Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Reed of God: Introduction

I have a little confession to make, at first I wasn't all that excited about reading a book on Mary. Although I've been hearing people praise The Reed of God for several years now and had friends enthusiastically posting their favorite quotes on blogs and Facebook, none of the enthusiasm ever rubbed off and I've not been moved to pick up the book till now.

But there it was on my dad's shelf and I was desperately looking for something to read so I picked it up. Reading the first pages of the introduction changed my attitude completely.

Amazingly, Houselander diagnoses exactly why it is I've had such an ambivalent feeling about Mary all these years when she tells the story of the well-meant but perhaps misguided advice she received as a child that led her to try "never to do anything that Our Lady would not do." For a time Houselander was paralyzed by this advice because "it was still impossible to imagine Our Lady doing anything that I would do, for the very simple reason that I simply could not imagine her doing anything at all."

Houselander accurately diagnoses what can make Mary seem so inapproachable and remote: we have this mistaken idea that she is not human.

Oh, I had made leaps and bounds in my understanding of Mary in the past eight years or so since I began to take my faith seriously and to consciously try to follow Christ in my daily life. When I began that journey I was completely mystified by the idea of devotion to the saints in general and devotion to Mary in particular. I couldn't imagine what that would mean in my life. Moreover, Mary seemed-- like all the saints-- to have so little to do with me. Though that was mainly because, as Houselander implies, I knew so little about them.

 I began to know some saints by reading their biographies and their letters and sermons and other writings. Mary I began to know with a prayer prayed on the spur of the moment asking her to help me to grow closer to her. Soon after that prayer I began to have a yearning to surround myself with images of Mary. I framed some postcards I'd bought on my college-student wanderings in Europe and hung them on the wall. Then I found a few prints soon came my way from various sources. Finally, when I conceived a desire to have a statue of Mary even though I had never before even liked the garden variety Our Lady of Grace statues, an old battered one found its way into my life, free for the taking, and became enshrined in my living room where my children now play at her feet.

And yet, despite all that, Mary was still mainly a pretty picture and a vague idea that lurked behind more frequent recitation of the Angelus and an occasional rosary. She still didn't seem to really matter in the way I felt she probably should. And the idea of reading a book about Mary still seemed about as appealing as reading a book about the internal combustion engine. Until that night when I picked up the little nondescript volume with the blue cover. And found myself hunting up a pencil to underline and mark sentence after sentence. (I'm pretty sure my dad won't mind that his copy of the book came home with me and is being so defaced.)

Forgive me if I quote the following passage at length; but I find I must because it is the key:
When we are attracted to a particular saint it is usually the little human details which attract us. These touches bridge the immense gap between heroic virtue and our weakness. We love most those saints who before they were great saints were great sinners.
But even those who were saints from the cradle are brought closer to us by recorded trifles of their humanness.
[. . .]
Of Our Lady such things are not recorded. We complain that so little is recorded of her personality, so few of her words, so few deeds, that we can form no picture of her, and there is nothing that we can lay hold of to imitate. But it is Our Lady-- and no other saint-- whom we can really imitate.
All the canonized saints had special vocations, and special gifts for their fulfillment: presumption for me to think of imitating St Catherine or St. Paul or St. Joan if I have not their unique character and intellect-- which indeed I have not.
Each saint has his special work: one person's work. But Our Lady had to include in her vocation, in her life's work, the essential thing that was to be hidden in every other vocation, in every life.
She is not only human; she is humanity. The one thing that she did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.
Suddenly it seems that this isn't just a book about Mary, it's also a book about me, about my own individual vocation to bear Christ into the world. I am glad that Houselander begins this book in such a relateable way with the child's misconception, the false piety and the not-humanness of the Christmas card Madonna. She meets me exactly where I am. So often I feel like the child Houselander describes, a bit bewildered and confused about what it is I'm supposed to learn from Mary. She dispels those illusions so gently that she doesn't make one ashamed of having them but they seem very natural. At the same time, her answer is so elegant, so much the kind of thing that makes me think: of course! Why didn't I realize that before? I'm hoping the rest of the book continues in the same way.
Christ must be born from every soul, formed in every life. If we had a picture of Our Lady's personality we might be dazzled into thinking that only one sort of person could form Christ in himself, and we should miss the meaning of our own being.
Nothing but things essential for us are revealed to us about the Mother of God: the fact that she was wed to the Holy Spirit and bore Christ into the world.
Our crowning joy is that she did this as a lay person and through the ordinary daily life that we all live; through natural love made supernatural, as the water at Cana was, at her request, turned into wine.
I love this implied image of God as educator and gentle Father that Houselander evokes when she says that God reveals only what we need to know, what is good for us to know. Of course, I suddenly realize, the details of Mary's life would be fascinating to know; but it wouldn't be good for me to have those facts right now perhaps and so it is actually a mercy that they are withheld. Just as I know when one of my children would be overwhelmed by too much information and so I give them a simplified version of the truth. It isn't a falsehood at all and it isn't talking down to them; but it is a concession to their developmental stage and their current limited ability to handle the world's complexity. Someday, when they are older, more advanced explanations will be appropriate. For now, I gently give them what will satisfy their curiosity and just enough to lead them to continue to ask more questions.

And so here I am at the end of the introduction, a little child eager to be led further up and further in. What is it that Mary can teach me about bearing Christ in my soul? Here I am six months pregnant, feeling the new person kicking inside me, and thinking about this other new life that I am being called to bear.

Do you feel it too? The excitement of the call? Does Houselander meet you where you are? Does Houselander's explanation that the details of Mary's life are deliberately withheld seem satisfactory?


  1. I love Carol Houselander and I know I read this book but I remember very little of it. She definitely is relatable, as you point out. I'm looking forward to reading more ...

  2. I like this piece that you have drawn out of the text. I hadn't really noticed it before, but I think it's important and very interesting - that God reveals to us only what we need to know.

    I think this is a book that I will never be *finished* with. So challenging, so many more layers to consider each time I read it, and yet also immediately applicable and somehow *not* overwhelming. That's quite an accomplishment in a book! :)

  3. Ugh, I just looked this over and realized that all my paragraph breaks were missing. I'm not so used to composing in Blogger so I don't know why they didn't carry over when I cut and pasted the text. I've gone back to fix it so this will be much more readable.

    Julie, It will be nice to have you along for the ride.

    Alicia, Quite an accomplishment indeed. I do get that sense that I'm getting out of it what I need right now but that there is more there that might come through at another time. Like you say, *not* overwhelming because I'm only getting what I need right now.