Sr. Albert Marie Surmanski, O.P., is a theologian who belongs to the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Sister Albert Marie, who entered the Dominican Sisters in 2005 and earned a Ph.D. in theology in 2014, currently teaches theology at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Fl.
Sister Albert Marie recently worked with another member of her community, Maria Veritas Marks, O.P., to write and compile the Manual for Marian Devotion published by TAN Books on December 21.
On December 21 I interviewed her by email about the new book.
Catholic bookstores already seem pretty flooded with Marian devotional books and literature. What inspired you to compile a new Manual for Marian Devotion?
This book originated because TAN was beginning a series of devotional manuals. Knowing the deep devotion of our community to Our Lady, they invited us to work on the one related to Mary, and we were delighted to agree.
The manual has two major parts: a theological section and then a sampling of writings and prayers about Mary.
The first section is meant to give a straightforward but rich introduction to Mary’s place within the life and theology of the church. It outlines Mary’s place in Scripture and the Marian dogmas of the church and gives an overview of the development of Marian devotion within the church. Then we explain many of the Marian devotions common today and give the reader advice on how to integrate them into his life.
In the second major section we see the truths of the first section blossoming into earlier writing. It can be read as a tour through the storehouse of the church. We have selections from the church fathers, medieval miracle stories, selections from a few recent theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and prayers from different ages in the church.
I picture readers coming to knowabout Mary through the first section and then coming to know Mary through meditating and praying with the authors of the second half.
Who is your audience?
This book is meant for someone who has become interested in Mary and would like to know her better. The ideal reader would be asking herself, “Who is Mary, what is her role in my life and what could I do to get to know her better?”
You hold a doctorate in systematic theology. How did that theological background influence your approach to compiling this book?
It has footnotes, so the readers can do further research!
On a more serious level, it was important to me that Marian devotion be presented within a Christological and ecclesial context. It seems to me that there are two misguided approaches to Marian devotion. The first is a largely emotional devotion. Some people feel an immediate connection to Mary’s beauty or a desire for her motherly care. For them she is an admired mother, stooping down to this earth as a kindly patroness. This devotion has some value, but usually seems a bit childish. It can be explained only with difficulty to those who do not share the insight that sparked it.
A second problematic path is the inverse of the first: some Catholics know that they should love Mary but, since they don’t not feel an emotional connection to her, do not give her a place in their lives. Those in this position often feel that Mary’s privileges alienate her from the rest of us. Or they may not connect to the idea of seeing themselves as children in need of a mother.
In the theological section of this book, we wanted to show that Mary is at the very heart of Christianity. She is part of the texture of the Christian life—surpassingly beautiful, yes, but also very human and very close to us. Anyone who knows Christ ipso facto has a relationship with Mary through whom he came into the world.
Vatican II’s emphasis on Mary as the “image and beginning” of the church is important ("Lumen Gentium," No. 68). By entering the church, we follow Mary’s footsteps. She reveals to us what Christian maturity looks like in the same way that a natural mother not only cares for her children but leads them towards adulthood. Mary’s privileges should give us hope and joy. By our baptism, we came to share in the same sanctifying grace that was hers in a fuller way by her Immaculate Conception. Her Assumption is a pledge to us that we, too, will rise at the last day.
James Kubicki, S.J., the national director of the Apostleship of Prayer, published a book on the Sacred Heart a few years ago that sought to update the devotion for people today. As with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, not all Marian devotional forms are equally popular today, with some ideas like St. Louis de Montfort’s “total slavery to Mary” feeling particularly unappealing to all but the most fervent young Catholics. In this new Manual, how did you seek to present Marian devotions in a language that will appeal to young readers like your college students?
As I mentioned, in the Manual for Marian Devotion we try to explain Mary’s place within Christianity in a clear, doctrinal way. I find that college students today are interested in understanding the truths of the faith and how they fit together. In Dominican fashion, we tried to write in such a way that appreciation and awe will not be forced on the reader by the language but will flow naturally out of the contemplation of the beauty of God’s wise plan.
I think Louis de Montfort’s “total consecration to Mary” is an excellent example of the way in which a richer doctrinal understanding can help give new life to older practices. Phrased in the language of “slavery,” consecration to Mary is distasteful to many. Understood as a way of wholeheartedly embracing our identity as members of the church, it is appealing. To quote the Manual: “Marian consecration builds on strong theological foundations. It is a deepening and reaffirming of our baptismal consecration. Mary’s faith is the church’s faith, so consecration to her signifies entering deeply and without reservation into the baptismal vocation of the Christian. It is opening ourselves to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with and in imitation of Mary."
In his essay “Courage for Devotion to Mary,” the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner once described how modern people after Vatican II spontaneously began to abandon what is accidental (and sometimes what is essential) in Marian devotions, highlighting the need for a reinterpretation of old and new forms to ensure their survival. In your research for this book, what developments in Marian devotions did you notice and which ones do you find particularly relevant for U.S. Catholics today?
One type of Marian devotion that has been re-interpreted fruitfully is that of pilgrimage. I think the concept of pilgrimage—travelling to a holy place of prayer and sacred presence—is appealing to U.S. Catholics. Today’s world is a world in motion, so on one level this devotion appeals to our desire to enlarge our experience. A pilgrimage, even a mini-pilgrimage by car to a shrine a few hours away, embodies our search for God. A pilgrimage to a more distant location reminds us of the universality of the church, something important to remember in our global society.
On another level, the mindset of pilgrimage can be profoundly corrective to several current-day deviations. It breaks the busyness of our hectic lives. It reminds us to make space for God, for listening. It tells us that we are only travelers through this life. It reminds us of the value of presence—something that technology is weakening.
Of course, the texture of a pilgrimage has changed since, say, medieval times, when a pilgrimage was a much more penitential journey. Yet even the small discomforts of a relatively “easy” pilgrimage teach us to bear suffering cheerfully with Christ.
As a Dominican sister, you belong to an order traditionally credited with popularizing the rosary as a common form of devotion to Mary. What role does Marian devotion play in your own spirituality and prayer life?
In our community, we pray the rosary together daily, and consecrate ourselves to Mary. As women religious, we see part of our role as embodying the Marian role of the church. I love this idea of making Mary’s love present through our lives. I personally find the idea of entrusting my life to Christ through Mary to be a source of strength and peace.
We have an evening prayer in our community which begins, “Our Lady of this house…” The idea that Mary belongs to every Christian so closely that we can address her not only as “Our Lady of Fatima” and “Our Lady of Lourdes” but “Our Lady” of each of the houses in which we live captures, for me, the living and personal nature of the church. Mary looks down on each of our houses—the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us, makes the Marian church present wherever we are.
How do you pray?
In the Dominican monastic tradition, an important element of my daily prayer is the Divine Office, chanted in common. Even before I entered our religious community, I loved to pray with the psalms. They wisely gather up every human experience and emotion and direct them towards God: joy at the beauty of his creation, trust at the mystery of suffering. My two favorite psalms are Psalm 18, which begins, “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” and Psalm 43, which asks, “Why are you sad, my soul?... hope in God, for I will again praise him.” These two moments of joy and courageous determination in the face of uncertainty sum up much of the Christian life—mine and Mary’s.
I love to think about Mary’s hidden life at Nazareth whenever I am taking care of daily tasks. Although I teach at a university, I think that quiet faithfulness in daily life is worth more to the church than any number of lectures or papers.
Who have been the biggest influences, living or dead, on your faith?
I have never been much of a hero-worshipper, so I probably need to say that it was my parents. They baptized me, taught me the basics of the faith and encouraged me to study further on my own. My mother used to say that every child comes into the world seeking something and that what I wanted was the truth. Being shown that the Catholic faith offered a reasonable and coherent worldview did more to set me on the path to God than anything else. I should probably also include my maternal grandmother. She was a devout, balanced and loving woman. Her goodness offered me tangible proof that a life of faithfulness to God is transformative, that God can be trusted to be faithful in the nitty-gritty details of daily life right up until the end of life.
What do you want people to take away from your life and work?
Speaking specifically to the Marian Manual, I hope that it will be an encouraging companion for those seeking to know our Blessed Mother. Speaking more generally, I hope that those who read my writings or hear my lectures remember the truths I am teaching. I hope that people who spend time with me experience and remember God’s love for them.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.