Mary has a presence all her own. I didn’t always know that – I didn’t always know her. I remember distinctly the first time I really felt her near. I was on a silent retreat, the first I’d ever attended. It was a 3-day experience of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. During the Exercises, you spend a lot of time on your own, meditating on certain gospel passages, different images of God and your salvation history and relationship with Him. During these times we could wander freely through the verdant retreat grounds and quiet, dark chapels. And close to the one of the houses, overlooking a green space, was Mary. Her image quiet and white in stone – but her presence was undeniable. There was a sweetness in the air there, a softness and gentleness, that wasn’t anywhere else. Does she always reside there or did she come for me? It doesn’t matter. She can bring her presence wherever she wishes. That’s what’s so special about the Assumption. Christ brought her body and soul into Heaven – and then sent her back to continue her mission as Co-Redeemer in His mission, as the perfect vessel through which He showers us with all graces, as the perfect educator of the Christian person. (Indeed tradition even tells of a Marian apparition before the Assumption, to St.James while he was in ministering in Spain – see Our Lady of the Pillar.)
Mary really allows her presence to be felt to us today, when we make ourselves present to her. Ever since that first glimpse of her in the silence, I have sought her – or you could more rightly say she has sought me, has drawn me in. Whatever church I’m in, I’ll find myself drawn to stop by and spend time with her, however she is represented in that church. And it’s not just with statues in churches either, she is present wherever we are. I put a little wrought iron Mary on my porch so she could make her home among my flowers and the view, and I have a prayer table at my home, too – that’s probably the most regular spot where Mary and I hang out.
But there are also a few designated Marian places of which I have become very fond and where I especially sense her near. I’ll highlight just two.
Lourdes Grotto & Guadalupe Tepeyac. I’ve been spending time at the Grotto after work these days. I can feel how it’s different there, the Marian atmosphere. The rich
dark shade of the trees lets me imagine I’m in the shade of her mantel, and I am, for there I find reprieve, consolation, rest. Her presence. I invite you to visit if you’ve never been. Some of my San Antonio friends were the first to tell me about it and encourage me to check it out. Sometimes there’s a mass or something happening, but it’s generally quiet, and there’s lots of shaded paths to walk, too.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Schoenstatt. If you’ve ever read my blogs before, you’ve heard me talk about the Marian Shrine being built in Austin right now. Though it’s not
technically a Shrine yet (Dedication Day with Bishop Joe Vasquez is coming up in a few weeks, Sept 13th – everyone’s welcome to come!), Mary’s presence has been felt on that hilltop long since, by myself and by many before me. I’ll never forget the first time I drove up to the land. I knew this place was different, and I felt a strange conviction that something huge was going to happen there. 7 years later, the Shrine is almost finished, and soon I hope many and many more will find Mary’s
There’s also a Shrine of Our Lady of Schoenstatt in San Antonio. In fact they are all over the world, starting with the first one in Schoenstatt, Germany. I like to drive out to the one here in SA, too. It’s tucked away in the wooded outskirts of the main city, technically in Helotes. Nested on a hill, it’s a quiet refuge from the San Antonio hub-bub and traffic. If you visit, I invite you to go exploring in the hill behind the Shrine to find the special little grotto for St.Joseph, and meet him there, too.
I’ll say this in closing – during that silent retreat where I first knew Mary’s presence, I felt I shouldn’t linger in the sweetness too long – I’d gone on the retreat to do some hard work, not to rest! I felt that after a short repose with her I should get back to really facing the tough stuff. As I’ve matured and as I’ve gotten to know Mary, I see that’s not quite it. First, we all need rest, and learning to take spiritual rest is as important to growth as learning to strive in sacrifice. Second – Mary is no lazy mamma. She’s nothing but sweetness of course, but let’s not forget she’s the woman who crushed the devil himself. I know now that she is a tough educator, because she educates you in honesty towards being your most authentic self – which means discomfort, remorse, humility and sharp growing pains as much as it means consolation, mercy and reprieve. As Mary is totally transparent of God, she educates in His Love, full of His Spirit- and like a good mother, never teaches us what we aren’t ready for yet.
“How strong Mary’s influence is upon the human heart cannot easily be expressed in words. Such things become clear only when the veil which covers the story of each soul is lifted. St. Bonaventure accurately captures the believing conviction of the Catholic faithful when, expressing a kind of law in the kingdom of God, he explains, “The fire of her love overcomes all things.” What he wants to say is that there is no obstacle in the human person which she, in the long run, cannot overcome. She is capable of breaking the iron chains of our habits, snaps the tightest strictures, and knows how to resolve the most complicated predicaments. St. Bernard confirms this in his fiery manner: The flames of love in her heart, he says, “are vehement. They are like bolts of lightening which strike their mark quickly and unerringly; they fell the sinner just as the Lord felled Saul on the road to Damascus (cj. Acts 9:3f). She, the daughter of that God who in the Old Testament is called fire, she the Mother of that Son whom the prophet Ezekiel (1:3) called a burning torch, consumes sin down to its very roots and burns up all bad habits and sinful inclinations of the soul. She tears away all the illusions and the empty dreams which the sinner makes for himself and destroys like cobwebs all fabricated reasons and pretexts which he tries to use as an excuse.” Mary, Our Mother and Educator, Fr. J.Kentenich, p 22-23.