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In Defense of Exaggerated Marian Devotion

Protestants aren’t the only ones who find Catholic devotion to Mary a bit over-the-top sometimes. A lot of Catholics find other Catholics, including great Saints like Alphonsus Liguori and Louis de Montfort, to be a little “much” when talking about the Virgin Mary. I get it. Take the Salve Regina, for example: it calls Mary “Our Life, Our Sweetness, and Our Hope.” How is that kind of effusive flattery theologically defensible? After all, Our Life and our Hope is Jesus Christ.

Part of the answer is cultural and rhetorical. It’s not a coincidence that the most schmaltzy or exaggerated-seeming statements about Mary tend to come from Romantic Romance-language speakers (the Italians, French, and Spanish, especially).

But even more than that, these kind of lines come from devotional writings, meaning that they’re more like love letters to the Virgin Mary than they are like carefully-worded theological treatises. Blessed John Henry Newman, a comparatively-stuffy Englishman, points this out brilliantly:

And of all passions love is the most unmanageable; nay more, I would not give much for that love which is never extravagant, which always observes the proprieties, and can move about in perfect good taste, under all emergencies. What mother, what husband or wife, what youth or maiden in love, but says a thousand foolish things, in the way of endearment, which the speaker would be sorry for strangers to hear; yet they are not on that account unwelcome to the parties to whom they are addressed. Sometimes by bad luck they are written down sometimes they get into the newspapers; and what might be even graceful when it was fresh from the heart, and interpreted by the voice and the countenance, presents but a melancholy exhibition when served up cold for the public eye.

So it is with devotional feelings. Burning thoughts and words are as open to criticism as they are beyond it. What is abstractedly extravagant, may in particular persons be becoming and beautiful, and only fall under blame when it is found in others who imitate them. When it is formalised into meditations and exercises, it is as repulsive as love-letters in a police report. Moreover, even holy minds adopt and become familiar with language which they would never have originated themselves, when it proceeds from a writer who has the same objects of devotion as they have; and, if they find a stranger ridicule or reprobate supplication or praise which has come to them so recommended, they feel it as keenly as if a direct insult were offered to those to whom that homage is addressed.

The parody band Flight of the Conchords has a (slightly-racy) song called “The Most Beautiful Girl in the Room,” in which the singer compliments a girl by saying things like “I can tell that you are the most beautiful girl in the … room,” and “when you’re on the street, depending on the street, I bet you are definitely in the top three good looking girls on the street.” The joke is that these carefully-nuanced statements make for terrible compliments. A man in love ought to think and speak of his beloved as if she’s the most beautiful woman on earth. Newman’s point is true of all devotional language, but in a special way of the way Catholics speak and think about Mary. Criticizing Catholics for exuberantly praising their mother Mary is like criticizing a child for buying a “#1 Dad” mug for his father.

Read more at Word on Fire –

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