Heather Mac Donald is a very good journalist, and conservatives are in her debt for her work dealing with immigration, crime, and the realities of urban life. But Mac Donald, an atheist, is puzzled by religion. Last Sunday, this puzzlement took the form of a short piece at the Secular Right website, where Mac Donald expressed her shock at seeing a flyer for “one of those creepy painted sculptures of Mary with oversized, tear-encrusted eyes and an undersized mouth” in her apartment building in Manhattan. The flyer was for a visit of a statue of Our Lady of Fatima at a nearby church, a church that is apparently a bit too close for Mac Donald’s comfort. “I ask in all sincerity: are Secular Right’s fellow highly-educated conservatives ready to prostrate themselves before, and put a toy crown on, a wooden effigy?” Mac Donald also wrote that “I honestly don’t know how to distinguish the worship of a wooden icon from the belief in the healing powers of crystals or in the predictive power of entrails. I know I must be missing some essential distinctions here, but for the moment they elude me and I remain at a loss to understand.”

The day before Mac Donald expressed her puzzlement at Marian devotion in Manhattan, Scott Richert had a piece at his Catholicism blog at About.com that might help Mac Donald in gaining understanding. As Scott explained, Catholics do not worship Mary or the saints: “When we honor the saints, we honor God, because He is their Creator and the source of their sanctity. When we pray to them, we take nothing away from God, to Whom we also pray; rather, we ask them to intercede for us, just as we ask our living friends and relatives to do.”  Catholics believe “that all Christians, living and dead, are one in the Body of Christ,” and “The use of statues, icons, and other images of the saints reminds us of this fundamental truth and draws us closer to each other in Christ by increasing our devotion and leading us to imitate the actions and faith of the saints.” (My wife’s theological reaction to Mac Donald’s piece was similar, even as we fondly recalled the time we both knelt, on our wedding day, before a statue of Mary and presented Our Lady with flowers my wife had picked out, as the choir sang Tomas Luis de Victoria’s exquisite “Ave Maria.” One hopes that such a scene, customary at Catholic weddings, does not also disturb Mac Donald’s sensibilities.)

But is there a non-theological way to distinguish Marian devotion from “belief in the healing powers of crystals or in the predictive power of entrails”? I think there is. Marian devotion has produced more than “creepy painted sculptures”; it also produced Michelangelo’s “Pieta” and his Bruges “Madonna.” There are innumerable architectural gems dedicated to Mary, including the great cathedral in Chartres that so captivated one of America’s distinctive geniuses, Henry Adams. Belief in crystals has yet to produce a “Pieta” or a Chartres.

It would be easier to list the European painters who have not painted Mary than the ones who have. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to state that the Western artistic tradition began with Italian painters creating religious images as aids to prayer, a fact well known to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Mac Donald’s Manhattan, which paid a record $45 million for a painting of the “Madonna and Child” by Duccio a few years back, a price the museum would not pay for a painting inspired by the harmonic convergance. And then there is the music. Apart from the Mass, no liturgical text has been set to music more often than the “Magnificat,” and major European composers have also given us numerous settings of the “Ave Maria,” the “Stabat Mater,” and the great medieval Marian litanies. One thinks of Bach’s “Magnificat,” Mozart’s “Regina Coeli,” the “Stabat Maters” of Pergolesi, and Dvorak, the “Ave Maria” of Schubert, which began as a setting of a Marian prayer offered by the heroine in Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake.” Once again, an easy point of distinction, since no reasonable person would have difficulty distinguishing the unmatched musical tradition of the West from dreary “New Age” music, some of which might conceivably have been inspired by a belief in the healing power of crystals. Nor has art inspired by Mary died out. Gorecki’s haunting “third symphony” features several Marian songs, Franz Biebl’s lovely “Ave Maria” has begun to gain the popularity it deserves, and the man Tom Shippey dubbed “The Author of the Century,” J. R. R. Tolkien, wrote that “all [his] own small perceptions of beauty both in majesty and simplicity” were founded on “Our Lady,” as the elvish invocations to Elbereth and Sam and Gimli’s reactions to Galadriel suggest.

Another distinction between devotion to Mary and a belief in crystals is the role that Marian devotion has played in the West’s struggle against its enemies. As Christopher Check notes in his article in This Rock on “The Battle that Saved the Christian West,” Don John of Austria had rosaries distributed to all the men in his fleet before the battle of Lepanto, and the Genoese admiral Gianandrea Doria sailed with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his ship.  A century later, Polish king John Sobieski stopped to pray before Our Lady of Czestochowa before riding off to help break the Turkish siege of Vienna, a battle that began, according to historian Tim Blanning, “with a great shout of ‘Mary, help us!’” More recently, Marian devotion played a role in the struggle against atheistic communism, beginning with the “Miracle on the Vistula” as the advancing Red Army was repulsed from Warsaw in 1920 and culminating with the peaceful efforts of Solidarity, whose leader always wore a small image of Our Lady of Czestochowa on his lapel and who left his Nobel Peace Prize as a votive offering at the monastery housing the image of “the Queen of Poland,” just as Sobieski deposited the Turkish booty he brought back from Vienna at the monastery.  Indeed, many have argued that one of the ways the Polish Catholic Church kept the spirit of resistance to communism alive was by having a reproduction of the icon housed in Czestochowa visit each parish in the country as the Church prepared to celebrate the millennial anniversary of Poland’s conversion to Christianity. These visits were marked, no doubt, by many believers prostrating themselves before the image of their Queen, much to the aesthetic and political horror of the commissars, who wanted the Poles to bow only to Moscow and who would have been delighted if the cult of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so engrained in the history of the nation, had been replaced by “belief in the healing powers of crystals” or an equally ephemeral alternative.

Another distinction is suggested by the saint whose feast the Catholic Church celebrates today, Maximilian Mary Kolbe. Kolbe was greatly devoted to Mary: He founded the “Militia of the Immaculata” to encourage Marian devotion, and he dedicated his own life to Mary as he prostrated himself before a painting of the Immaculate Conception at the seminary in Lviv. These beliefs steeled Kolbe for the great test fate had in store for him. When the Nazis invaded Poland, he used the friary he had established at Niepokalanow, “the City of the Immaculata,” to house thousands of refugees, Jews, and Catholics alike.  Such deeds caused Kolbe to run afoul of the Nazis, who sent him to Auschwitz, where he calmly endured the sadism of the guards and offered spiritual and material comfort to his fellow prisoners, often sharing his meager rations with them. Then, in July 1941, a prisoner escaped. As a punishment, ten others were chosen by the Nazis to be killed in a starvation bunker. One of these men, Franciszek Gajowniczek began lamenting what his death would mean for his wife and children. Upon hearing these cries, Kolbe volunteered to take Gajowniczek’s place and was sent to the starvation bunker in his stead. In the bunker, Kolbe became the leader of those awaiting death, whom he was often seen consoling and leading in prayers and hymns. Two weeks later, only four of the men were still alive and Kolbe alone was conscious. The Nazis killed them all; Kolbe was seen calmly giving his arm to the executioner who injected him with carbolic acid. The memory of Kolbe’s courage and selflessness lived on in those who survived the Golgotha of Auschwitz, including Gajowniczek who lived to see Kolbe canonized.

I am not aware of any figure comparable to Kolbe who has been shaped by “belief in the healing powers of crystals.” Nor am I aware of any schools, hospitals, or other charitable institutions founded on “belief in the healing powers of crystals,” although every corner of America has such institutions founded by men and women sharing Kolbe’s beliefs. I hope that the “essential distinctions” between Kolbe’s beliefs and a belief in crystals are clear to all conservatives, religious or not, for the simple reason that Christianity created our civilization and a belief in the healing power of crystals and the like has created nothing of value. As British essayist Theodore Dalrymple, himself a non-believer, observes, “To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy.” And the first step toward safeguarding that legacy is to recognize the enormous role Christianity played in the creation of our civilization, no matter how disappointing individual Christians might appear.