Standing before Mary on a Catholic pilgrimage

February_2007_gnadenmutterWe decided to escape the city yesterday. We’ve been here five months and had not yet sampled the Austrian mountain air. It was a beautiful day, neither winter (we haven’t had one) nor yet spring. We drove southwest from Vienna into Styria and ended up at Austria’s Lourdes, the pilgrimage town of Mariazell.

Mariazell’s church houses the Magna Mater Austriae, a wooden, miracle-working image of the Heavenly Mother that makes Mariazell Austria’s most important pilgrimage site. The image, now surrounded in gilded finery, has offered Austria’s Catholics Marian grace since 1157.

I stood before Mary and watched as a few pilgrims bowed their heads in prayer before her. Some made use of the holy water. I thought of my daughter, named after the mother of Jesus. I remembered Nephi’s vision of the transcendent love of God embodied in the virgin from Nazareth. I reflected on the power of healing supposed to imbue this shrine and thought about my son’s haemangioma, my mother’s platelets, and my own chronically sore feet and hip.

‘Should I?’, I wondered…


  1. Ardis Parshall says:

    Should you what? Bow down before a gilded wooden image?

  2. No.

  3. Nope

  4. Steve Evans says:


  5. Sure.

  6. An Austrian rosary for anyone who can a) guess what I was wondering (Ardis is wrong), b) express their opinion in more than one word! (I found that in this undeniably numinous place, the right course of action was not as obvious as I might once have imagined it to be.)

  7. Since I don’t want to try to guess what you’re thinking, how ’bout if I send you some nice -6 C air from NYC in exchange for the answer, and you can keep the rosary?

  8. Possible things Ronan was thinking:

    Should I…

    “…Pick my nose here in public?”

    “…Pray to God and thank him for my gifts.”

    “…Show reverence to the local customs and politely move along.”

    “…Go all evangelical and start telling people how they are worshipping a graven image.”

    “…Post about this on BCC?”

  9. I am interested in how people respond to the sacred spaces of others; how they respond to the miraculous beyond the Mormon sphere; and if Mormons still get bristly when “Mary” and “miracle” are mentioned in the same breath.

  10. Say a prayer appealing to Heavenly Mother?

  11. Tracy,
    I can’t tell if you’re being facetious, but in Old Skool Mormon theology, Mary would have to have been a Heavenly Mother…

  12. Ronan, I am a poor choice for that, as I was Catholic when I was Born, and have fond memories of it. I love that my mom prays the rosary, and that we all hold hands to pray at meals.

    Besides, did not Mary appear to Joseph Smith? (I used to have this sweet list of the angelic visitations to JS, but have since lost it, I believe Eve and Mary were the females JS met as spirit beings. It’s been about 4 years since I looked at the list though. Can anyone verify?)

  13. What an interesting social experiment. Leaving out the last bit brings out many different voices. But as I read Matt W.’s response I just about rolled over.

    I know we don’t use Mary as our go to girl for communication with Heavenly Father. The topic of Heavenly Mother is an interesting one. It is largely left undiscussed. There may be more than meets the eye. But I don’t want to threadjack.


    I probably would have respected and politely moved on. Perhaps taking time to reflect upon my own beliefs.

  14. cantinflas says:

    light a candle. And I also think you should leave well enough alone in instances like that. Am I right?

  15. When our youngest was born, he had some problems that necessitated a prolonged stay in infant ER. It is a very sobering thing to place your hands inside an incubator and bless a sick 3 day old with health and life. My home teacher helped me do that three times.

    Anyway, once, as we were leaving, the nurse on duty asked to speak to me. She spoke respectfully of the blessing she had seen us give, and then disclosed that she, too, was a religious person who believed in the healing power of crystals. She wondered if it would be OK with my wife and me if she used her break time to stand by our child’s incubator and hold a crystal near him.

  16. What I did was akin to other times when I have been on the spiritual turf of others. I have put a prayer into the Wailing Wall, I light candles at cathedrals, I have worshiped at a Good Friday cross, I have prayed to Allah at the Damascus mosque, I have kissed the star on the ground at the Church of the Nativity. I am a sucker for the holy. If I was in India at the right time I’d bathe in the Ganges.

    None of these things represent salvific ordinances for me, and I am always careful that my posture of worship is one that does not betray my own religious convictions. So whilst I did not “bow down” before a wooden statue, I did reflect on Mary at Mariazell; I considered the faith of the people who come here; and I reverently hoped that the divine power that rested on the mother of God may in some measure continue to be shared with my family. It was a Marian prayer, but it was not a prayer to Mary.

    So, I guess I just shared my experience. A little of it anyway. “Should I” worship Mary? Depends on what you mean by “worship.” “Should I” use this opportunity to enjoy some Mary-inspired reflection? Absolutely. “Should I” borrow from the faith of others? Sure.

    It was a nice place. Crappy kitsch sold outside, though.

    We Mormons have terrible Marianophobia. And we have no idea of Catholic doctrine on her, reducing the whole thing to a caricature.

  17. Ronan, you’re a real hard nose! We have to provide the question AND the answer?

  18. LOL, Costanza. I’m the Satan at Satan’s blog. Testing, testing, always testing.

  19. Ronan- I wasn’t being facetious… Having spent some time in a few of the great cathedrals of Europe myself, I have lit candles and partaken in the rituals of others, and, as long as I am repectful, find this perfectly acceptable, too.

  20. I have decidedly Pi-like tendencies (Pi of The Life of Pi, not the Pi approximated by 22/7). Worship God where I perceive the numinous? Always. In a Marian shrine, worship Mary? Sure.

    The instant I conceive of the joining with the spirit of a place, I have worshiped already. By aligning my mind to conceive of worship — of the alignment of my mind with this “other” I’m confronting — I have already performed the central act of worship. The rest is just admitting it.

  21. Jonathan Green says:

    Ronan, slip the church some coins. It’s expensive keeping it looking nice so people like you can enjoy it. (A couple months ago I lit a candle in a church in return for an Euro to help with the upkeep, and to satisfy my pyromanic first grader, and because the prayer posted underneath the candles was pretty much acceptable, both in content and addressee, for Mormon theology.)

  22. greenfrog,
    That’s kind of how it works, although there is always a line to navigate, isn’t there? Yes, the numinous. Such a great word.

    I slipped the church a Euro and bought a little pendant for a Catholic friend.

  23. I think you definately should have used the Holy Water…and then taken some for your family.

  24. I love Catholic cathedrals. The sacred message that their design and statuary conveys is a powerful reminder of Christ and His love; and, why not, His mother?

    Sacredness isn’t something Mormons have — or should want — a monopoly on, right?

  25. …there is always a line to navigate, isn’t there?

    If one respects lines, there is a line.

  26. I recommend Robert Orsi’s introductory essay for _Lived Religion_. It’s copyrighted so i won’t reproduce it here, but it’s a wonderful story about holy water in New York City and the nature of our actual worship.

  27. I would probably at least have sung to myself a little excerpt of Haydn’s Mariazeller Mass.

  28. Mike Derucci says:

    I have a friend who wears LDS temple garments, not because he is a Mormon, but because he, too, enjoys the “numinous” and likes to participate in the rituals of other faiths without paying the price of commitment to the entire faith system. That probably isn’t the same thing. But then again…

  29. Mike,
    You see, that’s just WEIRD. But I can’t exactly articulate why, without compromising my own holy envy.

  30. OK, how about this: he’s appropriating the symbol of a communion without offering anything in return? It’s the same reason that whilst I can feel holy in a Marian shrine and even enjoy some reflections on a Marian theme (and hope for spiritual gain), to pray a rosary would be me, a Mormon, “playing Catholic.” I’m not a Catholic.

  31. D. Fletcher says:

    Should you?

    Why not?

  32. What is the committment attached to looking at a Marian Shrine, lighting a candle in a Catholic Church, or even to saying the “Hail Mary”? There are no Symbolic Committments attached.

    It is different than wearing Garments, or say, dressing up as the pope.

  33. What commitments are attached to dressing up as the pope?

  34. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 32-33 I thought cross-dressing was frowned upon by the Brethren.

  35. MikeinWeHo: wearing crosses is discouraged, yes.

    The Pope wears sacred vestments of his priesthood, and they do connect to covenants he has made. The Only one that comes to mind is the three knotts in the traditional rope belt, symbolizes the vows of poverty, chastity,…somthing else…

  36. #35, Obedience.

  37. slip the church some coins. It’s expensive keeping it looking nice so people like you can enjoy it.


    Surely you haven’t forgotten that Germans and Austrians have state-sponsored Kirchensteuer to take care of the upkeep? And you want an expatriat/non-member to tap an income already ravaged by tithing and European income-, social security-, and public television-tax and make an additional contribution?

    Revolutions were started over lesser forms of taxation without representation!

    An Austrian rosary for anyone who can a) guess what I was wondering

    Easy–“when will those Italian tourists beat it so I can take a pic?”

  38. Thanks Ann, Catholic School is beginning to be a long time ago…

  39. Gilgamesh says:

    I want the rosaries – I have a collection.


    When I am in those moments – often having served a mission in Italy – I feel the urge and often pry to Heavenly Father thanking him for that person, particularly Mary, as a loving mother for our Elder Brother.

  40. Matt #35, if I’m not mistaken, the wearing of crosses is not in fact discouraged; all of the official statements I can readily find discourage Mormons from wearing crosses as a symbol of the LDS church. Crosses can be symbols of a lot of other things; the official statements typically give the example of Mormon chaplains who wear the cross as a symbol of their chaplaincy. Presumably there may be other such examples?

  41. molly bennion says:

    Any form of prayer, worship or, in Mary’s honor, pondering would have been your privilege.

  42. J. c’mon, it was a pun on “cross-dressing”!

  43. cue laughter track…

  44. I never said it was a funny pun, I just said it was a pun.

  45. I thought it was quite humorous.

  46. It was pretty clever.

  47. I liked it.

  48. Oh, I thought you (Ronan) just meant use the Holy Water to heal yourself and son. When I’m visiting others’ sacred palces I feel really weird about doing anything that would be meaningful to them and not of my own tradition. My husband loves to partake of all the Holy Water and burning prayer scrolls and all that stuff wherever we go, and he’s not religious at all. It’s kind of weird, since I’m supposedly the religious one and I shy away from it all, and he’s so gung ho.

    So did you sprinkle the water on yourself?

  49. velikye kniaz says:

    Several years ago there was a Marian manifestation right here in the heart of Zion, i.e. Salt Lake City. The city was trimming trees on a downtown street and a few days after the work was done, a passing Roman Catholic looked up and noticed that the sap flowing from the cut resembled the traditional imange of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The ‘image’ is about 12 inches tall, if I remember correctly and not so clearly delineated that you can see facial features or the details of the clothing. But if you squint and step back a bit you can see the resemblance. Now the place has become a shrine. There are at least fifty candles
    sitting on a bench, and a city built staircase so that one can view the ‘miracle’ at eye level. When my Catholic brother was in town for a business I drove by the site and and he asked what it was. I explained the ‘miracle’ and he asked if we could stop. I said, “Certainly”. After he returned to the car, I asked him what he thought. He was impressed and then asked my opinion. I told him that I did not share his enthusiasm. I explained that any seeming ‘miracle’ that diverts a person’s faith from our Heavenly Father and our Saviour is essentially anti-Christ. All Faith should be focused on the three Personages of Deity, Our Father in Heaven, the Saviour Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Mary, as remarkable and great as she was to be chosen to be the mortal mother of our Saviour, has no powers to save in and of herself. Prayer, devotion, or adoration of Mary or the panoply of other saints of Catholicism and Orthodoxy all divert the a person’s attention and Faith away form where it properly should be directed. Had the Saviour wanted his mortal brothers and sisters to so direct their attention to these good departed Christians we would have Scriptures that would specifically command us to do so. I have also visited the sacred places of other faiths and tried to conduct myself with dignity and respect. I have also made contributions to the rebuilding of several churches in Russia and done so because I felt that it would help to re-inculate some basis knowledge of God and encourage the growth of simple faith within the Russian people. I have been deeply moved to see a powerfully built young man prostrate himself (kneel and touch his forehead to the floor) before the ikon of the Holy Trinity in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. But I myself, did not follow suit. For we Latter-day Saints, we must approach these situations with considerable care, showing both respect but at the same time not acting in a such a way that could be construed that we are indicating a belief in these ‘wonders’ and ‘miracle’ workers.

  50. Having visited many cathedrals,churches and the two most sacred sites to Roman Catholics, I appreciated this post. I do everything I can to be quiet, respectful, and feel the sacred feeling in these places. When I’m at mass, I don’t just sit down–I participate (I don’t take communion of course). I’ve lit a candle at a cathedral.
    The relationship Roman Catholics and especially Latin Roman Catholics have with the Virgin is awe-worthy to me. The more I learn about it, the more I’m amazed by the complexity of it all.

  51. You know what, this was a great thread. I thought, I got miffed, I laughed, I felt spiritual, I rolled my eyes. Wonderful, Ronan.

  52. Steve Evans says:

    BiV! You’re alive! Great to see you.

  53. BiV is a permablogger at The Cultural Hall. Feel free to be consumed with envy.

  54. I’ve been around, Steve. I can see that you and I don’t really frequent the same bars I mean blogs.

  55. Steve Evans says:



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