Mother Mary Comes to Me:
The Beatles and Catholicism
Though Catholicism didn't take with any Beatle, Catholic culture and Marian images permeate a number of Beatles songs.Crisis magazine. Used with permission.
There is no lovelier hymn to Mary in modern English than "Let It Be," the Beatles song written in 1969:
When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom:
Let it be.
Those pellucid lyrics by Paul McCartney, who, with John Lennon, composed the plaintive melody, stand out as peerless against the backdrop of the saccharine Marian hymnody of today's Catholicism, where such chestnuts as "Immaculate Mary, Your Praises We Sing" still reign supreme.
To find an equal to McCartney's song, you have to go back 600 years, to this:
He came also still
There his mother was
As dew in April
That falleth on the grass.
Indeed, the 15th-century carol and the 1969 Beatles lyric both concern the Annunciation, when Christ came to be Mary's son in the quietness of a spring evening. "Whisper
words of wisdom: Let it be," wrote McCartney in his second verse. The words are those of Mary's fiat to the angel Gabriel in Luke's gospel: "Let it be done unto me according to thy word."
Of course, when I first heard "Let It Be," when it was released on the album of the same name in 1970, I was a cheerfully benighted lapsed Catholic, and I didn't make the connection between the Annunciation and the Beatles. Or even realized that "Mother Mary" was the same Mary whose May altars I had constructed out of shoeboxes and birthday candles when I was a child at parochial school. I thought she might be a personage from Eastern spirituality. "Let it be"--that sounded like Buddhist resignation. Many of us in those days, Beatles included, were way beyond Christianity; we were somewhere between California and nirvana.
The Beatles are currently enjoying a huge revival. We now can hear "Let It Be," along with 26 more of their top-of-the-chart hits, in glorious re-release on the new "Beatles 1" CD. Their first movie, "A Hard Day's Night" (1964), is also in re-release. "The Beatles Anthology" (Chronicle) has been a best-seller since its publication last October. Listening to a Beatles song now, however, turns out to be a very different experience from that of listening to it 30 or 40 years ago.