I read The Marian Option because I am an advocate for Marian devotion. At some point in my return to the Church I began to pray the Rosary regularly and have found help and peace in that practice, which was foreign to me through much of my earlier life. So I was intrigued by the title and interested in what Dr. Cress had to say about Marian devotion as a solution to a civilizational crisis. According to her website, Carrie Gress earned a PhD in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America and is a faculty member at Pontifex University in Atlanta, Georgia. Not surprisingly, she is also a member of the International Marian Association. She is clearly orthodox in her views and approach.
On the one hand, the book is so thoroughly researched on all that has been written on Mary through the ages that it reads as a collection of Marian lore. And yet, this in-depth research is done to support her argument that petition to the intercession of Mary through traditional devotional practices will renew a Christian civilization that is in crisis.
The book begins by reviewing the recommendation by journalist and author Rod Dreher that the answer to a civilization in crisis is the “Benedictine Option”—that is a retreat to life of secluded prayer as St. Benedict and his fellow monks did in the fifth century in a response to a crumbling Roman civilization. She then offers a critique of this suggestion by pointing out such a retreat is unrealistic for most contemporary Catholics. Instead, she contends that a revival of the long Church tradition of Marian devotions among a dedicated minority is the perfect mechanism for renewal because it requires no change of location or physical retreat from the secular world. It is an interior renewal that joins the faithful in prayer.
The book then traces a long history of Marian intercession in our world. She takes the reader through the invocation of Mary by Christian soldiers in battle and the appearances of Our Lady at Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima.
Gress then takes a theological and doctrinal approach to explain why the practice of asking Mary for help invites the grace of the Trinity into our lives and offers the Lord’s providence.
She finishes with a more specific explanation what it means for Catholics to live the “Marian Option,” especially in a time of personal and civilizational crisis. This part of the book has an interesting case study on Pope St. John Paul 2, whose devotion to Mary began as a young man in Poland and continued throughout his tenure as pope.
Gress’s book is surely a worthwhile read in its depth, breadth, and recommendation. My appreciation for the role Mary plays in our salvation deepened as a result of her argument. For a few years now, I have marveled at how when I struggle to sense the presence of Christ in my life, the Rosary has a way of refocusing me on His story through Mary’s humble eyes and opens my heart to Him. Gress impressively explores the truth of the fourth mystery Glorious mystery of the Rosary, which reflects on the Assumption of Mary to Heaven and promises a path “to Jesus through Mary” as spiritual gift. A good example of this logic is when Gress quotes St. Louis de Montfort on the efficacy of the Rosary. He points out, “Children copy their parents through watching them and talking to them.” Mary, who as the mother of Jesus is spiritual mother to us all, provides a model for imitation and inspiration through our dialogue with her, so that we too may enter fully into a relationship with Jesus as humble servants of God’s will.
At times I was uncomfortable with some of the book’s references and implications. She leans heavily, especially in Part 1, on stories of Christian soldiers winning battles through Mary’s help. While she maintains an objective tone, the message comes close to a celebration of the role of the Christian in war, which I don’t find in the gospel. Likewise, I am at times uncomfortable with the notion we are in the midst of civilization crisis. I do not deny the proliferation of sin, death, and decay throughout the world; yet it does not appear any worse to me now than it has been throughout the history of the world. Laying the blame for the collapse of Christianity on contemporary generations smacks of the sort of doom and gloom preaching–which motivates through guilt and fear–that so many who come to church seeking comfort and hope find off-putting and unbearable. I think it is enough to simply recognize a world marred by sin and selfishness will not make any of us happy or offer hope for eternal life. It has not in the past, and I don’t think it will not now.
My personal comments aside; the book celebrates a rich trove of spiritual pathways to happiness and hope in the renewal of Marian devotions. I can say from experience how helpful this is. Gress masterfully puts the untapped potential of this tradition on full display. I recommend reading the book and a pursuit of any or all Marian devotions, which are recommended in the appendix.