On this day when we've been celebrating the glorious Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, I'd like to recount how I came to my devotion to Our Lady. Funnily enough, it's a Baptist scholar I credit with pointing the way.
Back in September 2004, I went to an Imago-sponsored weekend of talks by Baylor University's Professor Ralph Wood, an authority on J.R.R. Tolkien. The first evening, he compared Tolkien and C.S. Lewis with regard to their lives as Christians and their fictional worlds, presenting, I believe, a version of this paper, which I also looked up on the Web later.
As a Roman Catholic, Tolkien shared Lewis’s conviction that God-implanted natural law underlies everything created. Yet for Tolkien it was the imagination, far more than the reason, that discerns this divine order. He lacked Lewis’s urgency to bring people into the Kingdom by argument, despite the venerable tradition of apologetics that animates much of Catholic theology. For Tolkien, it seems, the traditional moral and sacramental witness of the church was a sufficient means of evangelism. That few if any souls will ever be converted to the Gospel by reading his work was no worry to him. Like the anonymous monks who gave written form to Beowulf, Tolkien practiced the method of indirection, quietly imbuing his pre-Christian epic with concerns that are obliquely rather than overtly Christian. Nor was he troubled that many readers failed to perceive the implicitly Christian character of The Lord of the Rings. He wanted his work to stand on its own intrinsic merits, to glorify God as a compelling and convincing story, not for it to be propped up with even so noble a purpose as evangelism.
And sharing as I did Tolkien's distaste for allegory in the Narnia Chronicles (even at the age of about nine I had found the Aslan-as-Christ literary device heavy-handed), I was curious what had animated his own vision.
I now notice that the Birmingham Oratory strongly coloured Tolkien's Catholicism – if I heard this detail back in 2004, though, it meant little to me, except that for a year I'd lived within a five-minute walk of the London Oratory and regrettably not gone inside more than once or twice, and that mostly for the architecture if I recall correctly. <aside>I sigh to think of the wretched excesses I might have steered clear of, had I heeded those inner nudges to go hear some of the fine music I'd been told they had at the Oratory. During that phase, in the mid-1990s, I would sometimes describe myself as a "Protestant atheist": Protestant by culture but atheist by belief. In other words, I was still stirred by traditional church architecture and Handel's Messiah (an oratorio, please note) and the like, even if I didn't believe any of what had motivated them. It's a bit ironic that I would label this "Protestant," which really meant only that this was the Christian culture I'd grown up with, when what resonated most deeply with me was culturally still quite close to the Catholic roots from which it had sprung.</aside> In any case, the kindred sensibilities of the Oratorians in Toronto would eventually help draw me into the Church that Tolkien had embraced.
At a reception for our speaker, I asked him what we as Protestants (for whatever reason, almost everyone at the public events had been Protestant) could learn from Tolkien's Catholicism. Some question like this had evidently come up before, and Prof Wood recalled a clever line: the number one thing Protestants can learn from Catholics is veneration of the Virgin Mary, and the number one thing Catholics can learn from Protestants is not to go overboard with veneration of the Virgin Mary. (I've since concluded that excessive veneration of the Blessed Virgin is well nigh impossible for anyone who follows the Church's teaching that devotion to her differs in kind from the adoration due the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but we'll let that go, considering how much good I got from the first half of the line. One priest recently told me the people he knew who were really "way out there" in their devotion to Mary were even more fervent in their devotion to Jesus.)
Anyway, being a good sola scriptura kind of guy back in 2004, I was wary of praying the Rosary, so instead I decided I would meditate on the Magnificat. Every day for a month, I read and pondered it. How beautiful it was. How unfortunate that, growing up, I had hardly given a moment's thought to Mary except during Advent and at Christmas. From the time of these readings onward, though, I would count myself among the generations who would call her blessed the whole year round.
Reading the Magnificat began a
subtle internal shift in my consciousness, so that I was primed to
receive more of the Church's teaching. During the winter I read around
on Catholic blogs (among many others) and even read a few encyclicals,
as I recall. Eventually I got over my reticence and began praying the Rosary too.
Then when Pope John Paul II died, I was swept off the far bank of the Tiber, and soon I was received into the Church. Since then, I've learned to truly love the Rosary. A turning point came at the beginning of 2006 when I woke up in the middle of the night and felt led to pray five whole chaplets of Sorrowful Mysteries, during which I didn't feel as if anything special was happening, but then found the day that followed just filled with one exciting theological discussion after another. In a very practical way, that convinced me of the power of the Blessed Virgin's intercession, and since then I've been praying the Rosary several times a day.
Truly the Lord works in mysterious ways. Happy feast day, everyone!
Update (August 20): Thanks for the referral, Fr Dwight!