Meeting Mary at Knock (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt VII)

As my tour bus left Northern Ireland, I felt… heavy. Sure, I just spent the last of my British pounds at a corner store but it was more than that. I felt burdened, and anxious, and unsettled. To make matter worse, I had this overwhelming need to pray the rosary.

And that freaked me out. What was wrong with me?! Why would I want to pray a repetitive prayer, on a set of beads, to Mary of all people? Maybe it was because I was getting all nostalgic about the old Catholic mother country, or maybe because I needed something to do with my hands so I wouldn’t keep biting my nails distractedly.

But I think it was because I needed to pray. Not just pray, but to sit in prayer, without the burden of constantly finding new words to express thoughts I could barely get my head around.

I was exhausted from all the thinking. I just needed to meditate, to mutter, and to rest in the peace of God. Praying with beads is an ancient form of prayer. In fact, our word for bead comes from the Old English bede, which means to pray. (It’s also where we get bid, as in to ask, for from.)

I needed to pray.

I needed to bead.

Rosary Beads

Rosary Beads

But I’m stubborn. So I told God that if He wanted me to have rosary beads, he would have to get me rosary beads. Luckily, I was in Ireland, where rosary beads grow on shamrocks.

The next day, we just so happened to visit a town called Knock. Knock also happens to be the biggest shrine to the Virgin Mary in the entire country of Ireland. It receives millions of visitors each year, and even has it’s own international airport. They have enough Catholic “stuff” (some good, most of it gawd awful, sentimental kitsch), to build a wall from here to Mars. So, as luck would have it, I got my itching hands on a set of rosary beads.

As I read in the mini pamphlet that came with it, the Rosary is a Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. You pray an Our Father or the Lord’s Prayer on each of the five big beads, and ten Hail Mary on each of the small beads. The Hail Mary goes:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

(I’m writing a post at the moment about this prayer, and to explain why Catholics call Mary “holy” and “mother of God.” In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the first half is taken verbatim from Scripture, from Luke 1:28, 42. But I’ll get to all that.)

With ten whole Hail Marys, the Rosary seemed very focused on Mary, and also kind of boring. But actually, on each set of ten beads (or decades as they’re called), you meditate on the events of the life of Christ, from His conception, to His Crucifixion and Resurrection.

The idea is to let Mary take you by the hand, and let her show you Her Son. No human being knew Jesus more intimately than His mother, who was with Him from the cradle to the Cross. Later, I told a friend about how surprised I was that the whole time I was praying the Rosary, I was thinking about Jesus. She looked at me strangely and said, “um, Laura, that’s the point.” Indeed.

What mother doesn’t love telling you all about her son?

Pompeo Batoni, Madonna and Child, 1742 (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Pompeo Batoni, Madonna and Child, 1742 (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

But would I be able to actually pray it? I was hesitant at first, and it felt sooooo weird. (I can not stress that enough. It was weird.)

I prayed to God before and after any tiny attempt to pray to Mary that if I was doing anything wrong, or sinful, or plain helpful, that He would stop me. Sometimes, I’d pray the Rosary properly. Other times, I’d make up my own prayers or use the Jesus Prayer or something. Either way, I was on the lookout for bolts of lightning, demonic possession, or other signs of divine displeasure. But none came. And slowly, peace replaced anxiety, and joy, fear. Months later, I was still getting to know Mary. Really, I still am.

But still, feelings weren’t enough. Was this really ok? Was I spending too much time praying to Mary? Should I even pray to her? And didn’t all this stuff – Mary, saints, rosaries – dishonour Christ and distract us from him? Didn’t every moment I spent venerating Mary mean one less moment worshiping Jesus?

But let me ask you this, if I honour a man’s wife, am I dishonouring him? If I praise his children, am I faulting him? No. Rather, we instinctively know that that honour and praise rebounds to the husband and father. I don’t exactly know how but it does. We love hearing what (or who) we love praised. So wouldn’t it be the same for God our Father and Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church?

Mary isn’t a distraction from Christ. She is a reflection of Christ. Like all the saints, she reflects and even magnifies Her Lord and Saviour. Everything she had was received from God and everything she was, she gave back to Him. This is what she sings at the Incarnation:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49)

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But I soon realised that venerating and honouring Mary only made sense in a paradigm where honour wasn’t a zero-sum game. You see, I assumed that if I pretended Mary was anything special, then that was somehow detracting from God. But it doesn’t.

God doesn’t compete with anyone. He is not in His creation like another player, fitting to keep a fixed sum of glory. No, He loves to share His glory and that only multiples it and multiples it because of course, the glory and beauty and holiness of God is infinite. And actually, He gets joy – and indeed glory – from the “splendour” of those He made and loves. Thomas Howard, a Catholic convert from Protestantism (and brother of Elisabeth Elliot), explains it better than I do.

God is not a niggardly sovereign, sitting upon his riches like a dragon on a hoard, sullen and wary lest anyone snatch the smallest coin from the heap, thereby subtracting that sum from his exclusive prerogative… [He is not] solitary in his splendor and served by thralls, sycophants, and helots, forever groveling, forever scourged by their masters with, “Give him the glory! Be careful to give him the glory!”

It is an ironic refrain, of course, since the whole point of the splendid assembly of nobles is that indeed the sovereign receive the glory. To that extent the slave-driving master’s refrain is technically true. But there is something parsimonious about it all. Give him the glory, as though any remnant of cloth on me that is not a filthy rag somehow calls in question that glory. But the grimmest khans, sultans, and pharaohs in their tyranny have not grudged their glory thus. The greater their retinue, the greater their splendor.

It is thus, says the Roman Catholic Church, with God’s glory. He is a God who crowns us with glory and honor (see Psalm 8). He is a God who has raised us and made us to reign with his own Son. He is a God who exults in ennobling his servants and who has made them his own kin, brought them into his banqueting house, and unfurled the banner of love over their heads.

God loves to ennoble His creatures, He calls us His friends, His beloved, His own children. When I marvel at Mary, I am marveling at what God does for those He loves!

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. (1 John 3:1)

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Josephine, 1807 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Josephine, 1807 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

And if you were God, wouldn’t you exalt your own Mother? The woman who gave you life, whose very DNA you shared? Wouldn’t you make give her every gift at your disposal? What wouldn’t you do for that woman?

I came to see that that’s Mary. That’s Jesus’ mother. That’s the Mother of God.

For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:48-49)

I met Mary at Knock, when she gave me a set of rosary beads. She taught me to pray with her so that I could begin to love the Son of God like she does, the Son who “has done great things for [her]”.

And now, I too am one of the generations who call her blessed.

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11 responses to “Meeting Mary at Knock (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt VII)

  1. You explain this stuff, I think, extraordinarily well. For one thing, I think many fall into the trap of thinking glory is a zero-sum thing, for another I’ve never heard veneration of Mary explained so well.

    I wonder if the protestant background and coming to this as a thinking adult, instead of just growing up with it, imparts a special ability to explain. Or if you’re just a brilliant teacher. 🙂

    Either way, Thanks.

    • Thank you NEO, you are far too kind. I think because I had to think so much thru it all, that it all just comes spilling out. 🙂

      • I think you’re right about why, because for many of us writing about thing that we have always known or believed is quite hard because we can’t get it into understandable words.

        About all I can say, Laura , is that this was the best explanation I’ve read of both the rosary and the Veneration of Mary, it spoke to me far better than all the heavy explanations I’ve read.

        Basically, nothing kind in my comment at all, just the truth 🙂

  2. The best explanation of Marian devotion I have read. Thanks. I’m a Protestant getting ready to enter the Catholic Church.

  3. Great post Laura!

    I can completely identify with your initial discomfort with Marian devotions like the Rosary. Even after you clear the theological hurdles you still have to work through the mechanics and habit of praying the rosary (I’m currently relearning the rosary en español!). Initially it’s definitely a bit harder then extemporaneous prayer, but the spiritual depth & benefits just don’t compare. Ave Maria!

  4. ‘But I think it was because I needed to pray. Not just pray, but to sit in prayer, without the burden of constantly finding new words to express thoughts I could barely get my head around.’
    I sometimes can’t just pray. I do get dry spells. I can so relate to what you’ve said here. There are so many meaningful and beautiful prayers in the Church that when you need to pray you’ve not only got your words and actions, but the history of the saints and martyrs’ prayers to draw on. Rich. Soothing.So meaningful. The Rosary offers me an opportunity to look once again at a part of Christ’s life that more often than not, illuminates events in that particular decade of the Rosary, something in new way for me, or more comfortingly, reiterates and reminds me of Christ’s plan for the salvation of mankind.
    It’s obvious that this experience for you was defining in many ways. Your deep feelings and understanding is obvious. A lovely post.

  5. This is such a fantastic post! As someone who has a lot of (very dear to me, I might add!) Protestant friends, it can be difficult to explain the reverence for Mary…I tend to get all tangled up in my words 😛 But you’ve explained it really well – and your story of conversion is lovely in itself. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

  6. Beautiful explanation of the rosary. It was a hump to get over for me too for a time, as perhaps it is for all of us who come to it with Protestant prejudices, but by now I can identify with so much of what you are saying here. And even before my conversion journey, I had often felt the need to pray in words that were already there rather than having to search for my own.

    • Thanks Julia. 🙂 Yes, praying “set” prayers can be such a relief, although of course they have their own dangers. I’d say I’m still “struggling” with the rosary but it’s slowly becoming more normal. 🙂

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