Catholic Activity: Mary, the Mother of our Children
Newland explains that all children should have a deep love for their perfect Mother in Heaven, Mary. Here are some practical ways to encourage this devotion from an early age.
When a child is very little, his mother is very perfect. She is "the best mother in the whole world, and the most beautiful, and the one that cooks the best, sings the best songs, makes the best surprises." Everything she does is the very best and her virtues surpass all others. And then, in a little while, he discovers she has weaknesses like everybody else. She can be cross without very good reason, and lose her temper. She can judge unfairly and punish too severely. She can do lots of things that even a child can see are far from perfect, and this is very sad — because mothers ought to be perfect.
How good Our Lord was, then, to give us Our Lady. She is many profound and mysterious things and she ministers to mankind in many ways, but in the lives of children — who see things in such simple terms — she fills the space between what mothers really are and what their children want them to be.
If anyone should ask me what is the most difficult thing I can think of to write about, I would say immediately — Mary. And having tried many times and failed miserably, there is no reason to think another try will be better. There is just one saving grace. To write about children and Our Lady one does not need to know all the Mariology — one just needs to know about Mary. It is Mary that children need because they need so much to have a mother who is perfect.
An example will explain what I mean. The other day Peter was quite naughty, and finally a spanking was called for. I was quite calm (really) and very sure that he deserved it. When it was all over, and things seemed pretty much all right again, he knocked me right off my feet by asking: "Mother, if Our Lady was here in our house really, would she give me a spanking?"
No, Our Lady would not give him a spanking. Our Lady wouldn't need to give spankings because Our Lady is perfect. And Peter would be different if his mother were perfect. And there you have it all in a nutshell: only a perfect mother could form a perfect child, and the only perfect Mother is Our Lady.
It is when they say things like that to you that you see all the things that Mary's perfection means to a child. He is not concerned with her splendors, about which he has not yet any occasion to know. He finds in her all the lovely things he finds in his own mother, and she adds to these things all the things that are lacking in his mother. She never loses her temper, is never too busy, is never too tired. She always listens patiently and always judges fairly. She knows how you are in your secret inside, where you always want to be good, and she never wearies of waiting for it to show on your outside, where all you seem to do is be bad She is the most beautiful, the most kind, the most loving. She is the most generous, and forever forgiving. It's the truth: she's a heavenly mother.
The Presence of Mary But first, of course, he must know her. If I had not met children who do not know her, I would be tempted to say that in a strange way children seem to come all ready knowing her. That is not true, of course — but they come all ready to know her. And they learn to know her and love her as easily as they learn to know and love God. Her picture, her name, the familiar way of praying "Dear Blessed Mother," the sound of the Hail Mary, the sight of the Rosary, the family kneeling together to say the Rosary — all these things make it clear to the littlest child that there is somebody real whom everybody loves called Mary. And for little children it is no difficulty at all to learn to live in her presence.
"But Mother, how can you live 'in the presence of Mary'? Our Lady isn't God. She can't be everywhere the same as God is."
"I had not expected quite so much perception from someone only ten! But it is good to know how easily we can confuse them, and how clearly we must explain if living in the presence of Mary is to be more than a sentimental pose.
"No, she is not God, and she is not with us the same way God is. She is not present as Jesus is in Holy Communion, nor as the Holy Trinity dwelling in our souls. But Our Lord made her Our Mother, and wherever a mother's children are, there is her love. She has us in her eye. When the sun shines on you, you say you are standing in the sun. In the same way you live in Mary's gaze, and it follows you everywhere. But then what else would you expect? Mothers always watch their children."
But the little children need no such explanations. Their faith is so sturdy they simply accept her presence and the simplest domestic happenings help them to practice it. Like hearing their mother say, "Please, Blessed Mother, help me find my hat. I can't go to church without my hat. You children, please say a Hail Mary and ask Our Lady to help us find my hat."
This is so commonplace in Catholic households it seems ridiculous to put it in here. But is the commonness of it not the proof of how practical Mary is in her mothering? Don't children scatter in all directions saying Hail Marys and searching for my hat? Inevitably she finds it, or the gloves, or saves the roast, or whatever it happens to be. And if on occasion she reminds me instead that I left it in the car, none but the rarest of fools expects her to shatter the natural order by the flying entrance of hats. Not that she couldn't. God can make hats fly as easily as birds and if Mary wanted it, He would. But her concern over her children goes deeper than just saving them the vexations they suffer in their absence of mind. Her work in our lives is to make in us a likeness to her Son, and when we remember the hidden years He lived under her care and the ordinariness of them, we can expect that her work with us will be as hidden and the means by which she forms us as ordinary. For the most part, there will be no miracles — except that staggering miracle at the end of it all when we find she has led us to Christ. But she cannot do this if we do not let her, and to let her means asking her to come into our daily lives and teach us how to do everything we must do. She taught the Child Who was Christ; who is better able to teach us how to be Christlike? She served the Child Who was Christ; who is better able to teach us how to serve Christ? That is how we are like Mary: we are all called to serve Christ and Mary can teach us best of all because that was her vocation.
Mary's Vocation It begins with the most ordinary things, because we serve Christ with our ordinary things. Now, this is an example of how she taught one child patience with sewing. Monica was learning to sew, and like all little girls with grand ideas about elaborate wardrobes, before ever the scissors cut the cloth her enthusiasm was two jumps ahead of her fingers. Anyone with half an eye could see that she was headed for trouble.
"Darned old basting — why do I have to baste! Darned old machine — always goes crooked!"
"Well, you will have to baste if you want the skirt to be any good. It isn't the darned old basting that's the trouble, or the darned old machine, it's the darned old impatience. But Our Lady can help you with that. She was very patient. She had a loom and on it she wove a garment for her grown Son, without a single seam. It must have taken her a long time and she must have been very patient. First, ask her to help you be patient, and then take one stitch at a time, every stitch with love. She will help you, and it will be a lovelier skirt because she helped you make it."
It went along with stops and starts and much biting of the tongue. And finally it was done.
"The long hem was hard to do, and I almost got mad again. The thread broke and I had to rethread a hundred million times. But I did ask her. And I tried to be patient like she was. And she did help me get it done. I know — because if she hadn't I'd never have got it done."
Someone is sure to say, "Don't tell me once is enough, and a child has learned patience!" And they are so right. Next time we will probably start all over again with "Darned old basting!" But if we do, we'll start all over again with Mary, and things may go on like that for quite a while. But I know (because I've seen it happen before) that one day it will start with: "Now I'm not going to groan about the basting because Our Lady has got me used to it." And I for one shan't be the least bit surprised.
No one can claim to know exactly how she works in the minds and hearts and wills of children, but even the children will tell you that she does. Monica says, "It's the times you forget to ask her that you don't like doing things. And sometimes even when you do, you don't exactly like it — but she helps you get it done and afterwards you're glad. Only you need to be reminded."
So if we would have our children be formed by Mary, we must be forever reminding: "Please, will you watch the baby while Mother gets the supper? Ask Our Lady to help. She was so gentle with her Baby and she'll help you with ours."
"Please, will you gather some kindling? It won't take a minute and Our Lady will help you. You can tell her you'll do it for her — the way her Boy did."
Our Lady can teach children courage; they love to discover she was brave. She knew the Prophecies about the Messias and she knew that they meant terrible suffering. If the details of the suffering were still hidden the horror was not. Hadn't she heard over and over, in the Psalms, "I am a worm, not a man; the scorn of men, despised by the people...." And here was Gabriel asking her to be God's Mother, make all this horror come true by bearing the Son of God. It took courage as well as love for Mary to say Yes.
We told our children about Mary's courage when they had to have booster shots for measles. They had twenty-four hours to pray very hard, and ask her to help them be brave. Being afraid was the worst part, not the short minute it would really hurt. It wouldn't hurt today and tomorrow, or riding to town in the car, or sitting in the waiting room, or even standing around in the doctor's office. Our Lady could manage both the fears and the pains if they would only ask her. So we had intense prayer for twenty-four hours, and staggering success at the doctor's. No fuss, no muss, no noise — except maybe a couple of short yelps for about thirty seconds. And more than anyone else, the doctor was impressed.
"My goodness," she said, patting the last boy. "You're very brave."
"All on account of Our Lady."
I do not recommend this on the strength of one test run. It works every time, if they really pray. The latest success reported was from a friend down the road whose little girl, scheduled for a tonsillectomy, was terrified of the thought of the hospital. Her mother, describing it afterwards, said, "It was amazing — you never saw such calm."
This is not just a form of religious child psychology. It is the means to a grace needed at a particular moment. It may be put in a very simple way, but it is still the teaching of the Church on Mary, the Mediatrix of all Grace. When children have faith and ask for grace, it will always come through Mary. Even when we are clumsy with grace, and have to struggle to co-operate with it, when it's mothers trying to keep their tempers, or children trying to behave, turning again and again to Mary is the only way to progress.
"What I don't get, though, is why it's so easy to be bad, and so awful hard to be good." And Jamie sighs, as St. Paul must have sighed when he wrote in a letter about the good he would do, and did not, and the evil he would not do, and did.
"But that's not hard to understand when you remember the devil, and how he is always pushing and shoving. He's smart. He knows our weaknesses. But you can play a trick on him if you remember to call on Mary. Remember in the story of Adam and Eve when God promised to make her his enemy? He said she would lie in wait for him and one day crush him under her heel. He hates her because he knows he can't touch her, and when you call to her, 'Mary — help me!' he has a regular fit."
We mustn't let them get the idea that because we describe her as gentle and loving, Mary is not a tower of strength. To the devil she is as terrible as an army in battle array. What does it matter how, in their enthusiasm, they imagine her battle technique?
"She'll do this," and Jamie crushes a serpent with a horrible squish.
"And she'll do this," and John pierces a shrieking devil with the razor edge of a lance. Boys need to love her with virility and if there is violence in the way they act out Mary vanquishing the devil, it's nothing compared to the way it will be with the real thing. That's going to be spectacular.
Mary's Purity Imitating Mary's purity is sometimes hard for children to understand unless we explain it to them in terms of her faithfulness to her vocation. She was very different from us, conceived without original sin and with never the desire to sin in the littlest way. We cannot be like that. We are born marked by original sin; even when it is washed away in Baptism, there is a scar left and a weakness. We carry it till we die, and are always in danger of sin. But we can ask her to help us love purity. It is easier to be pure when you love purity than when "pure" is something you're supposed to be. And this is the only really helpful way to answer an older child's discovery, "But Our Lady was never tempted to be impure."
And for parents, it is important to remember that Mary's purity had no ignorance about it. She was fourteen or fifteen, but she knew about babies, how they are conceived and born. When Gabriel waited for her to say Yes, she would bear God's Baby, first she asked him, "How shall this be, since I know not man?" A wholesome knowledge of sex suited to a child's age and curiosity and need is not an obstacle to purity but rather safeguards it.
We can teach our littlest children to pray to her about purity in their earliest prayers, and we can teach our older children, when they are old enough to understand, that one day it may present difficulties, to pray, "Please, Blessed Mother, help me to love purity."
And then for girls there are all the special Mary-virtues that have to do with being ladylike. I often wonder if the word lady-like had its beginning in the imitation of Our Lady. If it did, it has long since lost this meaning. Now it means proper and well-mannered and a lot of things nice girls do, not for the sake of pleasing God — which is why Our Lady did them — but usually to impress the company.
It is bound to strike twentieth-century youngsters (although few of them come right out and say it) as a little preposterous that they imitate Mary in their dress. Or their hair-do's, or, for that matter, almost anything else they do. The reason is that, as soon as you suggest it, they have a mental picture of all the Marys on the holy cards, or the statues, or perhaps even the Mary at Nazareth, dressed far different from them, in a society far different from theirs. To expect them to act or dress like that is asking the impossible. But Mary-likeness has little to do with externals first. It will affect the externals after they have formed an understanding of her interior disposition. If they understand something of her humility and are encouraged to pray that she will form them in the same humility, then they can learn to reason out Mary-likeness in terms of dress and actions.
She was the most sublime creature God ever made, and — what is more — she knew it. She said, "My soul magnifies the Lord," which would sound to us like startling presumption if she hadn't explained ". . . because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid . . . because He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name."
Mary's Modesty It was because she knew that God had formed all the beauty of her that it did not upset her holiness; and she can teach our daughters this same humility about their pretty faces and their trim figures. To ask young girls to be Mary-like in their use of them, to dress modestly and bear themselves in a manner which will stir up trouble in no one; to ask young boys to put a watch not only over their actions but their thoughts about themselves and others, these things are incredibly difficult in a world where the measure for attractiveness is sex appeal. But we can help our children while they are still very young to learn how to think about themselves (one is forever thinking about himself — in either the right or the wrong way) by showing them Mary's graciousness with her own splendors. Whether we are correcting our young daughters about sitting with legs astraddle or spending too much time in front of mirrors, or our older ones about the demerits of peek-a-boo blouses or strapless evening dresses, the point is never made by saying: "Our Lady would not do that." As a matter of fact, the point is never made at any one time, but over a long period of time with many reminders and much prayer. One of the easiest and most natural ways to discuss this question is when the family is leisurely saying the Rosary together and it is someone's turn to explain the Visitation (which was the occasion of Mary's Magnificat), before saying that decade. Another opportunity follows upon jubilant reports of compliments: "She said my dress was sweet and I look pretty!" With our little boys, we have had opportunities when, looking through a copy of Life or home from watching the neighbors' television, one or the other has said, "There was a lady in the picture that was almost all bare!" Then a mother or father, without seeming to preach, can pick up the thread and develop it nicely, and end it quite casually with something like, "Let's remember to ask Our Lady tonight to help us remember always that God made our bodies to give honor and glory to Him — not to make us vain or tempt us to sin."
Mary Our Mother Very little children love being left with Our Lady, and many times when I have had to run up to the mailbox or down to the barn and have forgotten to do it, they will run after me shouting, "You didn't leave us with Our Lady." To be honest, they do not always please her when they are left with her, but they almost always try — and that is better than not trying. They will never learn to please her if they are not reminded to try.
Although I expect some people will think I am making this up, Mary gives children lots of ideas about things to do. "Why don't you kneel down and ask Our Lady? She will put a good idea in your head about what to do." And she will keep them company. "I can't go see your mud pies right now, Stephen. I'm mixing dough. Ask Our Lady — she loves to see mud pies. Her Boy made the best mud pies in the whole world." And if you want them to think of her often as "my Mother," try this some time:
"Your mother is the most beautiful, the most wise, the most wonderful mother in the whole world." Our children looked so startled. They suspect that I am wise (some still look for the eyes in the back of my head), and most of the time, I hope, think am wonderful, but Christopher and Philip are the only two innocent enough to still think that I am beautiful. Then it dawned on somebody. "She means Our Lady!"
They think she's wonderful for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest is because of the bicycles. For three years our oldest children sighed for bicycles, praying quite regularly. One night when we were deciding what to think about before going to sleep, I suggested visiting her at her house and asking about the bicycles.
"But I always ask her, and she never sends one."
"She will when the time is right. You have to keep on asking."
The next day without any warning a friend drove up with a bicycle. Jamie nearly fainted. And expecting that if she did answer all the prayers it would be entirely miraculous (like winning a thousand dollars in a contest), he was impressed to see how reasonably and economically she had done it. She had found an old one.
"But I asked for a bike," Monica said, "and she didn't send one to me."
Jamie said, "You have to be patient. She will, when the time is right."
The time was right the following week. The same friend who brought the first bike had a sister with an old second bike; so you can imagine how it is around here when someone gets started telling about Our Lady and the bicycles.
Activity Source: We and Our Children by Mary Reed Newland, Image Books, 1961