May: The Month of Mary
I must confess that even though I have been a practicing Catholic all my life, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary has never come easily to me. Growing up our family always practiced devotion to Mary in various ways. We would daily pray five decades of the rosary, wear the Brown Scapular, pray three Hail Marys when we saw an ambulance and when we saw something indecent, we would avert our eyes and pray "Virgin most pure, pray for us." We read and talked about Our Lady as a family member in our midst, and turned to her as our mother. The younger children would recognize images of her and blow kisses to "Mama Mary." May, of course, was a special month with crownings of Mary both at home and at school and singing special Marian hymns. I continue these acts of piety with my own children.
Even with all those daily practices, my devotion to Mary doesn't come instinctively. I read the lives of saints such as John Paul II and Louis de Montfort and Maximilian Kolbe and see how I fall short in my love for Our Lady. My thoughts do not spontaneously turn to Mary like these saints. I am usually at a loss with loving thoughts and words. I tend to be more pragmatic and deliberate in focusing my thoughts and requests to her.
But Our Blessed Mother does not disappoint her children and after much perseverance I have found my relationship with Mary is slowly coming naturally from the heart and less calculated. As I work through my daily struggles in living my vocation as wife and mother, I can finally identify with Mary in her vocation. Never did I feel so close to Our Blessed Mother than carrying a child myself and experiencing the hardships of my pregnancies and deliveries. This past year when I was surprised by major heart problems requiring open heart surgery on her feast day, December 12, I was comforted to know Our Lady was interceding for our family, and kept us close under her mantle through the whole ordeal.
Turning Our Thoughts To Mary in May
It is during May that we examine our family's devotion to the Blessed Mother. Jesus gave us His mother from the Cross ("Woman, behold your son, Son behold your mother."), and we know that she brings all our cares and worries directly to her Son (think of her words at the Wedding Feast at Cana "Do whatever He tells you"). We are trying to have our children be familiar with the Blessed Virgin Mary, to help them recognize and turn to Mary as their Heavenly Mother, who fulfills the role of mother perfectly, unlike this flawed earthly mother. Our acts of piety are to help develop interior devotion and spiritual growth. If the acts become merely external gestures and not fostering a deeper personal love, then they need to be reexamined.
The month of May is traditionally dedicated to honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary. This tradition informally began in the Middle Ages to counteract secular customs that were arising during that time. A more structured dedication began to develop in the 18th century and was fully established by the end of the 19th century. This is a paraliturgical devotion, as the liturgy during the month does not reflect Marian cultus. The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy from 2002 from the Congregation of Divine Worship provides wonderful guidance on personal devotion and popular piety above all emphasizing that
[t]he faithful should be made conscious of the preeminence of the Liturgy over any other possible form of legitimate Christian prayer. While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional. Such is clearly proven by the Church's precept which obliges attendance at Sunday Mass. No such obligation, however, has obtained with regard to pious exercises, notwithstanding their worthiness or their widespread diffusion.
Venerating Mary with Primacy of Liturgy
Continuing to follow the guidance in Directory of Popular Piety, Chapter Five is dedicated to Veneration of the Mother of God. The beginning of the chapter explains how natural it is to have veneration to Mary and again stressing the importance of balancing liturgy with piety:
Indeed, "the faithful easily understand the vital link uniting Son and Mother. They realise that the Son is God and that she, the Mother, is also their mother. They intuit the immaculate holiness of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in venerating her as the glorious queen of Heaven, they are absolutely certain that she who is full of mercy intercedes for them. Hence, they confidently have recourse to her patronage. The poorest of the poor feel especially close to her. They know that she, like them, was poor, and greatly suffered in meekness and patience. They can identify with her suffering at the crucifixion and death of her Son, as well as rejoice with her in his resurrection. The faithful joyfully celebrate her feasts, make pilgrimage to her sanctuary, sing hymns in her honour, and make votive offerings to her. They instinctively distrust whoever does not honour her and will not tolerate those who dishonour her"208.
The Church exhorts all the faithful — sacred minister, religious and laity — to develop a personal and community devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary through the use of approved and recommended pious exercises209. Liturgical worship, notwithstanding its objective and irreplaceable importance, its exemplary efficacy and normative character, does not in fact exhaust all the expressive possibilities of the People of God for devotion to the Holy Mother of God210.
184. The relationship between the Liturgy and popular Marian piety should be regulated by the principles and norms already mentioned in this document211. In relation to Marian devotion, the Liturgy must be the "exemplary form"212, source of inspiration, constant reference point and ultimate goal of Marian devotion.
The chapter continues with descriptions of various forms of popular piety, including a section on "Marian Months." It points out that the liturgy does not reflect Marian dedication of May or October, but rather than wiping out the traditions altogether
...the solution for such problems would seem to lay in harmonizing the content of the "Marian months" with the concomitant season of the Liturgical Year. For example, since the month of May largely corresponds with the fifty days of Easter, the pious exercises practised at this time could emphasize Our Lady's participation in the Paschal mystery (cf. John 19, 25-27), and the Pentecost event (cf, Acts 1, 14) with which the Church begins: Our Lady journeys with the Church having shared in the novum of the Resurrection, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The fifty days are also a time for the celebration of the sacraments of Christian initiation and of the mystagogy. The pious exercises connected with the month of May could easily highlight the earthly role played by the glorified Queen of Heaven, here and now, in the celebration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist225.
The directives of Sacrosanctum Concilium on the need to orient the "minds of the faithful...firstly to the feasts of the Lord, in which, the mysteries of salvation are celebrated during the year"226, and with which the Blessed Virgin Mary is certainly associated, should be closely followed.
Opportune catechesis should remind the faithful that the weekly Sunday memorial of the Paschal Mystery is "the primordial feast day". Bearing in mind that the four weeks of Advent are an example of a Marian time that has been incorporated harmoniously into the Liturgical Year, the faithful should be assisted in coming to a full appreciation of the numerous references to the Mother of our Saviour during this particular period.
I love the ideas of how to bring Mary into the focus of the Easter Season. Excuse me for including such long excerpts, but these quotes are important reminders of the balance and priority of the liturgy we must have in our personal prayer. The Church repeatedly reiterates the primacy of Sunday, but it seems we are slow learners! While this is the month of Mary, honoring her must weave into the celebration of the liturgical season.
Suggestions of Marian Devotions
The document continues with describing pious exercises that have been recommended by the Magisterium. This does not mean the practice is not recommended if not listed, but these are key practices that have more universal appeal and the stamp of "Magisterium approval".
- Celebration of the Word of God, imitating Mary when she pondered all these things in her heart.
- Praying the Angelus, (or Regina Coeli during the Easter season)
- Praying the Rosary
- Praying Litanies of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Total Consecration or Entrustment to Mary
- Wearing of the Brown Scapular and other Scapulars and Medals with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary
- Singing the "Akathistos" Hymn to the Most Holy Mother of God (the Theotokos)
Catholic Culture's Liturgical Year library contains many wonderful suggestions and glimpses of other family's practices. Maria Von Trapp describes Celebrating the Feasts of the Blessed Virgin. Mary Reed Newland describes Marian devotion in her family in Mary, the Mother of our Children and Mary Shrines and the Angelus. Father Weiser elaborates on Family Shrines.
Flowers and Gardens: One of the endearing gifts of little children is bringing flowers to their mother, and that spontaneous outpouring of love is easily expanded to bringing flowers to Mary. I have a little section in my china cabinet with all sorts of various small vases available for use by the family members. My sons love to pick flowers and place them in little vases for Mommy and their Blessed Mother. My sons love to learn to know the names of plants if they are named after Our Lady, such as Marigolds. A Mary Garden or as I suggested planting certain plants honoring our Lady are age-old ways to honor Mary, particularly through the month that bring flowers. ("March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers.")
May Crownings: And since it is the month that brings flowers, crownings of Mary in May are still a very honored pious tradition. Our homeschool group has our own May Crowning, but at home we crown our own little statue of Mary and place her on our prayer table through the month of May. The traditional hymn for the crowning is Bring Flowers of the Fairest.
Reading and Art: A wonderful book to read aloud to the family is The Kitchen Madonna by Rumer Godden, recently reprinted by Bethlehem Books. This book is a wonderful bridge to viewing beautiful art depictions of Our Lady and also creating one's own madonnas or shrines at home.
I mentioned above a few saints who had great Marian devotion. Reading lives of the saints who had a special love of Mary is one of the best ways to give inspiration to the children.
Little Interior Ways: Not everything has to be external acts of piety. My spiritual director encourages me to find little ways to keep honor Mary this month. Going to her helps us stay little in the eyes of God. She brings us to her Son. So it is this month that I really practice saying an aspiration asking for her help before I start any task or dealing with my children. One of my continued prayers is to ask for a split second to remember to turn to her before I talk to someone, particularly if it is a stressful situation. Seeing an image of Mary is another opportunity to send up a little prayer to her. As we unite our hearts and thoughts with Mary, she will direct them to Jesus. She will intercede for us.
The Rosary: Last but not least, the rosary is always the first prayer we think of when it is a special Marian feast of month. We use different devices to help the children focus on the mysteries, such as rosary pictures on display and coloring pages. Distractions come at all ages, so we are always looking for ways to motivate us in our prayer. The days we have extra time, we talk about the mystery, and encourage putting oneself in the scene. This is officially known as discursive meditation. It might be high Carmelite spirituality, but all the members of our family really benefit from the practice. Sometimes the boys think of themselves as a little mouse or spider who sees the whole scene. In that position they can "see" Our Lady's expressions and "hear" her voice at the Annunciation.
Of course, these are not the only ways to honor Our Lady this month. Trying to keep the liturgy as priority, we are trying hard to help our children learn to love their heavenly Mother. As parents we are revealing Jesus' gift of His Mother to us. Perhaps at first they will only go through some motions. Perhaps they will be like me and realize that a relationship with Mary doesn't come easily and will take a lifetime of work. But we are giving examples of perseverance so that their hearts will naturally turn to Mary throughout all the vicissitudes of life. And we are praying to Mary that she will watch all of us, her children, and bring us closer to Christ.
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