Saturday, May 15, 2010

Marian Irreverence

De Maria numquam satis is the famous dictum; but to this ought be added the advice of Newman's confessor: Love Our Lady ever so much – so long as you love Our Lord a good deal more.  Holy Mary herself would agree!  In this posting, I am sorry to appear as dismissing aught of true and rightful devotion to Our Lady, but the extremes of superstition and irreverence ought always to be avoided: those who make her lawful love ridiculous and repellent are as bad as those who revile her.  Dignare me laudare te, Virgo sacrata: da mihi virtutem contra hostes tuos.

This said, it ought be squarely faced that there are extremes of Marian devotion that overstep the mark and become perverse, attracting the scoffing of the world and of heretics, gleeful to find ammunition for their attacks upon sacred doctrine.  I write not here of gullible middle-aged females devouring the latest heavy volume of saccharine messages allegedly authored by some Madonna making repeated apparitions! – as a friend of mine put it, Our Blessed Lady could hardly be fairly represented as the source of such feeble-minded rubbish.  (Approved private revelations, such as those of Fatima, tend to be rather deeper and more concise.)

No, I write rather of Mariological excesses in the theological sense: such as those of some zealous Counter-reformation writers (Jesuits, I think) who tried to encourage the use of the classical term dea ("goddess"!) for the Blessed Virgin!  Unsurprisingly, they were pulled firmly into line: while Our Lord Himself applied the text "Have I not said, ye are gods" to the children of men, and while we may hope to be  partakers in the Divine Nature, as St Peter tells us, it is, frankly, literal idolatry to name the Mother of God in such wise; we may speak of the Divine Virgin, using the adjective, but using the noun Goddess, never!  There was a like dispute among the Ethiopians in past centuries, as to whether the Virgin ought be worshipped and adored the same as her Son: thankfully, the monks contending for such idolatry were ruled out of court.

Two other forms of Marian irreverence by excess of zeal come to mind: the forbidden devotion to the "Most Pure Blood" of Mary, and the initially-indulgenced but then suppressed invocation of Mary as "Virgin-Priest".  The second instance I will comment upon below; as to the first, I seem to recall that in the late nineteenth century, there were some who would parallel the cultus of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord (by the price of Which, infinitely valuable by reason of being united in one hypostasis with the Eternal Word, we were on Calvary all of us redeemed) with an analogous veneration of Holy Mary's blood.  

Referring to blood when speaking of the Virgin, it must immediately be said, is productive only of unpleasant associations: it is male sonans, evil-sounding.  It conjures up, for instance, most inappropriate comparisons with the Spanish obsession with purity of blood (limpieza de sangre), an imagined category directed against the Jews – of which chosen nation Our Lady is the Rose!  Even worse notions of outmoded racial theories (the "one-drop rule") and vile applications of theories of bloodlines better suited to dog- and horse-breeding spring to mind.  Libera me de sanguinibus, Deus, Deus meus!  

Similarly, while the Aristotelian theory (repeated by Aquinas in his Summa Theologiæ, III, 31, 5) had it that conception occurs by fertilization of the maternal blood, and hence in this antique conception (!) Our Lady's blood is the sole source of Christ's Human Nature, this idea is quite incorrect.  Finally, what could be more gross than to make a repellent allusion to the Gospel woman suffering an effluxion of blood, the Hæmorrhissa?  (Forgive me, O Virgin Most Holy, for even mentioning such matters.)  No wonder such a spectacularly grotesque and irreverent proposed cult of Our Lady's blood was firmly forbidden by Rome as piarum aurium offensiva.

The cult of Our Lady as Virgin-Priest is another matter, and quite an interesting one.  All Christians – Christ's Mother not least – are of course priests by reason of their baptismal incorporation into Christ, the One Priest and Mediator of the New Testament: that is why we can intercede for our fellow men with God, which is the very office and ministry of a priest and mediator, and why we can offer spiritual sacrifices and the sacrifice of our own life, all in union with the One Sacrifice of the Lord.  But all Christians – even Holy Mary – are not sharers of the ministerial priesthood, which Our Lord granted to His Apostles and their ordained successors alone, by reason of His blessed words at the Last Supper, Do this in memory of Me.  

The Fathers (St Epiphanius in particular) testify to the truth that Our Lady was never a priest in this second sense of holding the ministerial priesthood – indeed, this is a valuable and core testimony to the impossibility of women's ordination, since of all women Holy Mary would surely have been one could this have been possible, and yet was not.  While at the foot of the Cross Our Lady shared to the greatest extent possible in the Passion of her Son (hence her not uncontroversial title of Co-redemptrix, meant as the greatest creaturely exemplar of the Apostle's remark in an Epistle that we are co-redeemers with Christ, making up what is lacking in His Passion), it is therefore misleading to refer to her there as a priest, or, worse still, priestess! – since this confuses the baptismal with the ministerial priesthood.  I recall that it was in St Pius X's time that this debate occurred, and an invocation of the Blessed Virgin under this title was first indulgenced, then removed from the Raccolta: for such a title was adjudged fatally ambiguous.  In 1927 such a cult was altogether prohibited.

There is also an overpious thought (rejected by Father Faber, I'm happy to say! sorry to accuse him of holding this), to the effect that by some peculiar miracle (a would-be wonder that I would term unedifying and thus needless, hardly becoming the God of order), some portion of cells in Our Lord's sacred Humanity remained the flesh of His Mother (why? bizarre folly!), and that therefore within the Sacred Host, yea, within the Eucharist, was present not just Jesus Christ but also somehow the Holy Virgin.  Again, this is quite mad, not to say biologically impossible and offensive to pious ears.

Newman quite rightly says, in his Letter to Pusey, Note V:

"An error of this sort [that our Lady is in the Holy Eucharist] was held by some persons, and is condemned in the following language by Benedict XIV. [i.e. by Cardinal Lambertini], as has been pointed out to me by my old and valued friend, Father Faber: 'This doctrine was held to be erroneous, dangerous, and scandalous, and the cultus was reprobated, which in consequence of it they asserted was to be paid to the most Blessed Virgin in the Sacrament of the Altar.'

Still to-day there are controverted questions: as mentioned above, while the last Ecumenical Council wrote of Mary as possessing the titles of Mediatrix and Advocate, this was at once said to be understood as subject to Christ of course, and the title Mediatrix of All Graces, though well-founded and attested, is not used so much at present, let alone Co-redemptrix; the fear being that these may be misunderstood and productive of scandal.  

(I once saw a website referring to Our Lady as "Mystical Co-Creatrix", conveying the Baroque thought that, as God predestined Our Lord's Human Nature and Our Lady in the first divine decree, first in order of importance before all else, in some sense the universe was made for her as well as in, with and for Him, and thus God "had Mary in mind" when creating!)

There are also curious theologumena, Eastern and Western.  For example, one theological opinion among the Orthodox is that God not merely hears and grants the prayers of the Theotokos and the saints, but has even granted them actual power to work wonders on His behalf; and in the Akathist, the Church famously sings, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us", where a Western parallel would only say "pray for us".  

In the same category of surprising, even daringly bold statements falls St Maximilian Kolbe's exaltation of the Virgin as being so in tune with the Holy Ghost as to be almost – almost – an incarnation of the Paraclete: but without, of course, actually being One Person in union with Him.  If he had said that she was, that were blackest heresy!  But he did not go too far.  In this regard we may see Our Lady as a Woman so infused with the Spirit as to be in a moral union with the Divine, rather as Nestorius erroneously thought that Our Lord was a mere moral union of a very holy man with the Eternal Word, each remaining a distinct person – and after all, to live completely in tune with the Spirit of Christ is the goal of Christian living, as exemplified by St Philip Neri.

Finally, mention ought be made of the technical distinction between consecration to God, and consecration (some now prefer to term this "entrustment") through Mary to God: St Louis de Montfort himself pointed out that if Marian consecration were considered an end in itself, rather than a sure path to God, it would be a most dangerous delusion.

Let Our Lady have the last word: "Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye."  (St John ii, 5b.)  True devotion to Our Lady leads us ineluctably to obey Her Divine Son.


blogowner said...

Interesting post.
Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

in the Akathist, the Church famously sings, "Most Holy Theotokos, save us", where a Western parallel would only say "pray for us".

Very interesting. A quite different approach among the two traditions, especially since the Orthodox East sometimes sees the Marian devotion of the Latin West as "excessive."

As a convert to Catholicism myself I have always tried to avoid two extremes, the first in the non-Catholic traditions that only see fit to roll Mary out at Christmas and plop her into the Nativity scene, and the second extreme which exalts her far beyond what is spiritually healthy. The Blessed Virgin, as Mother of God and Mother of the Church surely deserves to be properly honored by all generations.

I think you have stated the issue very well, Joshua.


Joshua said...

Two more overzealous extremes to note: seventeenth and eighteenth century Popes had to forbid people wearing chains and the like to symbolize their dedication to Mary as her servants and slaves (a Baroque excess of piety quite unrelated to modern forms of perversity!), and to prohibit people taking the "blood vow" that bound them to defend the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception even unto the shedding of their blood in a fight or somesuch!