Mary as Viewpoint Character

Catholic devotion to Mary is often disturbing, if not actually scandalous, to most non-Catholic Christians in the West. Having grown up during the first decade after Vatican 2, when liturgy, calendar, and religious education were re-emphasizing the fundamentals that we share with all Christians, I find some of it disturbing, myself, as I’ve written elsewhere. As I engage with traditional practices of Marian prayer, then, I frequently find myself considering them in new ways, to find paths that will be more spiritually fruitful for me.

During my studies, I encountered a form of praying with a passage of the Bible in which the reader is invited to reflect on a passage by identifying with the character to they feel most drawn. It can be used alone, or as a nice technique for a Bible study: after taking some time in silence for everyone to reflect, it’s interesting to hear which characters other people chose, and why, and how they thought about the passage from that character’s perspective.

In a similar way, through the mysteries of the rosary, the church offers us Mary as the character from whose perspective we are invited to reflect on these events of salvation history.

A little background for my non-Catholic readers: when people talk about the rosary, they usually talk about the rosary beads, and the prayers that we say on each bead: the Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Marys, the Glory Be, and so on.

However, these prayers are only the outward form of the rosary: in reality, the rosary is a meditative prayer. Reciting the prescribed prayers on the beads of each decade keeps the front of our brains busy, freeing up the back part of our brains to contemplate the scene from salvation history that is assigned to each decade. We call these assigned scenes “the mysteries of the rosary.” Likewise, when we talk about Mary in relation to the rosary, we often emphasize the words we recite, which ask her to pray for us.

But by framing these scenes from salvation history as “events in the life of Mary”, the Church implicitly invites us to reflect on them from Mary’s perspective. Mary becomes our viewpoint character, our guide to the familiar stories in the moment we are praying. We can focus closely on Mary’s internal life in these moments: how did she feel, what did she think, how did she react? Or take a broader view: where is she in the scene, who is she talking to, what is their interaction like? How would we feel, what would we say, if we occupied Mary’s place in the scene?

Although I’ve led here with an example from Bible study, the concept first occurred to me in relation to icons. As Glenn Peers explains in his excellent book Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium, it is not uncommon for a painted icon to include a small portrait of the donor who commissioned the icon, portrayed as kneeling humbly in prayer, or offering gifts: sometimes as part of the scene, sometimes as one of several framing elements. Peers describes these portraits as “pathetic figures,” not in the contemporary pejorative sense of the phrase but as a technical term, a figure who embodies and models the pathos, the feeling state, for the viewer meditating on the icon, and suggests an approach to its subject.

As we meditate, then, each mystery of the rosary becomes an icon in our mind’s eye. In some, Mary is one of the central characters; in some, peripheral; in others, her presence is only implied. As we prayerfully contemplate each image, Mary’s presence within it — and her encounter with the divine — silently suggests a direction for our own encounter with God in prayer.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,

That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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