the core concept (the Protestant translation does get this right) is “favor.”

Interesting, though: “favor” indicates two things, and they are both operative in the understanding of grace. In one sense, “favor” indicates what someone thinks of you. She is “in” God’s favor, he likes her. But in another sense, “favor” indicates what someone does for you: God has given her a favor. In fact, God, who is Creator, and who makes everything to be what it is, is the source of what makes Mary favorable. She is likeable to him (in his favor) because of what he has done in her (by giving her a favor).

When God finds favor, it is not because he has changed his standards, but because he has changed us. The path to heaven is to be transformed by his grace, to become a new creation. He makes us new, just as he made Mary new – totally, completely, transformed by his grace.

Everything else in the theology of Mary, in fact, ultimately hinges on this magnificent revelation from the Angel: Mary is Gratia-Plena, kecharitomene.

And our hope is that God will favor us, too.

Click here for the entire “Hail Mary” series.

Our Lady of Sorrows

Though this year it is superseded by a Sunday, normally today would be the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows.

our-lady-of-sorrows-05_0St. Luke reports what happened when Joseph and Mary presented the newborn baby Jesus in the Temple:

“And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against – yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also – that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:33-35).

The message is about Jesus as a sign of contradiction. Everything about him will challenge us, and reveal what is really in our hearts. His radical preaching will do that: will we follow this man, or not? That is the ultimate question, the final judgment on what sort of people we are. And then, above all, in his suffering: are you willing to go to the Cross, to embrace a Lord whose kingdom calls beyond the comforts of this world so radically that his reign here will end on the Cross? This is how many will rise and fall: those whom the world judges great will be afraid to follow, and those who seemed of no account prove to be the saints.

Mary too participates in this dynamic. Mary above all, because no one is naturally closer to Jesus. The Cross pierces no one’s heart as it does his mother’s. We cling to Our Lady of Sorrows above all so that we can learn from her to enter more deeply into the full measure of the Cross. We discover in Mary the reality of Jesus: not just an idea, not just an apparition, not just a storybook character, but the Son of Man, born of a woman, born under the law, born among us, who truly suffers and dies, and enters into the full misery of sinful humanity.

In general Mary is there to help us meditate on his true humanity. But at the Cross, the mother’s anguish becomes especially important. She takes us into the heart of the matter.


St. John tells us what happens:

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then he said to his disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:25-27).

Actually, in the Greek, it’s not just his own home, it’s more generally, “into his own” – his everything.

For John, the most profound and mystical of the Gospels, this is one of the keys of the Cross. First, that Mary stands: stays there, and does not faint. And second, that the beloved disciple, the sign for all of us, makes Mary, Mother of the Cross, his own. He discovers Jesus in discovering Mary at the Cross.


A final Biblical key to the doctrine of Our Lady of Sorrows: St. Luke always presents her as grappling with the unknown. When the shepherds come, he says, “And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19). And when they find him in the Temple, “He said unto them, How is that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business? And they did not understand the saying which he spoke unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (Luke 2:49-51).

Our Lady of Sorrows is also Our Lady of Unknowing. Maybe the hardest part of suffering is that it doesn’t make sense. We can’t see to the bottom of it. But this is the way of faith, of trusting in God even when it doesn’t make sense. Mary can’t understand the good news from the shepherds, and she can’t understand the scolding from her Son, or the prophecy of Simeon – or the horror of the Cross. Faith does not mean everything makes sense. But Mary’s part is to hold God’s mysterious workings in her heart, and stand by the Cross of Jesus.