Marian devotion inspires the cause of women

by Caroline Mbonu

NCR Contributor

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Marian devotion and the spirituality therefrom come down to us from the reflections and writings of the doctors of the early church and the theologians of the Middle Ages; the four-fold Gospel offers only a limited source that features Mary. Marian devotion has become a permanent feature of the Nigerian church. There is hardly a parish in the country without one Marian society or another. A Marian devotee can belong to one or more of sodalities such as the Legion of Mary, the Blue Army of our Lady of Fatima, the Mother of Perpetual Help and others. One burning question, though, is how Marian spirituality influences the women in their cause of gender balance. I would like to amplify a very small part of this devotion, that is, a prayer of the Legionaries; this devotional prayer is gradually becoming the concluding prayer after the Eucharistic celebration in most parishes across the land.

The devotion has taken a new turn in most parishes. One usually hears the “Catena Legionis” prayed before worshippers leave the church at the end of Mass. The catena is the antiphon to the Magnificat in this context. This Marian prayer is a welcome development in that it provides in vivid terms sharp images that give voice to the hidden qualities of Mary, values that can further a women’s cause of full participation in social processes.

I am familiar with the Legion of Mary, having become a member at age 8 shortly after first Communion. I did pray or rather recite the catena (as it is called) for years but never paid attention to the words. Lately, my work on gender and gender hermeneutics has opened up a whole new world of looking more closely at texts with a view of drawing meaning and contributing to the ongoing conversation on gender improvement.

The catena found in the middle of the Tessera, a prayer card of the Legion of Mary, is an antiphon that extols the blessed mother. It praises her dignity, which is wrapped in physical beauty strength: “Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array?”

Sometimes I wonder how many Marian devotees share my feelings of this imagery of Mary. She comes as the morning rising. She is fair as the moon, she is bright as the sun and, most of all, Mary is depicted as terrible as an army set in battle array. What a woman! Little wonder then the question, “Who is she?” Perhaps the Magnificat provides the answer. But that is not the interest here; our inquiry focuses on the imageries of the antiphon.

As in the book of Revelation, the depictions in the antiphon connote layers of meanings. But it is also appropriate to explore the literal sense of the terms. Watching the sun rise, particularly during the dry season, lends itself to understanding the beauty and richness of the one who comes forth as the morning rising, Mary. Moreover, having watched the rising sun at the Grand Canyon a few years back, I have come to truly appreciate more deeply the richness of Mary, extoled as the rising sun. The fairness of the moon is a familiar feeling having lived in a village without electricity for some years. Moonlight extends the day. Indeed the village children look forward to the brilliant moonlight, its fairness provides extra play time. Unlike regions where the sun seldom shines bright, those of us along the equator can testify to the bright sun, a welcome phenomenon when contrasted with the darkness of the tropical rain forest. These sweet accolades begin to wane with the introduction of the word “terrible.” Mary is depicted to be terrible as an army in full battle gear. How can one bring together these contradicting images in a prayer session like the Magnificat? The curiosity remains that such contradictory terms could be employed by the prayer composer to describe the Blessed Mother. I do not suppose these images of Mary can be sufficiently explained without profound spiritual reflections.

Continuing on the literal reflection of the catena prayer text, placing Mary in “battle array” side by side with the long traditions that present her as the “passive maiden from Nazareth,” totally submissive, calls to question the character and ability of the “She” who is celebrated in prayer in our local churches each day. The composer of the prayer had a story to tell, a story that we cannot exhaust in this column. Nonetheless, this story/prayer appears to dig deep into the heart of the one who is the mother of the redeemer. The prayer/story points to the quality of the woman who gave the world a savior. For the composer, this woman possessed the fullness of gentleness and strength.

The richness of Mary’s gentleness and strength appears as the storyline and the normative role of stories in the African oral corpus remains cathartic and therapeutic. Stories can prove wholesome and people remain as healthy and confident as the stories they tell. Repeating each day the qualities that characterize “she who comes” (the morning rising, fair moon bright sun, battle ready), has a potential of implanting some positive ideas in the mind. For us women, therefore, this story/prayer calls for a deeper reflection. Thus the catena with its emphasis on both gentleness and strength has the potential of providing a mirror for positive identity for Marian devotees and for women in particular. The tenacity with which the prayer leader intones the catena after the holy Mass, suggests that this is no ordinary prayer. It seems to me that this prayer invites devotees to align themselves with Mary’s Legion, whose armor of humility remains the strength that overcomes all odds.

[Caroline Mbonu is a member of Congregation of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus and holds a doctoral degree from the Graduate Theological Union. She is senior lecturer in the department of Religious and Cultural Studies at University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria.]