As a fallen-away Protestant, I’ve found it difficult to develop an authentic relationship with the Virgin Mary. On the one hand, warned by the preachers of my youth, I’m leery of sentimentalism or excessive Marian piety that borders on idolatry and magic. Surely God alone deserves our worship and answers our prayers! And yet, spiritual mentors for whom I have the greatest respect—including no less than Blessed John Paul II—unabashedly proclaim their total devotion to the Mother of God.
When Mary’s Life in the Spirit came into my hands, then, I hoped this new book might provide some of the keys I needed to navigate this promising but perilous territory. I was not disappointed. Here is ample material for every Christian, whether approaching authentic Marian piety for the first time or comfortably steeped in lifelong fidelity to the Blessed Virgin.
Using both breathtaking images and examples from ordinary life, Fr. George Montague points a way to fruitful meditation through the incidents of Mary’s earthly life, as well as her ongoing mission from heaven. For example, there’s no danger of idolatry when I look into Mary’s eyes and see what she gazes on: her beloved son. Or when I meditate on the way our Lord, in turn, may have found strength to continue along the way of the cross by looking into his mother’s eyes.
Songs of the Spirit. Though written by an accomplished Scripture scholar, Mary’s Life in the Spirit is not academic but rather a work of meditative art. It attempts to do in prose what painters, playwrights, and film directors have done with scenes from the Bible—namely, fill them in and bring them to life. Fr. Montague does this through inspired imagining centered on Mary’s relationship with the Holy Spirit. This approach gives the book its special character of Meditations on a Holy Duet:
In the depth of the Trinity, there is . . . a duet, Father and Son singing their mutual love, so perfect that the song itself is the Person of the Holy Spirit. . . . By their own free and loving choice, their song goes out and touches a human ear. The song came first to the ear, then to the heart of a teenage girl in an obscure village called Nazareth. Would she not only hear the song but also learn it? Would she hear its invitation to be its mouthpiece, its yes from the yes of the Trinity? “Fiat, let it be,” Mary said. And through the Holy Spirit, her life became the Trinitarian duet in human tones. . . .
A duet, where the singers lead and respond to each other, is a wonderful metaphor for Mary’s relationship with the Spirit, but also for our own spiritual life. The Spirit enlivens our humanity and trains us to sing our unique song in harmony with the divine Lover.
Help for the Journey. Mary’s words in Scripture are few, her silent ponderings frequent. We see her in the Temple seeking a lost child, at home in Nazareth, at a wedding, in a relative’s house, at the foot of the cross, and in an upper room. But as Fr. Montague shows, these few incidents— seen from the perspective of Mary’s unique relationship with the Holy Spirit—offer plenty of scope for prayerful imagining. Often as I read, his reflections shed new light on these familiar passages. Imagine, for example, the words that sound so harsh on Jesus’ lips being spoken by Mary: “Don’t waste time wishing you were his blood relative! Whoever follows Jesus can become his mother and brother and sister.”
Different scenes resonate with us at different moments. When the road ahead is uncertain, we may join Mary in the flight to Egypt, letting “the Holy Spirit hover over our unanswered questions”—these are not diversions but “signposts of the authentic route, since they prod us to trust.” When we have lost a loved one, we find ourselves at the foot of the cross with Mary, cradling Jesus’ lifeless body. A gifted storyteller, Fr. Montague illustrates such reflections with many down-to-earth examples from people he has met. There is the couple who hopes to conceive a child but feels unworthy of God’s intervention; the woman who says that praising God helps her overcome chronic bouts of depression; the exhausted parish worker who finds renewed strength by looking “into Mary’s eyes.” He shares his own experiences, too, including a colorful account of sleeping in a chicken coop when a guesthouse in Nepal had no more room.
Another practical help: Each chapter of Mary’s Life in the Spirit closes with a prayer and reflection questions. These challenge me not to remain aloof but to find the parallels with my own life.
Behold Your Mother. But what about the aspects of Mary’s life that are part of divine revelation, but are not specifically portrayed in the Bible? For converts like myself, these can be challenging to accept. Because I trust the church, I believe that Mary was conceived without sin and assumed into heaven. And yet, sometimes I have found those beliefs cumbersome.
Mary’s Life in the Spirit sheds light on these doctrines, too. Regarding the Immaculate Conception, Fr. Montague explains that God chose Mary to be the “mold” for Jesus’ humanity. As in metallurgy, where “any imperfection in the mold for a gold medal will show up in the finished product,” a perfect model was needed. For this reason, “Mary’s flesh was sinless, made so by the One to be born of her.”
I also appreciated Fr. Montague’s reflections on the “split screen” role which Mary now plays because of the Assumption: “Mary in glory embodies the church in glory but also the church’s concern for those still struggling with Satan on earth.” And so, glorified with the church triumphant, she weeps with and comforts the suffering church through her work as intercessor, messenger, evangelizer, and spiritual companion.
For all this, thank you, Fr. Montague! Perhaps now I am closer to being ready to welcome Mary as my spiritual companion.
Jill Boughton, author of several books and numerous articles, has taught philosophy and Scripture at the University of Notre Dame.
Mary’s Life in the Spirit: Meditations on a Holy Duet, George T. Montague, SM (softcover, 128 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-775-9673 or online at www.wau.org. If you’d like to read an excerpt, please click here.