Imitating the Blessed Virgin Mary
Turning to Mary
To the Virgin Mary we turn our eyes and hearts in this final reflection on the Character Traits in the Work of the Holy Angels. She is our Mother, our life, our sweetness and our hope. How fitting to turn to her so that she, who formed Jesus, form us too. We want to learn how to love as she does.
Truly, Mary is a Godsend! From her Immaculate Conception to the Triumph of her Immaculate Heart she is a “gospel”, revealing how divine love can and should form and animate the human heart. Become a little child once more and go confidently to your tender Mother; she loves you beyond telling.
Let her touch you in love; in this way you will learn to love as she does. Get to know her better, more intimately and personally. Perhaps you have long desired this, perhaps too you are frightened at the prospect…afraid to be known as you are; afraid of rejection; or that it will come to nothing, lacking as you may, perseverance in love.
Mary is the Solution
What is the remedy? Accept her love! Yes, accept her love even when this is most painful: in those moments when you discover how unworthy you really are. Only by accepting her love and taking her hand can you become worthy of her love in a supernatural way! Make note: it would be a fatal, frustrating mistake to think that you first have to merit the love of God or of Mary. Even with grace in your heart, your love should simply be a response to the love of God and Mary, who loved you first.
Do not stop merely at accepting her love. Perceive and experience her desire for your love. She desires to receive you into her arms as her beloved child. She stands on the side of God in this desire. Like God she not only wants to give in love, but she also desires the gift of your love.
Mary is the answer to your every need; she is the embodiment of love! Your healing begins with accepting her love. The experience of her unconditional, gentle love will help you to love as she does. In this endeavor, simplicity, humility and docility are keys to the imitation of Mary.
Imitation has its paradoxes. First, you cannot grow in Mary’s likeness unless you simultaneously dislike what makes you unlike her! Once a novice admitted to St. Therese: “I know there are many things I still have to acquire.” The Little Flower responded: “Say rather ‘have to lose!’ For Jesus will fill your soul with splendors in the measure that you disencumber it from its imperfections.”
Mary, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, lived the surrender of love. The Holy Spirit had complete dominion in her heart. “Full of grace”, she lived a relative plenitude of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Our reflection will therefore focus on the presence of these seven Gifts in Mary’s life. “These Gifts are not only inseparable from charity, but all things being well considered and speaking precisely, they are the principal virtues, properties and qualities of charity” (St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on Love, XI,15).
Behold, a second catch! It is not possible to directly imitate the Gifts active in Mary’s soul. Their activity is not subject to your initiative. Rather, you must docilely allow the Spirit to operate freely in you as Mary did. By contemplating Mary’s docility to the Holy Spirit, you will also discover things you are doing wrong, your self-will, your personal resistance to grace.
Simultaneously, there remains a certain manner in which you can “imitate Mary’s loving surrender to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Some moral virtues, especially humility, docility and joyful obedience, resemble the Gifts. Hence, their practice will help dispose you, making you more receptive to the lights of the Holy Spirit. Divesting yourself of your faults, you will begin to taste and see the sweetness of Our Lord (cf. Ps 33:9). With Mary you will say, “Your name is as [sweet] oil poured out. Therefore young maidens have loved You. Draw me: we will run after You to the odor of Your ointments” (Cant 1:2-3).
Alongside the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit we shall also appeal to the seven petitions of the Our Father to which the Gifts find a special correspondence. In this way, we trust that the imitation of Mary will lead you to perfect hope and charity.
Following in her footsteps you will surely walk the path of Christ, for she was completely conformed to Him. Your assimilation to Jesus through Mary will also delight your Guardian Angel, whom the Holy Spirit has made to be, as it were, a “wind” and a “flame of fire” (cf. Heb 1:7). It is more to his taste and delight to minister the Gifts of the Holy Spirit than to second the laborious efforts of your very fallible, human mode of operation proper to the moral virtues.
1. The Gift of Understanding—Hallowing God’s Name
God created Mary as His special possession, as His dwelling place among men. He declared: “I have consecrated this house…and put My Name there for ever; My eyes and My heart will be there for all time’” (1 Kings 9:3). Mary was redeemed in the very first moment of her existence! Mary’s life began with grace and divine love! She received divine Love, the Holy Spirit; she was granted to know God and respond to His love.
Mary represents the quintessence of creatureliness which consists ultimately in receptivity: “What do you have, that you have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7). All that you have, you have received from God: existence, life, talents and a goal. Beyond nature, you have also received a Call to personal, supernatural union with God. The original gifts of grace were lost by Original Sin, but not the Call!
God calls us again in the New Adam, in the New Eve! Hence, our Call is inserted into the Call of Mary, like a child in its mother’s womb. How awe-inspiring is Mary’s original response to God, in which she also answered for us all. Her response shines in the Gift of Understanding, by which she fathomed the depths of the majesty and goodness of God (cf. 1 Cor 2:13). In a way, the Magnificat began in that first moment of her existence: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, for He has beheld the lowliness of His handmaid” (Lk 1:46).
If John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb at the coming of Christ in Mary, what must have been Mary’s joy upon receiving the Holy Spirit at the moment of her conception? She found herself more securely embraced in the arms of divine love than in her mother’s womb. In that first moment of grace Mary became the Daughter of the Father!
In grace Mary mystically understood the fatherly goodness of God, and she loved Him with her whole being: “It is good for me to cling to the Lord, to put my refuge in the Lord God. I will declare all Thy works” (Ps 72:28). She rejoiced in the understanding: “He Who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name!” (Lk 1:49). In our comparison of the Gifts with the petitions of the Our Father, is this not to say, “Hallowed be Thy Name”?
Humility was coextensive with her being. She rejoiced at being a little creature of God. She was glad to allow Him to glorify Himself in her in whatever way He wished. In all this we see the bud from which must blossom her most holy vow of virginity. So completely in love with God, how could she ever be anything but the Consecrated Virgin. “The virgin thinks about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and in spirit, [in order to] please God” (1 Cor 7:34, 32).
2. Seat of Wisdom—Mother of God
“I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made” (Prov 8:23).
“Before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for His only begotten Son a Mother…Above all creatures did God so love her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. God, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom” (Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, 1). She is “united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of the Mother of the Son of God…Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 53).
Mary was initiated step by step into the deepest plans of divine wisdom for the Kingdom of God: “Before all others and in a singular way she was the generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord” (ibid. 61) in the work of the restoration of the Kingdom of God and the recapitulation of all things in Christ. No other creature could ever have such a love and longing for the Kingdom of God. Hence, we see reflected in this Gift the petition, “Thy Kingdom come!”
This Kingdom is our hope and joy. “A foretaste of this joy is granted even here below to ‘little ones’ (cf. Mt 11:25), to whom the Father reveals His plans. Mary leads the host of these ‘little ones’, who have God’s wisdom in their hearts” (John Paul II, Audience, Feb. 11, 1981).
Your imitation of Mary in this regard begins with your baptismal vow, when you renounced every other kingdom and illusion of paradise, and sincerely long for and dedicate yourself to the coming and service of God’s Kingdom. The longing for other “kingdoms” (“paradise lost”) agitates the heart, filling it with distress and sadness. Even when your longings are for a world filled with justice and peace, you need to be on guard, lest you desire a kingdom wherein there is no place for the Cross of Christ. “Christ Crucified” is the “wisdom and power of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
3. Counsel—Embracing the Will of God
God’s ways are surprising; He even surprised the Virgin Mary. At the inspiration of the Holy Spirit she consecrated herself virginally to God. In God’s counsel this was the preparation for her to become the Mother of His Son! How refreshing is her spiritual agility and spontaneity with which she instantly embraced the will of God!
The Gift of Counsel is the Gift which makes us pleased to please God! It is a Gift of supernatural intuition by which the soul discerns the will of God and how to respond in the face of multiple options. How much trust and poverty of spirit are needed to free the Gift of Counsel in our hearts! When our own preconceptions and “our” plans loom large, this Gift is hampered; when we set these aside, it guides us.
By the Gift of Counsel the soul enjoys a grace-filled connaturality with God and neighbor through a certain communion of hearts and mutual esteem. “Draw me,” exclaims the Bride, “we will run after Thee to the odor of Thy ointments…we will be glad and rejoice in Thee...The righteous love Thee” (Cant. 1:3a-c).
The feminine heart, naturally attuned to motherhood, is more innately inclined to this connatural communion than a man’s heart. Mary, in any case, stands by us in this Gift full of maternal love and sisterly solicitude! True regard for the other is another prerequisite for the Gift of Counsel.
The choice of one’s vocation is an instance that calls for this Gift. The soul, in harmonious contact with self and God’s loving goodness, needs to get in tune with how it wishes to please God and how God would be pleased to have her please Him! A vocation is a unique, personal invitation of love. It can only be received in the freedom of love and can only be discerned in the free desire to receive the invitation. No one stands more solicitously at our side in this discernment than Mary!
In the case of the Virgin Mary, God sent St. Gabriel with the invitation to become the Mother of God. In disarming simplicity she explains her dilemma, “I know not man, how shall this be?” (Lk 1:34). By the power of God the Father and by the descent of the Holy Spirit, she is to virginally become the Mother of the Son of God! Her intimate understanding of God, her deep savoring of the divine goodness, disposed her so perfectly for this first revelation of the plurality of Persons in God, that we scarcely notice this revelation as we wonder at her docility: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38).
You can know that you are becoming more Marian when you spontaneously embrace the divine will with gratitude (not regret) whenever it is made manifest to you; when you do not shy away from it, but seek it out. Then you truly pray, “Thy will be done”, as Mary does. Even when the divine will boded pain—“your own soul a sword shall pierce”—she could still rejoice inwardly. For she thereby understood that she would never be separated from her Son and His mission in anything. Is not love “strong as death[?]…Many waters cannot quench charity!” (Cant 8:6ff.).
4. Science of the Cross and the Bread of the Strong
When Jesus was twelve years old, Joseph and Mary took Him up to Jerusalem. After the feast, Joseph and Mary set out on their way home. Only in the evening did they discover that they had lost the Son of God! They returned to Jerusalem searching for Him anxiously. They found Him on the third day in the Temple. Great was Mary’s anguish and incomprehension. She could not help but exclaim: “Son, why have You done this to us? Behold, in sorrow, Your father and I have been seeking You?” Jesus too was surprised: “How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Lk 2:48-49).
At twelve years Jesus had just celebrated His bar mitzvah, the ceremony by which He became a “Son of the Law”. Thus, He was obliged to its observance, and had the right to read and teach the Law. Consequently, it was rather self-evident that He should dedicate Himself totally to just that task.
This experience marks a transition in the Blessed Mother’s relationship with Jesus. Hitherto, He had been the Child; now He had come of age. True, “He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them; and His mother kept all these things carefully in her heart” (Lk 2:51). Henceforth, even as later with His disciples, He will explain to Joseph and Mary: “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things before entering into His glory?” (Lk 22:26, cf. 44-47).
Through Christ Mary understood more fully that suffering and the Cross are not accidents to be avoided, but the royal way of Redemption. Neither for Jesus, Whose soul was sorrowful unto death on the eve of the Passion, nor for the Sorrowful Mother was the Cross a pleasant, easy matter. Still, as the means chosen by the Father before all time (cf. Eph 1:7; Col 1:13,19-20), they embraced this truth, the true Science, with all their mind, heart and strength. “God forbid,” she might say, “that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal 6:14ff.). Mary was the first to understand that there is no other access to the grace of the Holy Spirit: “It is expedient for you that I go [via the Cross]. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you” (Jn 16:7).
It does not suffice to grasp the mystery of the Cross with the mind; we need to embrace it with our heart! The oblation of the Cross, which we need to love and renew in our hearts, is renewed for us daily upon the altar. As Mary was one with Christ in His oblation on the Cross, offering Him with one Heart to the Father (cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 61), even so should the faithful at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in union with Mary be united with Christ in His victimhood. This spirit alone gives full meaning to our petition with Mary: “Give us this day, our daily bread!” For we are praying for the fruit of the Cross.
5. Fortitude—A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed
The Sorrowful Mother is the Queen of Martyrs in virtue of all that she suffered beneath the Cross. She “faithfully persevered in her union with her Son unto the Cross, where she stood, in keeping with the divine plan, grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice, and lovingly consenting to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 58).
In courageous love, she was one Heart with Him as He prayed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). At the same time she does not shun to be associated with us; she intercedes for us. We, too, need to intercede for one another. May she pray with us: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us” (Lk 23:34). In this plea for forgiveness, we surely do well to imitate Jesus and Mary. There is another dimension of her courageous love we also ought to imitate. The enemy of fortitude is the enemy of progress in the spiritual life; this enemy is tepidity or spiritual sloth (acedia). Acedia is the chronic sadness and discouragement that befalls the soul which laments that the fulfillment of our Christian duties should demand so much effort. In this very area, Mary offers us a shining example of selfless generosity, with which alone the spiritual life becomes a joy.
At the wedding feast of Cana, it was she who in her solicitous love perceived and expressed her concern to Jesus, “They have no wine!” (Jn 2:4). In His response, Jesus gave her to understand that a miracle would not just mark a happy wedding feast, a happy inauguration of His preaching ministry, but also the beginning of His path to Golgotha. For the Greek original, rendered literally, reads thus: “What does it [that is, the wine] mean to you and to Me? Has My hour come?” Without flinching in the least, Mary embraces the “hour” and offers us her valedictory counsel in Scripture, addressing us through the servants: “Do whatever He tells you!” (Jn 2:5).
6. Holy Fear—The Preservation of Love
The Blessed Virgin, our “novice mistress” in the spiritual life, assigns humility as the dispositive cause of her election, and the Fear of the Lord, as the cause for the outpouring of divine mercy: “He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid…all generations will call me blessed; His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him” (Lk 1:48, 50).
St. Therese of the Child Jesus was disconsolate in a certain “holy envy” of repentant sinners upon hearing that he, to whom much is forgiven, loves more (cf. Lk 7:47). But then she realized: “I also know that Jesus has forgiven me more than Magdalene, for He forgave me in advance by keeping me from falling into sin” (Story, Manuscript A, Folio 38).
How much greater still is the reverent love and gratitude of Mary. God not only preserved her free from the stain of Original Sin, but also in a singular act of providence made her impeccable through grace: “Thou art all fair, My love, there is not a spot in thee” (Cant 4:7; cf. Summa Theol. III.27,4,1m).
In the magnanimous lucidity of her divine wisdom and love, no created goodness could begin to tantalize her away from God: “I count everything loss because of the excelling knowledge of Jesus Christ, my Lord!” (Phil 3:8). Her awe before the Lord made her most prompt in responding to divine grace; she utterly recoiled at the thought of offending Him.
Many souls, subject to servile fear, wage a wearying rearguard battle against temptation. For fear of hell, they resist the sin that attracts them yet do not know how to get over wanting it (cf. Rom 7:14-23). They should turn their gaze from the base, deceptive attractions and fix their eyes on Christ in filial fear and confidence: “Who will deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24). By perseverance in this hope, sustained by the Gift of the Fear of the Lord, they will not only overcome temptation, but that attraction for sin as well. For hope frees and transforms.
Mary’s promptitude deserves attention and imitation. She always exercised the virtues to their full intensity; she was never lax or lethargic in love. Mary’s Fear of the Lord was characterized by a sublime solicitude to please God in all things. She lived constantly in His presence, and desired ardently to know and fulfill His will. This lent her a simplicity in her veracity; she could easily express her thoughts and emotions without opposing them to God (as Zacharias did, doubting [cf. Lk 1:18]). Rather, she sought God’s will: “How shall this be? I know not man!” (Lk 1:34). To Gabriel’s explanation she responded: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38).
At the finding of Jesus she asked, “Son why hast Thou done this to us?” (Lk 2:48). Although she still did not understand His answer, she “kept all these things carefully in her heart” (Lk 2:51). In a word, she reverently surrendered her heart and understanding to the inscrutable plan of God.
Mary’s prompt solicitude for her neighbor’s need—in the efficacy of the Fear of the Lord—especially succors her children in moral danger when, for example, they find themselves in the occasion of sin. The Fear of the Lord is a strengthening salt of expiatory love. By identifying with us in love, she prays with us: “Lead us not into temptation!”
7. Godliness—The Ultimate Deliverance!
“Let Him kiss me with the kiss of His mouth” (Cant 1:1). The Gift of Piety or Godliness perfects the virtues of justice and devotion. To understand this relationship properly, we must recall that the virtue of justice achieves its greatest excellence in the virtue of religion. Thus, at its highest degree, St. Thomas affirms that justice, “by imitating the divine Mind, [the soul] is united thereto by an everlasting covenant” (Summa Theol. I-II.61,5c).
The Gift of Godliness (or Piety) leads to transforming union in God. Concerning this state St. John of the Cross writes: “The soul loves God with the will and strength of God Himself…For God not only teaches the soul to love Himself purely, with a disinterested love, as He has loved us, but He also enables it to love Him with that strength with which He loves the soul, transforming it in His love, wherein He bestows upon it His own power, so that it may love Him” (Sp. Canticle, 38, 4, 5).
By this Gift, Mary was raised up to perfect worship and union with God. In the sweet and attractive force of this grace, Mary gathered the disciples together in the Cenacle in the expectation of the descent of the Holy Spirit.
From the very beginning of her life, God introduced the Virgin Mary into this transforming union of love. Especially after Pentecost, Mary, the Spouse of the Spirit, lived this mystery of transforming love in the heart of the Church. In this grace she prays with and for us all, “Deliver us from evil”, that is to say, from the “evil one,” the devil (cf. CCC, 2851). The final and definitive deliverance is the victory of eternal life which we receive through the love of Mary, the Mediatrix of Grace.
To imitate Mary’s love we best contemplate the activity of the Holy Spirit within her:
By Understanding she understood God’s holiness and loved Him as a Father. May the light and joy of the Daughter of the Father also motivate us to praise and glorify God supremely.
By Wisdom, Mary the Virgin consecrated herself unconditionally to God in the service of the Kingdom and became the Mother of God. Let us also desire the coming of the Kingdom and surrender ourselves wholeheartedly to divine providence.
By Counsel Mary, the Handmaid of the Lord discovered her vocation and obediently accepted to become the Mother of the Redeemer. May she, our Mother, help us discern and love the will of God as it becomes manifest in our vocation and daily life.
By Science, Mary, Jesus’ first disciple, accepted whole-heartedly the Gospel of the Cross. May her self-renunciation in following Christ enlighten us concerning the necessity of the Cross and sacrifice as the only way to salvation.
By Fortitude, the Sorrowful Mother stood courageously beneath the Cross and prayed for us. May her example inspire us to be true friends and helpers to those in need.
By the Fear of the Lord Mary was most solicitous to please God in all things. May her loving example teach us to love the Law of God, and see in it less a restraint of freedom than a simple but profound way to express our reverent love and docility before God.
By Godliness Mary, the Bride of Christ, lived a perpetual union of hearts with Christ as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. May her love warm our hearts to dare to aspire to such a union of love with Christ that we might become one with Him, even as He is one with the Father (cf. Jn 17:21-22).
All texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission except for personal use.
© 2008 Order of the Holy Cross