September 19, 2023, marks the 177th anniversary of the appearance of Our Lady to two French children on an Alpine mountain near La Salette in southeastern France. In contrast to other, better-known Marian apparitions of the last two centuries, Our Lady appeared but once at La Salette. That said, her message had a strong moral content, even if it might perhaps not register as such to moderns.
Before addressing the specifics of Our Lady’s message, we should note its broader context. When the children approached what they saw as an orb of light, they encountered a “beautiful lady” who was crying. Nevertheless, she invited the children with one of God’s fundamental messages: “Do not be afraid!”
She began her message by noting how much she has labored to restrain the arm of her Son from doing justice for men’s sins:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
If my people will not submit, I shall be forced to let fall the arm of my Son. It is so strong, so heavy, that I can no longer withhold it. For how long a time do I suffer for you! If I would not have my Son abandon you, I am compelled to pray to Him without ceasing; and as to you, you take no heed of it.
Her message reminds us of something downplayed and often unspoken in the Church of Nice: that God is just. And “judgmental.” That God is offended by sin. That He is offended, not like a woke social media troll, but as the origin and source of all Good that He defends against what is non-good and, therefore, non-being. That God’s mercy is great but is an incentive to repent, not a warrant to indulge. That God is God and man is not. That Our Lady, as any mother, seeks to protect her children but also seeks her children to be good. And that she is the “handmaid of the Lord” who is full of grace, not the nursemaid of those who think grace is superfluous.
In the case of La Salette, Our Lady specifically later spoke of crop failures and food shortages as punishments for sin. She spoke with Heaven’s warrant. There is always a danger when human beings posit on their own connections between sin and specific occurrences. But the humility not to make direct connections has transmogrified into something else: the hesitance to speak of any such connections at all.
That was obvious when the Vatican wrote a “Mass in Times of Pandemic” that erased all references earlier such votive Masses contained to such disasters as divine chastisement. It is almost as if this modern notion of “Divine Providence,” contrary to any earlier Catholic understanding of it, eschews speaking of chastisement. It is almost as if our modern notion of “Divine Providence,” contrary to any earlier Catholic understanding of it, eschews speaking of chastisement.Tweet This
Push hard enough and this theology is incoherent: a dangerous virus slips out in a quasi-deist universe, and so we ask God now to fix things. Because? Because the pandemic was the natural gone wild? The work of the Evil One? Or does it implicitly suggest that God fell asleep at the Providence switch but can still fix things?
From this important vision of morality—that a Just God rightly can chastise humanity for its sins and that Our Lady pleads on our behalf despite our deeds—the message of La Salette turns to three concrete sins that the modern world probably pooh-poohs. That the Mother of God appeared in order to speak about them suggests that brush-off be reconsidered.
Reverence for Sunday
Six days I have given you to labor, the seventh I have kept for myself; and they will not give it to me. It is this which makes the arm of my Son so heavy…. There are none who go to Mass except a few aged women. The rest work on Sunday all summer; then in the winter, when they know not what to do, they go to Mass only to mock at religion. During Lent, they go to the meat-market like dogs.
Our Lady speaks of this neglect of Sunday as what “makes the arm of my Son so heavy.” She speaks of two things associated with Sunday: worship and abstinence from labor. They go together: God is not another “something” to be multitasked, fit into a plethora of competing time claims. Our Lady, a Jewish girl, speaks of the reverence due the Lord’s Day not just as a commandment but as a time of personal encounter. If one has no time for personal encounter, that generally speaks to the importance of that person in one’s life.
La Salette occurred in 19th-century France, where state ideology was often publicly anti-religious and anti-clerical, hence, the allusion to mocking at religion. Our neglect of religion is, however, more of what Our Lady addressed: subordination of the Sabbath to, if not its preemption by, other activities.
Her remarks on Lent also recognize that the rhythm of one’s life is a discipline designed to take account of what Genesis calls “the days and fixed times.” How has that discipline eroded?
Those who drive the carts cannot swear without introducing the name of my Son. These are the two things which make the arm of my Son so heavy.
Our Lady speaks of abuse of God’s name, e.g., “Jesus Christ” as an expletive or connecting the Divine name with damnation. Such use is not just disrespect for God. It is implicitly denial of God, reducing Him just to bad color of language or invoking Him for the damnation of another. If we really believed in God, could we speak that way? And, if we speak that way, do we really believe in God?
On the scale of sin, such acts may seem to some as trivial next to, say, murder, terrorism, or using plastic straws. But Our Lady is also performing important moral pedagogy. Losing sight of God often starts with small or mindless acts (as if disrespecting God is “small stuff”) until, as Dostoyevsky noted, if God doesn’t exist—theoretically or practically in our lives—everything is possible.
Mary asked “Do you say your prayers well, my children?” Their admission, “Not very well, Madam,” prompted the exhortation:
You must be sure to say them well morning and evening. When you cannot do better, say at least an Our Father and a Hail Mary; but when you have time, say more.
No time for God on Sunday, no time for God ever. Our Lady’s advice is so demanding: a Pater and Ave well-said on rising and retiring. Ignored because there’s no time? Because I wanted to sleep five more minutes or was so sleepy this evening? Do we aspire to spend an eternity with God for whom five minutes a day and one day a week represents taxing exigencies?
La Salette’s message (like the Gospel) is, in some sense, so simple. Its morality envisions refocusing us on Jesus. Shouldn’t we take it to heart?