Mary, Our Spiritual Guide
I remember a time when taking a long trip by car meant obtaining a large, somewhat unwieldy foldout map. But if you had a particular ‘auto club’ membership – (you know the one) –you could request a series of maps in a spiral folder which outlined how to get to the desired destination, step by step. Without these aids there was no way of knowing what the best route might be. It was cumbersome, but did the trick. Today, of course, things have changed; we have access to GPS through various devices, including those built into the dashboard of our cars. But what has not changed is that we still need assistance to efficiently and safely travel to places we have never been. As important as it is to get guidance for trips, however, it is even more important that we recognize the need for guidance in our spiritual life: we need direction so that we are always moving toward God rather than going in circles, or worse still, inadvertently moving away from Him. We do not want to get lost along the way, especially when we encounter the many unexpected twists and turns which will arise. To that end we need to identify the available spiritual road maps and then utilize them as best we can. The most obvious guide is Scripture, especially the gospels, followed by other spiritual reading, solid teaching, and the example of the holy ones. The assistance of a good spiritual director also helps with the prayerful discernment that is needed to ensure we are making wise spiritual choices. But whether or not we have access to a spiritual director (who should be a person devoted to prayer), I suggest that we also look to the Virgin Mary, our mother, to find one who not only intercedes for us, but is an excellent spiritual role model. Mary always leads us to Jesus: always toward God, and never in any other direction. As such, she is the perfect role model for everyone on the spiritual path who seeks guidance for the journey.
It is important for us to realize that choosing what leads toward God is not always clear since the evil one is so deceptive. The devil is the father of lies, the deceiver, and the consummate belittler. That is, he loves to insert ‘ideas’ into our heads and hearts which tell us what poor, inept Christians we are, that we can never become holy, and a host of other self-degrading thoughts, (all lies), in an attempt to gain more power over us. Anything that gives us a negative image of ourselves, or which enhances a false image, pulls us inward toward self, or distracts us from the truth of our goodness and giftedness so that we become ineffective, should raise a ‘red flag’ because these are never from God. If there is something within that is in need of change and it really is coming from God, it would be in an area of sin or weakness that needs improvement; dealing with it would lead to holiness, resulting in peace after we go through the process of changing the behavior. Ultimately, God builds us up, while the evil one tears us down.
A saint who was in constant warfare with the devil was St. Padre Pio. (His feast day is September 23.) He was well known for having a great love for Mary, utilizing her intercession to fight temptation while encouraging others to do the same.* He once said, "Some people are so foolish that they think they can go through life without the help of the Blessed Mother. Love the Madonna and pray the Rosary, for her Rosary is the weapon against the evils of the world today. All graces given by God pass through the Blessed Mother." Padre Pio lived what he taught; he was described as always having his left hand in his pocket, fingering his Rosary beads as a constant prayer and reminder of her protection and presence. From him we can learn to turn to Mary for guidance and intercession.
Padre Pio no doubt understood that Mary was espoused to the Holy Spirit. At the Annunciation after she said, “Be it done unto me,” Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, resulting in the conception of Jesus within her womb. Thus, the Spirit became her true Spouse, enabling the Son of God to be fully human while remaining fully God. (This is not to trivialize or forget St. Joseph whose role was essential and impactful, obscure as he remains.) Furthermore, since Mary had such great intimacy with God, Satan fears her more than any other creature. This is because he knows she is mother of Jesus, spouse of the Holy Spirit, full of grace: Mary is the Immaculate One in whom there is no sin. In other words, the devil has no power over her and can never prevail over her. Everything she does leads to her Son, and the devil can never win that battle, try as he might. Perhaps this is why the evil one is so hell-bent on getting at us. Unlike Mary, we are vulnerable and therefore we need guidance and protection. She offers these to us through her prayerful intercession and also though her example.
To cast light on why Mary is a model spiritual guide, let us look to the wedding at Cana which reveals the gifts of wisdom and discernment which she possessed. (John 2:1-11) During the celebration Mary observed that the wine had run out, and stated this fact to Jesus, saying, “They have no wine.” While it was not an obvious request for Jesus to act, Mary wisely knew that this was the time for Jesus to reveal that He had the power of God. When she turned to the headwaiter with the instruction to do whatever Jesus told them, (despite Jesus asking her how her concern affected Him), it is clear that Jesus understood the deeper meaning of what she was actually indicating. Both of them knew that His actions would set Him on a road from which there was no turning back, and both knew that this was indeed the time for Him to begin. But Mary also understood that His compliance would cost each of them dearly as she had just encouraged Jesus to begin a ministry that would take Him from her. (Two notes here: First, we must remember that she was a widow with no other children and so she had just rendered herself completely vulnerable and lowly. Second, while she may have anticipated that His ministry could cause Him to suffer, she could not have known Jesus would end up on the cross; discernment is not about knowing things with certainty like a type of clairvoyance. Rather, it is about trusting God that what we are doing will head us in the direction He intends for us and for the greater good.)
Therefore, because Mary was able to guide Jesus as His mother, a gift developed through years of pondering many things within her heart, we see that she is someone to whom we, too, can turn for spiritual guidance. With her connection to both the Son and to the Holy Spirit, Mary’s intercession can be of assistance in making good choices. We can ask specifically for the gifts of wisdom and discernment, followed by the gift of trusting in God more completely. However, we also need to look to how she lived her daily life as one completely devoted to God, that is, how she lived as a true disciple of Jesus. Though there are few details, we can look to what is written of her in the gospels to see that she lived in a way that should inspire our growth in prayerfulness, patience, perseverance, generosity, humility, and acceptance of God’s desires for us. And perhaps she can also teach us to live as she did, in peace with the lack of certainty, even when it proved ‘costly’ to her. In other words, we can look to her example to inspire greater trust in God, completely and without reserve.
Our ultimate goal is to move closer to God as we journey through life, serving Him the best we can, and trying to do everything with love. While we have many resources to aid us on this journey, the best is always the Gospels which contain all that Jesus taught and demonstrated. But given that the journey is complicated and filled with potential traps, looking to saints such as Padre Pio is also important since they can teach us how to put the gospel into action as they did during their own lives. But the greatest of the saints is Mary and since no one is closer to Jesus than she is, her guidance should not be overlooked. Her motherly heart is full of grace, compassionate and loving, and yet she is also a formidable foe to the evil one. Therefore, with gratitude to God for so great a mother and spiritual guide, we should listen to her prompting when she says as at Cana, “Do whatever He tells you.”
May we have the courage to live the call to holiness, looking to the saints as our spiritual guides! May we seek the intercession of Mary, our Mother, letting her be our guide in wisdom and discernment! May we follow the example of St. Padre Pio in seeking Mary’s protection and intercession! May we spend time in prayer, reflecting upon the gospel message and how to apply it in our daily life! And may we grow in wisdom, discernment, grace, and love, trusting in the love of Jesus, following where He leads!
©Michele L. Catanese
Next post: October 7
* If you want to read more about St. Padre Pio, you can go to an earlier entry which highlighted him. It can be found at the following link: https://www.catanesesd.com/micheles-blog/i-reach-out-my-hand
1. My photo, Paris, France: I took this photo from the window of a hotel at which I was staying a number of years ago. Watching the traffic zoom in and out of the traffic circle from above was a fascinating experience. There seemed to be no rules and everyone seemed to be doing his or her own thing. I chose this for the opening image because it truly drove home (no pun intended) the importance of a map and of knowing what one is doing when trying to navigate a place one has never been before.
2. My photo, taken in Ireland, somewhere on the Dingle Peninsula: I like signs that have a humorous twist to them when taken out of context. In context this one was quite important, but it still struck me a bit funny at the time. It seemed a perfect image to convey what can happen if we follow the prompting of the evil one instead of using the road map of Scripture and our prayerful discernment.
3. This is a photo of St. Padre Pio that is widely circulated. I like it because he has a faint smile on his face, which seems to show compassion and love. It is one of my favorite photos of him, although I have no idea who the photographer may have been.
4. My photo, cropped and blurred, taken at an ordination: I chose this photo because of the action of the deacon pouring wine into the chalice as the gifts were being prepared during a Mass. The photo contains an optical illusion unless you look very closely. Look at the acolyte seen on the left: his folded hands are obscuring the wine in the decanter. If you do not look closely at his hands, it looks like water is being poured into the chalice, as if water is becoming wine. I assure you, it was wine going into that chalice. This photo seemed perfect as a symbol for the wedding at Cana referred to in the paragraph.
5. Icon, Our Lady of Grace Vladimir, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: I chose this icon because St. Padre Pio lived in a monastery in San Giovanni Rotando called Our Lady of Grace. As mentioned, he had a strong devotion to Mary. You can obtain a copy of this icon at the artist's website in one of many mediums. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/our-lady-of-grace-vladimir-002-william-hart-mcnichols.html
6.Oil painting, White Sails in Collioure by Achille Lauge (1928): I chose this painting because of the lighthouse. It seemed appropriate since lighthouses are beacons used to help ships either safely navigate dangerous waters or keep them from crashing into reef or shoreline. They are excellent symbols of the guidance we need to keep our spiritual life our off the rocks. You can find this painting at https://www.paintingstar.com/item-voiles-blanches-a-collioure-1928-s183838.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
I Call You Friends
When sci-fi movies were made many years ago they were quite different than the high tech films we have today. Those older films might even be considered a bit ‘cheesy' in comparison. Many of them had the scene, now thought of as rather cliché, in which the locals would encounter strange creatures from outer space who would (in perfect English) utter the words, “We come in peace.” The plot line would invariably progress to the introduction of some ‘skeptics’ who would decide that these aliens were up to no good, consequently opting to wipe them out, to the dismay of those who had come to know the aliens as friends. The aliens would flee, heading for home somewhere in the stars; in a happier ending they would get away unscathed, and in a less happy outcome no one would escape at all. No matter how antiquated the ‘technology,’ the message for the viewer was almost always the same: while a few people were accepting, there were many who were not as welcoming to the strangers. Simply put, what held the ‘earthlings’ back was distrust based on fear. As corny as those films were in all their string-suspended-spaceship and papier-mâché glory, they were truly onto something. What they revealed was the sinful tendency that we have yet to overcome which is to distrust what we do not understand. And this was exactly what Jesus contended with when His followers were few. He was feared and mistrusted by the leadership of His day, and thus, by those who followed them. But He certainly did come in peace and what He offered was nothing less than love and salvation.
The temptation to distrust and to feel threatened by what we do not understand stems from human weakness, that is, our broken nature. And it is our brokenness which is the venue used by the enemy of human nature in order to make inroads into our spiritual life in an attempt to derail it. This is precisely why we need the Lord so much. We need His wisdom and His grace in order to make choices which do not allow the enemy to chip away at our sense of goodness in order to move us subtly away from God. The enemy will stop at nothing to thwart any progress we are making. This is why it is so important that we learn how to discern what is from God and what is not. To do this we need to know God better, to form a friendship with Him, so that we learn to recognize Him and His handiwork. God is mysterious and way beyond our ability to comprehend; but we can grow in intimacy with Him, we can learn how to observe Him. By reading Scripture we can learn to recognize His mercy, for example, endlessly offered throughout salvation history.
A key to our relationship with God lies in studying His actions as recorded in the Scriptures and in our prayerful interaction with Him. It is not enough to know about Him; we need to know God Himself. While there is a tremendous amount in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, Jesus reveals the Father and the Spirit so that we might understand more about who God is. Therefore, let us look to a rather startling statement made by Jesus which sheds light on how God desires to relate with us. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) While God had always shown His great love and care for His people throughout their history, the intimacy that Jesus implied when He said, “I call you friends” would have amazed His Jewish followers, and for the Gentiles it would have been confusing because the gods they worshipped were not deities to be approached; to audaciously attempt anything even remotely akin to friendship would have been unthinkable. Yet friendship is exactly what God has always desired and it is what He continues to seek in relationship with each one of us.
Although there are many ways to pray with Scripture, let us look to The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola who encourages that we enter into a particular passage as a way to discern how we are called as disciples to respond to God’s call. Our response begins with accepting the call to the intimacy of friendship with Him, and from this relationship, we can then offer friendship to those to whom we minister and for that matter, all those with whom we come into contact.*
An example of one who took this concept of friendship and discipleship to heart is the Jesuit, Fr. Matteo Ricci, (1552-1610) who was missioned to China after his ordination. He was a gifted linguist, and like the great Jesuit missionary who preceded him, St. Francis Xavier, he adapted the dress, language, and culture of the people so that he could evangelize them respectfully. He approached the Chinese people as friends to whom he came in peace and fellowship. He even wrote a book of maxims (on friendship) which he based on Chinese culture, adding a Christian approach to them.** Thus, he took to heart what he learned from the Scriptures he prayed with often, perhaps learning to do so when he made The Spiritual Exercises as a young Jesuit.
Ricci imitated Jesus in viewing others as potential friends when he became a missionary who brought the faith to the people of China. He learned to imitate the priority Jesus demonstrated in bringing His love, mercy, and kindness to others. He recognized that while not everyone is a person to whom we can be intimate in our relationship, we can offer ourselves in friendship through welcoming the stranger, reaching out to the hungry, ill, imprisoned, and lonely, and offering kindness to all. Ricci knew that praying with the gospel reveals that Jesus acts just as the Father acts and that during His ministry Jesus surrounded Himself with men and women to whom He revealed much, but to whom He also listened intently. Thus when a stranger approached, one of a different faith such as a Syro-Phoenician woman or a Roman centurion asking for healing; when a leper was near, when a prostitute was about to be punished, or when a rich man climbed a tree to get closer, Jesus not only listened to their words, but He invited them into an intimate friendship based on mercy, kindness, and love. He did not condone their behaviors, but He met them where they were: He showed them what they needed to avoid, offered the graces they needed for change, and loved them just as they were, with all their faults and failings. And these are all characteristics of discipleship which Ricci put into practice during his ministry.
Jesus calls us all to this radical friendship because He truly loves us. But as in all things spiritual, true prayer, and thus our response to God, always leads us outward to action. Therefore, our loving response to Him becomes the basis of how we relate to others. Jesus taught us to treat our neighbors, friends and enemies alike, with the same respect, mercy, and forgiveness. However, He knows better than any of us what the betrayal of a friend can be like. He did not advocate that we allow people to abuse us and He was clear that there are times when the greater act of love is to walk away. But in all, friendship means that we accept the other just as they are, aware of their weakness (and our own), and that we forgive liberally. But let us remember that we need to apply prayerful discernment. It would be naïve to expect everyone to respond in friendship; evil does exist and the enemy does seek to do harm through the tactics of ‘divide and conquer,’ mistrust, hatred, doubt, and fear. Therefore, we always need to test the actions and attributes of a person or group in order to ascertain their consistency with gospel values and whether they lead us closer to or away from God. There will be trial and error, but the more we grow in friendship with God through prayer, the more we will grow in our trust of His Holy Spirit and therefore in our discernment. Thus, we will become better disciples in offering the sincere welcome of friendship to others.
Whether or not we should return to a few of those old sci-fi movies to observe human nature at its best and worst, I do not know, although it might be fun. But let’s not forget to immerse ourselves in the gospels and take it to heart that Jesus, Emmanuel (God-with-us) and Prince of Peace, calls us “friend.” Therefore, as friends and disciples, through our prayer and discernment, let us trust that He will lead us in our own efforts to welcome the stranger and give what we can to the downtrodden, not to force people into compliance with our will, but to offer a home within the heart of our church communities and into the Body of Christ where all are welcome and all are loved.
May we ask the intercession of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and all the holy men and women who went before us as friends, guides, and missionaries of love! May we imitate Matteo Ricci in responding to God’s unique call to put everything at His disposal, offering friendship to the people we encounter! May we study and pray with the Scriptures so that we might know, serve, and love God better! May we open our hearts wide, accepting the invitation the Lord extends so that we might develop the intimate friendship He desires! May we move outward in peace and love to our neighbors, including the stranger! May we pray to the Holy Spirit that we might discern wisely and learn how to be true disciples of Jesus Christ! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus, our friend and our Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next entry, September 23.
*In The Spiritual Exercises this is experienced in the exercise, The Call of the King, (paragraphs 91-94) at the end of the First Week, and then also in the Second week as discipleship is explored.
**The book is called On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince by Matteo Ricci, SJ, introduction by Timothy Billings. Ricci based his writing on the Chinese understanding of the essence of friendship as taught by the Ming debating societies. Billings discusses this in his lengthy introduction of the book.
If you would like to read more on friendship in an Ignatian context, go to the Archives listed on the right side of this page and click on March 2014; then scroll down to my entry for March 9, titled Friendship and Lent. You can also click on this link: https://www.catanesesd.com/micheles-blog/friendship-and-lent
The entry is about Servant of God Fr. Egide Van Broeckhoven, SJ. He valued friendship so greatly that he devoted his ministry to working in factories in order to minister as a friend to his co-workers. He was a remarkable man who died at the age of 34 as the result of an industrial accident. Most notable is that he considered friendship to be his vocation.
1. Photo taken by Hubble Telescope: I chose this photo of the stars and galaxies because it seemed appropriate to the start of this entry.
2. My photo, taken while hiking: I chose this rather bleak photo as a symbol of our brokenness, but there is also a hint of life amidst the dead leaves. You can see the mossy growth intertwined with the branches on the left if you look closely.
3. The Galilean Jesus, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: This is the way I envision Jesus meeting with disciples and saying, "I call you friends." He is the ultimate friend. You can find this image at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-galilean-jesus-266-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. Painting of Matteo Ricci, SJ: I liked the bright colors in this painting, to be honest, so that is why I chose it. However, I also liked it because behind him is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, holding the child Jesus. Thus, the painting depicts the Chinese culture, but also that Ricci was evangelizing, bringing Christianity to the people with whom he lived. For more on Matteo Ricci go to https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-voices/16th-and-17th-century-ignatian-voices/matteo-ricci-sj/
5. My photo taken at a festival in Natchidoches, TX: This seemed to capture friendship in the sense that there were people having a good time at a street festival. Friends enjoy shared fun as well as the more serious parts of life.
6. Icon, Santo Toribio Romo Y Gonzalez, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: St. Toribio (1900-1928) was not a Jesuit, to be clear, but I chose this icon of him because he gave his life as a martyr for his faith during the Cristero Wars in Mexico. He acted as a friend to many, trying to help them escape the government death squads who were trying to wipe out Christianity at the time. He is a patron saint of immigrants. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/-santo-toribio-romo-y-gonzalez-patron-of-immigrants-277-william-hart-mcnichols.html
7. Starry Night, painted by Vincent van Gogh: Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, so I knew that if I was using the idea of visitors from the stars as an example, I had to include this painting.
8. Jesuit Triptych, (Saint Peter Faber, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. Francis Xavier), by Fr. William Hart McNichols: Each of the panels can stand alone. They are: Saint Peter Faber Inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Ignatius Amidst the Stars and St. Francis Xavier Adoring Jesus the Mother Pelican. I chose this triptych as an example of friendship. These were the first Jesuits, friends who under the leadership of St. Ignatius, formed the nucleus of the religious order known today as the Society of Jesus. If you are interested in this triptych of icons or any other work by Fr. Bill McNichols, go to at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesuit-triptych-st-peter-faber-st-ignatius-st-francis-xavier-william-hart-mcnichols.html
NOTE: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart