Did I have a relationship with Our Lady when I was growing up? If you had asked me, I would have said yes. After all, I recited the rosary. I prayed the Angelus. One year in high school I even memorized the "Litany of Loreto" as my Lenten resolution.
But as I came to know myself better, with all my flaws and weaknesses, I realized something: even though I asked for Mary’s help, I didn’t authentically speak with her. I couldn’t see her as a true mother, friend, or role model.
Because she was perfect.
And I...I could see very clearly that I was anything but perfect.
I assumed that she couldn’t understand my weaknesses because she had never experienced the inclination to sin as I had, or the discouragement that comes from falling.
She certainly couldn’t relate to my struggles because, as a perfect person, she would never be upset or anxious…right?When we look at traditional artwork of Our Lady, she is usually portrayed as beautiful, glorious, and stoic, enthroned in Heaven as the sweet but solemn Queen of All Saints—she doesn't quite look like someone who could empathize with your heartache or your frustration with character flaws that cause you to stumble over and over and over again.
But over the last few years, I’ve come to see Mary in a new way.
I think there are different kinds of misconceptions about the Immaculate Heart of Mary that we can fall into, and faulty understandings of what “perfect” and “immaculate” really mean, both in theory and in practice.
Perfect ? StoicTo start off, I want to offer a quick clarification as to what man looks like with and without the stain of original sin.
Before the Fall, without the stain of original sin, man had:
- Full knowledge and understanding of the truth
- Full ability to love the good
- Full control over his desires
- Full perseverance in striving to obtain difficult goods
- It darkened our intellect
- It hardened our hearts
- It disordered our desires
- It inclines us to choose evil instead of seeking the more difficult good
HOWEVER, Mary’s preservation from original sin does NOT mean that she can’t understand her children who DO have that stain. Mary’s sinless state means that she has full knowledge of the truth, which means that she actually sees and understands each of our situations in their fullness.
While she had full control over her desires (meaning that they would not cause her to sin) Mary also experienced a full range of human emotions to its deepest capacity.
Her joy in encountering Elizabeth and exclaiming the Magnificat was profound.
Her concerns regarding illness, danger, and practical needs were perfectly accurate.
Her sorrow at the Crucifixion was vast because her mind and heart were perfectly unclouded by any ignorance about the gravity of Christ’s sacrifice and what it meant to lose her only child.
Mary can share in our joys, sorrows, worries, and hopes far more than we realize.
Immaculate ? Untouchable
When I think of the word “immaculate,” I think of a spotless, sterile room with white walls and curtains, crystal-clear windows, and either a white carpet or shining hardwood floor. You know, the type of room that you almost don’t want to go into for fear of tracking a spot of dirt on the carpet or leaving a smudge on a window or wall.
I used to see Our Lady in that way. Why in the world would she want to be associated with my dirty, selfish heart and my weak, fallen soul? I would only stain her immaculate robes with the filth of my sin and littleness. In my sin, I would feel ashamed or embarrassed to even approach her.
But the irony of Our Lady’s special grace is that by drawing close to her, it’s she that impacts us—not the other way around. By drawing close to her, that purity and grace actually begin to cleanse us and to help us grow in holiness.
She is not scandalized by our embarrassment and our hesitance, by our spiritual dirt and our emotional baggage. They don’t scare her in the least. In fact, as a true mother to all Christians, seeing our weakness and our wounds only increases the compassion of her heart and her desire to embrace us, her children.
She only cares about our desire to love Our Lord more and our persistence in coming to her as often as we can so that she, in turn, can constantly point us in the direction of her Son.
We needn’t worry about dirtying a spotless garment when we encounter her. Her Immaculate heart is already open, waiting to embrace us.
Perfect and Immaculate ? Impossible to ImitateThe fact that Mary has a completely pure Immaculate Heart doesn’t mean that her children are unable to learn from her example or to follow in her footsteps of virtue.
The image below is one of my favorite depictions of Our Lady.
Often referred to as the “Polish Madonna,” this picture shows Mary hanging up the laundry (even the Holy Family had to wash clothes!) while watching over the sweet Christ Child, who plays on the ground beside her.
It’s easy to imagine Our Lady praying peacefully and silently in Nazareth. But we have to remember that even though He was God, Jesus was also fully man, and before that, He was truly a child.
Mary had to rock Him to sleep. She had to teach Him how to walk and how to help with chores around the house. She had to pick Him up when He fell or was frightened. She had to bring Him to the synagogue and teach Him the Psalms.
Mary ran a household.
Lived in a foreign country with no family or friends.
Watched her beloved husband, companion, and provider die.
Stood by as her only Child left home to begin His ministerial journey
Embraced all of mankind at the request of her Son.
And although she experienced the Resurrection, she first had to watch her Son be stripped, beaten, and brutally killed.
Mary is a woman who embraced every part of her vocation to the fullest, including being a soul consecrated to God, a woman of prayer and service, a spouse, a housewife, and a mother.
Mary’s Immaculate Heart did not exempt her from following God’s will, even in the simplest and most domestic of tasks. In all these circumstances, and more, Our Lady is an accessible model and mentor for us.
In fact, she put her heart totally into whatever task God placed before her, and she invites us to do the same.
No matter what our current relationship is with Our Lady, let us begin anew today by dispelling any walls that we’ve built between ourselves and Her Immaculate Heart. Even now she is calling us—calling us to come to her, and from her, to learn how to live a life that consoles Our Lord and His Sacred Heart.
Immaculate Heart of Mary, Cause of Our Joy, pray for us!