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The Beauty of Thy House

by Mark Alessio

Reviewed by Charles Coulombe

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Published by Loreto Publications  

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When I was growing up, in the 60s and 70s, the place of Mary was very much obscured amongst many Catholics. Priests broke rosaries apart in the pulpit, ecumenical considerations caused Marian dogmas to be glossed over, and such things as May Crownings and processions were dumped in parish after parish. A then unregenerate Avery Dulles, S.J. warned sagely of the dangers of “Mary-maximalism,” and his order reinvented their Sodalities of Our Lady as “Christian Life Communities.” To be fair, of course, Corpus Christi processions were also junked in most places, and few orders with “Sacred Heart” in their name retained that devotion.

Most of this was done in the name of Vatican II, for all that that Council bestowed on Mary the new title of “Mother of the Church.” But in this area, as in so many others connected with that gathering, the spirit killed the letter.

In any case, amongst most Catholics, the Marian devotion that characterized the 50s seemed to vanish overnight – leading one to suspect that, for many, devotion had not been rooted in knowledge. Another symptom of this problem was the proliferation of false apparitions: Necedah or Medjugorje, these occurrences were fueled by an enormous ignorance of doctrine, Marian or otherwise.

At the same time, as with the earlier incarnation of Cardinal Dulles, many theologians seemed utterly devoid of any devotional sense, whether in Mariology or any other dogmatic field. The most sublime and tender truths were, in the hands of such people, reduced to dry equations – to be dismissed if possible as “irrelevant.”

An enormous part of Catholic art, music, and literature has always been devoted to veneration of the Virgin. In the poisonous and sterile post-Conciliar atmosphere, all of these withered, as much or more in their Marian aspects as anywhere else. Across the world, statues of the Virgin were tossed out of parish churches, and Lady Chapels ruthlessly “renovated” to make room for the Tabernacle, itself unceremoniously banished from so many High Altars.

There is, however, a refreshing wind of change blowing through the Church. Together with so many other things, one begins to hope that we are seeing a revival of Marian devotion. Can prayerful and believing Marian scholarship be far behind? Apparently not, if we are to judge by Mark Alessio’s new book.

Mark Alessio is a most remarkable man. Having published a short story of his in an anthology (and read a number of his articles in this paper), I was well aware of his literary abilities. But it takes a very special talent to write a gripping book of pious meditations that can sustain one’s interest from beginning to end. In The Beauty of Thy House, Mr. Alessio has done just that.

Now, next to Jesus Himself, perhaps no other figure has received as much attention from Catholic writers as the Blessed Virgin Mary. She has, apparently, been written about from every conceivable angle: doctrinal, devotional, liturgical, historical, apparitional, and on and on. Why bother with a new book about her? Well, first, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux tells us, of Mary there is never enough. That is not simply a truism. As Mr. Alessio demonstrates in this book, every one of her many roles in our personal and societal salvation could be written about at length, and we could never exhaust the facets involved.

But more than that, The Beauty of Thy House manages to range throughout the vast corpus of Marian writings, revisiting old favorites and uncovering more obscure ones. But to his collation of these sources, Mr. Alessio brings a great talent for synthesizing diverse accounts in order to show their underlying unity of theme and purpose. His zippy, contemporary style serves him well in infusing new life into old formulae and teachings that, for many, may have become dull through repetition. In every chapter he brings home a truth that even many who call themselves Traditionalists seem to have forgotten, if ever they new it: devotion to Mary is essential to the life of the Church and our own personal eternity. She is not an add-on; not a nice alternative; neither a hobby nor a “focus of feminine divinity meaningful to many – particularly older – Catholics.”

Mr. Alessio’s method of approach is at once scholarly and popular. The first chapter of the book shows us Our Lady’s integral connection to The Holy Trinity and her Divine Son, as well as to the Church. Starting in the same manner he employs throughout the book, our author joyously hops from Scripture to the Fathers, to Popes and Councils, Doctors and Theologians. He does not scruple to use devotional manuals either, if they help bring out the particular truth upon which he is focusing at the time.

His coverage moves on to the Virgin herself – the Immaculate Conception, the Divine Maternity, and her continuing importance to each of us. Showing her integral role in the Economy of Salvation, Mr. Alessio then moves on to show us how Mary participates in literally every aspect of our lives as Catholics, from our baptism to our death. He then reaches a crescendo in the chapter entitled “A Portrait of Mary” – which is just that. Using the Hail Mary, the Fatima apparitions, various authoritative writings and his own keen intellect, Mr. Alessio shows us not who this woman was, but who she is, in each of our lives.

What makes this book so different from the many similar works available is precisely the sense of reality and immediacy he brings to the topic. These are not abstractions, but observations on a woman who is very much alive, and continuing to pray and work for each of us. Indeed, this is Mr. Alessio’s approach to the entirety of the Faith. In his hands it is neither pious longings, historical analysis, nor intellectual propositions. It is rather reality, pure and simple. Not a reality, but the actual reality in which each of us, believer or unbeliever, exists and to which we must accommodate ourselves.

It is an exciting book, both in its topic and its treatment. Mr. Alessio’s deft style and knowledge of an unbelievable array of popular and high culture alike serve him well here. On a single page, one will encounter Dante, St. Peter Damian, G.K. Chesterton, the Liturgy, and Cardinal Newman. His knowledge of the literature is amazing, but so too is his ability to correlate it.

With extreme clarity of thought, he explains issues such as that of Our Lady’s status as “Co-Redemptrix” and “Mediatrix of All Graces,” showing what they are, and what they are not.  Here as in so many other things he touches on, Mr. Alessio shows us that, far from belittling her Son’s role in our Salvation, acceptance of Mary’s actual role if anything heightens us. As he frequently reminds us, if God Himself chose to honor His Mother so extravagantly, we dare not do less, and still claim to follow Him.

The Beauty of Thy House is, really, theology the way it ought to be written, and rarely is. Its appearance, as suggested above, is extremely timely. For Catholics who think they know and love the Virgin, it will be a revelation. So much we know, or think we know, about her we fail to see for the extraordinary gift it is. For non-Catholics, The Beauty of Thy House will explain not merely Catholic devotion to Mary, but also why no one can be devoted to Christ who does not love His Mother. For those whose Faith is weak, or insecure, it will rekindle the flame.

This is not surprising. The Beauty of Thy House is many things. It is a work of high intellect, of high devotion, of high art. What brings all of these elements together, however, and weaves them all into a seamless whole, is nothing less than love. Mr. Alessio loves the Virgin, her Son, and His Church. What he has done is convey that love to his readers with wit, knowledge and verve.

We cannot really understand the historical significance of events as we live them. In so many ways the situation in the Church today is horrible, to be sure. But it is the best it has been in my time. Without a doubt, the existence of such a book as The Beauty of Thy House, and the activities of its author, are further signs of hope at a time when they are just beginning to spring up. May his book be very successful, and may Mr. Alessio continue to express the Faith in his own unique and compelling manner for many years to come.

Charles A. Coulombe is the author of numerous books, most recently "The Pope's Legion," the story of the Papal Zouaves, and "Puritans' Empire," a Catholic history of the United States.

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