“Mary is the Hope of Sinners”
By St. Alphonsus Liguori
In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis we read the God made two great lights; a greater light to rule the day; and a lesser light to rule the night (v.16). “Christ is the greater light to rule the just, and Mary the lesser light to rule the sinners;” meaning that the sun is a figure of Jesus Christ, Whose light is enjoyed by the just who live in the clear day of divine grace; and that the moon is a figure of Mary, by whose means those who are in the night of sin are enlightened. Since Mary is this auspicious luminary, and is so for the benefit of poor sinners, should any one have been so unfortunate as to fall into the night of sin, what is he to do? Pope Innocent III replies, “Whoever is in the night of sin, let him cast his eyes on the moon, let him implore Mary.” Since he has lost the light of the sun of justice by losing the grace of God, let him turn to the moon, and beseech Mary; and She will certainly give him the light to see the misery of his state, and strength to leave it without delay.
One of the titles which is the most encouraging to poor sinners, and under which the Church teaches us to invoke Mary in the Litany of Lorreto, is that of Refugium peccatorum (“Refuge of sinners”). In Judea in ancient times there were cities of refuge, in which criminals who fled there for protection were exempt from the punishments which they had deserved. Nowadays… there is but one, and that is Mary, of Whom the Psalmist says Glorious things are said of thee, O city of God (86.3). But this City differs from the ancient ones in this respect – that in the latter all kinds of criminals did not find refuge, nor was the protection extended to every class of crime; but under the mantle of Mary all sinners, without exception, find refuge for every sin that they may have committed, provided only that they go there to seek for this protection. And it is sufficient to have recourse to Her, for whoever has the good fortune to enter this city need not speak to be saved. Assemble yourselves, and let us enter into the fenced city, and let us be silent there (Jer. 8.14). This City, says St. Albert the Great, is the most Holy Virgin fenced in with grace and glory. And let us be silent there, that is, “because we dare not invoke the Lord, Whom we have offended, She will invoke and ask. For if we do not presume to ask our Lord to forgive us, it will suffice to enter this City and be silent, for Mary will speak and ask all that we require. And for this reason, “Fly, O Adam and Eve, and all you their children, who outraged God; fly, and take refuge in the bosom of this good Mother; know you not that She is our only City of refuge?”
St. Ephrem salutes this Blessed Virgin in the following words: “Hail, refuge and hospital of sinners!” St. Basil of Seleucia remarks, “that if God granted to some who were only His servants such power, that not only their touch but even their shadows healed the sick, who were placed for this purpose in the public streets, how much greater power must we suppose that He has granted to Her who was not only His handmaid but His Mother?” We may indeed say that Our Lord has given us Mary as a public infirmary, in which all who are sick, poor, and destitute can be received. But now… in hospitals erected expressly for the poor, who have the greatest claim to admission? Certainly the most infirm, and those who are in the greatest need.
And for this reason should any one find himself devoid of merit and overwhelmed with spiritual infirmities, that is to say, sin, he can thus address Mary: O Lady, thou art the refuge of the sick poor; reject me not; for as I am the poorest and the most infirm of all, I have the greatest right to be welcomed by thee.
In the revelation of St. Bridget, Mary is called the “Star preceding the Sun,” giving us thereby to understand, that when devotion towards the divine Mother begins to manifest itself in a soul that is in a state of sin, it is a certain mark that before long God will enrich it with his grace. The glorious St. Bonaventure, in order to revive the confidence of sinners in the protection of Mary, place before them the picture of a tempestuous sea, into which sinners have already fallen from the ship of divine grace; they are already dashed about on every side by remorse of conscience and by fear of the judgments of God; they are without light or guide, and are on the point of losing the last breath of hope and falling into despair; then it is that Our Lord, pointing out Mary to them, who is commonly called Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”), raises His voice and says, “O poor lost sinners, despair not; raise up your eyes, and cast them on this beautiful star; breathe again with confidence, for it will save you from this tempest, and will guide you into the port of salvation.” St. Bernard says the same thing: “If thou wouldst not be lost in the tempest, cast thine eyes on the star, and invoke Mary.”
A devout writer declares that “She is the only refuge of those who have offended God, the asylum of all who are oppressed by temptation, calamity, or persecution. The Mother is all mercy, benignity, and sweetness, not only to the just, but also to despairing sinners; so that no sooner does She perceive them coming to Her, and seeking Her health from their hearts, than She aids them, welcomes them, and obtains their pardon from Her Son. She knows not how to despise any one, however unworthy he may be of mercy, and therefore denies Her protection to none; She consoles all, and is no sooner called upon than She helps whoever it may be that invokes Her. She by Her sweetness often awakens and draws sinners to Her devotion who are the most at enmity with God ad the most deeply plunged in the lethargy of sin; and then, by the same means, She excites them effectually, and prepares them for grace, and thus renders them fit for the kingdom of heaven… It is impossible for any one to perish who attentively, and with humility, cultivates devotion towards this divine Mother.”
In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, May is called a plane-tree: As a plane-tree I was exalted (24.19). And She is so-called that sinners may understand that as the plane-tree gives shelter to travelers from the heat of the sun, so does Mary invite them to take shelter under Her protection from the wrath of God, justly enkindled against them. St. Bonaventure remarks that the Prophet Isaias complained of the times in which he lived, saying, Behold Thou art angry, and we have sinned… there is none… that riseth up and taketh hold of thee (64.5). And then he makes the following commentary: “It is true, O Lord, that at the time there was none to raise up sinners and withhold Thy wrath, for Mary was not yet born; before Mary there was no one who could thus dare to restrain the arm of God. But now, if God is angry with a sinner, and Mary takes him under Her protection, She withholds the avenging arm of Her Son, and saves him. Richard of St. Laurence says that “God, before the birth of Mary, complained by the mouth of the Prophet Ezechiel that there was no one to rise up and withhold Him from chastising sinners, but that He could find no one, for this office was reserved for Our Blessed Lady, who withholds His arm until He is pacified [so to speak].”
This Mother of mercy has so great a desire to save the most abandoned sinners, that She Herself goes in search of them, in order to help them; and if they have recourse to Her, She knows how to find the means to render them acceptable to God. The Patriarch Isaac, desiring to eat of some wild animal, promised his blessing to his son Esau on his procuring this food for him; but Rebecca, who was anxious that her other son Jacob should receive the blessing, called him and said, Go thy way to the flock, bring me two kids of the best, that I may make of them meat for thy father, such as he gladly eateth (Gen. 27.9). St. Antoninus says, “that Rebecca was a figure of Mary, who commands the angels to bring Her sinners (meant by kids), that She may adorn them in such a way (by obtaining for them sorrow and purpose of amendment) as to render them dear and acceptable to the Lord.”
The Blessed Virgin Herself revealed to St. Bridget “that there is no sinner in the world, however much he may at enmity with God, who does not return to Him and recover His grace, if he has recourse to Her and asks Her assistance.” The same St. Bridget one day heard Jesus Christ address His Mother, and say the “She would be ready to obtain the grace of God for Lucifer himself, if only he humbles himself so far as to seek Her aid.” That proud spirit will never humble himself so far as to implore the protection of Mary.
Noah’s ark was a true figure of Mary; for as in it all kinds of beasts were saved, so under the mantle of Mary all sinners, who by their vices and sensuality are already like beasts, find refuge; but with this difference… that “while the brutes that entered the Ark remained brutes, the wolf remaining a wolf, and a tiger a tiger, under the mantle of Mary, on the other hand, the wolf becomes a lamb, and the tiger a dove.”
It is related also in the Sacred Scriptures that Booz allowed Ruth to gather the ears of corn, after the reapers (Ruth 2.3). St. Bonaventure says, “that as Ruth found favor with Booz, so has Mary found favor with Our Lord, and is also allowed to gather the ears of corn after the reapers. The reapers followed by Mary are all evangelical laborers, missionaries, preachers, and confessors, who are constantly reaping souls for God. But there are some hardened and rebellious souls which are abandoned even by these. To Mary alone it is granted to save them by Her powerful intercession.” Truly unfortunate are they if they do not allow themselves to be gathered, even by this most sweet Lady. They will indeed be most certainly lost and accursed.