When I was a child I read tremendous numbers of books about the saints. Children respond less ambiguously to tales of the heroic than adults do, and I think one reason is that adults realize how uncomfortably far they are from heroic heights, and how unlikely they are to attain them. Children are exhilarated and inspired by heroes, partly because they are not afraid to hope that they may be able to perform similar deeds as adults. A young child is humble in relation to adults: he cannot avoid seeing them run faster, catch balls more accurately, answer most of the questions that puzzle him, and so on. But it is relatively easy for him to imagine that time, almost by itself, will raise the level of his performance not only above what it is now, but above that of most other grownups as well. Children live familiarly with potential, with the idea that they will be more and more. Adults live with the rueful understanding that they are unlikely, by their own efforts, to amount to much more than they are now.
Because this is so, I saw nothing unlikely, at the age of six and eight and ten, in the possibility that I might someday be a saint, on a par with all those whose biographies I read. I wasn’t stupid or stuck-up enough to believe that I already qualified, but saints, like other kinds of heroes, came into their own at different ages. Sooner or later, of course, they all became exceptionally good, but even then, none were perfect. Except Our Lady — and when I was a young child, I was silly and naive and presumptuous enough to envy her that. No matter how saintly I ever became — even if I began being perfectly good right this minute — I would never match Mary’s record. Sometimes, when I thought about this, there almost seemed no point in beginning to be perfectly good.
A Catholic’s relationship with Our Lady is composed of homely familiarity and impenetrable mystery. For “born” Catholics, especially, she is the second mother we grew up with. It is sometimes hard to know whether we grew to know her from living with our own mothers, or whether we understood our own mothers better from the example of the Blessed Mother.
We knew her, we feel, in our mother’s womb. She leads us to God as naturally as the intense but imperfect love of our own mothers leads us to a first understanding of divine love. It is all interconnected. It is all there from the very beginning.
The contemplation of Mary’s Immaculate Heart, broken with sorrow at the sorrows of her son, has al-ways been inexpressibly comforting to Catholics in pain. It is perhaps a little difficult to say why this should be so, logically speaking. As adults we often find too great a fellow-feeling, too keen a sympathy with our own sufferings, burdensome or demoralizing. But a child with a broken heart feels better for knowing that his mother’s heart is broken for love of him. I think the child’s response, in this respect, is morally healthier than the adult’s. The child is not merely being egotistical (although he cannot help being that). He is rightly conscious of some deep communion of love made possible in the midst of suffering. The mother’s love is expressed by her desire to suffer for or with her child. The child’s love complements this: he wants someone to suffer for him, because he wants the love that inspires and feeds on that sacrifice. Later on, we learn both true and false humility. We feel unworthy of someone’s self-sacrificing love, and we also feel uncomfortable with the demands it may impose.
Great saints have graduated to a mature version of the child’s love. They are eager to receive Christ’s love, and they are also eager to respond to it, finding a kind of joy and fulfillment in suffering which more closely unites them to Him. Their love is not so much proved as expressed and fostered by suffering, rightly undertaken.
Many Catholics today accept a Protestantized notion of Mary as a trivial player in the redemptive plan or a dangerous distraction from our duty to God. This is inexpressibly sad. Mary has so much to offer, and everything she offers she received, directly and without the distortion of sin, from God Himself. The rosary, especially, is a key to the world of Jesus’ mother. It allows us to adopt, for a short space of time, the angle of her vision, a vision directed with complete clarity on God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To follow Mary’s life, through the 15 mysteries of the rosary, is to grope our way toward an all-too-evanescent understanding of what our Lord and Savior has done for us, and what our relationship to Him should be.