Why Mary Is the Best Promoter of Culture

"A Mother's arms are more comforting than anyone else's." - Princess Diana

 Perhaps the First Image of Mary Painted by St. Luke

Perhaps the First Image of Mary Painted by St. Luke

In my book, The Marian Option: God's Solution to a Civilization in Crisis, I spent a lot of time talking about how Mary is a unique driver of culture. The insight was certainly not my own, but hails from some unlikely places. The first is from Henry Adams (1838-1918), grandson of President John Quincy Adams, and great-grandson of Founding Father and President John Adams.

In the early 1900s, Adams, a Protestant who had spent much time living in Europe, wrote about the extreme power wielded by the Virgin Mary:

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a period when men were at their strongest; never before or since have they shown equal energy in such varied directions, or such intelligence in the direction of their energy; yet these marvels of history – these Plantegenets [a dynastic family of kings]; these Scholastic philosophers; these architects of Rheims and Amiens; these Innocents, and Robin Hoods, and Marco Polos; these crusaders who planted their enormous fortresses all over the Levant; these monks who made the wastes and barrens yield harvest – all, without apparent expedition, bowed down before the woman.

What Adams recognized over a century ago as he walked through the cities, churches, cathedrals, and cemeteries, was that the height of European culture was centered around devotion to Our Lady. In the places where European culture soared, so too did devotion to Our Lady, and perhaps vice versa, where devotion to Mary soared, so too did culture.

Mary As Masterpiece

Decades later, art historian Sir Kenneth Clark stated that there is something unusual about the feminine element in religion and culture. Sir Clark says, “The all-male religions (a reference to Israel, Islam, and the Protestant North)  have produced no religious imagery—in most cases have positively forbidden it. The great religious art of the world is deeply involved in the female principle.” Mary certainly offers that feminine principle.

Mariologist Fr. Johann Roten offers a theological explanation for Mary's cultural influence. “As masterpiece, Mary is a direct reference to the divine artifex: she is part of the creative manifestation of God’s marvelous deeds.” He continues, “Mary’s beauty is beauty of promise and hope.” Marian culture is then an extension of Mary’s virtues. It isn’t art for arts sake, or beauty for the sake of beauty, but like Mary herself, points to something, or in this case, someone, beyond herself. To see the material elements of Marian culture, such as art, music, architecture, and literature, the viewer doesn’t simply bask in its beauty or cleverness for its own sake, but enters into Christ's story.

And even Fulton Sheen observed that Mary's influence stems from her role as a woman to edify men. He wrote, “When man loves a woman, it follows that the nobler the woman, the nobler the love; the higher the demands made by the woman, the more worthy a man must be. That is why woman is the measure of the level of our civilization.” When men love the most noble of women, the bar of culture is raised to new heights.

 Virgin of Mercy, Sano di Pietro, 15th century;

Virgin of Mercy, Sano di Pietro, 15th century;

But as ever with Our Lady, there is more. Over the past few weeks our family has gone from the flu, which flattening the whole household, and now to strep. During this time, aside from the necessities of medicine, my most important job has been to hold a sick child. Stacks of dirty dishes, laundry, showering, writing, everything else had to be put on hold to do something so simple, and yet so important.

 Mother and Child, 1183, Christian Krohg, National Gallery, Norway

Mother and Child, 1183, Christian Krohg, National Gallery, Norway

Science continues to inform us about the role of bonding between a mother and child, particularly at birth. The imprinting that happens between the two starts early in the the womb. Remarkable details have emerged, such as the data that says that the child knows the mother's scent before birth from the amniotic fluid. Hormones like oxytocin are released during physical contact, provide an abundance of peace and other feelings of well-being. This certainly doesn't end with infancy. But all of this physical mothering has to have greater perfection in its spiritual form when it comes from the perfect mother, Our Perfect Mother.

There is new research emerging about the most successful business cultures. The book The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle reports that the companies with the most successful cultures live with a sense of family - where human contact and connecting, a future together, and safety and care all play a role. Surpassing even intelligence levels of employees, these familial things are hallmarks of successful organizations.

It is interesting to look at how the Church has operated for centuries by living out this extended family concept long before it was "a thing." Companies like Google and Twitter actually call their employees "googlers" or "tweeps" giving them something of a family name. Similarly, the Church has names like Benedictines, Augustinians, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carmelites, that have also had successful cultures that have lasted centuries and centuries. Additionally, individual members are called brother, sister, father, mother within these orders, further solidifying the family ethos.

But Christ and the Church in their wisdom saw to it to also give us a Mother so we would not be left orphans. At the heart of every family is a mother. And it is from the mother that culture can and does flow -- because she brings order, connection between members, a deep sense of belonging, and the safety that comes from just being held. Mary, as the perfect mother, wants to be all of this. And in those times and places when she has been at the center of a culture - the true mother of the family -- those places have flourished.

As for those places where she is forgotten Pope Pius X tells us what happens. “If we were to lose Mary, the world would wholly decay. Virtue would disappear, especially holy purity and virginity, connubial love and fidelity. The mystical river through which God’s graces flow to us would dry up. The brightest star would disappear from heaven, and darkness would take its place.”