REFLECTIONS ON THE FAITH
1917 - 2012
"Refuge of Sinners"
This title for Our Lady may go back to St Peter himself. God showed us at the very start of the Church a special role He had for His Mother.
You will remember that the Governor Felix left St Paul in prison for two years in Caesarea. St Luke was already his companion, and maybe it was then that he set about gathering material for his Gospel. Obviously, the first person he would consult would be Our Lady herself.
The first two chapters of his Gospel would have been her narrative. The parable of the Prodigal Son was one she would particularly have remembered. She may have felt sorry for the boy because he did not seem to have a mother. If he’d had one, she may have thought, he would not have behaved so badly.
But there is one incident in the Passion narrative that is mentioned only in Luke’s Gospel and can only have come from Our Lady.
After St Peter had just denied Our Lord for the third time, we read that “the Lord turned and looked at Peter”. (L.22:61)
Surely poor Peter, in floods of tears, must have rushed straight back to the Upper Room to look for Our Lady and pour his grief to her. “The words were just out of my mouth, and then he turned and looked at me. He just turned and looked at me!” And more tears. The poor man! We feel for him after all these years.
But what comfort he would have found in her! What comfort for his wounded heart! It was then that she was first able to show us that God had indeed given her a mother’s heart.
This experience is burnt into the earliest memories of the Church. St Peter was the first of millions who have been grateful to Our Lady for the motherly comfort she gives to a penitent sinner.
* * *
Salve, sancta Parens
Of all the sounds than reach the ears of God from this world, I think the sweetest must be when he hears us saying or singing "Salve, sancta Parens". This is the antiphon we start singing at the beginning of Advent, "Hail, holy Mother".
God loves us so much. He wants our salvation more than we want it ourselves. Everything he has done since creation began has been with a view to enabling us poor sinners to share his life and his joy and live with him for ever in heaven.
And when he hears us come out with "Salve, sancta Parens", he knows that so far we are shaping well.
It is something like when you light a fire. I do not mean by simply using a couple of firelighters. I mean the real thing, when you have a match and a few sheets of newspaper and some kindling wood and some coal.
You light a corner of the paper and watch it spread. You see the flames spreading, and then some crackle as the wood begins to catch, and then more crackle. And then a moment comes when you realise that the fire is really under way and no longer needs you attention.
Well, God is pleased when we are baptised, but he knows this is just the start. But when he sees that we have come to have a real love for his Mother, whom he has made our Mother too, only then does he begin to feel confident that we are going to make it all the way into the Kingdom.
Why does he feel so hopeful about us? Because he knows his Mother.
* * *
Our Catholic faith enables us to penetrate deeper into reality that any merely human mode of cognition. This is obvious, for instance in the matter of the Blessed Trinity or the Immaculate Conception or the Holy Eucharist. So in discussing ‘certainty’, we start off with the certainties given us by our Catholic faith.
St Ignatius tells us that we should so far conform our judgement to the teaching of the Church, that if the Church tells us that what looks white in point of fact is black, we should reckon it black. (Ecclesiae catholicae ita conformes esse debemus, ut, si quid quod oculis nostris apparet album, nigrum illa esse definierit, debemus itidem quod nigrum sit pronuntiare.)
We are so ignorant of the extent to which original sin has damaged us that it is much safer to rely on certainties that come from God than those which rely on reason. A religious who obeys his Superior enjoys this certainty.
We can have mathematical certainty about some things. But for the rest, we know that the reality behind all realities is the loving, merciful, creative love of God, to which we owe the reality of our own existence and our hope of salvation. This is the certainty that God wants everyone to possess, and not just the clever people but the simplest. Indeed, it can happen that the cleverest people, because they fail to reach certainty on some matters we are not meant to be certain about, suffer from intellectual discontent, while simpler souls, well content to rest in the infinite spaces of our Catholic faith, spend their lives in deep contentment.
Satan, who enjoys seeing discontented Christians, tries to stir up potentially damaging curiosity. It worked with Eve.
* * *
People often seem to assume that Our Lord’s cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”, was a cry of distress.
It could be, though, that not only was it not a cry of distress, the words were rather Our Lord’s last sermon, his final attempt at converting the Jews.
To see this, we have to bear in mind that the Jews of those times, or at any rate the men, would know the Psalms by heart. Maybe they had to learn them when they were children, much as Roman boys were made to learn the Aeneid. Or maybe they knew them by heart through saying them so often, as our Benedictine monks have always done.
Anyhow, they would have at once recognised that cry of Our Lord as the opening words, the opening antiphon as we would say, of the greatest of the messianic psalms.
And their minds could not but have run on to the verse “…they have pierced my hands and my feet”. The words would have come unbidden into their heads. And the Man they were watching had received just this treatment! Their memories would have run on in horror. “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots”. They did not want to believe their eyes! The soldiers were doing just that!
They could have realised with a sickening shock that this Man they had condemned as an impostor must indeed have been their Messiah and they were killing Him! They were fulfilling the prophecy of that psalm.
No wonder they went home “beating their breasts”.
* * *
The Final Check-Out
Since I am now getting on in years, I often think of the moment when I shall be at the gate which stands between time and eternity. It will be my final check-out. This is the moment of all moments. What will happen to me then?
Once, when I was shopping, I came to the check-out and gave the girl my card. The girl slid it through her little machine and then shook her head. I didn’t have enough in my account to pay for my purchase!
Happily, I was with a friend, and he offered his card, which got us through. But it had been an unpleasant moment.
I’ve no idea how my account stands with God. I trust it is healthy, but you never can tell. So I’m making sure that when I come to die Our Blessed Lady will be with me, like my friend at the check-out. Whatever my own account is like, I trust she will see me through safely.
So however little we may have in our account with God, if we make sure that Our Lady is with us when we pass through the check-out into eternity, she will see us through safely.
Even one Hail Mary a day could make all the difference to some people’s eternity.