A Thursday Meditation on the Wedding Feast at Cana and the Heart of Mary

280px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-24-_-_Marriage_at_CanaLet us enter into one of the luminous mysteries by considering the virtues and the beatitudes.

Consider Mary’s Faith.  Cana seems to be the very first miracle of Jesus (though even if we’ve seen miracles before, it’s hard to believe they can happen again).  She has absolute confidence that Jesus can do the impossible and that he loves us enough to do it, even in this thing, so insignificant and so concretely miraculous.  And her faith draws her to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Hope.  She believes in Jesus’s power over creation.  And she believes in his love for his creation, a love that does not destroy the couple, does not destroy his creation, but builds them up, in the happiest, most affirming way.  And her hope draws her to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Charity, her love for God and for man.  She loves God’s creation, loves marriage, loves the celebration, loves the wine that blesses it!  She loves the couple, thinks of the couple, frets over the couple.  Ah, but most of all, think of how she must have loved Jesus, the deep, joyful affection she must have felt when she saw his love for the couple.  And love unites her, profoundly, in an ever new way, to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Poverty.  She has nothing.  She has nothing to offer but her prayers.  She asks nothing for herself, but for their happiness.  Even what she asks is nothing that can be hoarded, only the pleasure of celebrating human and divine love.  And in her poverty she relies on nothing but Jesus, and loves nothing but Jesus, and the joys of his kingdom, celebrated in the marriage feast.

Consider Mary’s Sorrow.  Such a rich, real, human sorrow: “they have no wine!”  Not a selfish sorrow, not a whining sorrow, but a deep compassion for the needs of others, for the deeply human needs of a bride and bridegroom to celebrate their wedding.  And because this is what she sorrows for, she is consoled by the presence, the love, the concern of Jesus, only Jesus, who brings the most abundant consolation.

Consider Mary’s Meekness.  She does not fight, does not blame, does not strive – she only inherits.  Meekness does not grasp, but trusts in the Father to provide.  “Whatever he says”: we receive everything as total gift, trusting that he will not leave us orphans.  And he gives her the earth – not just pie in the sky, Jesus provides wine, here and now, for this celebration, of this marriage.  He cares for the meek on the earth – and her meekness binds her to him even more.

Consider her Hunger and Thirst for Justice.  Justice doesn’t mean punishment or vengeance.  It means things should be right.  The poor couple!  This isn’t right, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be!  At Cana, Mary doesn’t only long for heaven, she longs for things to be right here on earth (and so glimpses the true heavenly city, where all is right).  She thirsts not for the wine, but for the blessing of their wedding, the celebration as it should be.  And Jesus always satisfies.  How that love of Justice makes her love him all the more.

Consider her Mercy.  Misericordia: it is a heart for misery, a feeling of others’ pain.  In Greek we say Eleison, connected to begging for alms, eleemosyne.  She feels for them; her heart is totally united to their disappointment when their wedding feast isn’t as it should be.  She begs for them.  And mercy is hers!  When she feels mercy for them, she feels even deeper the merciful heart of Jesus.

Consider her Purity of Heart.  There is nothing selfish here.  Nothing worldly, either.  What a wonderful mystery, the wedding feast at Cana: there is nothing impure about weddings, nothing impure about feasts, nothing impure about good wine.  It is all the gift of the Creator.  Our hearts are impure, and so we experience all these impurely, to be sure.  But the pure hearts, Jesus and Mary – in these goods things they see only God, the giver of good.  Purity of heart does not hate the world, it just loves God – and loves Jesus, the God who enters into the world, with blessings!

And consider how she Makes Peace.  Fascinating: there is no war here.  To the contrary, what is happening in a wedding, and in a feast, is a union of hearts.  The true peacemaker goes far beyond disarming combatants, or putting them in separate corners.  The true peacemaker makes a banquet, celebrates real fraternity, real, deep union.  Daughter of God, Mary witnesses God as the Father who makes union among his children.

And so she sees the real heart of Jesus, the adorable, wonderful, peacemaking Jesus, the Bridegroom who brings joy to every wedding and every feast, here and in eternity.

How could you contemplate the loving heart of Jesus today?

Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the Rosary, and Consecration

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7To continue our October meditations on the rosary, let us consider what we can learn about it from a devotion that arose around the same time, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

At least in our part of the world (northeastern New Jersey), there are a lot of churches dedicated to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, including my family’s parish. The simplest reason for that is historical. Emigrants from Italy typically boarded ship at Naples (the biggest city in the southwest of Italy). There is a Carmelite monastery and church right on the bay in Naples, with a couple popular images and a tower that can easily be seen as emigrants left the old country behind. With the fear of the journey, many vows were made to this last image of home.

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But devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel goes deeper. It reaches, first, to St. Simon Stock, elected general of the Carmelites (1247-65) at their first chapter, in England. Simon Stock is said to have seen a vision of Our Lady, in which she offered him the scapular, the long outer garment of the monastic habit, worn like a long apron over their full-length tunic. (Mary is also said to have appeared to the Dominicans and probably other orders to give them their habits, especially their scapulars.)

In the same thirteenth century (“greatest of centuries”!) a kind of third order arose by which lay people associated themselves with the total consecration of life exemplified by the religious orders. Part of this association was to wear some version of the order’s habits; the small scapular seems to have been one of the thirteenth century approaches.

Our_Lady_of_Mt_CarmelSo Our Lady of Mount Carmel also stands for that scapular, given to the religious orders, and then taken on by the laity. Just as many images of Mary have her handing the rosary to the people, so too does the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel show her handing the small brown scapular to the people.

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But to understand this parallel, we need to go a step further back into the history of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel is a range of mountains, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea sort of east-southeast towards Nazareth, in Galilee in the north of Israel. It is a few miles south of Acre, one of the main fortresses and mostly the capital of the Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

At their best (and they were often not at their best), the Crusades were about pilgrimage. Along the road, pilgrimage is a kind of penitence or repentance, putting one foot in front of the other to signal a turning of one’s whole life toward the Lord. The destination of a pilgrimage signals some connection to Christ’s coming into the world; true penitence turns us toward Christ. That was, of course, most powerfully evident in the pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

And so some of the soldiers and pilgrims settled down to live a life of conversion and union with the Incarnate Lord. Mount Carmel became a central location for this. It was the place of the holy hermit Elijah, and of a great tradition after him. It was relatively safe, because close to Acre. But it was also in the land of Jesus’s home, close to Nazareth.

The Carmelite order began, then, as hermits gathered on Mount Carmel, around a central cave-chapel dedicated, as appropriate for something so close to Nazareth, to the Mother of God: they were the hermits of the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Their habit was a sign of their consecration; their outer garment, their apron or scapular, was a sign of preserving their habit, and their consecration, spotless.

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In the image of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, she wears the habit of Carmel. The connection points both ways. She enters into the consecration of the Carmelites, and they enter into hers. Her habit shows that the true meaning of their consecration is to live in perfect devotion to the mystery of Christ Incarnate. She holds the small scapular out to us as an invitation to join in our consecration.

So too she holds out to the rosary as an invitation to join in her consecration. Like the habit of Carmel, it is meant not just as an external, not an occasional practice, but a total conversion of life, by entering into the intense spirituality and union that is Our Lady’s consecration to Jesus.

How could you better enter into Mary’s consecration to Jesus?

The Rosary and the Virtues

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7There are many ways to pray the Hail Mary well, but notice that it is particularly useful in meditating on the virtues.

Hail Mary: the greeting means health, happiness, good news. We can approach it as an immediate entry into the transformation God has worked in her. Hello, oh virtuous one! How fortunate you are to be good!

Full of grace: in Catholic theology, grace is the effect of God’s work on us. In one direction, this greeting reminds us, immediately, that Mary’s virtues are a gift from Christ. In the other direction, they remind us that Christ really does give her gifts, really does fill her with his graces, to make her good.

The Lord is with thee: this says almost the same thing, but in reverse. Her virtue comes from her nearness to Christ. But it also exists for his presence: he makes her good so that she can meet him, so that she can fully embrace his presence.

Blessed art thou among women: in her own vocation, as a woman, in her own humanity, how fortunate she is – to be good, filled with Christ’s grace, so that she can encounter Christ in all the mysteries of the rosary.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus: oh, and how good he is! How her virtues mirror his, and his virtues mirror hers – he who comes to share in her nature, to be so close to her that he can have human virtues, and she can have divine ones.

Holy Mary: the truest definition of her virtue is holiness. What a prayer these two words are in themselves: just to ponder the holiness of Mary. And again, holiness is defined as a gift from God, really changing her, so that she returns to God.

Mother of God: the second half of the prayer makes a turn, from simply meditating on Mary’s virtues, to begging her to pray for us. And so we invoke her power, the strange relationship that allows her, with the audacity of Cana, to beg Jesus to act. But it is the audacity of cheek-to-cheek: she is not God’s boss, but rather the one he has chosen to let hold him in her arms.

Pray for us sinners: we ask her to pray precisely in relation to our non-holiness, our lack of virtue. You have it, Mary – pray for us who don’t!

Now and at the hour of our death: in all of our needs. Looking forward to our death, we realize how deeply we need to be transformed, to be like Mary, so that we can cling to Jesus even in the hardest times.

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Each mystery of the rosary gives us an encounter between Mary and Jesus. They are not all really meditations on Jesus himself: in the first two and the last two, at least, he is kind of hard to see.

But neither are they mysteries of Mary alone. She is not even present for many of the luminous and sorrowful mysteries, and Mary’s whole life is defined by relation to Jesus. If we separate her from him, we lose everything.

At the end of the Paradise, Dante sees the Trinity in the eyes of Mary. In the rosary we see Jesus in the eyes of Mary. We see the gaze, the union, the connection: him living for her, and her living for him.

This comes especially alive if we meditate on the virtues. Each mystery makes tremendous demands of Mary. Each mystery, in fact, demands all the virtues: that she figure out how to live (prudence), leave behind pleasure (temperance), fulfill her human obligations (justice), believe the unthinkable truths of God (faith), trust in his strength (hope), and love. Each mystery gives us an opportunity to see what every virtue looks like in its fullest development: in the encounter with Christ.

But so too each mystery lets us see those virtues radiate out from Christ himself. At the Cross Christ demands the ultimate fortitude from his mother – and from his Sacred Heart it radiates to her, so that she stands with his strength. These encounters with Christ that are the mysteries of the rosary show us what it means for Christ to give us the strength to meet him.

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There are traditional lists of virtues, one for each mystery. But we can bring whatever list we want, meditate on whatever virtue we are looking for. We can do one virtue per rosary, one per mystery, or even one for each Hail Mary. I like to count to ten with Faith, Hope, Charity, and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit or the Seven Beatitudes. (This is easier if you just pray one mystery at a time.)

What virtues do you find in the mysteries of the rosary?

The Rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7October 7 is the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, and so October is a month specially devoted to the rosary. We will take some time this month to consider some practical strategies, rooted in the medieval spirituality from which the rosary was born, in order to pray the rosary better.

This week, let us consider the Liturgy of the Hours.

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The Liturgy of the Hours, you probably know, consecrates the day as a whole to prayer by giving special prayers to the main moments of the day.

Psalm 119 says, “In the middle of the night I will rise to give you thanks” (v. 62) and “Seven times a day I praise you” (v. 164). The Tradition fulfilled the first line with Matins: the name means “early in the morning,” but it was before Lauds, or morning prayer. And so as not to double-count Matins, they added to the natural six-fold division of the day (rising, mid-morning, mid-day, mid-afternoon, evening, bedtime) another hour, “prime” (literally “one hour into the day”), somewhere between lauds and mid-morning.

But notice, with regard to Matins, that the interpretation of the line is not as strict as it first appears. St. Benedict (c. 8), for example, says that during winter, “they should rise at the eighth hour of night, so that they may stop for prayer a little after the middle of the night.” They get to the Psalm’s “mid-night” by sleeping specifically “eight hours.” In the summer, “let the hour for the prayers of ‘waking’ be set so as to allow sufficient time for the brothers to attend to the necessities of nature before the prayers at the rising sun.” Here, midnight is frankly abandoned, replaced with early morning. He even says these prayers should be shortened “on account of the shortness of the night” (c. 10).

In short, the principle was not a rigid adherence to a divinely commanded schedule, but exactly the opposite: the principle was to scatter prayer throughout the day, at the most convenient times.

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But note, with regard to Prime, the pure joy in fulfilling the Scriptural text. The Psalm says “seven times a day,” and they said, yes, let’s do it, let’s go all the way. Seven is in Scripture a number of completeness, and they embraced the Psalm’s encouragement not to stop short of praying at all the moments of the day, even bordering into the inconvenient.

And they did it precisely through the Psalms. They only are interested in fulfilling this particular line because they love the Psalms as a whole. The Liturgy of the Hours sanctifies all those hours of the day precisely by plunging into the divinely inspired prayers of Scripture.

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What does all of this have to do with the rosary? Three things:

1. The rosary was developed in the Middle Ages precisely as a substitute for those who did not have the equipment (especially the books) for the Liturgy of the Hours. Its original spirit is not to be segregated into one part of the day, but to season the whole day with prayer.

2. The deeper insight of the Liturgy of the Hours was not only that each hour should have its prayer, but that prayer is done better when spread into shorter, more intense moments. Modern devotion seems simply to disagree: to prefer the Holy Hour (which is also good!) to this spirit of sprinkling prayer throughout the day, and to pray the rosary all at once. But the medievals insisted that we can pray more deeply when, rather than watching the minutes tick by till our hour is complete, we pray as hard as we can, even for just five minutes, and then return to do it again a few more times in the day.

3. The Liturgy of the Hours was Biblical – and so too is the Hail Mary. The words are not to be missed. It’s hard to pay attention to fifty Hail Mary’s. But if we pray just ten at a time, perhaps we could pray them really well, and discover the richness of the Biblical words.

What I am proposing, then, is that one way to get the most out of the rosary is to make it into a Liturgy of the Hours (and even a supplement to the “real” Liturgy, if we pray that too). The Creed and the first three Hail Mary’s are a fabulous way to begin the day with a profession of faith. Then scatter five mysteries through five separate times of day, if you can, so that your whole day is seasoned with the rosary, and so that you can pray each decade intensely. And end the day, as the monks long have, with the Hail Holy Queen—and with the conclusion of the rosary.

Are there ways you could pray more intensely, and more frequently?

St. Dominic and the Rosary

1143_jesus_handing_rosary_to_st_dominic_4f5e857a19fb7Tomorrow is the feast of St. Dominic (1170-1221). I must acknowledge that he is far and away my favorite saint (after Mary), the driving inspiration of this Web site.

Recent scholarship has not been kind to the tradition that St. Dominic invented the rosary – or that Our Lady gave it to him, and he promoted it. Dominic was a great lover of Mary in an age when Mary was greatly loved, but none of the myriad stories of his time make any mention of the rosary as we now know it. Bl. Alain de la Roche (1428-75), the great promoter of the rosary in the fifteenth century, is the first one to tell stories of Dominic and the rosary.

Nonetheless, we can learn much about both St. Dominic and the rosary by thinking about their connections. We might even be able to uncover Bl. Alain’s basic insight.

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Dominic founded an Order of Preachers. His mission began in an inn in southern France. The innkeeper had embraced the Albigensian heresy, which claimed an evil creator of the material world. Dominic talked with him through the night to bring him back to Christ, our incarnate Creator and Redeemer.

Dominic realized that bad ideas can destroy our spiritual life, and that good ideas lead to spiritual life. Dominic was not an academic, nor was the innkeeper. The mission of preaching is no “intellectual exercise.” It was preaching: speaking the truth about Christ, believing that that truth is saving, and healing, and redeeming. It was about nurturing faith by setting forth the image of Christ in all its richness.

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In truth, Dominic’s mission begins before that night, as an Augustinian canon in Old Castile, in Spain. Before Dominic was a preacher, he was a contemplative. He lived the life of Scripture, praying the Psalms and pondering the saving words of divine truth.

Dominic discovered, first in his own spiritual life, that Christ is worth contemplating, worth discovering in all his richness.

Modernity (and perhaps some significant parts of modern Catholic spirituality) has lost some of this richness. We tend to think pictures are more valuable than words, and feelings more real than truth. The problem is that the pictures are of our own making; the Word is from God. And the Word can take us deeper into the reality of Christ than any of our pictures, nice as they may be: only words can tell us “this is my Body,” “my Lord and my God.”

Dominic’s Scriptural spirituality – truly the traditional spirituality of Catholicism, in every era before the modern one – begged Christ to tell us about himself. It found in his Word a God infinitely more wonderful than we can imagine.

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Today we (heirs, really, of nominalism) use “intellectual” as a bad word, to mean someone who cares about ideas more than reality. Or at best, we say things like “men, like fish, are caught by their heads”: as if the word serves to “catch” men, but isn’t part of their real encounter with Christ. Once we convince them, it sometimes seems, they enter into a vague, word-less spirituality.

With Dominic it was not so. He was in no sense an academic – indeed, his most faithful, immediate successor as Master of the Order, Bl. Jordan of Saxon, was famous for dragging men away from the university, to the life of radical poverty and total devotion to prayer and preaching, and the early rules of the Order prohibited even the liberal arts except insofar as they aided the study of Scripture.

But Dominic was a preacher, who gave his life to using words, especially the words of Scripture, to speak to ordinary people about Christ, and to lead himself and others to Christ.

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Dominic did not preach the rosary as we now know it, with its cycle of mysteries. But we do know that at his time people prayed Hail Mary’s on cycles of beads, as a stand-in when they did not have access to Scriptural prayer. (There were 150 Hail Mary’s to match the 150 Psalms.)

Bl. Alain seems to have invented the cycle of mysteries to facilitate the praying of the Hail Mary. But Dominic knew the value, for simple people and university professors alike, of meditating on the words of Scripture, especially that most central proclamation of the Gospel, the Hail Mary.

Bl. Alain added the mysteries to help us enter into the words, just as the images in church help us ponder the words of the liturgy. The real insight of St. Dominic, and of the rosary, is that those words are the Gospel truth.

How could you better listen to the words of Christ?