Yes, I know, she is in Abraham's bosom, so-to-speak, but if we boiled the Christological message of the Mother of God down, what would we get? I mean if you took out developmental and reactive doctrines and the fancy terms, like Theotokos, Panagia, Mater Gloriosa, Mater Dolorosa, which are mostly "Greek and Latin" to us.
Watch the video, and think about it.
Sometimes it takes fiction, "the truth inside the lie," as Stephen King called it. If any fiction captures this, it was the book I just finished, Bernardo and the Virgin (Silvio Sirias). The biographer telling the story even purports to write a fictionalized account: "I want to write your story," he tells Bernardo, then warns him he will make it a novel. Bernardo, having to learned to read late in life is at peace with this, so long as the novelist "remains true to her message," for Bernardo knows the lines between fiction and non-fiction are often unclear. Bernardo, having grown up in a poor Nicaraguan pueblo, had to work for most of his life for the luxury of literacy. In spite of his poverty, and second-class citizenship as a campesino, he lived a humble pious life. Most of his neighbors think he is "simple," or worse, mentally handicapped. Most of them tell get to tell their stories in biography, and almost all of them characterize Bernardo as somewhat thick, for how else can a man live with such devotion to prayer, faith, and being self-less in nearly every way? Padre Ginés, Bernardo's confidante, former priest, and later colleague said Bernardo was "far from being the brightest man on the planet."
Early in the revolution, Mary appeared to Bernardo, asking her to carry a message to Nicaraguans, and to the world at large. Every time she appeared over the course several years of revolution, she repeated herself:
I want everyone to pray the rosary, every day, not only during the month of May. I want everyone to pray it with their family. Teach our children to pray the rosary as soon as they are old enough to understand. Pray the rosary at the same time of the day, once the chores of the home have been completed. El Señor does not like prayers that are said in a hasty, distracted, or mechanical manner. Make sure that when you pray the rosary, you take time to reflect upon the appropriate passages of the Bible. Renew the first Saturdays. you received many favors when you last did this. And above all, I want everyone to live La Palabra de Dios (the Word of God).
Love one another. Fulfill your duties and obligations to each other. Forgive one another. Work for peace. Do not ask El Señor for peace. You need to work to make peace among yourselves; otherwise it will never happen. Do not choose the path of violence. Never choose the path of violence. never choose the path of violence. Since the earthquake, your county has suffered much and now dark, menacing clouds cover it again. Your suffering and the suffering of all of humanity shall continue if people don't mend their ways.
Pray, mi hijo (my son). Pray the rosary for the entire planet. Tell believers and nonbelievers alike that grave dangers threaten the world. I am begging El Señor to delay his judgment. If you don't mend your ways your dependence on violence as a way to settle difference will bring forth Armageddon.
Throughout out accounts in Bernardo and the Virgin, Bernardo and all those whose accounts the narrator includes share key snippets of the message, with the central message repeating in the novel over and over. Sor Milagros (Sister Milagros) includes it in her accounts. Bernardo repeats it in the chapters devoted to his point of view. It is borne out, or the horrifying consequences of it not being honored repeat in the stories of women who lose husbands to infidelity, sons to the violence of the revolution, or themselves to that violence. Bernardo repeats it and he is not immune to those who ignore the message. When Sandra, who grew up Catholic, pushes against the violence of the dictators, she is pulled into the violence of the communist rebels. Having been tortured herself, she both gives up on prayer, then on the Church with its Scripture and rhythms of prayer, feasts and fasts. Finally she abandons God and gives herself over as a crowning tool of torture. She becomes Bernardo's torturer, trying bribery, then sleep and food deprivation, and electrocution to force him to recant. Unable to succeed she orders him sodomized and released.
After such horror, a good man is hard to find. Bernardo hides in the seminary, one of a few worthy candidates flooding its doors, seeking its refuge. But Sor Milagros and friends convince him that is not God's will. He finishes his education, is ordained to the diaconate at fifty-seven, and goes to serve and to repeat the message.
"I want everyone to pray the rosary every day, not just in the month of May. Teach your children to pray the rosary as soon as they are old enough to understand. Pray at the same time every day, once the chores of the home have been completed. El Señor does not like prayers that are said in a hasty, distracted, or mechanical manner. Make sure that when you pray the rosary, you take time to reflect upon the appropriate passages of the Bible. Renew the first Saturdays. you received many favors when you last did this. And above all, I want everyone to live La Palabra de Dios (the Word of God).
Love one another. Fulfill your duties and obligations to each other. Forgive one another. Work for peace. Do not ask El Señor for peace. You need to work to make peace among yourselves; otherwise it will never happen. Do not choose the path of violence. Never choose the path of violence. never choose the path of violence.
Bernardo may be painted as a simpleton, a kind of "fool-for-Christ," but he is no idiot. His actions speak so loudly, but do not overshadow the words he is given. His actions testify on behalf of his character and capacity. He teaches himself to read and to be a tailor to move up and out of the field work of the campesinos. He preserves a statue of Mary from destruction in his teens. He cares for the local parish. He advocates for schools in his pueblo. He protects a widow and provides a father-figure for her orphaned son.
Most of all, he never tooted his own horn, as the idiom goes. He remained silent on matters of his own intelligence, goodness, piety. His purpose was to speak the message he was given, not speak for himself.
While Padre Ginés says in one breath,
"May Bernardo forgive me for saying this... He was clever, no doubt about. He was good at solving common, everyday problems. But the only way Bernardo could be sure about accurately spreading her message was by memorizing it word for word...
"Señora, soy muy bruto,' he said to her. 'I'm as dumb as a stick. Please repeat your message once again so I can get it right. Otherwise, I'll forget what you said and make a mess out of everything.' That's why the message is always exactly the same."But is he as dumb as stick? For a few minutes after this, Padre Ginés implicates the rest of clergy. He condemns their hidden motives: "Whenever you relay someone else's message you will, at some point or another, get it mixed up. El Señor knows we clerics have done our own share of it with Jesucristo's message." He switches persons in his response, you the second person is invariable used where we shirk from true speaker I.
I realize some of you may be put off by Mary, by the rosary. The divide between Catholic and Protestant has made all things Mary fodder for reaction, but what message, what Christological message is she speaking? Does one exist in this book? If so, what does it offer us?
- That prayer, and Scripture, must be constant, central, attentive, even in terrible times.
- Mean what you pray. Let your yes be yes.
- As worthy as prayer and Scripture are to live, they require discipline of ourselves.
- We do our children a favor if we teach them the habits from the youngest days, for as Solomon writes, "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Prov. 22:6)
- Keep the holy days. Don't be a skipper. Honor the Sabbath Day (for Christians this is the Resurrection Day.)
- Fulfill your duties to each other cannot be a more direct pointer to all of Romans 12, the whole thing. Particularly this: "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality." Read it again here.
- Do not pray for peace. "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." or "Blessed are the peacemakers." It's not a question of relinquishing it until it appears, but a matter of our taking action to make peace. I love that making peace is an action. It is obedience that is blessed. So is being merciful, mourning, hungering for righteousness, and attaining a state of being called "pure in heart." These are actions that require we work for them. We experience the energies of God, grace, when we these, and God, with all our might.
What excites me is that these very Scriptural messages are never debunked in the novel. The skeptic (of our culture) that I've become, just kept waiting for the novel to betray me. I thought it would sell out to skepticism of the modern man, rather than fidelity to creed, to God, to His created beings, all my neighbors on this planet.
It's not that the campesinos in Nicaragua didn't need, and long for. These were temporary and new needs would arise. When Bernardo begs Nuestra Señora to answer the petitions of his people, she responds, "Bernardo, they are asking for things that are not important. They should be asking for greater faith and patience to help them bear their crosses. I cannot take away the suffering that is part of living in this world. Those are the crosses we all bear. I, for one, witnessed my Son's Crucifixion, and I later held his tortured body in my arms. Instead, everyone needs to listen to and act upon this message: love one another, resolve your differences by talking to each other. Do not take the path of violence. Never take the path of violence. Ask for faith, and you shall be rewarded with patience."
This gives me wings, to paraphrase St. Ephraim of Syria's prayer. It fits with "Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good" and the fathers of the faith before us taught the same, that we should not pray that all affliction be removed from us, but that we be given the strength. "Consider pure joy brothers when you face trials of many kinds, for you know the testing of your faith brings about perseverance..." says St. Peter.
Fidelity to our faith, to each other, in times of strife and violence (when is that NOT happening) is hard. In fact, I think we "sex up" the conflict, sell the heavy-handed reaction, and reach towards violence or vengeance for the thrill, whether in the story or real life.
It's much harder these days to live in fidelity to one another. It's a bombastic time. When I was chatting about Wendell Berry with fellow author Scott Russell Sanders last summer, he reminded me that living in fidelity is hard to do, and harder story to sell. I get a little thrill when someone can do it, someone like Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, Oscar Hijuelos and now Silvio Sirias, among the writers whose story, characters, conflicts and complications, point to the mystery of something more. What I hunger for. For the love of God and our fellow human.
Mary was a first of the followers of Christ and faithful to the end. What a joy to read fiction that points to the truth as she did.