A conduit to God - Madonna Magazine

A conduit to God

Julian Butler SJ 14 February 2024

Somewhere there’s a photograph of my mum in hospital. It’s now lodged in my memory even if I can’t find the thing itself. In the photo mum’s holding me, a new-born baby – her new-born baby. Mum’s neck is turned to the camera and she’s smiling, in her eyes as much as on her mouth. It’s a smile of joy and wonder. It’s tinged with the exhaustion of a long labour. Her gaze has been on me, and it is a grace to have that image, secondary as it is to the event itself, in my imagination.

To know I was looked on that way. To recognise that sometimes, many years later, I still am.

Joseph was not holding a camera in Bethlehem, but one can imagine that Mary looked on Jesus in this way. Or I can, because I imagine Mary’s love for Jesus as analogous to my mother’s love for me. In my mum’s gaze I see something of the gaze of God. This is precious, to be treasured. It’s a thing of wonder that Mary, unremarkable girl from a provincial backwater could show the Son of God something of the nature of God.

When I think of Mary as mother, Mother of the Church, my Mother, I understand her best through my own mother. But this gives rise to a challenge. I have a mother, she’s good at being my mum. Why do I need Mary as mother also? Is it a betrayal of my mum to give Mary this status in my life, not just as an exemplar of discipleship but in some sense mother to me?

There’s a discomfort to asking that question. Some might say that’s because, as a cradle Catholic I have had devotion to Mary drummed into me. Maybe so. Certainly, some of my earliest memories were saying the Rosary with my grandparents. They would stop at noon and at six in the evening to say the Angelus. Especially this latter practice suggests something about devotion to Mary. It is important precisely because of the way such devotion points to the Incarnation, to her son, Jesus. As the Angelus declares: ‘And the Word was made flesh: And dwelt among us.’

I understand and find attractive the example of Mary as the one who says ‘yes’ to God. A world-changing ‘yes’. This is not an abstract ‘yes’, though. It is not an un-personified act, or a values statement. It is a ‘yes’ to a way of being by relating. A ‘yes’ to being a mother.

This reminds me that we live in relationships. There’s no ‘I’ without them. Few relationships are as significant as between a child and parents. We bear our parents biologically and if it is they who raise us, we bear much of their nurture, or at least their attempts at it. Mothers tend to play, though by no means always, an especially important role in the nurturing of children.

St Ignatius of Loyola had a strong sense that this nurturing role, and the bond between son and mother, meant that it would be hard for Jesus to refuse Mary anything.

Consequently, in the Spiritual Exercises, at key moments he suggests a ‘triple colloquy’. A colloquy, for St Ignatius, is a conversation and in this three-step conversation the person on retreat is usually encouraged to seek some particular grace. The end to a pattern of sinful behaviour or a confirmation of a vocation, for instance.

In a ‘triple colloquy’ the retreatant undertaking the Exercises asks first for the intercession of Mary, ‘that she may get me the grace from her Son and Lord’. The retreatant then turns to Jesus, in his humanity, and asks him to intercede to the Father, ‘that the Eternal Lord Himself may grant it to me.’ Finally, with the sense that Mary and Jesus accompany you, the retreatant converses with God the Father.

Mary is, then a powerful intercessor, precisely because of her relationship with Jesus, in his humanity and so, because he is the Incarnate One, in his divinity. Her human willingness to do God’s will means Mary provides a way for us to approach God, as an example and, if we allow her, as a companion.

Mary is always available as a companion for us in a life oriented towards God. For her, as for us, everything is relativised by relationship with Jesus.

In seeking to say ‘yes’ to God, the Christian seeks to live in the way of Jesus, the model of a fulfilled human life. There’s something that consoles me in understanding that his mother is my own. In seeking to follow him I can draw on his mum, who raised and nurtured him. That I too can seek her help.

This calling on Mary deepens my identification with Jesus. In doing so, it doesn’t replace my mum at all. Rather, as with everything and everyone, my deepening relationship with Jesus deepens my relationship with her.