Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God
By David Mills
Publisher: Servant Books
Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner
In Discovering Mary, David Mills guides us toward a full appreciation of Marian doctrine. The information he offers can be found in magisterial documents and approved theological writings, but perhaps not so well phrased and with such apt analogies. For example, Mills says that the Church, in declaring a Marian dogma, puts her ancient teaching in more precise form, not like a “mathematical proof,” but rather “like trying to understand something in the heavens long seen in telescopes but only coming into focus as instruments improve and understanding of astronomy grows.”
Framed as a series of questions and answers, with the answers ranging from a paragraph to two pages, Discovering Mary is well suited for any would-be or poorly instructed Catholic. Mills tells how a newcomer might initially feel about praying to Our Lady: “I remember cringing, after I became a Catholic, when a woman I knew said, ‘I told the Blessed Mother….'” Yet his heart soon changed after he’d begun living with the sacraments.
Nowadays, skeptics (including some biblical scholars) claim that virtually everything the Bible says about Mary has been invented by human minds. Mills replies that these thinkers are trying to eliminate “the supernatural from the Gospels, which means essentially eliminating Mary, bearer as she is of so much that is obviously supernatural.” Mary is a “bridge” between the Old and New Testaments, with passages about her in the New containing divine allusions to the Old — as when the angel Gabriel tells her that the Most High will “overshadow” her, an unmistakable allusion to the Ark in Exodus “overshadowed by a cloud” as a sign of God’s presence; and when Elizabeth asks Mary why it is granted “that the mother of my Lord should come to me,” an allusion to David’s question, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” These are divine allusions because the Bible is written by a “single” storyteller, and its unity, though not as obvious as that of “a book of mathematical theorems,” is that of a divine “artist’s vision.”
When the Church exercises her teaching authority regarding Mary, she is “a reporter, not a novelist.” The newcomer who looks closely at her teaching is struck by the Church’s “exegetical chastity,” her “care not to say too much.” Knowledge of Mary’s life was the “common possession” of the early Church, and it has come down to us as a living tradition expressed in liturgies, writings of the earliest saints and theologians, and dogmatic decisions of popes, bishops, and councils. We can see the continuity of this living tradition when we hear St. Ephrem in the fourth century praying, “Only you [Jesus] and your Mother are more beautiful than everything. For on you, O Lord, there is no mark; neither is there any stain in your Mother,” and Pope Pius IX in 1854 declaring, regarding the Immaculate Conception, “This mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin” possessed “that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater.” The Church’s profound understanding of Mary has thus percolated in and shaped her thinking about Mary throughout two millennia.
Perhaps the most valuable part of Discovering Mary is the lucid explanation Mills offers of our Blessed Mother’s perpetual virginity, a dogma declared in A.D. 553 by the Fifth General Council. This belief, which Catholics share with the Orthodox, is little understood today. What few realize is that the dogma has three “stages”: the virginal conception, the virginal parturition, and the virginal life thereafter. As St. Augustine explains, “A virgin conceived, a virgin bore, and after the birth was a virgin still.” This doctrine is de fide— i.e., it must be believed by all Catholics. The second “stage” is the least understood: here the Church holds that “Mary kept her physical integrity (an intact hymen)” while giving birth to Christ in Bethlehem. As St. Ambrose declared, “When He was born from His mother’s womb, He yet preserved the fence of her chastity and the inviolate seal of her virginity.” This miracle, he adds, was prophesied by Ezekiel when he spoke of a certain gate: “The Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore, it shall remain shut” (44:2). The Church has always taught that the birth of Christ was “as much a miracle” as was His conception. The ancient Fathers Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine all compared our divine Savior’s birth (the virginal parturition) to His emergence from the sealed tomb. (One might add, too, that this miracle explains why Mary needed no midwife.) As for the third “stage” of our Lady’s perpetual virginity, Mills makes this point among others, that St. Joseph would have realized that she was “a sacred vessel” and would have treated her as we do the liturgical vessels reserved for the body of our Lord, not letting them be defiled by “any secondary use.”
Other chapters in Discovering Mary deal with the feasts, titles, devotions, and apparitions of Mary. Some could be dismayed at the number of Mary’s titles, but they should reflect that “people naturally think up new names for someone they love, to try to express her excellence and virtue. Love is expansive and exuberant. Love makes up names.” Besides, her many titles reveal “the depths and the complexity of Mary’s place in God’s economy of salvation. She has many titles because God has used her in many ways.” In explaining the controversial title “Mediatrix,” Mills points out that it detracts not a whit from Christ as our one mediator (1 Tim. 2:5-6). The Church is an interdependent family in which “everyone advocates and mediates for everyone else, and Mary, fittingly, does so perfectly and universally.” He also asks us to reflect on sacred history as a matter of God’s choosing: “It is possible to think of an arrangement in which everyone speaks to God without mediation of any sort, but this is not the arrangement He has given us. He chose to bring His Son into the world through a human mother. He chose that His Son would establish a Church through which the men His Son redeemed would participate in the work of redemption. He chose to give us our sacred writings through human writers and to communicate his truths through a magisterium, and to listen to our prayers for each other. He chose to assume Mary into Heaven and to give us a way to speak to her.” These are all major points made in David Mills’s forceful yet graceful style. His Discovering Mary is to be highly recommended.
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