I just finished reading Mark Shea’s three-volume Mary, Mother of the Son, sent to me by the Catholic Company. Shea is a convert to Catholicism from the Evangelical faith who set out to discover whether Catholic teachings on Mary are anti-biblical and what exactly it is about Mary that is so compelling to Catholics. He has written a book that I think provides much to reflect on, for Catholics as well as Evangelicals.
I think the value of the first volume – Modern Myths and Ancient Truth – is less what it says about Mary than its broader lessons it contains. I don’t mean to take away from Shea’s Marian discussion; most notably his reaching an understanding of the important truth that “the whole point about Mary is that the point is not about Mary,” that Mary always points us to Jesus. But what I really found valuable in this volume were things like Shea’s discussion of the spread of what he terms “pseudo-knowledge” (and his debunking of many of those claims), his elaboration of the things that create misunderstandings between Catholic and Evangelicals and his discussion of “reading scripture as the Apostles did,” which includes looking for both a literal sense and the deeper meaning underneath the literal about the spread of what Shea.
The second volume of the book – First Guardian of the Faith – defends the four defined teachings about Mary: her status as Theotokos (Mother of God), her Perpetual Virginity, her Immaculate Conception and her Assumption. Again, one of Shea’s significant thrust is that these teachings are significant more for what they mean about Jesus and the nature of human beings, than about Mary herself. Evangelicals are Shea’s primary audience here and, while I’m not necessarily persuaded by his arguments with respect to each of the doctrines (I confess that I remain unpersuaded that it matters a whole lot whether Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth), he does a good job of showing that each of the doctrines is compatible with Scripture, whether or not they can be said to be “biblically-based.”
The third volume – Miracles, Devotion, and Motherhood – focuses most directly on devotion to Mary. In it Shea talks about one of the things that makes even many Catholics nervous – the subject of Marian apparitions. But while it is easy to poke fun at, e.g., someone claiming to see Mary’s face in a bite of grilled cheese sandwich (one of his examples), Shea does a good job of discussing public vs. private revelation and how the Church has dealt with various claims of Marian sightings. Having had an extraordinary experience with Mary myself, I share Shea’s view that “the reality is that some claims are true, and therefore, while it is necessary to be cautious when faced with claims of private revelation, it’s also possible to be too cautious.”
The part of the third volume I think many people will find useful is a section in which Shea shares some of the things he has pondered as he meditated on the rosary. My approach to praying the rosary is not dissimilar to Shea’s. I place myself mentally in the scene being prayed over as a way to reflect on how the scene speaks to my life or the lives of those for whom I am praying. For people not used to this type of prayer, Shea’s discussion of each mystery provides an entrée into reflection. And even for those who have engaged in their own reflections, there is always value in someone else’s take on the same scene.