The Madonna of the World
Fulton J. Sheen
TAKEN FROM THE WORLD'S
From the Bantu tribes of Congo Africa comes this story. A
mother believed that the evil spirits were disturbing her child,
although the child actually had only whooping cough. It never entered
the mind of the woman to call on the name of God --- although the
Bantus had a name for God, Nzakomiba.
God was utterly foreign to these people and was presumed to be totally
disinterested in human woes. Their big problem was how to avoid evil
spirits. This is the basic characteristic of missionary lands; pagan
peoples are more concerned with pacifying devils than with loving God.
The Missionary Sister, who is a doctor, and who treated and cured the
child, tried in vain to convince the woman that God is love. Her answer
was an entirely different word: Eefee.
The Missionary Sister then said: "But God's love is like that: Nzakomb' Acok' --- Eefee.
God has the same feeling of love for us that a mother has for her
children." In other words, mother-love is the key to God's love. St.
Augustine, who was so devoted to his mother, St. Monica, must have had
something like this in mind when he said: "Give me a man who has loved
and I will tell him what God is."
That brings up the question: Can religion do without motherhood? It
certainly does not do without fatherhood, for one of the most accurate
descriptions of God is that of the Giver and Provider of good things.
But since motherhood is as necessary as fatherhood in the natural order
--- perhaps even more so --- shall the devoted religious heart be
without a woman to love? In the animal kingdom, mothers are the
fighters for their offspring, whom paternity often abandons.
On the human level, life would indeed be dull if through every beat of
its existence one could not look back in gratitude to a mother who
threw open the portals of life to give life, and then sustained it by
the one great, irreplaceable love of each child's universe.
A wife is essentially a creature of time, for even while she lives she
can become a widow; but a mother is outside time. She dies, but she is
still a mother. She is the image of the eternal in time, the shadow of
the infinite on the finite. Centuries and civilizations dissolve, but
the mother is the giver of life. Man works on this generation: a mother
on the next. A man uses his life; a mother renews it.
The mother, too, is the preserver of equity in the world, as man is the
guardian of justice. But justice would degenerate into cruelty if it
were not tempered by that merciful appeal to excusing circumstances
which only a mother can make. As man preserves law, so woman preserves
equity or that spirit of kindness, gentleness, and sympathy, which
tempers the rigors of justice. Vergil opened his great poem by singing
of "arms and a man" --- not of women. When women are reduced to bear
arms, they lose that specific quality of femininity; then equity and
mercy vanish from the earth.
Culture derives from woman --- for had she not taught her children to
talk, the great spiritual values of the world would not have passed
from generation to generation. After nourishing the substance of the
body to which she gave birth, she then nourishes the child with the
substance of her mind. As guardian of the values of the spirit, as
protectress of the morality of the young, she preserves culture which
deals with purposes and ends, while man upholds civilization which
deals only with means.
It is inconceivable that such love should be without a prototype
Mother. When one sees tens of thousands of reprints of Murillo's
one knows that there had to be the model portrait from which the copies
derived their impression. If fatherhood has its prototype in the
Heavenly Father, Who is the giver of all gifts, then certainly such a
beautiful thing as motherhood shall not be without some original
Mother, whose traits of loveliness every mother copies in varying
degrees. The respect shown to woman looks to an ideal beyond each
woman. As an ancient Chinese legend puts it: "If you speak to a woman,
do it in pureness of heart. Say to yourself: 'Placed in this sinful
world, let me be pure as the spotless lily, unsoiled by the mire in
which it grows.' Is she old? Regard her as your mother. Is she
honorable? Regard her as your sister. Is she of small account? As your
younger sister, Is she a child? Then treat her with reverence and
Why did all pre-Christian people paint, sculpture, lyricize, and dream
of an ideal woman, if they did not really believe that such a one ought
to be? By making her mythical and legendary, they surrounded her with a
mystery which took her out of the realm of time and made her more
heavenly than earthly. In all people is a longing of the heart for
something motherly and divine, an ideal from which all motherhood
descends like the rays from the
The full hope of Israel has been realized in the coming of the Messias;
but the full hope of the Gentiles has not yet been fulfilled. The
prophecy of Daniel that Christ would be the Expectatio Gentium
is so far fulfilled only in part. As Jerusalem had the hour of its
visitation and knew it not, so every peoples and race and nation has
its appointed hour of grace. Just as God in His Providence hid the
continent of America from the Old World for almost 1500 years after His
birth, and then allowed the veil which hung before it to he pierced by
the ships of Columbus, so He has kept a veil before many nations of the
East so that in this hour His ships of grace might finally pierce its
veil and reveal, in this late hour, the undying strength of the
Incarnation of the Son of God. The present crisis of the world is the
opening of the East to the potency of the Gospel of Christ. The
practical West, having lost faith in the Incarnation, has begun to
believe that man does everything and God does nothing; the impractical
contemplative East, which has believed that God does everything and man
does nothing, is soon to have its day of discovery that man can do all
things in the God Who strengthens him.
But it is impossible to conceive that the East will have its own
peculiar advent or coming of Christ without the same preparation that
Israel once had in Mary. As there would have been no advent of Christ
in the flesh in His first coming without Mary, so there can be no
coming of Christ in spirit among the Gentiles without Mary's again
preparing the way. As she was the instrument for the fulfillment of the
hope of Israel, so she is the instrument for the fulfillment of the
hope of the pagans. Her role is to
prepare for Jesus. This she did physically
by giving Him a body which could conquer death, by giving Him hands
with which He could bless children and feet with which He could seek
out the lost sheep. But as she prepared His body, so she now prepares
souls for His coming. As she was in Israel before Christ was born, so
she is in China, Japan, and Oceania before Christ is born. She precedes
Jesus --- not ontologically, but physically, in Israel, as His Mother,
and spiritually, among the Gentiles, as the one who readies His
tabernacle among men. There are not many who can say "Our Father" in
the strict sense of the term, for that implies that we are partakers in
the Divine Nature and brothers with Christ. God is not Our Father by
the mere fact that we are creatures; He is only our Creator. Fatherhood
comes only by sharing in His nature through sanctifying grace. A
liturgical manifestation of this great truth is found in the way in
which the Our Father is
recited in most of the ceremonies of the Church. It is recited aloud in
the Mass, because there
it is assumed that all present are already made sons of God in Baptism.
But where the ceremony is one in which sanctifying grace cannot be
presumed among those present, the Church recites the Our Father silently.
Thus pagans, who have not yet been Baptized either by water or desire,
cannot say the Our Father,
but they can say the Hail Mary.
As there is a grace that prepares for grace, so there is in all the
pagan lands of the world the influence of Mary, preparing for Christ.
She is the spiritual "Trojan horse" preparing for the assault of love
by Her Divine Son, the "Fifth Column" working within the Gentiles,
storming their cities from within, even when their Wise Men know it
not, and teaching muted tongues to sing her Magnificat before they have known
The David of old spoke of Her as preparing for Israel the first advent
The queen stood on thy right
hand, in gilded clothing; surrounded with variety.
Hearken, O daughter, and see, and
incline thy ear: and forget thy people and thy father's house.
And the king shall greatly desire
thy beauty; for He is the Lord thy God, and Him they shall adore.
And the daughters of Tyre with
gifts, yea, all the rich among the people, shall entreat thy
All the glory of the king's
daughter is within in golden borders, clothed round about with
After her shall virgins be
brought to the king: her neighbors shall be brought to thee.
They shall be brought with
gladness and rejoicing: they shall be brought into the temple of the
From an unexpected quarter comes an equally poetic tribute to "The
Veiled Glory of this Lampless Universe," in the words of Percy Bysshe
Seraph of heaven! too gentle to
Veiling beneath that radiant form
All that is insupportable in thee
Of light, and love, and
Sweet Benediction in the eternal
Veiled glory of this lamp less
Thou Moon beyond the clouds!
Thou living Form Among the Dead!
Thou Star above the Storm!
Thou Wonder, and thou Beauty, and
Thou Harmony of Nature's art!
In whom, as in the splendour of
All shapes look glorious which
thou gazest on!
Ay, even the dim words which
obscure thee now
Flash, lightning-like, with
I pray thee that thou blot from
this sad song
All of its much mortality and
With those clear drops, which
start like sacred dew
From the twin lights thy sweet
soul darkens through,
Weeping, till sorrow becomes
Then smile on it, so that it may
There is a beautiful legend of Kwan-yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy,
to whom so many pleadings have gone from Chinese lips. According to
legend, this princess lived in China hundreds of years before Christ
was born. Her father, the King, wished her to marry. But, resolving
upon a life of virginity, she took refuge in a convent. Her angry
father burned the convent and forced her to return to his palace. Given
the alternative of death or marriage, she insisted on her vow of
virginity, and so her father strangled her. Her body was brought to
hell by a tiger. It was there she won the title "Goddess of Mercy." Her
intercession for mercy was so great, and she so softened the hard
hearts of hell, that the very devils ordered her to leave. They were
afraid she would empty hell. She then returned to the island of Pluto
off the coast of Chekiang where, even to this day, pilgrims travel to
her shrine. The Chinese have at times pictured her as wearing on her
head the image of God, to Whose heaven she brings the faithful,
although she herself refuses to enter heaven, so long as there is a
single soul excluded.
Western civilization, too, has its ideals. Homer, a thousand years
before Christ, threw into the stream of history the mystery of a woman
faithful in sorrow and loneliness. While her husband, Ulysses, was away
on his travels, Penelope was courted by many suitors. She told them she
would marry one of them when she finished weaving a garment. But each
night she undid the stitches she had put in it during the day, and thus
she remained faithful until her husband returned. No one who sang the
song of Homer could understand why he glorified this sorrowful mother,
as they could not understand why, in another poem, he glorified a
defeated hero. It was not for a thousand years, until the day of a
defeated hero on a Cross and a sorrowful Mother beneath it, that the
world understood the mysteries of Homer.
The instinct of all men to look for a mother in their religion is
conspicuous, even in modern times, among non-Christian peoples. Our
missionaries report the most extraordinary reaction of these peoples as
the Pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima was carried through the East.
At the edge of Nepal, three hundred Catholics were joined by three
thousand Hindus and Moslems, as four elephants carried the statue to
the little Church for Rosary and Benediction. At Rajkot, which has
hardly any faithful, unbelieving ministers of state and high-ranking
government officials came to pay veneration. The Mayor of Nadiad read a
speech of welcome and stressed how proud he was to welcome the statue.
For twelve hours the crowds, almost exclusively non-Christian, passed
through the Church as Masses continued from two o'clock in the morning
until nine-thirty. As one old Indian put it: "She has shown us that
your religion is sincere; it is not like ours. Your religion is a
religion of love; ours is one of fear."
At Patna, the Brahman Hindu governor of the province visited the Church
and prayed before the statue of Our Lady. In one tiny village of Kesra
Mec, more than 24,000 people came to see the statue. The Rajah sent two
hundred and fifty rupees and his wife sent a petition of prayers.
Greetings were read in six languages at Hy Derabid Sind. At Karachi an
exception was made by the Moslems to favor her; whenever the Christians
there hold a procession, they are obliged to cease praying whenever
they pass a mosque. But on this occasion they were permitted by the
Moslems to pray before any mosque along their way.
In Africa, the Mother plays an important role in tribal justice. In
Northwestern Uganda, where the White Fathers labor with astounding zeal
and success, every major decision, even the celebration of the
coronation of the King, must be submitted to the Queen Mother. Anything
she disapproves is put aside; her judgment is final. This is based on
the assumption that she knows her son: she knows what will please or
displease him. When the Queen Mother comes to the palace of her son,
the King, she rules in his stead. One of the reasons why there were not
two more martyrs among the famous martyrs of Uganda in Africa is
because the pagan Queen Mother interceded for them. When the son
becomes King, the son must sit on her lap before leaving for the
ceremony, as if to bear witness to the fact that he is her child. The
Queen Mother of the Batusti people in Ruanda is so influential among
her people that the colonial government tries to keep her at a distance
from her son, King Mutari II; both are converts to the faith.
India, too, has had its history in which woman played her role. Its
peoples are descended from the Dravidians, the early barbaric tribes
who intermingled with Aryan invaders about 1500 years before Christ. In
the Dravidic hymns, virgins, like the Durgas and Kalis, were venerated.
Hinduism became polytheistic, and a multiplicity of gods were adored;
among the Hindus the virgins were almost simultaneously symbols of
sweetness and terror, a combination which is not too difficult to
understand. There is sweetness where there is love; there is also fear
and terror, because that love is for the highest alone and is
intolerant of all that surrenders to less than divinity.
Because of the want of authority and also because of the tolerant
Pantheism in religion in India, the feminine principle degenerated into
something that seemed stupid to the Western mind, namely, the
veneration of the Sacred Cow. Even in this decay of the feminine
principle, there is to be detected a grain of truth. The cow to the
Hindu fulfills many functions. Religiously, she is the symbol of the
best gift that one can give to the Brahmans; to kill a cow is one of
the Hindu's worst sins and can rarely be atoned by penance and
purification. To the prince and peasant alike, the cow is his holy
mother. He would even have the cow present when he dies, so that he may
hold her tail as he breathes his last. Looking back on his life, he is
indebted to her for her milk and butter; for his warmth, since it was
her dung that was used as fuel, and her dung that coated the walls of
his dwelling; and for his sustenance, since it was the cow, again, that
pulled his cart and plow.
As one of the learned Hindu members said in the Legislative Assembly:
"Call it prejudice, call it passion, call it the height of religion,
but this is an undoubted fact, that in the Hindu mind nothing is so
deep-rooted as the sanctity of the cow." Though the Western world makes
fun of this symbol of religion, it is nevertheless a kind of
glorification of motherhood and femininity in religion. When the Hindus
come to a knowledge of how much the feminine principle in religion
actually prepared for Christianity, they will reclaim the cow as the
symbol of the feminine, as the Jews use the lily and the dove and the
ray of light. In one of the beautiful paintings of the Nativity by
Alfred Thomas of Madras, India, a Madonna Mother is pictured in her
saffron sari as she sits cross-legged upon the earth. There is a straw
roof over her head, supported from a growing tree trunk to which the
Sacred Cow is tethered. Other nations of the earth have used the lion
and the eagle as the symbols of their ideals; the Hindu people have
taken the cow as the symbol of their religion, not fully understanding
its meaning until Christianity gives them the true feminine principle:
the Mother of God. If a lamb can be used by the Holy Spirit as the
symbol of Christ, Who sacrificed Himself for the world, then one is
wrong to frown upon the Indian for taking, as the symbol of his faith,
an animal who gave him all that he needed for his life.
Japan, too, has its feminine principle of religion. For centuries, the
Goddess of Mercy called Kwanon has been venerated. It is interesting
that the Buddhists, who already know this Goddess of Mercy, and who
have come to learn of the Blessed Mother, have seen the first as the
preparation for the second. Becoming Christian, there is no need for
such Buddhists to turn their back on Kwanon as evil; rather, they
accept her as the far-off foreshadowing of the woman who was not a
Goddess, but the Mother of Mercy Itself. Very becomingly, the Japanese
artist Takahira Toda, who came from a family of Buddhist priests,
became a member of Christ's Mystical Body after seeing the similarity
between Kwanon and the Virgin Mary. In his picture "The Visitation of
Mary," he reveals the typical Japanese Virgin, demure and solitary, who
has just felt within herself the full meaning of the words she
pronounced to the Angel, "Be it done unto me according to thy word." A
painting of the Nativity by the Japanese artist, Teresa Kimiko Koseki,
pictures the babyhood of Our Lord, and here only one characteristic
distinguishes the Japanese Madonna from the countless other mothers of
Japan --- and that is the halo of light above her head. In a very
extraordinary painting by Luke Hasegawa, the Blessed Mother
appears standing, surrounded by a wire fence which may either signify a
fenced-in missionary compound or, perhaps, a home, where motherhood is
best understood. From this enclosure the Madonna, towering almost as
high as the mountains in the background, looks down with affection upon
the city and the harbor and the world of commerce --- not yet
conscious, perhaps, that she is the true Kwanon for whom the Japanese
have been longing for centuries.
Wherever the people are primitive, in the right sense of the term,
there is devotion to motherhood. The so-called "Dark Continent of
Africa" has been close to nature and, therefore, to birth; when
Christianity began to reveal the fullness of the mystery of birth and
life, Africa interpreted the Madonna and the Child in terms of its own
native culture. Mary, who had predicted that all generations would call
her blessed, must have had it in mind that one day there would be a
literal fulfillment of the words that are used of her in the liturgy: Nigra sum sed formosa
--- "I am black but beautiful!" There is a legend to the effect that
one of the Three Wise Men was black. If this be so, then he, who adored
the Virgin and her Babe under a flaming Orient star, now recovers the
glory of his race in seeing the Mother and the Child portrayed as their
own. Well, indeed, may the mothers of Africa (who during the days of
Colonial expansion saw their young sons snatched from their hands to
become slaves in another land) look forward to a Madonna who might save
them as she would save her own Son. A poetess has put upon the lips of
a black Madonna this evening prayer:
Unanswered yet, but not yet
O, God my prayer to You unfurled
He's just a Negro boy they say,
Common, cheap and unlearned.
What difference if he never does
But, God, he is my only son.
He knew a Bethlehem like your
No home like other little boys,
With now and then a precious toy.
He was unwanted like your only
And lots of Herods sought the
Of my little black son.
He knew a flight like your son,
A flight from hunger and
Sometimes from sickness and
He knew abuse, distress, want and
He knew the love of a Madonna,
Just like your little Son.
Must he, too, know a dark
A Golgotha and a Calvary too?
If so then I like the Madonna
Must help him bear his cross.
Help me to pray: "not mine, but
Just like your only son.
But no one, better than Gilbert K. Chesterton, glorifies the Black
Virgin, who is as much the Africans' mother as any other peoples under
the sun, and even more their mother than of those who would look upon
the people of Africa as less noble than themselves.
In all thy thousand images we
Claim and acclaim on all thy
Hewn out of multi-colored rocks
Stained with the stored-up
sunsets in all tones ---
If in all tones and shades this
shade I feel
Come from the black cathedrals of
Climbing these flat black stones
To thy most merciful face of
night I kneel. 
Thus, whether one studies world history before or after Christ, there
is always revealed a yearning in every human breast for ideal
motherhood. Reaching out from the past to Mary, through ten thousand
vaguely prophetic Judiths and Ruths, and looking back through the mists
of the centuries, all hearts come to rest in her. This is the ideal
woman! She is THE MOTHER. No wonder that an aged woman, seeing her
beauty cross the threshold, cried out: "Blessed art thou amongst
women." And this young expectant Mother, far from repudiating this high
estimate of her privilege, goes beyond it, by anticipating the judgment
of all time: "All generations shall call me blessed." Surveying the
future, this ideal Mother has no hesitation in proclaiming that the
distant ages will ring with her praise. Women live only for a few
years, and the vast majority of the dead are not remembered at all. But
Mary is confident that she is the real exception to this rule. Daring
to predict that the law of forgetfulness will be suspended in her
favor, she proclaims her eternal remembrance, even before the Child by
Whom she will be remembered has been born. Our Lord has not yet worked
a miracle; no Hand of His had been lifted over palsied limbs --- He was
but scarcely veiled from the heavenly glory, and had only for a few
months been tabernacled within her --- and yet this Woman looks down
the long corridors of time. Seeing there the unknown people of Africa,
Asia, China, Japan, she proclaims with absolute assurance: "From
henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed." Julia, the ill-used
daughter of Augustus and wife of Tiberius; Octavia, the sister of
Augustus whom Anthony divorced to marry Cleopatra --- names once
familiar to a people and a world --- today receive no tribute of
praise. But this lovely maiden, who lived in a little town in the far
reaches of the Roman Empire, a town which was associated with reproach,
is at this hour more honored and oftener borne in mind by civilized man
than any other member of her sex who ever lived. And she knew the
reason why: "Because He that is Mighty has done great things to me, and
Holy is His Name."
As one searches for the reasons for this universal love of Mary among
peoples who do not even know her Son, it is to be found in four
instincts deeply embedded in the human heart: affection for the
beautiful; admiration for purity; reverence for a Queen; and love of a
Mother. All of these come to a focus in Mary.
The beautiful: he who has lost
the love of the beautiful has already lost his soul. Purity: even those who fall from it
always admire those who preserve the ideal, toward which, again, they
feebly aspire. Queen:
the heart wants a love so much above itself that it can feel unworthy
in its presence and bow down before it in reverence. "I am not worthy,"
is the language of all love. Mother:
the origin of life finds peace again only by a restoration to the
embrace of a mother. Beautiful, Pure, Queen, Mother! Other women have
had one or more of these instincts, but not all of them combined. When
the human heart sees Mary, it sees the realization and concretion of
all its desires and it exclaims in the ecstasy of love: "This is the
Mary, as the Madonna of the World, will play a special role today in
relieving the combined sorrows of the East and West. In the East, there
is fear; in the West, there is dread. The people of the Eastern world
who are not Christian have a religion based on the fear of the devil
and evil spirits. There is very little practical cognizance of the good
spirit there. In Tibet, for example, the farmers plow their fields in a
zigzag fashion to drive out the devil. Until recent years they
immolated a child to placate the evil spirit in the mountains. When
they cross a mountain pass, they must still give a gift to the devil
--- but since they believe the devil is blind, they only throw a stone.
Every tree that sways, every flower that dies, and every disease that
harms is caused by an evil spirit. China, too, has its devils which
have to be assuaged. There is a statue of a goddess in Shanghai with a
hundred arms. More incense burns before that statue than any other. The
Buddhist priest in the Temple explains that her arms represent
vengeance and that she must be often propitiated lest she strike.
But in the West, in recent years, there has been less fear than dread.
This inner dread is due, in part, to modern man's loss of faith, but
above all to his hidden sense of guilt. Although he denies sin, he
cannot escape the effects of sin, which appear on the outside as world
wars, and on the inside as boredom. Western man got rid of God in order
to make himself God; and then he became bored with his own divinity.
The East cannot yet understand the Incarnate Love of Jesus Christ
because of its overemphasis on evil spirits. The West is not prepared
to accept it, because of its dread of penance, the ethical condition of
its return. Those who have never known Christ, fear --- but those who
have known Him and lost Him, dread.
Since men are unprepared for a revelation of the heavenly image of Love
which is Christ Jesus Our Lord, God, in His Mercy, has prepared on
earth an image of love which is not Divine, but can lead to the Divine.
Such is the role of His Mother. She can lift the fear, because her foot
crushed the serpent of evil; she can do away with dread, because she
stood at the foot of the Cross when human guilt was washed away and we
were reborn in Christ.
As Christ is the Mediator between God and man, so she is the Mediatrix
between Christ and us. She is the earthly principle of love that leads
to the Heavenly Principle of Love. The relation between her and God is
something like the relation between rain and the earth. Rain falls from
heaven, but the earth produces. Divinity comes from Heaven; the human
nature of the Son of God comes from her. We speak of "mother earth,"
since it gives life through heaven's gift of the sun; then why not also
recognize the Madonna of the World, since she gives us the Eternal Life
Those who lack the faith are to be recommended particularly to Mary, as
a means to finding Christ, the Son of God. Mary, the Madonna of the
World, exists where Christ is not yet, and where the Mystical Body is
not yet visible. For the Eastern people who suffer from fear of the
evil spirits, and for the Western man who lives in dread, the answer
must ever be cherchez la femme.
Look to the woman who will lead you to God. The whole world may have to
pass through the experience of the Bantu woman. She did not know love
of God until it was translated into Mother Love.
Jesus may not yet be given an inn, in these lands, but Mary is among
their people, preparing hearts for grace. She is grace, where there is
no grace; she is the Advent, where there is no Christmas. In all lands
where there is an ideal woman, or where virgins are venerated, or where
one lady is set above all ladies, the ground is fertile for accepting
the Woman as the prelude to embracing Christ. Where there is the
presence of Jesus, there is the presence of His Mother; but where there
is the absence of Jesus, either through the ignorance or wickedness of
men, there is still the presence of Mary. As she filled up the gap
between the Ascension and Pentecost, so she is filling up the gap
between the ethical systems of the East and their incorporation into
the Mystical Body of her Divine Son. She is the fertile soil from
which, in God's appointed time, the faith will flourish and bloom in
the East. Although there are few tabernacle lamps in India, Japan, and
Africa, compared to the total population, nevertheless I see, written
over the gateways to all these nations, the words of the Gospel at the
beginning of the public life of the Saviour: "And Mary, the Mother of
Jesus, was there."
1. G. K.
Chesterton, "The Black Virgin," from I
Sing of a Maiden.
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