The Life of Mary As Seen by the Mystics, compiled by Raphael Brown, is a curious work recommended to me recently, and seeing as I was provided with a copy, I began reading it shortly thereafter. As described in the introduction (and dust jacket copy), the book should be read “as a religious novel, but not as a fifth Gospel,” (pg 25). This sage advice from Hippolyte Delegate, S.J., sums up the view of this work, comprised of the private revelations of four mystics: St. Elizabeth of Schoenau (1129-1164), St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus of Agreda (1602-1656), and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824).

The Magisterium has declared that all public revelation has ceased; this is canon; however private revelation, while not required to be believed, is not only possible, but millions embrace belief in private revelations, such as the apparitions at Fatima and Loudres. Is it too far a stretch then to believe that a handful of holy women, united in faith, but seperated by eight hundred years’ of Church history may have been visited by the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM)? 

One of the criticisms of the book (by its own admission) is that the testimonies of the four mystics don’t exactly match. An argument made to excuse this lapse is that some of the visions capture the spiritual truth, while others, the physical truth (if I understand the gist of it). The writer cautions that visions in general should not be sought after as if they were an archaeological portal to the past.

These disclaimers aside, I found it a fascinating, if occasionally disconcerting, read. I’ll explain the latter sentiment first.

The purpose in reading about the lives of the saints should be that we are inspired to make positive change in our growth towards our own sanctification. Reading this proposed ‘life of Mary’ is a far more humbling experience than I ever anticipated. If true (and I don’t claim to believe in the visions…yet), then she was an unparalled creature of humility, grace and beauty, the likes of which the world has not seen since Eve, but, even more in a state of perfection because unlike Eve, she never sinned.

It was difficult, even uncomfortable, reading this holy woman describe herself as a ‘wyrm’ compared to God. My own pride bristles at the idea of calling myself anything so lowly…but, actually (a gentle Voice reminds me), we are but dust, and even counting ourselves as worms is greater than we really merit. The spiritual intimacies of the BVM with God are unlike any most of us are ever likely to experience, and that is in of itself, both beautiful, awesome, and (if I’m honest), so pure that I am a little relieved that I’m neither Our Lady or a saint.

Quickly moving along from this issue of pride, there are a number of wonderful anecedotes throughout the book, most especially, filling in the gaps that the Gospels leave out, questions perhaps you too have asked like…

  •  What was Mary’s childhood like? 
  • How did the Three Magi meet?
  • What happened at The Massacre of the Innocents?
  • What was life like in Egypt while the BVM, St. Joseph, and the child Jesus lived there?
  • What happened in Jesus’ hidden years?
  • Did he know the disciples growing up?
  • What does [insert name here] really look like — and how accurate are the paintings?
  • What happened in St. John the Baptist’s final moments?
  • Where did Jesus stay during His ministry?
  • What were Mary’s final years like?

I could easily go on and on. There’s so much rich ground to draw from here. Detailed descriptions of the Holy Family are included in the book (as I hinted at before) and if anyone knows whether paintings based on these mystics’ descriptions have been done, I’d love to see them to compare notes.

Walking with the BVM as she encounters the Way of the Cross is horrifying. Some moments reminded me, strikingly, of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and I wonder if anyone involved in that production was familiar with these words. And like that film, there are moments that are not for the faint of heart. Crucifixion was a brutal, tortuous method of death for the worst of criminals. 

Seeing the Passion through the eyes of a mother, following her convicted criminal (but entirely innocent) Son to His death, is absolutely heartbreaking. Even from a 21st century standpoint, following a documentary of a mother whose son was on Death Row, would be troubling, how much more so our Lord and Savior? If you could take nothing else away from reading this book, you would get a new perspective on The Stations of the Cross.

There are also some wonderful moments where the BVM describes periods of spiritual consolation and spiritual desolation (as St. Ignatius of Loyola would call them) that remind us that God’s ways are mysterious, but He always has a plan. We can take comfort that our trials and challenges have both a Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) and a mother whose tender arms have held brokenness before and can hold our brokenness too.

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