May Magnificat

Pope Francis laying flowers for Maria, Salus Popoli Romani
at Saint Mary Major's Basilica, Rome.
May Magnificat by Gerard Manley Hopkins

May is Mary's month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature's motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Recently a friend recommended that I read this poem. So I did and here's some of the fruits! It was a little like going back to Leaving Cert English class writing this but I enjoyed penning some thoughts.
In his poem May Magnificat, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins associated the blessed Virgin with the fullness of life in all creation during the month of May. It is the pinnacle of spring freshness and finery, and so nature decked in all her bridal loveliness reigns just as Mary does in heaven.

Yes, May is the month of Mary. Although many Catholics know that May is dedicated to the Mother of God, it may be a bit of a puzzle as to why May was chosen for this special honour. What is it about May that makes it suited to be the Month of Mary? Some have pointed to the fact that, in classic western culture (both Greek and Roman), May was recognized as the season of the beginning of new life. In the Greek world, May was dedicated to the goddess Artemis and associated with fecundity. Roman culture linked the month of May to Flora, the goddess of bloom and blossoms , this led to the custom of ludi florales (or floral games) which took place at the very end of April as a preparation for entering into the month of May. It seems that this ancient tradition of connecting May with new life and fecundity, led to a realization that May is very much the month of motherhood – this may be the reason why Mother’s Day is celebrated during May not only in Northern America but in many countries and cultures of both the East and the West.

In the month of May, the winter comes to an end and the spring season begins (this was the official beginning of spring in Roman culture). This new beginning and new birth is a testimony to the motherhood of Mother Earth. The connection between motherhood and May led Christians eventually to adopt May as Mary Month. Mary's month of May is also associated with flowers not only those for her garland, but as a means of meditation on Mary whose life teaches us so much about our relationship with God. Accordingly in some parts of the world on each day of May a different flower, bearing some association with the life of Mary is the source for meditation.

As I have mentioned in the other blogs, I have been somewhat spoiled with the beautiful flowers here in Ottawa over the past few weeks so I have allowed some more thoughts to develop along the subject of flowers!  Tulips aside, I have come to appreciate the care and dedication with which our neighbours tend their own gardens and allow walkers, joggers and passerbys to feast on the colours, perfumes and arrangements which adorn these spaces.

The May devotion also gave rise to the spread of flower gardens known as 'Mary Gardens' especially in Europe.These were very popular in medieval times, and still exist today, where those flowers associated with Mary such as "The rose of charity, the lily of chastity, the violet of humility and the golden gillyflower of heaven" as listed by St. Bernard were grown to honour our dear Mother, and symbolise some aspect of Mary's life or character. Within each garden there was a statue of Mary crowned with leafy sprigs and nearby the Christ Child surrounded by flowers. Of course many of these Mary gardens were part of monastic landscapes. St. Benedict had a rose garden from which the word "Rosary" comes, but the first known garden dedicated to Mary was planted and tended by the Irish monk, St. Fiachra around an oratory to Our Lady in his hospice for the poor and infirm in France in the 7th century.

Thinking about May devotions brought me back to my childhood days. As a child, the nuns taught us our hymns to Mary. We brought her flowers because we believed she was looking after us, we knelt at the devotional shrine and told her all our woes. My own little altar on my dresser (where my prized possession of my porcelain tea-set stood!) was the centre of my prayers for the month of May. The flowers here were a lot humbler and generally gathered from nature walks  (often weeds) along by the river or up Clonown Road. They were good memories! I was really happy to see Pope Francis bring his posy of flowers to place before 'Maria Salus Popoli Romani in St. Mary Major's Basilica at the start of the month.

"The Angelus"
by Jean-Francois Millet, 1857
Louvre, Paris
In Ireland, Catholic devotions are still quite strong. One such devotion is the ringing of the Angelus Bells at 12 noon and 6pm in hundreds of parishes around the country. At 6pm, our national radio and televisions stations ring the Angelus bell calling the faithful to prayer. Long may it continue as it is a national treasure, though under fierce resistance from our modern, secular world. The Rosary, the Stations of the Cross and Benediction are probably the most beloved and well-known of the devotions but there are many, many more. Sadly, we rarely see the Crowning of the May anymore; another beautiful devotion to Our Lady documented as far back as the 13th century. But happily we are seeing a renewal of the Corpus Christi processions, a devotion with a history that goes back to the 12th century. As a child I grew up with all of these wonderful devotions and they are never forgotten. In little ways, we can keep them going!

For an interesting Irish perspective of Irish Marian devotions, here's a recent article from the Irish Catholic newspaper.