The editorial of the month

Father Sebastian White, o.p.

by Father Sebastian White, o.p.

Fifteen years ago this month, I did something that still surprises me: I packed my bags, moved to Austria, and began graduate studies in theology. It surprises me because I know myself well and am not by nature adventuresome. I grew up in a small town in Maine (my first job was on a farm), went to college three hours away in Massachusetts (where my older sister, Emily, was a student), and had not traveled much (preferring to be transported by the pages of a book). I also had no background in philosophy or theology. I majored in economics and still had an eye to further studies in “the dismal science.”

But having just returned to the Church after being raised Protestant, I had begun praying the rosary regularly, and had newly discovered the Church’s true devotion to Mary. And the intercession of the Mother of God is a gamechanger.

Maria Thronus Iesu

My destination was not within the perky, baroque streets of imperial Vienna but a tiny village two hours away called Gaming (pronounced with a short a). The Carthusian monks who had for centuries been the town’s most famous and quietest residents were no longer there, but their sprawling medieval Charterhouse remained, its knobbly gothic spire still poking into the sky like a great big arrow pointing the way to heaven.

The Kartause, as it is called in German, was founded in 1330 under the title “Maria Thron,” and though it had suffered the ill effects of neglect and abuse—the contemplative orders were dissolved in the 18th century by a government favoring “useful” communities; Napoleon’s soldiers once stopped by and used the chapel as a stable; and the Soviet army made the place a barracks after World War II—by the time I arrived it had been given a second wind as home to a few Catholic institutions of higher learning and evangelization.

Prominently displayed in the sanctuary of the chapel was a statue—not original, but whoever carved it did an admirable job of making it look old—portraying Mary, crown on her head and scepter in hand, seated on a throne with the Child Jesus in her arms. It was a statue you could sit in front of for hours and the meaning was obvious: Mary herself is the throne of Jesus.

A throne that moves, a throne that remains

At Mass during the day on August 15th, the Solemnity of the Assumption, the Gospel will describe a different event—the Visitation. It is the perfect text for that day because it shows what our Lady continues to do from heaven: she takes initiative and brings Jesus into our lives. Pope Benedict XVI once reflected on those first moments after the Annunciation, when the world’s first Magnificat would soon ring out:

Mary found herself with a great mystery enclosed within her womb; she knew something extraordinarily unique had happened…but everything around her remained as before and the village of Nazareth was completely unaware of what had happened to her. [Yet] moved by the mystery of love that she had just welcomed within herself, she set out in haste to go to offer Elizabeth her help. This is the simple and sublime greatness of Mary! [But] Elizabeth is one of the many elderly people in Israel and Mary is an unknown young woman from a lost village of Galilee. What can this be and what can they accomplish in a world where other people count and other powers hold sway…. My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. Mary recognizes God’s greatness…her faith has shown her that the thrones of the powerful of this world are temporary, while God’s throne is the only rock that does not change or fall.

God’s throne does not change or fall. Think about what this means for the one who became his throne. Think about what this means for us, too, in light of Jesus’ own words: Stretching out his hand…he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers” (Mt 12:49). Union with Jesus means we share, like Mary, in the unchanging, unfailing being of God. We need to live off that truth.

“And how does this happen to me…” (Lk 1:43)

My time at the Kartause Maria Thron turned out to give me much more than training in a new subject. It’s where I learned to pray and live as a Catholic, where I first learned to sing the Salve Regina, go to daily Mass, and adore the Blessed Sacrament. It’s where I began to read and love Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, patron saints of the institute I was studying at. When we needed a break from the books we got together for communal dinners, ballroom and traditional Austrian dancing, hiking the trails of the surrounding mountains, or a day-trip to Vienna. A day after John Paul II died we drove to Rome through the night to pay our respects to that great man.

When I unpacked my bags fifteen years ago I would not have predicted that five Augusts later, on the Solemnity of the Assumption, 2009, I would be lying prostrate on the floor of Saint Gertrude’s Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, professing my first vows as a Dominican friar—or that ten Augusts after that I’d be where I am right now.

One thing is predictable though: Mary leads us to Jesus. Leave it to Thérèse to keep it nice and simple: “Do not be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her enough. And Jesus will be very happy, because the Blessed Virgin is his Mother.”