One commenter pointed out that in my exposition of the Blessed Mother’s courage (“Damsels in Distress“), that my distinction between the masculine courage of action and the feminine courage of suffering, according to St. Bonaventure, did not sufficiently take account of the many biblical images, nor of the great Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse.” She is right, of course, that discussion about passive courage does not do enough to account for the Blessed Virgin’s active role in the redemption of mankind, or of women in general throughout history. I have no disagreement with the commenter.
In fact, I have have written on the subject Our Lady’s presence in “The Ballad of the White Horse” in a paper I delivered at our international symposium on the Coredemption in England, 2001, entitled “Seven in the Heart, One in the Hand: The Mediation of the Immaculate in the Poetry of Hopkins and Chesterton” (Mary at the Foot of the Cross II: Acts of the International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate. 395-439). I am attaching here a pdf of the complete paper for those who are interested. Also, FYI, there is an excellent reprint of the 1928 illustrated edition of “The Ballad of the White Horse,” published by Ignatius Press, that also includes a very helpful introduction and endnotes by Sister Bernadette Sheridan.
Since I have been studying the Theology of the Body lately, I would like to suggest that one of John Paul II’s insights–one that is thoroughly traditional–would be helpful here. There is no question that man is characteristically the “giver” (“the one who loves”) and woman the “receiver” (“the one who is loved”; cf. TOB 92.6); however, the Holy Father also says:
The two functions of the mutual exchange are deeply connected in the whold process of “gift of self”: giving and accepting the gift interpenetrate in such a way that the very act of giving becomes acceptance, and acceptance transforms itself into giving (TOB 17.4).
By way of analogy, I think we can say that the “giver” is also the “defender,” and the “receiver” is also the “defended,” but this does not preclude a mutuality, though the courage of action in a woman, such as in the case of Judith or St. Joan of Arc is particularly marked by empathy and uniquely maternal characteristics.
I think of St. Joan, in particular, who received the ability to ride a horse, to formulate military strategy, especially the placement of artillery, as an extraordinary grace. She was not merely a figure head of the French army; nevertheless, she never raised her sword against a man. It was merely enough for her to get to the enemy castle and touch it with her banner. I also recall how she nursed the dying, including the English, and shed tears over them.
I include below an apropos excerpt from my paper. Without burdening this post with too much back story, one should at least know that at the beginning of the ballad, King Alfred, who is leading the Saxons against the invasion of England by the Danes, receives a vision of Our Blessed Lady in an hour when he has all but lost hope. In desperation he asks Her:
“When our last bow is broken, Queen,
And our last javelin cast,
Under some sad, green evening sky,
Holding a ruined cross on high,
Under warm westland grass to lie,
Shall we come home at last?”
Her answer is paradoxical:
“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
“Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
Alfred then goes onto gather his chiefs and army in order to enter into a battle and quest in which he is offered no promise of victory. Here is the excerpt from my paper:
King Alfred, after an initial victory in battle (Book V), and then the eventual slaying of all three of his chiefs (Book VI), was left in a predicament very much like the one he had been in when he had seen Our Lady, although his later doom and England’s was far more imminent. The Battle of Ethandune was all but lost. In a long speech Alfred convinced what was left of his army that “death is a better ale to drink” (bk. 7, 119) than to drain the cup of surrender to heathendom. Convinced by their captain, the soldiers “stood firm” and “feeble” (153). Alfred blew his horn calling his men to the hunt, and “The people of the peace of God/ Went roaring down to die” (184). But in the desperation of the situation the Immaculate was present in Her causeless joy and hopeless faith:
And when the last arrow,
Was fitted and was flown,
When the broken shield hung on the breast,
And the hopeless lance was laid at rest,
And the hopeless horn was blown,
The King looked up, and what he saw
Was a great light like death,
For our Lady stood on the standards rent
As lonely and as innocent
As When between white walls she went
In the lilies of Nazareth.
One instant in a still light,
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was queen most womanly–
But she was queen of men.
Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand;
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart–
But one was in her hand. (185-205).
In the moment of supreme sacrifice, the Mother of God interceded on behalf of Her children. The seven swords of Her own heartfelt sorrow, became one which She wielded in hand on behalf of those for whom She suffered: In the first vision of King Alfred Mary had said to him:
“But you and all the kind of Christ
Are ignorant and brave,
And you have wars you hardly win
And souls you hardly save” (bk. 1, 250-53).
Thus we are shown how this intercession of the Immaculate in temporal war is also connected to a greater war for the salvation of souls. These wars hardly won and souls hardly saved are remarkably juxtaposed in another of Chesterton’s poems whose theme is along the same lines, viz., “The Queen of the Seven Swords.” That poem is actually the introduction to seven monologues delivered by seven saints of Western Europe, who, as Chesterton notes, “have no connection with the historical saints” that “bore their names,” but rather are types of the different nations, viz., St. James of Spain, St. Denys of France, St. Anthony of Italy, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. David of Wales and St. George of England. There, in “The Queen of the Seven Swords,” Chesterton records a dream in which he saw Europe as a waste land, and after surveying the panorama of desolation said: “There is none to save.” It is obvious from his descriptions that the wasteland is typical of moral desolation. In the gloom, however, he saw a source of hope:
I saw on their breaking terraces, cracking and sinking for ever,
One shrine rise blackened and broken; like a last cry to God.
Old gold on the roof hung ragged as scales of a dragon dropping,
The gross green weeds of the desert had spawned on the painted wood:
But erect in the earth’s despair and arisen against heaven interceding,
Whose name is Cause of Our Joy, in the doorway of death she stood.
The Woman who had asked of Alfred “Do you have joy without a cause?” is in fact the Cause of His Joy, and this as She stands in the “doorway of death.” Thus we begin to understand that the doom of Alfred is not a joy strictly without cause, but one without any natural explanation, for his joy has its source in the Heart of the Queen of the Seven Swords. Chesterton goes on in “The Queen of the Seven Swords:
The Seven Swords of her Sorrow held out their hilts like a challenge,
The blast of that stunning silence as a sevenfold trumpet blew
Majestic in more than gold, girt round with a glory or iron,
The hub of her wheel of weapons; with a truth beyond torture true.
That truth which is beyond torture true is that faith which saves, not in spite of suffering, but because of suffering. Hence we understand what the Lady meant when She asked Alfred “Do you have faith without a hope?” Not a natural hope, or a conviction that things will get better, but a conviction that God is faithful to His promises. In “The Towers of Time,” Chesterton says that “the heart of the swords, seven times wounded,/ Was never wearied as our hearts are.” And in the poem “In October,” honor is due to Mary, because Hers was “The broken Heart and the unbroken word.” Is this not why in his Encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, the Holy Father compares the Blessed Virgin to Abraham, saying with St. Paul that in hope believed against hope, She is blessed for Her unwavering faith?
Father, thanks for illuminating the mysterious words of Our Lady to Albert in the Ballad of the White Horse:
“Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”
Being able to have faith without hope is a fairly accessible concept, but I have trouble understanding “joy without a cause,” (which of course is a nice play on Mary’s title, “Cause of our joy.”)
Mary bidding Alfred to have joy in the darkest of hours is asking something even more difficult than to have blind hope, in my opinion.
Very apropos for today, when we are tempted to despair at the moral chaos we find ourselves in.
Thanks for the pdf, Father. You’ve inspired me to hunt through my shelves for The Hopkins Reader and The Ballad of the White Horse, and now I can’t wait to wade in.
Ducam in altum!
It is only necessary that we hope in She who is “incarnate hope” to win a victory. That we will not see the victory or even understand the battle tactics is consistent with our role. We are willing cannon-fodder who, for merely a smile, will not blanche at the sight of an enemy who is far superior to us in strength.
Thank you for a wonderful post. I lament that the greatest waste in our world is not of money or natural resources, but of suffering. How many souls might be saved if only the world understood its value…
The poem indicates that sometimes we have to walk into the darkness with a firm grasp upon the kind of God we believe in, sometimes we have “to go gaily in the dark”, knowing that a kindly Providence watches over. God does not ask for success, but for fidelity.
Father Clifford Stevens
Amen, Father. We just have to keep fighting!
I was wondering if you’ve ever read this book, and if you have would you recommend it?
Yes, I have it and have read it. I believe Mr. Miner is Catholic, although the book is not specifically religious. A very interesting read and very informative, though I don’t agree with him on every point.