Surrounding Marian devotion are a variety of blessed items that are associated with her. The most common (and often mainstreamed) is the Rosary but there are others including Miraculous Medals and scapulars. Each have their own origin and purpose in the Church that I wanted to break down and share. Often, we give or receive these items and although we know that they are blessed and honor Mary, Theotokos, we aren't sure how or why.
A simple definition of the Rosary is prayer beads used to assist in meditative prayer. Although some of us may flinch at the comparison, the Rosary is not all that different from prayer beads used in other major religions, such as Islam and Buddhism. History notes knotted prayer ropes being used by Catholic desert monks in the 3rd and 4th centuries. But the Rosary and how to pray it is often attributed to St. Dominic, a Castilian priest and founder of the Dominican order. The Rosary is at the heart of the Dominican order and they are attributed with its spread across Europe. Although unproven, it is believed that Mary herself taught St. Dominic how to use the Rosary to intercede through her.
The Miraculous Medal is what is known as a "sacramental", blessings which prepare us to receive the grace of the sacraments and help us to grow to be more like Christ. Despite secular appropriation the Miraculous Medal is not talisman (or as an ex of mine called it, his "real seat belt"). In 1830, St. Catherine Laboure heard a voice calling to her from the chapel. Mary gave her a mission and appeared to her a few months later. This time, Mary appeared as we see her on the Medal, standing on a globe with rays of light coming from her to the earth. The vision also rotated to show St. Catherine the "back" of the medal, which showed the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, as well as a ring of 12 stars, and a large M surmounted on a cross. Mary told St. Catherine: "All who wear them will receive great graces."
Brown Scapular (of our Lady of Mount Carmel)
Although there are several different kinds of scapulars, one of the most common is the brown scapular that originated in the Carmelite order of nuns. The scapular began as a monastic tradition as a part of their every day attire. Non-monastic scapulars are smaller and are also known as oblates. There is a history of indulgences attached to the scapular but in modern times, wearers believe that although it does save them from Hell, it is because of the true faith and devotion to Mary that it symbolizes. Simply wearing the scapular (just like casually wearing a Miraculous Medal) does nothing. It is the consecration to Mary and her Son that leads the wearer to God's Kingdom.
Sacramentals can be difficult to understand. There is so much mysticism and oral tradition associated with them. Some cultures wear Rosaries around their necks while others make rubber ones for small children to teethe on. Neither way is wrong, as long as it is done with intentional holiness. If you do use or wear any sacramental, take some time to ask yourself if you are doing it from a posture of mindful faithfulness or out of sort of spiritual superstition. Something to consider would be how you can make faith the focus of the object rather than object itself.
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There are many depictions and accounts of Mary appearing to people to offer the world guidance in their faith and in pursuit of her Son. Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady at Fatima, Mount Carmel... there are many. My personal favorite is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the only confirmed apparition of Mary in the Americas.
On his way to work one December morning, Juan Diego was startled by beautiful music and an inexplicable apparition of the Virgin Mary, dressed in a tilma, just like Juan himself. Mary did not look like the common statues we see today in churches; she appeared dark complected and dressed in traditional Mexican native clothing. In short, Mary looked like Juan. She asked Juan to tell the local bishop to build a church on the hill where she had appeared to Juan and sent him on his way.
The bishop did not believe that this poor, uneducated, native man had seen Mary. It wasn't until a few days later, when Juan opened his tilma to reveal the roses (completely out of season) that the bishop believed. Mary had left her mark on Juan's tilma, leaving her own image as proof that Juan had been blessed by her. She, Juan's mother, had provided for him, helping to care for his uncle so that he could do what she had asked. When Juan opened his heart to her, she asked him, "Am I not here, your mother?" and then gave him the help he needed, as any mother would.
Mary's appearance to St. Juan Diego has always held a special place in my heart. I grew in a parish that had a vibrant and active Latin American, predominantly Mexican, community. There is always a huge celebration on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The homily I heard year after year at this celebration helped my younger self that the feast is not just about Mary appearing to someone. It is about Mary appearing to a downtrodden, abused, and discriminated against group of people. And not only did she appear to an indigenous man, but she appeared as an indigenous woman. Mary proved to St. Juan Diego, a man who had been raised in the Aztec religion, that he was worthy of his Savior's mother's love, regardless of how he was treated because he was an indigenous man.
I love the statues that are so often found in churches today based off of the image on St. Juan Diego's tilma. Although there are many other miracles associated with Our Lady of Guadalupe (miraculous healings, the tilma has not decayed in over 500 years, etc.), the greatest part to me is that Mary, just like her Son, did not come for the already devout, the wealthy, or the educated. She came to man of great faith and small means, who believed himself unworthy.
Let's take some time this evening to pray for those who are still mistreated and misrepresented in our churches. Who look at white-washed statutes and images and wonder if there is any room for them in this faith. Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us.