This Sunday, 29th March, at noon, the Bishops of England will lead the rededication of our country to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady. In times past, English Catholics called their country “the Dowry of Mary”. But how did all this come about, and what does it mean for us now, in the midst of this global crisis? And what is a dowry, anyway?
I was recently talking about this with two friends, who were not entirely impressed. One, a fellow priest who’s a better historian than me, pointed out that the dedication of England to Our Lady first took place at the initiative of King Richard II, in response to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The Black Death, the plague of the 1340s, had impacted heavily on the economy, the country was in the middle of the costly and pointless Hundred Years’ War with France, which was being paid for by higher taxation on an already struggling people. When an attempt to collect unpaid taxes was made in Brentwood, Essex, the local people revolted, and the revolt spread. King Richard met with the leaders of what had become a full-blown uprising, and acceded to many of their demands. Capitalising on the deep piety of the English people, he asked Our Lady to be England’s protector, setting aside England as her “dowry”. But then the King went back on his promises to his people, suppressed the uprising, and carried on with his war – though at least Parliament was deterred from raising any more taxes to pay for it. But not an edifying story.
My other friend, a woman, reminded me that a dowry was the payment – in money or another form – made by a father to the future husband of his daughter. In other words, the future husband was paid to take the responsibility of the daughter off the father. This also meant that if there were several daughters, it might not be possible for some of them to marry. Do we really want to invoke such a sexist institution? Admittedly, the dowry sometimes also functioned to protect the daughter in the event the marriage didn’t work out. But it’s hard to see what that’s got to do with life now – or with Our Lady.
Fortunately – maybe we should say providentially – human imagination has a great capacity to reinvent, especially when aided by divine inspiration. After the Reformations of the sixteenth century, English Catholics suffered severe discrimination if they were lucky and persecution and even death if they weren’t. They came to understand “Our Lady’s Dowry” as God’s gift of England to his mother. And as St. Paul teaches, God never takes back his gifts (Rom. 11:29) – unlike earthly rulers. Our forebears’ prayer was that their country, which they loved, would return to the fullness of Catholic Christianity. This power of reinvention is in fact part of God’s wonderful power of bringing good out of evil, a truth we really need to hold on to at the moment. It’s nothing less than God’s gift of hope.
And why Our Lady? Over the centuries theologians’ understanding of Our Lady has deepened, and indeed this has brought divided Christians closer together. An image associated with Our Lady as Queen and Protector of England, her Dowry, has been the enthroned Virgin of Walsingham, with the Child Jesus on her lap. The Mother of the Lord, the Mother of God, Our Lady’s most ancient title.
And as the Crowned Virgin she recalls St. John’s vision of the Sign of the Virgin in the Book of Revelation, the woman clothed with the sun and her feet on the moon, crowned with twelve stars (Rev. 12:1-6). She is clothed with the sun, symbol of divinity – she participates in the divine life of God, as we do through participating in the Sacraments. Her feet are on the moon, a symbol for ancient people of the shadow: the dark, sorrowful and wounded side of our nature which needs healing if it is not be destructive. We have seen so much of this in recent years: political chaos, social and familial breakdown, a culture of rage and insult, tribalism, loneliness, a search for meaning made all the harder by a general loss of faith. And now the pandemic.
And the twelve stars of the Virgin’s crown would have been connected with the signs of the Zodiac, which were believed to govern the world. Nowadays, we would associate them with the unconscious of our personality, which can push us around not just for good, but for ill. But Mary has overcome, in Christ. With her, we too overcome in Christ. Weaknesses are turned to strength, sickness to health, death to life. Mary is crowned, in glory.
This terrible virus, Corona, means a crown, so called because of its shape. It has become the crown of thorns of the entire human race. Yet through Our Lady’s intercession and example, we share in Christ’s cross – and in his rising from the dead, and his ascending into heaven. Note how in Revelation John sees Our Lady glorified, yet suffering. She, with and in her Son, suffers with the sick and the dying now, the exhausted families and friends and doctors and nurses, the bereaved and lonely, and all of us who are in fear of what may come, for our own futures. But even now, we are sharing in God’s glory. Already people are reaching out with kinder words. 750 000 people have volunteered to help the NHS. People are rediscovering their families and housemates. We’re buying just the food we need and no longer wasting it while the world starves. And with the planes grounded, the environment is starting to recover.
But this could last a long time. It will need more than good will. Apart from sickness and confinement, there is a longer term impact: people are also losing of jobs and income. And one thing is certain: life will change, and change a lot. There will be gains and losses. We will need new skills (I’ve already had to learn how to be a radio technician!). In short, we will need God’s grace, and a great deal of it.
The prayers for the rededication of England to Our Lady emphasise entrusting our country to God and the grace to YES to Him, as Our Lady did when she consented, with all her heart and longing, to be the Mother of the Messiah. She could only do this because of the grace that was already in her. Likewise, we don’t “try to be the best person you can”. We will only get exhausted and disillusioned. Instead, let’s draw on the grace of our baptism, draw on the resources of prayer, finding God and His Love in all things.
The rededication on Sunday will happen closed doors. This is sad, yet also an opportunity. Perhaps in the past we were too happy to let the senior clergy do it for us. Now, each one of us needs to make it our own. Already, record-size congregations attending Mass by internet and radio. So let’s join the bishops at 12 noon on Sunday: click the link for the Angelus Promise and the Act of Entrustment, and the Rededication liturgy will be live streamed here direct from Our Lady’s Basilica in Walsingham. This is a prayer for an end to this pandemic through Our Lady’s protection. But also, right in the midst of this terrible crisis, it’s a prayer for a new beginning, the start of a kinder and gentler age, an age of renewed faith in God, under the protection of Our Lady, the Seat of Wisdom.
Fr Dominic White OP
Note: there is the Behold website where you can personally enrol in the Rededication – it should send you an email, but I haven’t received mine yet. It’s possible that it’s been disrupted by the lockdown. You can give it a try, but maybe best just to follow the links above.