Since 1980 Raniero Cantalamessa has been “the Preacher to the Papal Household”1. The book is a collection of sermons/reflections given to the Papal Household. The book is not so much simply about the Virgin Mary in narrative form but a grand exercise in how to live our lives in imitation of her. It is far from a “beginner’s book” on either Mary or on the spiritual life. A fairly good background in philosophy, theology and spirituality would be needed to work one’s way through such chapter topics as Full of Grace; O Woman, What Have You To Do With Me?, Persevering in Prayer With Mary, the Mother of Jesus; The Holy Spirit Will Come Upon You – to name but a few. The book, overall, is very deeply spiritual, and according to this reviewer’s experience of the book, life changing.
The chapters/sermons are not, therefore, independent of each other whereby a reader can start with any of the essays and read them in any order. The book is divided into three parts, I, II and III and finishes with an Epilogue. Each part is further divided into chapters – nine in all –and further still by topic. Thus there are a total of 52 sections – this reviewer makes the assumption that each of these sections are what would constitute one sermon/reflection.
The three chapters in Part I speak of Mary as Full of Grace; Blessed is She Who Believed and You Will Conceive and Bear a Son. But again, the book is not a simple narrative. For example in the first reflection in chapter one, By the Grace of God, I Am What I Am Cantalamessa describes grace as “God ‘leaning forward’ and stooping toward man” (p. 17), reminiscent of God stooping down to his child Ephraim in the Old Testament Prophet Hosea (cf. Hos. 11:4). Cantalamessa continues in his treatise on grace and then invites the reader (later in the chapter) to reflect on moments of grace in one’s life. He writes (p. 35),
“Through grace we can have even in this present life ‘a certain spiritual contact’ with God, which is much more than anything we could have through speculation on God. Each one has his own means and way of establishing this contact with grace, like a kind of secret way that he alone knows. It might be a thought, a memory, an interior image, a word of God’s, an example received”.
In Part II (this reviewer hesitates to do commentary on each of the nine chapters due to the theological/spiritual richness found therein) Cantalamessa gives powerful discourse to topics such as Mary, the ‘Pure Lamb; Accomplices of the Child Hope; She Learned Obedience From What She Suffered amongst 17 sections in Part II. He tells that Mary’s Passion starts quite early with the Prophet Simeon telling Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul” (Lk. 2:35) and that for us “Mary is our guide and model precisely in how we should behave when it is ‘pruning time’ in our lives” (p. 81). In describing Mary as the ‘Pure Lamb’, Cantalamessa brings forth one of the most powerful passages in the entire book. Here he is describing Mary’s utter anguish as she stands at the foot of the cross of her beloved Son, Jesus. Taken to refer also to our own life’s anguish(es), it is thus:
“She suffered in her heart what her son suffered in his body…Just as Christ called out: My God, my God why have you forsaken me – so Mary must suffer through something similar on the human level. A sword will pierce through your soul – and reveal the thoughts of your heart, yours also, if you still dare believe, are still humble enough to believe, that you truly are the one chosen among women, the one who has found grace before God!” (p. 110)
In the section called The Marian Synthesis in Vatican Council II Cantalamessa makes the following statement about May’s role in the Church to non-Catholics:
“My Protestant brethren, the words ‘All generations shall call me blessed’ (LK 1:48) were not put into Scripture by us Catholics but by the Holy Spirit! Should these words not also be taken as a command given by God to history, like the words uttered to Abraham ‘By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves’? If we attribute the role of mediator to Abraham, how can we possibly not attribute it more rightfully to Mary?” (p. 128)
In Part III the various reflections take on a decidedly mystical tone – not for the faint of heart nor for those unaccustomed to the spiritual life. For example, in reflecting on Mary During Pentecost and After Cantalamessa assures us that we can come to some idea of what Mary’s prayer life had been after the Pentecost event “in the lives of the saints” (p. 147). He tells of this experience:
“An ancient Syrian mystic…said, ‘I am not fainting for the banquet but because I desire the Spouse’. He meant that the soul doesn’t yearn for heaven to receive its reward but simply out of pure love for God. Such is the longing and need at this point to be reunited with God and to possess him totally that…it becomes a true martyrdom to go on living on this earth”. (p. 147)
Part III gives way to teaching the reader how to pray by having the reader consider the following in his reflections Pray to Obtain the Holy Spirit; Persevering in Prayer, (by far the longest of Cantalamessa’s reflections, going for ten pages), When Prayer Becomes an Effort and a Struggle, and Forced Prayer. In Forced Prayer, Catalamessa quotes the Blessed Angela of Foligno who once said, “forced prayer is pleasing to God” because “You do your part, my child, and God will do his” (166).
On and on Cantalamessa instructs us (the soul) on how to become deeply Marian in our life and in our prayer. This book is indeed exceedingly rich if one considers all that this reviewer has thus far described. Yet Cantalamessa also includes – and refers to –throughout his various sections meditations on four striking icons depicting Mary in various Christocentric events in her life: Great Panagia (all holy), Virgin of Tenderness (Vladimir), Crucifixion (School of Dionisij) and Ascension (School of Rublev, 15th Cent.). All four are found to be in the Tretjakov Gallery in Moscow. Each icon is a feast for the eyes and for the soul. Again, this book is so very rich as to be quite difficult to write a simple review for it. With 52 sections, it would be most appropriate for a reader who wishes to do a retreat with Mary to take one section each week for the 52 weeks of the year. There is absolutely nothing sugary nor overboard about Mary in this book — nor is it impossible to get through it as long as it is not rushed through nor entered into by someone just beginning their spiritual journey. It is quite the journey for the heart and it is, by far, the best book written this reviewer has read on the Holy Virgin, Mary Most Holy.