Our Lady Refuge of Sinners
No one pleases God or Our Lady by exaggerating. Religion is not served by false piety, however well-intentioned it may be. That was the fundamental error of Henry Adams’ over-praised book on Mont St. Michel and Chartres. He misread the mediaeval mind, in ascribing to the Catholics of that time the false belief that Mary was more merciful than Her Son and that She would save them no matter how much they had offended Jesus. Adams pretended to believe that the blue “Mary windows” were the essential thing in the Cathedral of Chartres, whereas every true Catholic knows that in Chartres, as in every Catholic church, the centre to which everything else is related is the altar of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Devotion to Mary never detracts from the honour owed to God.
So we should not take literally certain old legends about God promising to St. Patrick, or to other Saints, that on the last day He would let them judge their own people. We should not wish to be judged by any of the Saints, regardless of how glorious they are. We should not even wish to be judged by Our Blessed Lady, Mother of Mercy, for Her perfections are finite. We should wish to be judged by the Sacred Heart of Jesus, infinitely just and infinitely merciful. This is why, when we read in St. Thomas Aquinas and other spiritual writers that Jesus keeps the Kingdom of Justice for Himself and gives over the Kingdom of Mercy to Mary, we ought not to misinterpret them so as to imagine an opposition between Jesus and Mary. They are not working at cross-purposes. Mary wishes what God wishes. What these pious authors mean is that sinners generally find it hard to understand that Jesus, our Judge, can be both infinitely just and infinitely merciful. Thinking of Jesus only as their just Judge, they often lack the confidence needed for sincere repentance and amendment of life. God has, therefore, condescended to their weakness by willing that His Holy Mother should serve as Queen of Mercy and Refuge of Sinners—so as to inspire confidence in those who are in most need of God’s mercy. As St. Louis Marie de Montfort says: “If we fear to go directly to Jesus Christ, our God, whether because of His infinite greatness, or because of our vileness, or because of our sins, let us boldly implore the aid and intercession of Mary, our Mother. She is good, She is tender, She has nothing in Her austere and forbidding, nothing too sublime and too brilliant. In seeing Her, we see our pure nature. She is not the sun, which by the brightness of its rays blinds us because of our weakness; but She is fair and gentle as the moon (Cant. 6:9), which receives the light of the sun, and tempers it to make it more suitable to our capacity” (True Devotion to Mary).
No one could have yearned for the return of sinners as much as Jesus yearns. He died on the Cross for them. “God so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son.” He is our ultimate refuge. So when we give to Our Lady that consoling title, “Refuge of Sinners,” we see in Her one who loves the lost sheep, as Jesus loves them. We see Her as the great intercessor with Him, as She prays for them in conformity with the Divine Will. The power of prayer is a fact, but it is a mystery. We know that Mary has great power with Jesus and that She loves us because God loves us, and intercedes continually that not one of us may be lost. She is our refuge, our advocate because God wants us to come to Him through Her since every grace He gives us is given through Her hands. He uses Her as the instrument of mercy as He uses Her to dispense all His graces. She is our friend at court, whom He wishes to be counsel for us.
It is in this sense that Our Lady is the “Refuge of Sinners,” wanting to save us, pleading with Jesus to save us, ever ready to come to our help, ever ready to cover us with Her mantle of love, a mother’s love at that, “our life, our sweetness and our hope.” That is what St. John Damascene meant when he said that Mary is not only the refuge of the innocent but also of the wicked who implore Her protection. St. Bonaventure had the same thought when he said that “Mary embraces with motherly love even such a sinner as is despised by all the world, and ceases not to embrace him until he is reconciled with his Judge.” It is the assertion of belief in the supreme efficacy of Mary’s prayers.
St. John Damascene calls Mary a city of refuge to all who flee to Her. This idea of a city of refuge is an old Scriptural fact calling attention to the humanity, the pity, of the old Jewish Law, which established certain cities of refuge where criminals might find an escape from the arm of the authorities. For instance, there were no less than six Levitical Cities, three on either side of the Jordan, where men who had been guilty of the act of involuntary homicide might find protection and immunity until they were released from banishment by the death of the High Priest. These six cities were obliged to receive the homicides and to lodge them without any charge. But there were at least 48 cities which had this privilege of asylum. Nor was it a peculiarly Jewish custom. Even the Greeks and Romans had their cities of asylum. The Jewish idea was brought into Christianity. One of the beautiful customs in the Middle Ages was “the right of sanctuary,” by which those who ran afoul of the law could not be taken so long as they remained in the Church or sanctuary. This lovely custom of mercy was finally abolished by the Church when it led to grave abuses and actually to a flouting of the law. The Church’s mercy was used by criminals as a defiance of law and justice, whereas the right of sanctuary was originally intended to protect offenders from private vengeance, in reality, a protection against what we call “lynching.”
This history of the cities of refuge, or sanctuary, is recalled in Our Lady’s title “Refuge of Sinners”—a place to which we may run, using the sanctity of Her presence to plead with the Omnipotent Judge. It is a logical following out of the truth that Mary cooperated in the Redemption, which saved us from sin. That does not mean that She is tolerant of sin. That would be a blasphemy. Mary hates sin. She knows it for the great evil that it is. She beholds Hell populated with it. She knows what it cost Her Divine Son in pain and sorrow. So much did God hate it, that He would not become Man save of one who had never been under its power. To think of the Immaculate Conception is to think of the very antithesis of sin. But, though hating sin, She loves the sinner, for She sees in him the possible saint; so loving him, as every mother loves the wayward child, She pursues him, weeps over him, as Monica wept over Augustine, and pleads with him to come back home.
If you read the lives of the Saints, you will find that the favourite pursuit of every one of them was to pray for the conversion of sinners. They knew as St. Catherine of Siena expressed it, that you cannot love God truly if at the same time you do not love your neighbour, and the real love of neighbour is in keeping him from sin and uniting him with God.
Back, soldiers! Multiply the love of the Saints a million times more, and you get a little idea of Mary’s love for sinners and Her eagerness to convert them. Father Faber says that “this is Mary’s world,” given to Her in a special and official manner from the Cross—”Woman, behold Thy Son,” and knowing that Her Son thought enough of the world to die for it, Her Heart is like to His in affection for all. That is the thought of St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori: “Mother of God, look down upon a poor sinner, who has recourse to Thee and puts his trust in Thee. I am not worthy that Thou shouldst even cast Thine eyes upon me; but I know that Thou, beholding Jesus Thy Son dying for sinners, dost Thyself yearn exceedingly to save them.” The salvation of every sinner is a triumph of grace, God’s grace, and that is the holy land over which Mary is placed as the agent of God.
There is the lovely story told that when Frascati was about to be invaded, May 1, 1527, just as the ranks of the enemy reached that section of the city wall where there was a picture of the Madonna and Child, the voice of Our Lady was heard calling out, “Back, soldiers! This land is Mine!” So, too, does She stand guard over the soul of every one of Her clients, and calls out against the assaulting forces of evil, “Back, demons! This soul is mine!” This is soil watered by the Precious Blood of My Son, bought by Him at a great price, and given to Me as part of my Queendom. Every shrine dedicated to Her is a city of refuge for the sinner. Lourdes has innumerable miracles of the healing of the body, but they are as a grain of sand beside the mountain of miracles in the spiritual life of those who have sought sanctuary in Her grotto.
Mary gives the Brown Scapular to St. Simon Stock to enumerate the soul-sanctuaries of those who fled to Her from their sin would be to tell an endless Litany of Saints. There is not one of them but owes his salvation, after God, to Mary. Every Saint in all humility confesses himself the greatest sinner that ever lived. Freed from sin, he knows how much he is beholden to the prayers of the Mother of God, hence his eagerness to bring other sinners under Her sway, under Her motherly protection. That is the wish of Our Lady Herself. When She appeared to St. Simon Stock, July 16, 1251, and held out the Brown Scapular to him, the Scapular of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, She said to him—”Receive, my beloved son, this scapular of thy Order; it is the special sign of My favor, which I have obtained for thee and for thy children of Mt. Carmel. He who dies clothed with this habit shall be preserved from eternal fire. It is the badge of salvation, a shield in time of danger, and a pledge of special peace and protection”—a promise, however, which must be correctly understood.
Mary was a Refuge of Sinners from the very beginning. We can easily believe that it was Her prayers that obtained the conversion of the Good Thief. She was for him, as St. Bernard calls Her, “the ladder of sinners,” the ladder by which he mounted to his cross. We, too, are thieves who have robbed God of His glory, but there is the same hope for us in Her maternal love. “Pray for us sinners”—is our constant cry, and it is one prayer we know is being answered by that Mother of ours every minute of our lives.