We welcomed this Marian month of August with the feast of the Preacher St. Dominic. Let us end it thinking about the Third Order Dominican missionary preacher St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716), best known as the greatest of all apostles of Marian devotion, and author of the classic True Devotion to Mary.
Today we will focus on St. Louis as preacher. He was first educated by the Jesuits, and then at the original Sulpician seminary in Paris, heart of the new “French School” of spirituality, established by great spiritual heroes including Cardinal Bérulle (1575-1629), St. John Eudes (1601-1680), St. Vincent de Paul (1580-1660), and especially Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657) particularly to renew the heart of the priesthood. But de Montfort finally decided to become a Third Order Dominican.
The Dominicans share with these other groups a great love for Mary. But they are distinct in their emphasis on preaching, and it is to the mission of preaching that de Montfort devoted his life.
De Montfort’s True Devotion is a challenging book, for at least two main reasons.
The first is the radical drama of redemption that he spells out. On the one hand, of course, is his very high devotion to Mary. An uncareful reader could think de Montfort places Mary in the center, though he is insistent that she is not.
The book begins, “It was through the Blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus came into the world, and it is also through her that he must reign in the world.” He insists throughout that Mary is essential entirely in order to keep our focus clearly on Jesus.
He aims “to show that Mary has been unknown up till now, and that that is one of the reasons why Jesus Christ is not known as he should be. If then, as is certain, the knowledge and the kingdom of Jesus Christ must come into the world, it can only be as a necessary consequence of the knowledge and reign of Mary.”
“With the whole Church I acknowledge that Mary, being a mere creature fashioned by the hands of God is, compared to his infinite majesty, less than an atom, or rather is simply nothing, since he alone can say, “I am he who is”.
Mary is placed very high to help us keep Jesus at the top.
On the other hand, he so emphasizes sin that an incautious reader could confuse him with the absolute negativity of the Jansenists. “You will consider yourself as a snail that soils everything with its slime, as a toad that poisons everything with its venom, as a malevolent serpent seeking only to deceive.”
In truth, these two teachings, the horror of sin and our absolute dependence on Jesus, go together. In short, de Montfort emphasizes the great drama of Redemption.
A second thing that is hard about de Montfort’s True Devotion is that he is short on practical details.
He condemns “false devotions to Mary”: the Scrupulous, the Superficial, the Presumptuous, the Inconstant, the Hypocritical, and the Self-interested.
He recommends various devotions: the Magnificat, the Hail Mary, the Rosary, the Feast of the Annunciation, as well as some lesser-known ones like “the Little Crown” of twelve Hail Mary’s, and the wearing of symbolic “little chains.”
And he offers a four-week plan for consecration to Mary, perhaps the best known part of his teaching. But there is nothing to prevent one making this consecration and still remaining superficial, presumptuous, inconstant, hypocritical, and self-interested.
He says true devotion is interior, trustful, holy, constant, and disinterested. And he says the truest practice of devotion is through “contempt for the world.”
But how does that work? What do we do? He doesn’t tell us. In the end, True Devotion according de Montfort is an attitude, a worldview, not a technique. There isn’t any particular thing to do. True Devotion is about how we look at the world.
And that is where the two difficulties of True Devotion – the overwhelming drama of Redemption and the lack of practical details – come together in the mission of de Montfort as a preacher. Finally, True Devotion – to Mary, to Christ, to the Christian faith – is not about concrete practices. It is about how we see the world.
That means preaching. And it also means study. Not study of the Summa, and not study just for professors – to the contrary, de Montfort insistently focused on preaching the Gospel to the poor and simple. But we must “study” our faith through thoughtful meditation on the rosary, on the Hail Mary, on the Our Father (which he calls “the most beautiful of prayers”) and other Scriptural prayers, and on the whole of the truth of our Catholic and Biblical faith.
Let us consecrate ourselves to a deeper awareness of the truth of faith.
Are there ways that we get to busy “doing” to be properly aware of the drama of sin and redemption?