September 22nd, 2022
On the back cover of Shawn Chapman’s new book, it says, “Come to Mary’s House invites you to imagine that you are with the Blessed Mother”.
So, who exactly is the author this book inviting?
In her introduction, Chapman asks the reader if they “long for Mary”. That implies that the reader knows something about the Blessed Virgin. Or maybe not. Sometimes people long for someone that they do not yet know. Falling in love can be like that. However, most likely the person paging through Come to Mary’s House will be a devout Catholic. I would say “devout Christian”, but there are Christians who find the Catholic devotion for Mary to be at best puzzling, or at worst blasphemous.
I remember years ago talking with Mike, a co-worker of mine, about Mary. Mike was a Black man and a rock-solid Baptist. He asked me,
“Frank, what is with you Catholics and Mary? Why do you pray to Mary? She’s just a woman. Why don’t you pray to God?”
Some questions are difficult to answer. I replied,
“Mike, sometimes, when you are in bad trouble, you want to talk to Mama before you talk to your dad.”
Mike shook his head and laughed.
Mary is our mama. Of course, she is more than that. Below I quote from a book called Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, an art historian. He comments on the relationship between Catholics and Mary during the Reformation. He says:
“The stabilizing, comprehensive religions of the world, the religions which penetrate to every part of a man’s being – in Egypt, India, or China – gave the female principle of creation at least as much importance as the male, and wouldn’t have taken seriously a philosophy that failed to include them both. These were all what H.G. Wells called communities of obedience. The aggressive, nomadic societies – what he called communities of will – Israel, Islam, the Protestant North, conceived their gods as male. It’s a curious fact that the all-male religions have produced no religious imagery -in most cases have positively forbidden it. The great religious art of the world is deeply involved with the female principle. Of course, the ordinary Catholic who prayed to the Virgin was not conscious of any of this, nor was he or she interested in the really baffling theological problems presented by the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He simply knew that the heretics wanted to deprive him of that sweet, compassionate, approachable being who would intercede for him, as his mother might have with a hard master.”
What I think Clark is saying is that Mary embodies the feminine aspect of the Divine. Catholicism, as a religion and as a culture, could not exist without Mary. Even Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, remarked about the incredible importance of Mary to the faith. Mary gives Catholicism balance. To a certain extent, our worldview is based on our understanding of the Blessed Virgin.
Mary was just a woman back in the 1st century, but she has since acquired a cosmic significance. She is a lot of things. With regards to Mary, we Catholics want it all. She is both virgin and mother. She is a simultaneously a Jewish peasant woman and the theotokos, the God-bearer. Mary is the teenager who is unwed and pregnant. She is also the first and best disciple of Christ. Mary’s presence satisfies deep-seated human needs.
When bishops sent men to convert the pagan peoples of Europe a thousand years ago, these priests found that the locals had places sacred to their earth goddesses. Almost overnight, these locations became Marian shrines. Those missionaries were savvy fellows.
There is a temptation to treat Mary like a goddess. We often refer to Mary as the “Queen of Heaven”. To the casual observer, that term sounds a lot like a reference to a deity. In some ways she almost seems like one.
When I first read the title for the sixteenth chapter in Chapman’s book, it made me think of Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. The title of the chapter is “Hear with Mary the Cries of the World”. In the Buddhist world, Kwan Yin does that too. She is the incarnation of love and mercy in the East. Kwan Yin (aka Avalokiteshvara) seems to do for Buddhists and Daoists what Mary does for us.
Why have I written all this? I want to make it clear that any author who has the temerity to write a book about Mary has their work cut out for them. Shawn Chapman skillfully juggles the various aspects of Mary’s being. Chapman ensures that the reader knows that Mary was a real woman living in a real world, experiencing most of what the rest of humanity experiences. She also makes it clear that Mary is different from us. She has the ability to make this unique individual relatable. That is impressive.
Chapman has several chapters based on her life experiences and her encounters with Mary. These are chapters 26 through 30 (“Incognito”, “Do You Want to Live?”, “Mary Elaborates”, Living Reparation”, and “Annunciation House”. I find these chapters to be the strongest in the book. The author comes across as being utterly authentic, and intensely moving.
Chapman describes Mary as being “sneaky”, in that Mary quietly and subtly enters a person’s life. The author is pretty sneaky herself. At no point in the book does she attempt a hard sell. I have often been turned off by religious books that push the message too hard. Chapman invites the reader to meditate with her, but she does no more than that. She leaves it for the reader to decide if they want to enter Mary’s house.
Shawn Chapman uses a guided visualization to facilitate meditation. That doesn’t work for me. I am a student of Zen, a practice where visualization is not generally used. In Zen a person sits silently and tries to empty their mind. The goal is to have a mind that is “clear – clear like space”, and then to be able to see things as they really are, without judging or condemning. If I can have a clear mind, then I can recognize suffering and act with compassion. Using Chapman’s technique, the practitioner eventually sees the world through Mary’s eyes. I expect the results are the same with both methods.
There are parts of Chapman’s book that don’t resonate with me, not yet anyway. Perhaps they will in the future. The Blessed Mother is a being who can never be fully understood. She is an ocean of grace. Come to Mary’s House is also an ocean. No matter how many times a reader dips into it, they will never get to the bottom.