Mary and Prayer

Part III of a Marian Triptych

Mary is not a conceptual counterpoint to Christ, imagined and projected into the Gospels as a kind of semidivine goddess who was made manifest, as it were, in preparation for the coming of the Savior of mankind: a kind of “power of woman” to obtain what she wants. Even if, then, in the way of human frailty, Mary bears the imagined possibilities of a woman out of time, before her time, independent of time, it is necessary to consider what has made possible the unprecedented growth of Christianity’s relationship to Mary, Mother of the Lord: “it is admitted that the praises of Mary grow with the growth of the Christian community, we may conclude in brief that the veneration of and devotion to Mary began even in the time of the Apostles.” In addition, given the general sense of inequality between men and women, evidenced in men marrying more than one woman, men’s recourse to divorce (Mt 19:3, 7–9), and the woman’s burden of blame for sin (cf. Gn 3:12; Jn 8:3–5), it follows that there is a work of God in the slow, steady and stable disclosure of the greatness of His gift of Mary in the history of salvation and the life of mankind. Given, furthermore, the human tendency to go to a person who will positively influence our request, just as a child goes to his mother, it follows that if grace builds on nature then it is “supernaturally natural” to turn to the maternal help of the Mother of God, Mother of the Church, and our Mother.

Thoughts on Mary and prayer, then, could easily begin with specific Marian prayers, like the Rosary, but the problem with that is Marian prayer will look like an additional type of prayer to the prayer of the Church; but if, more globally, the point of departure is the relationship between Mary and the Church, then it follows that the relationship between Mary and Prayer are as intimately ordered to one another as breathing is to the body. In the third and final piece of this triptych on Mary it is necessary to consider the following: The Emergence of Mary (I); Mary and the Prayer of the Church (II); and Marian Prayer and the Covenant (III).

The Emergence of Mary (I)

“Throughout the Old Covenant the mission of many holy women prepared for that of Mary.” Mary is referred to in the opening of St. Matthew’s Gospel with the brief words: “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt 1:16). At the same time, however, there is no doubt that the identity of Christ required an explicit and detailed witness to bring out the mysterious nature of the Incarnation, the Eternal Word taking on the wordless, embryonic flesh, from the flesh of Mary: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14); and, therefore, the infancy narratives in St. Luke’s Gospel, complemented by the early parts of St. Matthew’s Gospel, are almost wholly directed to communicating the unique nature of Christ’s conception and the revelation of Mary’s exceptional expression of God’s preparation for her active acceptance of being “the handmaid of the Lord” (Lk 1:38).

Early Christian Tradition, however, has both recognized Mary as being prophetically anticipated (cf. Gn 3:15, 20) and conceived through the spousal love of Anna and Joachim; and, indeed, it is held that Mary was the fruit of their “fervent prayers,” for a child . Elizabeth, through the impulse of the Holy Spirit, at once identifies Mary as the “mother of . . . [the] Lord” (Lk 1:43), to which Mary exclaims emphatically: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1:46–47). In other words, Mary prophetically announces and fulfills her vocation in giving witness to God “who is mighty [and] has done great things for me” (Lk 1:49); and, in that sense, identifies the vocation of the Church as recognizing, proclaiming, and praising the works of God.

Mary, it is clear, is coming into increasing prominence not least of which is due to the doctrinal clarifications that she was conceived without original sin, assumed body and soul into heaven, and that she expresses, in a unique way, the “personal subject” of salvation who is “reconceived” in Christ and, therefore, reconceived in the relationship between Christ and His Church. Mary “is hailed as preeminent and as a wholly unique member of the Church, and as its type and outstanding model in faith and charity” (Lumen Gentium, 53). Just, then, as Mary is “pondering . . . [all these things] in her heart,” (Lk 2:19), so does the Church and, therefore, each one of us participate in the vocation to ponder the works and words of God (cf. Dei Verbum, 2). Thus there is a kind of natural origin to the prayer of the Gospels emerging, as it were, out of pondering a variety of moments in the life of Christ: “She withstood [the poverty of the manger . . . the loss of Jesus as a boy in Jerusalem . . . and finally the death on the Cross of her beloved Son] . . . through faith and hope, meditating in her heart the joyful and painful mysteries of the history of salvation.” In other words, what is expressed exteriorly as the Marian prayer of the Rosary is a kind of outward expression of the interiority of the events which Mary pondered in the life of her Son, Jesus Christ. In the development of this prayer, perhaps we can speak of a Marian inspiration in the Church taking further the moments that illuminate the Christian life in the Mysteries of Light (cf. St. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, no. 3); indeed, even though “in these mysteries, apart from the miracle at Cana, the presence of Mary remains in the background” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 21), perhaps we can see an image of the “humility of Mary and the Church” in her proclamation of the Christian mysteries.

Mary and the Prayer of the Church (II)

There are some who think that the centrality of the Liturgy, rightly stressed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, necessarily entails giving lesser importance to the Rosary. Yet, as Pope Paul VI made clear, not only does this prayer not conflict with the Liturgy, it sustains it, since it serves as an excellent introduction and a faithful echo of the Liturgy, enabling people to participate fully and interiorly in it and to reap its fruits in their daily lives. (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 4)

But if Mary is the “type” of the Church, when the Church prays it is praying the prayer of Mary; and, therefore, Marian prayer “brings out,” as it were, the nature of human prayer prayed in the Holy Spirit. On the one hand, the existence and action of the Holy Spirit in the nature and life of the Church is “compared by the Fathers to the function that the principle of life, the soul, fufills in the human body” (Lumen Gentium, 7). Thus Mary, who is the “type” of the Church is, as it were, praying the prayer of the Holy Spirit; indeed, the Church herself says of Mary that she is “the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church” (CCC 2679). On the other hand, the woman, Mary, is in the midst of human relationships in the way that the Church is both immersed in human reality and distinct from it: the Church is both “the visible society and the spiritual community. . . . [and forms] one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element” (Lumen Gentium, 8). Thus Mary, in all the ways that the Church is immersed in the human, social, and ecological reality of salvation history receives, takes up and prays the prayer of the Christian Church in her dialogue with Christ: “When the wine failed [at the marriage feast of Cana], the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine’” (Jn 2:3). Thus Mary first turns to Christ and then to us, saying, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). Thus St. John Paul II comments: “The revelation made directly by the Father at the Baptism in the Jordan and echoed by John the Baptist is placed upon Mary’s lips at Cana, and it becomes the great maternal counsel which Mary addresses to the Church of every age: ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (Jn 2:5)” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 21).

Marian Prayer and the Covenant: The Conversation of Conversion (III)

When pondering, then, the relationship of Mary and prayer, it is not so much that there is Marian prayer; rather, it is as if all prayer is Marian in that all prayer expresses the relationship of creature to Creator. Thus the following question arises. If Christ is true man and true God — is the prayer of Christ “Marian prayer”? If Christ is true God, then His prayer is the prayer of the Holy Spirit; but, if Christ is true man, then His prayer is the prayer of the Holy Spirit. But there is, too, an ontological dialogue, as it were, which founds the relationship between the humanity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother Mary: “Womanhood and manhood are complementary not only from the physical and psychological points of view, but also from the ontological.” Thus the question arises: What is the ontological complementarity that is both naturally founded and, therefore, a work of God — the spiritual fruit of which is expressed in the dynamic relationship between Christ and His Church? On the one hand, there is the eternal Word of God who is “made flesh” — making “flesh” the word of God through a kind of “incarnation” in the life of Christian men and women; and, on the other hand, Mary is the woman of faith: the one in whom the Word of God took flesh and the word of God found a fruitful home. Mary, therefore, “‘precedes’ everyone on the path to holiness; in her person ‘the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle (cf. Eph 5:27)’. In this sense, one can say that the Church is both ‘Marian’ and ‘Apostolic-Petrine’.” In other words, from a variety of intersecting states, vocations, and gifts of God, Mary transpires to be in the heart of the redeemed creation; and, therefore, in the reality of human relationships, it is possible that being a “man” entails learning to appreciate “woman” in the “school of Mary.”

Prayer, in that it is a relationship between the “Persons” of the Blessed Trinity, is an expression of the “relational” nature of God; indeed, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The heart . . . is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant” (CCC 2563). Thus Mary, placed as she is by God Himself in the midst of the Blessed Trinity, is in the midst of this divine and human dialogue: “The angel announced to . . . [Mary] not just the incarnation but fundamentally the entire mystery of the Trinity”; and, if Mary is in the midst of this dialogue, then we too are taken into the heart of this encounter: this place of meeting in which all human loves and concerns are brought into the conversation of conversion with the living God. In obedience to God, then, “Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings”; and, at the same time in doing so, she is preeminently placed to wish “the messianic power of her Son to be manifested, that salvific power of his which is meant to help man in his misfortunes, to free him from the evil which in various forms and degrees weighs heavily upon his life.”

The Covenant and Prayer

“Baptism is prefigured in the crossing of the Jordan River by which the people of God received the gift of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, an image of eternal life” (CCC 1222); and, furthermore, “The promise of this blessed inheritance is fulfilled in the New Covenant” (CCC 1222). On the one hand, “Prayer is lived in the first place beginning with the realities of creation” (CCC 2569); and, on the other hand, “In his indefectible covenant with every living creature, God has always called people to prayer” (CCC 2569).

The “New Covenant,” then, is instituted by Christ and, as it were, together with the disciples, constitutes the Church (cf. Lk 22:20) in a “Eucharistic attitude”: “When Mary exclaims: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,’ she already bears Jesus in her womb. She praises God ‘through’ Jesus, but she also praises him ‘in’ Jesus and ‘with’ Jesus” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 58). Thus Christ fulfills the interpersonal gift that God gives, from the beginning, to make it possible for us to exist in a saving relationship to Him; and, therefore, from creation to the first rainbow covenant with Noah and “the earth” (Gn 9:13), through the covenant of the circumcision of Abraham and his people (cf. Gn 17), to the covenant of the heart (cf. Heb 10:16) and the coming of Christ: the covenant expresses and enacts the saving relationship of God with His people. Baptism, then, enters us into the New Covenant: “From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes: ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13)” (CCC 1267). Thus: “In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit” (CCC 2565).

The Experience of Prayer “Beads”

In what follows there will be a brief selection of experiences with reference to prayer, spanning not much short of sixty years and many different periods and phases of life. These moments are not so much about how “efficacious” they were as that they reflect specific times that “prayer” almost sprang into existence, then subsided, before returning to the Church reestablished the regular habit of prayer; and, as prayer has become like the Christian breathing it is, prayer has not only developed and become, incredibly, almost constant — but that it also takes up more and more of the nature of daily life until life and prayer seem to run into and from one another.

As an adolescent on a farm, then, driving a tractor in the fields and out of earshot, I can remember singing the praise of God with all the energy of youth; and, therefore, even without knowing it there arose in me the “Eucharistic attitude”: an attitude that seemed to spring from nowhere. On reflection, however, maybe this “Eucharistic attitude” sprang from the roots of baptism, however overgrown or diseased it was; and, even if many years were to pass before I remember praying again, there remains a delight in the beauty of nature which is often the start from which a spirit of praise takes a beginning.
I was once lost, being in my twenties and having just visited a monastery in Northern Ireland in which I experienced a kind of intimation that my life would involve service at “the kitchen sink”; and, although I do not remember distinctly, there was a sense of “being told” the name of a pub to ask for as I was hitchhiking away without really knowing where I was going. When I arrived at this pub there were very few people there and the barman invited me to wait and see what would happen. As the evening wore on a group came in, one of whom I recognized as having waited on in a hotel where I had once worked, briefly, and he and his wife gave me accommodation for the night. Even if, however, I was rebellious or incredulous at the time it is nevertheless true that family life is deeply rooted in the vocation to practical service and, although many years later, it is clear that prayer, service, and humility are inseparable in both marriage and parenthood. While driving all over the country as a portacabin repair man I remember praying and, as the horizon came into view, almost hearing the words of the Gospel: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:36). In my late twenties, then, I abandoned both the life of a journeyman and set off for spiritual direction. One outcome of these visits to a monk in London was the possibility of entering a religious order in Scotland; however, I rebelled against this hitchhiked back to the abbey from which I had set off. Although I set off in the early evening, from a relatively isolated place with little prospect of a quick journey, the time it took for me to travel from a remote place in Scotland to the monastery in London was “as long as it took me to say a rosary.” None of this was immediately fruitful in terms of “coming to my senses” (cf. Lk 15:17) and knowing what my life was about; but, nevertheless, these moments were distinct “beads” in my relationship to prayer.

Prayer, Conversion, and the Help of the Holy Family

Prayer as I prayed it, however, was intermittent and rooted in the situations of life which, as real as they were, were a part of what was, really, a faithless Christian life; and, at forty, exhausting many attempts to marry, the paining loss of a child to abortion, the ongoing inability to find a vocation, to recognize and fulfill my human talents, I was again turning over the possibility of suicide in front of the reality of being a sinner. Into this abysmal moment came the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and, immeasurably more personally significant for me, I believed them: “Since God could create everything out of nothing, he can also, through the Holy Spirit, give spiritual life to sinners by creating a pure heart in them” (CCC 298). Turning to God in a new way brought me to recognize my vocation to marry and to be open to life; and, ten children later, two of whom are in heaven, the whole gift of being open to life is an expression of the gift of believing in the God who helps.

In the beginning of married life, rooted as it was in the vocation to draw on the whole Christian life, one of the first mysteries of the Rosary to attract my heart was the marriage feast of Cana, in which Christ turns water into wine: our sufferings into joys; and, as the prayer continued to be prayed over the years and in every situation of marriage and family life, so each of the Christian mysteries began to attract, as it was, intentions and experiences that continue to grow. I remember one simple Hail Mary while all ten of us were on pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families in Milan. We had left the main group and gone for a walk and, after one of our children had accidentally flung one of her trainer’s into a lake and we were unable to retrieve it, we discovered the main group had gone and, after going in search of a bus back to our host accommodation, that we were also lost. Standing in a bus shelter, aware of an ant’s nest and the pushing and shoving of tired children, we prayed one Hail Mary. At the end of this prayer an Italian drove up who recognized us from the meeting earlier that day but who spoke no English; he got out of his car and spoke to the driver of a bus that had stopped, who then let all ten of us on the bus, free of charge, and took us to the bus station. The Italian followed the bus and made sure that when we arrived at the bus station that we got on the right bus back to our accommodation! Guardian angels obviously do not need to speak English! At the same time, even working in the home on domestic tasks, such as hanging a towel rail for any number of towels and finding that no matter what I do it falls off, a prayer to St. Joseph finds an answer in the use of flower pot–hanging basket brackets being adapted for a pipe-type shelf which slots into the curls of the flower-pot brackets; and, what is helpful, the whole towel rail system has stayed on the wall since it was done although, now, it is looking a bit bent from being used, probably, as some kind of exercise bar!

Thus there is a growing realization that the prayer that arises out of our lives, real as it is, needs to be rooted in the reality of conversion and the turning to God that this entails; and, by implication, conversion enters more and more centrally into the relationship of God to man becoming, almost, the central axis of life through which all else turns. This is not to diminish the reality of our “moments” of prayer; but, rather, looking at prayer in the light of the history of salvation, it is an essential part of this history that we pray: because prayer takes us into the relationship with “the living God who wants men to live” (CCC 2575). The prayer that develops, then, with all its facets, family crises, the needs of others, social concerns, and practical needs, is more like a growing presence of the Holy Family and their involvement in our daily life. Just as prayer draws on the history of salvation, so it invites us, as it were, to share in the process of pondering that history; and, at the same time, these iconic prayer beads become, as we pray, like living illuminations of the kaleidoscopic moments in both the prayer of the Holy Family and our own family life.1

  1. This is the third part in a series, the prior two being: “Mary Is the Choice of God: Part I of a Marian Triptych” and “Our Hope in Mary: Part II of a Marian Triptych” in HPR, May 2019.
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020), Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), Unfolding a Post-Roe World (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), Human Nature: Moral Norm, Lord, Do You Mean Me? A Father-Catechist! (2023), A Word in your Heart: Youth, Mental Health, and the Word of God (2023), and An Unlikely Gardener: Prose and Poems.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.