Thanks again for your orders - keep 'em coming and don't be shy. I have 7 sets of Saints/Heroes left, plus a few stray Heroes, that I'd love for you to have. We have plenty of Power of the Cross, too many De-Codings, lots of Prove Its, as well.
For those of you wondering, The Words We Pray isn't simply a book of history. When I look at all of my work so far, the common thread I see is a deep desire to connect contemporary Catholics to their tradition, not just for its own sake, or for the sake of something called "Catholic identity," but because God speaks through those past experiences, and there is truth to be found there, truth that sheds light on our own questions and struggles today. This book comes out of that sensibility, as well. I talk about history, but I also dig out the resonance of these prayers, asking why they have lasted - what do they touch in us, what is that they say to God that we need to keep saying?
To get a better sense of this, in the extended post (very extended), I've included the chapter I wrote on The Memorare. Enjoy.
(And...welcome Corner readers. more Advent reflections here - daily. )
Remember, most loving Virgin Mary,never was it heard that anyone who turned to you for help was left unaided.Inspired by this confidenc though burdened by my sins, I run to your protection for you are my mother. Mother of the Word of God,do not despise my words of pleading but be merciful and hear my prayer.
Encountering God directly sounds fantastic, but it’s an open question whether most of us could manage it on a regular basis or even weather the experience once and still get dinner on the table on time.
God is so great and we are so small, and God himself told Moses that no one could see his face and live. Job, questioning boldly, may have gotten close, yet even there, God addressed him "out of the storm" and the answer he gave to Job’s question of suffering was, "Where were you when I founded the earth?" (Job 38:1, 4). Such a question seems to emphasize the distance between God and humanity.
But there’s more to this apparent distance t than our puniness, for God has reached out to overcome that problem. Jesus speaks our language, walks beside us, and shares our suffering.
The other issue is baggage, all the heavy, tattered, checked, lost, and reclaimed baggage of being human. God is pure spirit; we’re not. Every encounter we have is mediated through a thousand different channels. It’s mediated through our senses, through our understanding, through our personal histories, through our cultures.
In other words, God may certainly be yelling at us, but just think of all the walls his voice has to penetrate, all the tunnels, all the checkpoints it has to pass. If you’ve tried to reason with a tight-lipped teenager who is devoted to the notion that nothing you say could ever be right, you understand what I mean.
Is the fact that we reach out to God through bodies and all that comes with them a negative? Well, sort of, and the goal of serious mystics is always to strip away all the baggage of corporeality and be totally present to God as we are, as God is.
But on the other hand, it’s the way we’re made, and since God made us, he must have made provisions and perhaps even worked some kind of satisfying beauty into the whole thing, especially for us non-mystics. Perhaps there’s something in the baggage, something in our particular embodiment and histories that can function not so much as a wall but as a prism.
This is really the whole idea behind the richness of the Catholic sacramental sensibility that over the centuries has permeated almost every corner of human experience and showed how we can find God there. Water, wine, bread, music, philosophy, sexuality, politics, and art—God reaches out to us through all of these things and more, including other human beings.
So we find God through loving others and being loved. We turn to others and ask them to help us. We tell them that we’re open to what God’s love can accomplish through them as they listen, support, and pray for us, whether they are alive or with God. It’s called the communion of saints.
First among the saints, of course is Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the prayers asking for her help are too many to count, from every culture and age, each more flowery than the next. To some modern ears, these prayers can seem unnecessary or worse, a touch blasphemous. Go directly to God, we think. Do not pass go. Why ask Mary when God’s right there?
Well—why ask anyone to pray for you? I suppose that’s the question. Why pray for anyone else? Just let God handle it. He doesn’t need your help. Or does he?
Aside from the Hail Mary, probably one of the most well-known prayers asking for Mary’s intercession is the Memorare.
As is the case with most of our prayers, we don’t know exactly who wrote this or when. We find longer versions of the Memorare in early medieval Eastern Christianity, but the first time we find it popping up in anything close to this form is much later, in the seventeenth century.
For a long time, some attributed this prayer to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century mystic and preacher who had a deep, passionate devotion to Mary. If you read some of his homilies, you hear some echoes of the Memorare, but never the exact form.
The confusion about Bernard undoubtedly occurred because it’s another Bernard who vigorously promoted the use of the Memorare, and with whom it became closely associated: a fellow named Claude Bernard, a French priest who ministered to the poor and to prisoners.
He was called "The Poor Priest," and he lived from 1588 to 1641. He described his devotion to the Memorare in a letter to Anne of Austria, queen of Louis XIII. He had fallen quite ill and at some point prayed the Memorare, which he had learned from his own father. He was cured, but, as he said, "as I could not persuade myself that God had worked a miracle in my favour, I attributed the cure to some natural cause."<n>1
He was soon set straight, though, when at the very moment he was speaking of his recovery to a friend, an Augustinian brother whom he hardly knew appeared at his door and told Bernard that Mary had appeared to him the previous night, told him that she had effected Bernard’s cure, and wanted this brother to go and confirm this to Bernard.
Bernard got the message. From that moment on, the Memorare was Claude Bernard’s prayer. His ministry was to the most hardened criminals, many of them condemned to die, and Bernard’s biographers relate story after story of the prayer’s importance in conversions, even on the scaffold—Bernard once climbed right up on a hangman’s scaffold to try, one last time, to touch the heart of a criminal who’d rebuffed him many times before. The man pushed him off the platform onto the ground. Bernard climbed to his knees and started praying the Memorare. Finally moved, the condemned man asked to make his final confession.
Bernard got his prayer heard—or consumed, if that’s what it took. Another criminal was due to be tortured and broken on the wheel. Unrepentant, he refused to pray with Bernard, who responded, "Well, since you won’t say it, you shall eat it," and he promptly crammed a copy of the prayer into the man’s mouth. Again, it worked. The condemned died, but not before he’d reconciled himself to God.
On his deathbed, the Poor Priest asked that he be given a crucifix and a copy of the Memorare, two-hundred thousand copies of which he had printed up and distributed in his lifetime, "that he might press them to his lips and to his heart as the principal instruments of the work by which he had tried to serve his Master." <n>2
After his death, engraved portraits of Claude Bernard—who, by the way, has not even been beatified by the church—were printed and distributed, with the Memorare printed under his picture and with the heading "Oraison du R. P. Bernard A la Vierge" (Prayer of R.P. Bernard to the Virgin). It’s easy to see how from this point, later printers might have carelessly begun attributing this prayer to the authorship of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The earliest English versions appear in the very popular and widely used "Penny Catechism" in England in the early twentieth century, attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux <n>3<xbq>.
Now it may seem as if this prayer and the way Claude Bernard used it is some sort of magic. Recite the words and be converted. Is that all it takes, a formula? Is that what this is about?
I don’t think so, and I don’t think Claude Bernard thought so either. I think the point of all of these stories about the Poor Priest and the Memorare is simply what it takes for some people to let God in.
We so often associate devotion to Mary with sweetness and sugary sentimentality, with retro, outdated images of femininity and motherhood. But you might have noticed that the stories of Claude Bernard’s use of the Memorare are anything but sweetness and light. Claude Bernard ministered to people who had killed, had wrecked lives, including their own, and were facing death—and who were sometimes torture beforehand—from a dark, hopeless, place. And nothing, not even the gallows, opened them to the fact that God might have something different, something better in store.
Until the Poor Priest threw himself on the ground and started praying the Memorare or stuffing it in their mouths.
It is just a fact of life that God is hard to fathom, and the further we push God away, the more difficult it becomes.Like a kid buried so deep in lies he can’t look his parents in the face, like a couple whose relationship is so defined by externals, whose biggest fear is actually having to be alone together and having to talk, we can be so buried in our own baggage that God’s voice is nothing but the faintest echo.
We need an intervention. We need mediation. We need someone we trust, someone who has something in common with us to help us see ourselves as we really are and for what we could be. The deceitful kid needs to hear from someone who told the truth to his parents and lived to tell the story. The couple needs a smart-aleck daughter or a quietly observant friend to say, "Why did you guys get married, anyway?"
And the hardened criminal might just need a mother.
Looking at it from the other end, we don’t just need others to help us open our eyes, we need them to help us work things out. We need another person in the room who can help us see with different, more objective eyes, who can help us see possibilities and hope to which we are otherwise blind.
So the hardened criminal can’t see his own worth. But, most of the time, and in a unique, primal way that begins in dark, damp silence with the steady rhythm of a beating heart, he knows that a mother can.
This is the way we are. This is the way we’re built. We get lost in our own, often flawed, sense of reality. We close ourselves off. We can know truth, including the truth of God’s love, only through who we are: in this case, men and women who are all children of mothers.
Is it so impossible that God would take note of this, and let us come to him, when we need to, through a mother?
Of course, this is not just about Mary. We are all, in the end, called to mediate God’s love and mercy for each other. When we need help, most of us don’t just sit in a room and ask God for it directly. We run out to our best friend, to our parent, to our spouse, seeking support, prayers, and a sympathetic ear. In the broadest sense, that is what church is—a body of people letting Christ love through them. And Mary, as the first member of the church, the one who said yes to God in faith, is the friend, the support, the mother we know we can always look to who will, as this prayer says, never let us down. Others might forget to pray for us. She won’t.
This prayer emerged during a period in the church’s history in which too many people unfortunately felt too distant from God, so they turned to someone who seemed to embody his love and mercy in a more approachable way. It’s too bad, I suppose, and it’s not ideal. But have things really changed so much? Do none of us ever feel distant from God, mystified by him, unsure of what he thinks of us, unconvinced that he could ever love us again?
People—especially men, oddly enough—have for centuries prayed the Memorare and found an answer, found the words moving them to suddenly, inexplicably open up to God’s mercy. That mercy was real but hidden deep in their baggage of sin and shame; they found it by opening themselves to a mother.
God works, as they say, in mysterious ways.