Recently I’ve been working a lot with this prayer-
O Mary, teach me to fly to you for help.
If you’re unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Marian prayer you might prefer to use Jesus’ name. Since Our Lady is almoner to Our Lord the net spiritual effect is liable to be the same either way. However that may be, like many good prayers this one is multipurpose but for this blog I will focus on its helpfulness in relation to temptation.
Christian tradition identifies temptation as a process which goes through several distinct stages each of which is more difficult to resist than its predecessor. St John of Damascus outlines seven (count them, seven) such stages but for the sake of brevity I will use the model proposed by Hesychios of Sinai who mentions four phases-
(46) The provocation comes first, then our coupling with it, or the mingling of our thoughts with those of the wicked demons. Third comes our assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit sin in practice. Fourth comes the concrete action–that is, the sin itself
Tradition also identifies the three great enemies within ourselves which prevent us effectively resisting temptation and these are: Ignorance, Forgetfulness and Laziness. Because of them we do not know, cannot remember or will not use the aids against temptation offered to us by the grace of God and by Holy Church. My personal experience is that Forgetfulness comes in the form of temporary amnesia. That is, before I am tempted by, and immediately after I have yielded to, sin I can remember perfectly clearly what I should do to resist it. During the actual contest with the tempter, however, it is like a thick veil has been thrown over the eyes of my mind and not only can I not see what I in fact should see clearly but I do not even look. Historically this kind of thing has been attributed to the work of demons, today we may say it is the effect of our unconscious Id baffling our conscious Ego. For all practical purposes it is a distinction without a difference.
It is because of this ‘forgetfulness’ of mine (which might also be laziness) that the ‘teach me‘ part of the prayer is so important. You may think that it is a tad redundant since I am asking to be taught something which I have evidently already learned. There is, however, a huge difference between ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing about.’ The latter form is simply a bunch of words which exist in the conscious part of my mind and which I have access to, if forgetfulness or laziness don’t prevent me, the former is to all intents and purposes an integral part of myself gained through both experience and thought. I ‘know’ my parents and so they are always with me, although they have died, I ‘know about’ my cousins in Colorado but I seldom think of them, although they are alive. I therefore ask the Blessed Virgin through both her teaching office and her maternal role to truly make me know that I can and must turn to her in times of trial. In this way the demons of Forgetfulness and Laziness can be slain.
The words ‘to fly‘ are crucial because the earlier in the temptative process we seek help the more chance we have of success. The provocation essentially proceeds from a source external to us. An image or idea suddenly pops into our minds from we know not where, again we can nominate either demons or the unconscious for blame. Although we are aware of it our awareness has not produced it. At this point temptation is at its weakest and most vulnerable. Weak as it is though we are weaker still and can only defeat it if we immediately run for help to the one source who can help us, Almighty God, and He often chooses to act through spiritual agents like Angels, Saints, our mother the Church, and above all the Blessed Virgin Mary.
If Forgetfulness or Laziness intervene at this point we will engage with the idea or image, perhaps fantasising about it or working out how to carry it into effect. All is not yet lost because we have not given consent. If at this point the veil falls away we can rush to Mary and seek her help. Although the struggle and effort will be harder and last for longer than if we had acted immediately nonetheless by the grace of God it can still end with the head of the serpent being trampled underfoot.
What, concretely, does flight to Mary entail? Well, if, for example, we have reached stage three and given our assent to the provocation but our conscience has kicked in before acting upon our intention we can take ourselves urgently to prayer. We may use whatever words come to mind and most suit our current need. Or, being Catholic, we may more likely turn to prayers we have often used and are familiar with. The Sub tuum praesidium is a handy emergency prayer- “WE fly to thy patronage, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.” The desperate straits we find ourselves in will impel us, no matter how often we have spoken such prayers before, to say them with great urgency, or as the English might phrase it ‘put some Oomph into them.’ Also or additionally we can turn our eyes to an image of the Virgin and in gazing upon her be reminded of all that she is and represents, this too may draw us back from the brink. And, of course, if we have a rosary to hand (as we should) we can take that up and immerse ourselves in the Mysteries, particularly in the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
What is the help that Mary can provide us with? A great deal, and that at every stage. If it should happen that we have fallen and feel a desire to rise again then we should fly to her every bit as urgently as we should have done before we fell. Our Lady is Mediatrix of All Graces, the healing balm of the Holy Spirit flows through her hands and can descend into us if we invoke her aid. Less obviously but no less potently she enables us to not just ‘know about’ her but to actually know her as Mother, Friend, Sister, Fellow Pilgrim. Which means we can make her a part of ourselves, she lives in our mind and heart at all times whether she be present or absent. And from her strength we can draw as from an inexhaustible resource. Her virtue can become our virtue, her patience in times of trial our patience and above all her love of Jesus can become our love of Jesus than which there can be no surer foundation.
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The picture is the Toulouse Schutzmantel a 15th century painting “Pope and king, clergy and laity, rich and poor gather under Mary’s mantle. An angel tries to shoot arrows of justice at the crowd, but they break on her mantle.”