Mary in Doctrine and Devotion

The Life of Mary in the Gospels

Fifteenth in a Series

James Spencer Northcote was a convert to Catholicism, having been a married Anglican minister. At the death of his wife, also a convert, he entered the Catholic priesthood and eventually became president of St. Mary’s College at Oscott. Between the years 1856 and 1860 he gave a series of lectures to refute the Protestant claim that, according to the Bible, the Blessed Virgin Mary is nothing but an ordinary woman. They were later published, and furnish some of the best rebuttals in print against those who attack Catholic devotion to our Beloved Mother Mary. We present them in a slightly condensed form.

Honor Due to Mary

If any man minister to Me, him will My Father honor (John 12: 26).

My chief object in these lectures has been to remove all those prejudices against Catholic belief and practice, with reference to the Blessed Virgin, which profess to be founded either upon the testimony or the silence of Holy Scripture. To this end I have set before you all that the Evangelists have said about her, and considered all the objections which are based upon what they have not said; and I think you will bear me witness that I have omitted nothing which a well-instructed Protestant would have urged against us. It remains to say a few words about the conclusions which legitimately flow from these considerations, and then to commend the whole subject very earnestly to your thoughts and prayers.

The sum and substance of Catholic doctrine upon the point before us may be briefly stated thus—that as belief in the Divine Maternity and incomparable sanctity of Mary is essential to the integrity of Christian doctrine, so an affectionate devotion towards Her is an essential part of Christian worship. The first of these propositions will scarcely be disputed by those whom I am addressing; moreover, I have already had an opportunity of enlarging upon it (Lecture III). But it is the second at which many will take offense, and which I am anxious therefore to develop more fully.

Our Lady of Walsingham

Replica of the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham—formerly one of the chief pilgrimage shrines in England, it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538 and partially restored in the 20th century by the Anglican Church.

And first let me explain what is meant by worship in general. Worship, in the true sense of the word, means simply honor—a sense which we still retain when we address public magistrates as "Your worship," or worthy of honor, and when a husband promises "worship" (in the Protestant marriage service) to his wife; and though in modern times it has come to be confined exclusively, or nearly so, to religious honor, it will help us to gain a truer knowledge of the subject, if we consider it for a moment in its strict and original sense. Worship, then, or honor, or reverence, or respect—call it by what name you please, provided only that you retain the sense—worship or honor, in all cases and under all circumstances, rests upon these two things: a judgment of the understanding as to the excellence and dignity of the object to be honored, and an act of the will whereby we freely determine to regulate our conduct in accordance with that judgment; and then these two acts, of our will and of our understanding, naturally go on to manifest themselves in some outward and visible act, which is, as it were, the external sign or clothing whereby our internal judgment and purpose may be made known to all who it concerns. Hence it follows that worship of some kind, in this general sense of the word, is an absolute necessity of our nature. Men, if they are reasonable beings at all, cannot choose but judge of the different objects proposed to them, and prefer one thing to another according to that judgment; neither will they be restrained, excepting by violence and for a special purpose, from manifesting that judgment or preference by some external acts. And hence it is that men give honors spontaneously to great heroes and public benefactors. Those arches and statues and other monuments which the admiration and gratitude of mankind are so continually raising to distinguished merit, are a species of worship, in the sense in which it has now been explained.

Since worship then is founded on our estimate of excellence, it follows that as there are many different kinds of excellence, so there are also many different kinds of worship. For instance (to pass by others that do not here concern us), there is a manifest difference, which none can mistake, between excellence in the order of nature and excellence in the order of grace. It is one thing to be very strong or very brave, very clever or very learned, and another to be very good and holy; and each, both the clever and the good man, will have his little circle of worshippers, so to speak. In other words, there is one kind of worship, which is merely civil or secular, which we call honor, and which we pay to merits and perfections that are purely natural, within the compass of man's unassisted powers; and there is another worship which is now more properly so called, and which we pay to gifts and qualities of holiness that are supernatural, that proceed from God and lead to God. But both the one and the other flow from the same principles, and rest upon the same foundation—our natural desire to do honor to that which is excellent and worthy of honor.

And here therefore it is obvious to inquire why it is that men, who would think it a great dereliction of duty, and a real disgrace, to be wanting in any act of civil worship, as we have called it, to those to whom it is due, should yet be so negligent and careless in paying, nay, rather, so obstinate in refusing to pay, religious worship to those to whom that is due. They can recognize civil or natural worth of any kind, wherever they see it, whether in science or in politics, in literature or in the fine arts; and they would keep festivals, set up statues, build monuments, and otherwise expend both time and money in commemorating it, whilst yet they grudge every expenditure of either the one or the other, and count it unnecessary and wasteful, perhaps even superstitious, if it be intended to perpetuate the memory or celebrate the honor of religious worth.

Thus you will remember how all England was roused from one end to the other to do its utmost in honor of our great national poet, Shakespeare, on the occasion of the tercentenary of his birthday. The great center of attention was the town in which he had been born; and amongst other modes of honoring his name, an address was read from the Germans to the English, by one of the most distinguished linguists of the day, a Professor of Languages in the University of Oxford. The address had been carefully composed; it was eloquent and enthusiastic, as befitted the occasion, and the following passage from it very happily illustrates what I wish just now to impress upon you.

Tomb of St. Thomas Becket at CanterburyThe address is speaking of the number of strangers who had been brought together from great distances to the celebration at Stratford, and observes that when a man looks at "that small house, in a small street in a small town of a small island, and then thinks of the world-embracing, world-quickening, world-ennobling spirit that burst forth from that small garret, he has learnt a lesson and carried off a blessing for which no pilgrimage would have been too long. Though the great festivals which in former days brought together people from all parts of Europe to worship at the shrine of Canterbury (the tomb of St. Thomas Becket—see image at left) exist no more, let us hope, for the sake of England more than for the sake of Shakespeare, that this will not be the last Shakespeare festival in the annals of Stratford-on-Avon. In this cold and critical age of ours, the power of worshiping, the art of admiring, the passion of loving what is great and good are fast dying out. May England never be ashamed to show to the world that she can love, that she can admire, that she can worship"—you see they do not shrink from the very word—"the greatest of her poets. May Shakespeare live on in the love of each generation that grows up in England! May the youth of England long continue to be nursed, to be fed, to be reproved and judged by his spirit!"

The address is speaking of the number of strangers who had been brought together from great distances to the celebration at Stratford, and observes that when a man looks at "that small house, in a small street in a small town of a small island, and then thinks of the world-embracing, world-quickening, world-ennobling spirit that burst forth from that small garret, he has learnt a lesson and carried off a blessing for which no pilgrimage would have been too long. Though the great festivals which in former days brought together people from all parts of Europe to worship at the shrine of Canterbury (see image at left) exist no more, let us hope, for the sake of England more than for the sake of Shakespeare, that this will not be the last Shakespeare festival in the annals of Stratford-on-Avon. In this cold and critical age of ours, the power of worshiping, the art of admiring, the passion of loving what is great and good are fast dying out. May England never be ashamed to show to the world that she can love, that she can admire, that she can worship"—you see they do not shrink from the very word—"the greatest of her poets. May Shakespeare live on in the love of each generation that grows up in England! May the youth of England long continue to be nursed, to be fed, to be reproved and judged by his spirit!"

How is this to be accounted for, except it be by the sensual materialism of men; that they walk by sight, and not by faith; that their whole hearts and affections are set on sensible and visible things, and things excellent in the order of nature; but that they have no true faith in, or love for, things invisible and spiritual, in the order of grace? Honor to whom honor is due: and if it is reasonable and praiseworthy to keep anniversary dinners, to make speeches and to write books, to build public monuments, to erect statues and to found institutions in honor of great poets, great warriors, or great statesmen, why should it be counted so vain and foolish a thing to do the same in honor of great Saints?

Will it be said that men abstain from paying this kind of religious worship to the Saints, only lest they should be thereby robbing a jealous God of that honor and worship which are His? To say so, is to argue a most complete ignorance both of the worship that is due to God and of the true meaning and value of our own daily acts. All honor and praise are due to God, and none at all is due to anything else in the world, considered as distinct from God, because they are the mere creatures of His hand, and whatever beauty or excellence they may have, it is only His gift. If we honor any creature in the world, no matter what it is, without any relation whatever to God, we are so far guilty of dishonoring God, for we are giving to the creature what is due only to the Creator. And this is what men are doing all day long, and every day of their lives, and they have no scruple at all about it. They can spend all their time, their thoughts and affections, upon science, literature, or the fine arts, or upon honors, pleasures, and riches, upon anything and everything in this world, and it never seems to occur to them that they are in any way interfering with, or derogating from, God’s honor and glory; yet all the while they are really living in the daily practice of a species of idolatry. But to love and honor the works of God, because they are the works of God and show forth His excellence and goodness, is so far from being idolatry that it is one of the most effectual preservatives against idolatry, because, even in the love and admiration of the creature, it keeps the heart and mind fixed on the Creator. God is to be honored in all His works. We cannot really love and honor Him with all our heart and mind and soul and strength except we do this.

It is quite natural to us, than when our hearts are filled with love and honor and respect for any man, that love and honor should overflow also upon all his works, upon each in proportion to its nearness and dearness to the man himself. Nothing is more common than to hear it said that we love or value such a thing entirely for the sake of the man who made it; and certainly, to despise, or refuse to honor, the work, is to dishonor the workman. And hence the Saints, whose hearts were full of the love of God, have loved and honored every created thing as God's work. To them the very worm of the earth, the insect of an hour, the trees and forests, and all created things, have an untold value, and become the objects of their interest, admiration, and love, for the sake of Him Who made them. And shall not they too, in their turn, themselves receive honor and admiration which they have so freely bestowed, seeing that they are themselves the very noblest of God's creatures, and show forth His honor and glory exceedingly?

Tomb of Cardinal WisemanThe works of God in the order of grace are above His works in the mere order of nature; and among the works of His grace, the Saints are the greatest, and it is in them, therefore, especially, that we can honor God: and since the Saint is a Saint only by what he receives from God, all the honor we give him, however high it may be, redounds necessarily to the honor and glory of God, Whose work he is. We honor the Saints, only because they have been such eminent servants of God, and by Him have been received as His friends (John 15: 14). "To me," says holy David, "Thy friends, O God, are made exceedingly honorable" (Ps. 138: 17); and Our Lord Himself, whilst yet upon earth, gave a promise to His disciples, saying, "If any man minister to Me, him will My Father honor" (John 12: 26). (See image at right—tomb of the great friend of God, Cardinal Wiseman.) We are satisfied, then, that we are only doing God's will, and offering Him an acceptable service, when we celebrate the praises of the Saints, keep festivals, erect statues, sing hymns, or otherwise pay honor to the Saints; "for this honor is he worthy of, whom the King Himself hath a mind to honor" (Esther 5: 11). We honor the King by thus honoring His ministers. It is Jesus Who is the Master of the Apostles, Teacher of the Evangelists, Strength of Martyrs, Light of Confessors, Purity of Virgins, and Crown of all Saints.

It is commonly said in answer to these arguments, that, however sound and unimpeachable in theory, yet honor paid to the Saints is sure practically to degenerate into idolatry, for that men will forget that they were only the ministers and instruments of God, and will come to praise and venerate them for their own sakes. It is in vain that we refer these objectors to our Catechisms and other books of instruction, or appeal to the experience of Catholic Christendom: they refuse to listen to our testimony or to believe in the practical appreciation of the distinction we have pointed out; they quote hymns or prayers in which it seems to them that the distinction has been lost sight of, and they insist upon interpreting these in the hardest and most literal manner. How I wish such persons could be persuaded to study some of the hymns of praise of great heroes or heroines which are to be found in the Bible, and to examine how easily and naturally the honor of God and the honor of His Saints (for such, for our present purpose, we may consider these heroes to have been) are there made to blend together in the same psalm of joy and thanksgiving.

Look at Judith (c. 13), for example, returning to her countrymen after the slaughter of Holofernes. "All ran to meet her, from the least to the greatest; and lighting up lights they all gathered round about her; and she said, 'Praise ye the Lord our God, Who hath not forsaken them that hope in Him, and by me His handmaid He hath fulfilled His mercy, which He promised to the house of Israel, and He hath killed the enemy of His people by my hand this night... Give all of you glory to Him because He is good, because His mercy endureth forever.' And they all adored the Lord, and said to her, 'The Lord hath blessed thee by His power, because by thee He hath brought our enemies to naught.' And Ozias, the prince of the people of Israel, said to her, 'Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the Most High God, above all women upon the earth. Blessed be the Lord Who made Heaven and earth, Who hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the prince of our enemies; because He hath so magnified thy name this day, that thy praise shall not depart out of the mouth of men who shall be mindful of the power of the Lord forever...' And all the people said, 'Amen, amen'." Is this a hymn in honor of Judith or of God? Or is it not rather in honor of both—of the One as the Almighty and All-merciful, from Whom alone cometh every good and perfect gift; and of the other, as His chosen instrument? Compare this with the Magnificat of the Blessed Virgin: She begins, "My soul doth magnify the Lord"; but this does not prevent Her singing also in the same hymn, "Behold, from henceforth all generations shall call Me blessed."

Again, the author of the book of Ecclesiasticus (43), wishing to show forth the greatness and glory of God, begins by enumerating some of the principal works of creation: "The firmament on high is His beauty, the sun when he appeareth showing forth at his rising, an admirable instrument, the work of the Most High... Great is the Lord that made him... and the moon in her season... and the glory of the stars is the beauty of heaven, the Lord enlighteneth the world on high… Look upon the rainbow and bless Him that made it, it is very beautiful in its brightness." And so he continues, through clouds and winds, thunder and snow, the seas, and "the variety of beasts, and of all living things”; and then, conscious of his inability to praise God in a way that shall be really adequate to His glory, he says, "We shall say much, and yet want words; but the sum of our words is, He is all. Who shall be able to glorify Him? For the Almighty Himself is above all His works. The Lord is terrible and exceeding great, and His power is admirable. Glorify the Lord as much as ever you can, for He will yet far exceed, and His magnificence is wonderful. Bless the Lord, exalt Him as much as you can; for He is above all praise. When you exalt Him, put forth all your strength, and be not weary; for you can never go far enough. Who shall see Him and declare Him? And who shall magnify Him as He is from the beginning?" No one can surely suspect the author of these magnificent passages of indifference to the glory of God. If ever any man had a just sense of God's greatness, and "feared to transgress the honor of His God to a man, and to adore anyone except His God" (Esther 13: 14), it would have been such a writer as this; yet out of his very anxiety to "magnify God as He is," he goes on immediately, "Let us now praise men of renown, and our fathers in their generation. The Lord hath wrought great glory through His magnificence from the beginning"; and then he declares the praises of Enoch and Noe, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses also and Aaron, and all the famous men of Israel, down to his own time. Did these praises of famous men obscure the glory of God? Or did they not illustrate and magnify it, since their strength and wisdom and goodness had only been His gifts?

Our Lady of PompeiiIn the same way, if you were to look through the hymns of the Church, appointed to be used on the festivals of Saints, you would find that some indeed were addressed directly to God and others to the Saints themselves; but you would find none whose burden and conclusion were not always the same—an ascribing of honor and glory to Jesus, or to the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, as the one only source of Truth, Beauty, and Holiness, to Whom alone be "benediction and honor and glory and power forever and ever" (Apoc. 5: 13). Or take the most popular of Marian devotions, one which is a very byword of scorn against us—the Rosary, the "telling our beads"; is it a devotion in honor of our Divine Lord or of our Blessed Lady (see image at left—Our Lady of the Rosary of Pompeii)? It is called the Psalter of the Blessed Virgin, and a great many Hail Marys are said in the course of it; yet as we recite the several decades, what are all the Mysteries set before us for meditation, but the successive events in the life of Jesus—His Infancy and Manhood, His Passion and His glory? Nor would it be difficult to show, though of course in a less striking degree, that the same principle runs through all our devotions to the Saints. "God is wonderful in His Saints," and we celebrate His glory and magnify His Holy Name by singing their praises no less than when we are paying acts of homage directly to Himself.

The Church, however, is not satisfied merely to celebrate the praises of the Saints, She would have us also look to them as examples. And here too the voice of murmuring may be sometimes heard, and we are accused of interfering with the rights of God, and putting the creature in the place of the Creator. We are told that it had been said to the children of Israel under the Old Law, "Be ye holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Levit. 19: 2); and that Our Blessed Lord also, in the Sermon on the Mount, proposed God as our Model, saying, "Be ye perfect, as your Heavenly Father also is perfect... Be ye merciful, as your Father is also merciful" (Matt. 5: 48; Luke 6: 36). This is true; and of course the attempt to copy this Divine Model has been rendered much more easy since the Incarnation, than it was before; first, because by it God has been (as it were) rendered visible, since, as Our Lord says, "He that seeth Me, seeth the Father also" (John 19: 9); and secondly, because having assumed our human nature, Jesus became our example in meekness, humility, patience, obedience, self-denial, and a number of other virtues which constitute the chief excellence of man, but which could not possibly find a place in God, as He is in Himself. Nevertheless, had nothing more been done than this, it would always have remained open to man to plead as an excuse to his own conscience for not attempting this work of imitation, the infinite distance between his own weakness and corruption, and the spotless purity and resistless strength of the God-Man. God therefore of His great goodness has provided us with other models, merely human, which may help and encourage us in the work of our sanctification, and against which man's weakness and cowardice cannot so easily object.

Thus St. Paul does not hesitate to hold up his own conduct as a model, to several of those to whom he wrote. To the Thessalonians he speaks of "giving himself as a pattern unto them to imitate him" (2, 3: 9); to the Philippians, "Be followers of me, brethren, and observe them who walk so, as you have our model" (3: 17); and still more distinctly to the Corinthians, "Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor., 11: 1). And Ecclesiastical History in all ages is full of instances, showing the great power which the lives of Saints have had in the production and formation of sanctity in others. It is not to be wondered at then, that the Church should bid us look to the Saints as our models, that so, being encouraged by the sight of what God's grace has done in others, mere men and women like ourselves, we might the more easily be persuaded to exert ourselves to do the same; and this therefore is another mode of honoring the Saints, which the Church has always greatly insisted upon.

There is a beautiful passage in an old heathen author (Tacitus, Vita Agricolae, in fin.), about striving to copy the virtues of a deceased relative, which is very applicable to our present subject. He has just given the account of the life and death of his hero, when he breaks off from the style of narration, and apostrophizes the deceased in these terms: "If the spirits of the just live in another world, if (as wise men think) great souls do not perish with the bodies they have tenanted, I would say to thee, Sleep on and take thy rest in the happy repose thou hast merited; and bid us thy family cease from useless regrets and womanish lamentations, and rather turn to the contemplation of thy virtues, which are no fit subject for lamentation, and which it would be impious to tarnish by a tear. Bid us honor thee by our admiration, and, so far as our weakness will allow, by our imitation, rather than by the empty sounding forth of thy praises. This is the only true honor, the best tribute of duty and affection which thy relatives can pay thee. Let us so venerate thy memory as to go over in our thoughts all thy words and deeds, and embrace the form and features of thy mind rather than of thy body—not that I would forbid images of marble or of bronze to recall thee to our memories; only they are weak and perishable, like the faces and figures they represent; whereas the form of the mind never dies. This, therefore, we can seize and reproduce, not by the work of other hands and in some other material, but ourselves, and in our own characters."

Our Lady of RocamadourThe noble exhortation which this pagan writer here gives to the surviving relatives of the subject of his panegyric, is precisely that which the Church gives to all Her children with reference to Her heroes, the Saints, and especially Mary, the Queen of Saints. She does not forbid the making of images in their honor (see image at right—the Shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour—so much criticized by Protestants and Modernists), whether in marble or bronze or yet costlier material; neither does She condemn the homage of our praise, whether in sermon, prayer, or hymn; on the contrary, She gives every encouragement to these and any other tokens of outward veneration and honor; but what She desires far more earnestly and values far more highly is that Her children should copy their likeness inwardly in their hearts. This is true devotion to Mary, the most acceptable tribute of our duty and affection. And whereas other Saints are models, some to one class of person, some to another, Mary is a model to all, because She is a perfect reflection of the virtues of Her Divine Son.

"One is the glory of the sun, another the glory of the moon, and another the glory of the stars; and star differeth from star in glory" (1 Cor. 15: 41). Jesus is the Sun of Justice; Mary is its Mirror (Speculum Justitiae—Litany of Loreto), "fair as the moon," shining with a bright but borrowed light, not too dazzling for human eyes: the Saints are the stars, and one Saint differs from another Saint in graces as in glory. All, indeed, derive whatever goodness and beauty they have from their resemblance to this or that feature in the life and character of Jesus; but none so perfectly resembles Him as Mary His Mother. And whereas all the honor we pay to any of the Saints is ultimately referred to God as the sole Author of that for which they are honored, the honor we pay to Mary is immediately and pre-eminently so referred from the necessity of the case, because there is nothing in Her history which the human mind can easily lay hold of and detach from God.

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