On this last day of May, this May 31 feast of the Visitation to Mary, I realize that I have hardly posted anything at all about Mary in this her month. To which I can only say to myself, ‘Tsk!’
So today I offer you a double (or is it triple?) helping of Marian meditation, with this excerpt from my book The Air We Breathe: The Mariology of Catherine de Hueck Doherty. I have chosen a section from the final chapter on Mary and joy, as this feast of the Visitation is one of the joyful mysteries of Mary’s rosary, and because I have always seen in this feast a sort of pure reflection of the joy of heaven. Other Marian mysteries are fraught with theological weight or bear some dimension of the Paschal Mystery and the suffering it entails.
Here, we simply have two women filled in different ways with the life of God rejoicing in the gracious gift of God and His faithful love, and praising Him together – a little icon of heaven. And this is what Mary wants to give each one of us. So here are my and Catherine’s further thoughts on the matter, a few short pages from a book you might just want to buy after reading them:
Love, for Catherine, is synonymous with another Marian concept, namely “the ability to be pregnant with God.” Love is from God and, as Catherine loved to quote, “God is Love.” (1 John 4:16). To love is to have God living in us, and this is what she means by being pregnant with God. “It wasn’t Mary alone who was pregnant with him… At Baptism our soul, or our heart as we say, is opened to becoming pregnant with God.”
This image is important to Catherine not simply because of its vividness and Marian reference. It is a vital image in her writings because “we’re small, we’re little, we don’t understand much but… pregnancy means growth.”
In other words, love starts small in us. We begin to live the Gospel very imperfectly and with many mistakes. There is much we do not understand, and much that we initially cannot embrace concerning the heights and depths of following Christ. But as Christ grows in us, our hearts become bigger. “We have to have an open heart, a wide heart, an immense heart, to give him room to grow, for God needs room.”
Here again the theme of joy is not distant. It is in this very context of love growing, our hearts growing and becoming bigger to welcome Christ and his love into our being, that Catherine bursts out in ecstasy:
“I was thinking of that and suddenly it seemed to me that the house was filled with music, and my heart was like a floor and all the people he brought in: the lame, the halt and the blind and the crippled and the well and the young and the old, all were dancing for the tune was such that you couldn’t stop! And I suddenly thought to myself, to become pregnant with Christ is to be free and to be joyous. It’s to be open because when you become a dancing floor, surely it’s as open as a floor is.”
Love means breaking through to openness and acceptance of everyone. It finally puts an end to our whole dreary project of attempting to control life, ourselves and other people: “People get all muddled. They think that they have to… manipulate. I want to manipulate myself. I want to be able to close the door and open it when I want to… The pregnancy of Christ—I don’t want to be pregnant.”
The answer for Catherine always comes with radiant simplicity: “Look, this is your head, my head… Be simple. Stop these complications. You don’t have to be complex. Complexity is going to get you nowhere. Be a dancing floor… Oh, so many beautiful things happen when you believe in God.”
Our whole life of Christian effort and struggle – the ascetical path of prayer, fasting, discipleship – is for this alone: to allow Christ to cleanse us of our fear of pain so that we can abandon our efforts to limit our love, to manipulate and control our world. The secret Catherine knew, and she learned it at the feet of Mary, is that joy comes only from the total abandonment of one’s heart to God, and this joy is eternal and absolute.
The joy Mary brings extends even beyond the frontiers of the human person and the path and destiny of the individual believer. Joy is cosmic in its scope: the whole universe rejoices at the sight of the creature Mary. For Catherine this cosmic reality is communicated in a series of poems all using the image of dancing stars. For Catherine the very heavens are shaken out of their place, spinning and leaping around with joy at the sight of the Mother of God.
“My heart/And I/Went/To a dance/Last night” she begins. As always in her poems it is impossible to say where poetic imagination leaves off and possible interior mystical experience begins. Catherine in this poem is “dancing with the stars,” not in the reality TV show sense, but cosmically. “It seems/We left the/Earth…/We stood/And watched/A dance of stars/ That made us/My heart/And I/So full/Of joy/That/ It seemed/We joined/In/And danced.”
This dance begins “In a/Gracious/Scintillating/ Dazzling way” until the reason for their dancing appears at which “Quite suddenly/They/Danced/Wildly/As if drunk/With joy.” It is the “Lady of the Dancing Stars… Clothed in gold/Over Combermere” who causes the stars to be drunk and reeling. The poem ends as Mary bends down to bestow her blessing on Combermere and the whole earth becomes “itself/A dancing star!”
There is no question that Catherine is recounting some experience of prayer in her innermost spirit here. Mary is the joy of the universe, the creature who was so filled with the uncreated Light that all created lights gather about her. She is their Mother and Queen, too. And Catherine somehow knew this woman of light was coming to her and to Madonna House in a particular way, to bless it.
Catherine pursues this theme in several poems. Mary herself is “A star/That sings/Its song/Of love/In thousand/Tones/Of rhythms/Strange.” This star is a falling one, dropping a “shower/Ofgraces/Unseen! /Falling.../Falling.../Shower/Of stars/Falling/On snow!”
Stars, for Catherine, are symbolic elements: lights that are distant and remote, yet beautiful, and so lift our hearts and minds to heaven. They give guidance to travelers, and periodically ‘fall’ to earth, bringing their heavenly light to humanity. Stars are therefore a powerful symbol of divinity, the divine sphere which is far above us, beckons us, guides us, and comes down to us. And Our Lady, who is of the earth, is caught up into this divine sphere, uniting heaven and earth while herself remaining human as we are.
The aspect of the stars as guiding lights is stressed in another poem: Behold the/Lady of the/Dancing Stars… The Lady is golden./Because gold is light,/The world is dark/Covered with plight,/Sorely distressed/In need of light./Gold is the symbol/Symbol of light/Hence,/Our Lady of/Golden Lights./Our Lady of the/Dancing Stars,/Because the world is lost/New stars must lead/The soul of man/To Bethlehem./ To Bethlehem through/Her./Through Her/to Her Son.
So here the stars are dancing to attract our attention, so that they can lead us to Bethlehem again. It is still a matter of joy, however: “And the stars, they danced/Because only stars,/And a few holy souls/Know the joy she brings./So they dance to show/That if only the soul of man/Followed them/They would know all things/That they seek in the darkness/And cannot find!”
Out of her own deep prayer, Catherine calls her readers to enter that same depth of prayer, to “lift your heads toward the sky/Turn your face toward the stars/And you will see the/Lady of the Golden Lights.”
The joy of creation in Mary is the light that guides us into the path Mary walked, but this joy is invisible to us unless we ‘look up,’ that is, dedicate ourselves to prayer and contemplation as Catherine and so many others have.
The Air We Breathe, pp.151-156