Divine Mother, Divine Mover: A Marian Spirituality of Pilgrimage

I gave a talk last night at the 1st Annual Mother Mary Dinner at the Precious Blood Renewal Center. It was an inter-religious dinner and dialogue on the figure of Mary in Catholicism and Islam. I spoke about Mary as a Mother, Mover, and Model of Pilgrims.

Here is a link to the Presentation itself: https://sites.google.com/view/divinemother/home

And the text of my talk is below:

Divine Mother, Divine Mover:
A Marian Spirituality of Pilgrimage
Michael J. Sanem
1st Annual Mother Mary Dinner
October 9th, 2019

Thank you for having me here tonight. My name is Michael Sanem, and I’m the Director of Faith Formation and Pastoral Associate at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, downtown. I’m grateful to be here, sharing a great meal and the treasures of our traditions with each other. In this spirit of dialogue, my presentation is called “Divine Mother, Divine Mover: A Marian Spirituality of Pilgrimage” and it’s based on two things that we Catholics share with our Muslim brothers and sisters: that is, a love of Mary and a deep devotion to the sacred practice of pilgrimage. 

If you’d like to follow along from your phone or take a look at this presentation later, here’s the link to this webpage:


To look at the Catholic understanding of Mary through the lens of pilgrimage is to see her in three ways: 1) As Mary, Mother of pilgrims, 2) As Mary, Mover of pilgrims, 3) as Mary, Model of pilgrims herself.

But before I start, let’s ask the question: Do we really need more names for Mary? Since we already have so many. I would argue YES and I hope by the end of this presentation you’ll agree with me. But any Catholic understanding of Mary has to first recognize that there are A LOT of Catholic understandings of Mary. So with that out of the way, let’s look for a moment at what pilgrimages are, and how Mary is a Mother of Pilgrims: 

Pilgrimages are sacred journeys or wanderings undertaken for spiritual or personal reasons, with specific shrines or holy places venerated along the way or at a particular destination. They are present in almost all cultures and religions. 

One essential component of Pilgrimage is transformation. St. James the Apostle is the Catholic patron of pilgrims because he witnessed Christ’s transfiguration. In doing so, he was transformed. On pilgrimage we encounter reality and ourselves transfigured by the divine presence.

In Catholicism, Mary plays a unique role as a Mother of Pilgrims. She consoles and protects us in our sacred wanderings, and she “gives birth” to pilgrimage sites with her apparitions. 

This is especially evident in the icon of Madonna Della Strada, or “Our Lady of the Way.” Beloved by Jesuits and all influenced by their spirituality, St. Ignatius first encountered this icon while he preached on the streets in Rome. She became the beloved patroness of the Jesuits as they spread across the globe, and a fitting image of Mary the Mother of Pilgrims, who cares for us pilgrims as she cared for her son, Jesus. 

This love of Madonna Della Strada spread all the way to Chicago, where I went to school, and she is the namesake of the most beautiful chapel in the United States, pictured here, where I said many a prayer asking for Mary’s help on “the way.”

Lake Michigan provides the backdrop at Loyola University Chicago’s Lake Shore Campus on Thursday, July 24, 2014. (photo by Natalie Battaglia)

Moreover, Mary the Mother of Pilgrims “gives birth” to pilgrimage sites by her apparitions, as you can see here: 

Mary, interestingly enough, often is “transformed” in her apparitions, changing clothes, age and language, even race and skin color, depending on who she is appearing to. 

But before we explore Mary’s transformations, let’s move onto our second point, Mary, the Mover of Pilgrims. I’d like to use Dante’s Divine Comedy as a way of understanding this. And if you’re not familiar with Dante, he’s an Italian poet from the 13th and 14th Century, who wrote a massive poem about one man’s journey through the Christian afterlife. It’s made up of 3 parts: Inferno, about his descent through hell, Purgatorio, about his journey up the Mount of Purgation, and Paradiso, about his voyage through the celestial spheres towards God. 

Now, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, this is where Mary lives: at the heart of this multifoliate Rose formed by God in union with all the angels, saints, and souls of the blessed. She has a front row seat gazing into the glory of the Divine Mystery. This is ultimately where Dante will meet her in the final few cantos of the third book, Paradiso.

But in Canto 2 of Inferno, the first book of the Divine Comedy, Dante is hopelessly lost in a dark wood. Luckily, his friend and mentor Virgil has arrived to guide him through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. But Dante, initially comforted, becomes afraid. He wonders aloud, Why Me? Why have I been chosen to take this impossible journey? I’ll read now from the text in translation:

[Dante:] “But I, why should I go? Who gives permission?
I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul! 
Not I nor anyone else would judge me worthy.”

[VIRGIL GIVES A LONG ANSWER, quoting Beatrice to Dante, Beatrice as quoted by Virgil:]

“In Heaven there’s a gentle lady [MARY]—one
who weeps for the distress toward which I send you,
so that stern judgment up above is shattered.

[Mary’s weeping shatters the stern judgement of Divine Justice]

And it was she who called upon Lucia,
requesting of her: “Now your faithful one
has need of you, and I commend him to you.”

Lucia, enemy of every cruelty,
arose and made her way to where I [BEATRICE] was,
sitting beside the venerable Rachel.

She said: “You, Beatrice, true praise of God,
why have you not helped him who loves you so
that—for your sake—he’s left the vulgar crowd?

Do you not hear the anguish in his cry?
Do you not see the death he wars against
upon that river ruthless as the sea?”

[Beatrice then travels to hell to convince Virgil to help Dante]


[Virgil, to Dante, after being convinced by Beatrice]:

What is it then? Why, why do you resist?
Why does your heart host so much cowardice?
Where are your daring and your openness

as long as there are three such blessed women
concerned for you within the court of Heaven
and my words promise you so great a good?”


As little flowers, which the chill of night
has bent and huddled, when the white sun strikes
grow straight and open fully on their stems,

so did I, too, with my exhausted force;
and such warm daring rushed into my heart
that I—as one who has been freed—began:

“O she, compassionate, who has helped me!
And you who, courteous, obeyed so quickly
the true words that she had addressed to you!

You, with your words, have so disposed my heart
to longing for this journey—I return
to what I was at first prepared to do.

Now go; a single will fills both of us:
you are my guide, my governor, my master.”
These were my words to him; when he advanced

I entered on the steep and savage path.
Inferno, Canto 2

Dante was right, he is NOT worthy to take this journey. But Mary, being the Mover of Pilgrims, so loves this lost soul, that she moves heaven and earth and purgatory (and even hell) to get in touch with him. Dante, so moved by Mary’s love, begins to move. This is called the Triple movement in the Divine Comedy: We are moved by love, we move in love, and in moving, we move others by our love:

Mary, moved by God’s love, moves to speak to St. Lucia. St. Lucia, moved by Mary’s love, moves to speak to Beatrice. Beatrice, moved by St. Lucia’s love, moves to speak to Virgil (even to hell). Virgil, moved by Beatrice’s love, moves to help Dante. Dante, moved by all their love, moves to continue his journey and write his story. And we, after reading Dante, are moved, and so we move others.

This is a good way to understand the Catholic view of Mary. She moves us. She is the mediatrix of Christ’s graces. Not the mediator, but the mediatrix, assisting Christ. From the documents of the Second Vatican Council: “Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. … Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (Lumen gentium, 62). 

As the Body of Christ, we are all “co-redeemers.” 

Mary, by virtue of her Immaculate Conception and special relationship with Christ, is the most effective.

Okay, let’s move along to our final point: Mary is the Model of Pilgrims. Let’s look, for a moment, at the transformation that occurs as Mary journeys through scripture and tradition: 

In Paolo Pasolini’s 1965 classic, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, we see the stark reality of Mary’s early life. It still fascinates, this child, pregnant and alone, but so full of God’s Grace that she proclaims her savior has torn down the mighty from their thrones but has raised up the lowly.

And Mary’s life will be a Pilgrimage: 

She will move from unwed, pregnant teenager, to a woman giving birth in a stable, to a refugee seeking asylum in Egypt, to a widow witnessing her beloved son be crucified by the religious and political authorities, to being named the Theotokos, the God-Bearer, her life displays a radical trust in God and a willingness to move and move others in God’s mysterious plan of salvation.

Mary makes a scriptural pilgrimage as well. [List of her scriptural pilgrimage, from “a woman” in Paul to “Theotokos” at the Council of Ephesus.

TO SUMMARIZE: “The Gospels exhibit an increasing fascination with Jesus’s mother. The earliest, Mark, portrays her in the barest of terms, calling Jesus the “son of Mary” and preferring instead to focus on spiritual kinship. Matthew and Luke augment Mary’s role in Jesus’s story with the infancy accounts. Finally, in John, Mary becomes an important witness to the end of Jesus’s life. This fascination with Jesus’s mother does not end with the Gospels but continues to grow in the succeeding centuries.” – Stephen C. Carlson, “Portraits of Mary in the Gospels”, n.p. [cited 19 Sep 2019]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/people/related-articles/portraits-of-mary-in-the-gospels 

This image is in the Catacombs of Priscilla – 4th century image of Jesus and Mary (we think).

Mary’s movement, from Model, to Mover, to Mother of Pilgrims, continues with us to this day and continues to grow and change over time. To illustrate this, here are two images from our own Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception: 

 On the left you’ll see Mother of the Universe, of which our tour booklet says: “Mary is portrayed not as the young, blonde virgin of European art, but as a mature, multi-racial woman, a universal mother figure with strong hands that reach out to help and point to the Christ. The spiral in her womb symbolizes Christ the Incarnate Word of God, “through whom the universe was made,” as stated in St. John’s Gospel Prologue.”

On the right you’ll see our Rose Window of Mary, an abstract of the Immaculate Conception, which draws from the book of Revelation to depict Mary, the Mystical Rose, clothed with the sun, with the moon at her feet, and on her head a crown of 12 stars. Around her, the sun rises and sets, and the moon goes through her phases at her feet. This window is positioned above our altar, and brings to us the light of the day, as Mary brought the light of Christ into the world. 

So the heart of this Catholic understanding is that Mary is both our Blessed Mother and our Blessed Mover: She teaches us by her life to move forward in faith, confident of God’s love and care for us.

I’d like to close with the words of my favorite (someday) saint, Dorothy Day, which she wrote in her column On Pilgrimage, on Mary. I think it gives a good spiritual and psychological insight into the Catholic devotion to her” 

“When I was a very little child, perhaps not more than six, I used to have recurrent nightmares of a great God, King of heaven and earth which encompassed all, stretched out over all of us in a most impersonal way, and with this nightmare came also a great noise like that made by a galloping horseman which increased in volume until the sound filled all the earth. It was a terrifying dream and when I called out, my mother used to come and sit by the bedside and hold my hand and talk to me until I fell asleep. That passed, and then a few years later I met a little girl by the name of Mary Harrington who told me about the Blessed Mother and a heaven peopled with saints, and this also was a great comfort to me…

Later, it was my own motherhood which finally brought me into the Church, the joy and thankfulness I felt at the birth of a child. I had to thank God. … the Hail Mary and the Salve Regina and the Memorare were new to me. I was soon introduced to the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, from which children used to be taught to read in the Middle Ages, and the versicles and hymns became part of my prayer life from then on….

God was our Father, so I could approach Him, daring to say, Our Father. But it was reading of Jesus Christ in the New Testament that made me want to put off the old man and put on Christ, as St. Paul said. And who had given me our Lord but the Virgin Mary? It was easy to pray to her, repetitious though it might seem. Saying the rosary as I did so often, I felt that I was praying with the people of God, who held on to the physical act of the rosary as to a lifeline, a very present help in time of trouble.” – From Reflections during Advent: Dorothy Day on Prayer, Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience

In closing, Mary is clearly the help and hope of Pilgrims. We also call ourselves a Pilgrim Church, a People of God on a sacred journey to a divine destination. All of us here are on this sacred journey together, helping one another uncover who we are in God and who God is in us. Mary, as mother, mover, and model points the way and walks the pilgrim path alongside us. 

Thank you.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Sally Sanem says:

    What a beautiful and unique talk on Mary. I have never heard her role in our lives described so beautifully. Reading this text one can clearly see that She has touched your life.


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