August 15, 2013


Today Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.  I celebrated too.  I went to Mass, arriving early to pray a rosary.

I grew up Catholic, but we were not the rosary-praying-and-attending-Mass-on-the-Feast-of-the-Assumption sort of Catholics.  My first rosary memory dates from when I was a pre-schooler; I wore my rosary as a necklace.  Later, I remember going to my grandmother -- not a particularly devout Catholic herself -- and asking her what one was supposed to do with this string of beads anyway.  In time, I learned.

I had been taught to memorize the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary at my mother's knee, book-ended by the Sign of the Cross.  Sacred words, these are the backbone of the rosary.  Add a Glory Be and you're almost there.  Apostle's Creed at the beginning, while holding the crucifix in your hand.  Big bead, Our Father.  Little beads, three, then tens, decades, Hail Mary's followed by one Glory Be.  End with Hail Holy Queen, and you're done.

There are other details:  Now the Glory Be can be followed by "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy."  As you begin to pray, name your intention, the cause for which you desire for Mary and her Son to intercede.  And reflect on the sacred mysteries.

There used to be three sets of five mysteries.  Altogether this made for 150 Hail Mary's (less the three at the beginning of the recitation, by which we ask God to increase our faith, hope, and charity).  I have read that this 150 -- reflecting the number of the psalms -- was the layman's way of entering into the daily life of prayer of the Church, doing what they, the illiterate masses, could, as the monastics and learned clergy prayed the whole Psalter in the daily Divine Office.  Pope John Paul II added another five mysteries, the Luminous now joining the Joyful, the Sorrowful, and the Glorious.

I memorized each set of five by memorizing the first, last, and third.  Then I could usually fill in the second and the fourth.  If the first Joyful Mystery is the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary and the last is the Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple and the third is the Nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem, the second must be the Visitation to Elizabeth and the fourth the Presentation of the Infant Jesus at the Temple.  It worked for me.

The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is the fourth Glorious Mystery.  If it were not, I would never have spent much time thinking about it.  While I have never established a regular habit of praying the rosary, I have turned to this devotion from time to time, sometimes daily for weeks at a time.  Whenever I get to the Glorious Mysteries (Sundays and Wednesdays and any day during the Easter season), I have an Our Father and ten Hail Mary's to think about the Assumption.

Roman Catholic teaching says that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven.  Catholics are free to believe that Mary died first or that, like Elijah on his fiery chariot, she didn't.  We were told this morning by the priest that this feast is a reminder of what God is planning for our future, just like Mary says in the Magnificat, that magnificent prayer from Luke 1 (vv 46ff), "...he has remembered his promise of mercy" (v. 54b).

I have always imagined the Assumption like this:  Our life as Christians is the life of "now and not yet," the experience of living in this world and simultaneously living in and helping to bring to the present reality the fullness of the Kingdom of God.  The more I live in God's Kingdom now, the less difference I will experience between my life today and my life in eternity.  If Mary lived perfectly the Kingdom life on this side of death, what could death mean to her?  She was "in heaven," body and soul, already.

At least that's how I think about it, when I think about it.

And I do think about Mary.  Growing up, I wanted to be a more traditional Catholic.  I secretly longed to absorb myself in the candles and incense, the statuary, kneelers and bells at the moment of consecration.  That's why I wanted to know what the rosary was all about.  I could see that being a real Catholic, as I imagined such to be, meant being devoted to Mary.   

There are many people -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican even -- who take this sort of devotion to Mary for granted.  For them it is assumed.  For me, it hasn't been so easy.  One way or another, my head keeps getting in the way.  

But my heart?  My heart wants a mother, and there is the Church, holding out to me Mary, the perfect, spotless, immaculately conceived Mother.  I want her to be in heaven, body and soul, crowned as Queen, interceding with her Son for me and for all of us.  I want her to be the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church and my Mother.  I want to adore her, and I want her to love me as she loves her Son.  I want to surrender to this exalted picture of Mary even though -- or maybe because -- she sounds too good to be true.

As I sat in the pew and knelt on my kneeler this morning, I wanted to silence my skeptical, rational mind as rose up to have its logical say.  I wanted the Protestant voice that now lives alongside the Catholic voice in my head to stop telling me that there is nothing in the Bible about the Assumption of Mary.  I wanted to be free to assume that all that the Church says and has ever said about the Blessed Virgin Mary is right and true.