I return now to my series on “mysticism.” You can find the introduction here. I have said that, whether broadly, strictly or narrowly defined, any mysticism that deserves the name Catholic must be 1) Eucharistic, 2) Marian and 3) Ecclesial. In my last post I explained what Eucharistic mysticism is. In this one I will cover Marian mysticism.
In the last post I explained how the Eucharist in a particular way shows forth the power of God to transform the soul. What God does to the gifts on the altar by transforming them into the Body and Blood of Christ, he does in an analogous by our participation in the sacred mysteries, especially in the reception of Holy Communion. In a similar way, the Blessed Virgin is the icon of such a transformation.
A mere creature, She is wholly divinized by grace from the first moment of Her conception, so that when the angel Gabriel appears to Her at the Annunciation he calls Her Full of Grace. This means that She is the one who, already at that moment, possesses the plentitude of God’s supernatural gifts. As a mere creature, in Her Immaculate Conception, She already is the unique temple of a holiness beyond which one cannot even conceive. It is because Our Lady is full of grace that God chooses to take from Her substance the flesh of the Son of God, conceived by Her virginally through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Immaculate Virgin realized in Herself all the various meanings of the word mysticism. Her soul is inclined in a absolutely unique way toward deep communion with God from the first moment of Her Immaculate Conception, not simply because She is free from the stain of original sin, but also because She is united to the Holy Spirit as His spouse. The soul of no mere creature was ever before (not of even Adam and Eve before the Fall or of the holy angels), or after (not of all the saints considered together) united to God in such a perfect and ineffable way. From the first moment of Her Immaculate Conception She was wholly inclined towards this union and its deepening.
Since She had no sin (original or actual) or even the slightest inclination to sin, the ascetical and mystical life in Her soul were perfectly intertwined. She had a superabundance of all that the divine life brings: of all the riches of grace won by Christ, and of all the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in plenitude.
One can only imagine what the mystical life of the Blessed Virgin was like. At the Annunciation She was so full of grace that this superabundance overflowed through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. The temple built by God became the tabernacle of the flesh of the Divine Word. The Son of God, became truly the Son of Mary. At the foot of the Cross She was mystically united with Her Son in the one offering of the great sacrifice that takes away sin, so that She truly contributed in the first instance, and in subordination to Her son, in the redemption of every man. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit overshadowed Her in a new way so that through Her the Church is born. Imagine also if you can, the union of the Son of God and the Immaculate Conception when She received Holy Communion from the hands of the Apostles.
Beyond this we could consider the outward manifestations of the Holy Spirit that accompanied the preaching and baptizing of the Apostles, not only at Pentecost, but also at other times (see, Acts 2:37-39; 8:5-25; 10:44-48; 19:5-6). The reception of grace through water baptism at the hands of the Apostles was regularly accompanied by a visible outpouring the Holy Spirit. If all this happened through the ministry of the Apostles, we can only imagine how the Spirit blew through soul of the Immaculate. Perhaps the gifts were less noticeable, but She who is the personification of Wisdom surely received the charisms of wisdom, faith, discernment and prophecy.
“Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my produce. For the remembrance of me is sweeter than honey, and my inheritance sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more. Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame, and those who work with my help will not sin” (Sir 24:19-22).
Just as in the Eucharist, the presence of Our Lady is no mere sign. We are talking more than analogies. The Eucharist as a sign that effects what it signifies. Our Lady is a sign (signum magnum) because She is the New Eve, the Mother of all the living who are reborn in Christ.
Queen of the May
On this last day of May (Queenship of Mary on the old calendar, Feast of the Visitation of Mary on the new), I would like to develop the Marian analogy by reflecting on the reason for our Marian observances during this month.
Catholic May devotions in honor of Mary are reportedly of more recent origin (17th or 18th c.), though few would dispute that their association with spring, if not intended from the first, was at least immediately acknowledged as fitting. The reference to the “Queen of the May” in the popular May hymn “Bring Flowers of the Rarest,” is almost certainly an attempt to replace ancient pagan spring rites with Marian devotion. The personification of spring by a young virgin, “the May Queen,” who was paraded through the streets and then, according to British folklore, sacrificed in a kind of fertility rite says a great deal about what pagan (and neopagan) mysticism has to offer. Even if such rituals are carried out only “in token” it represents an inversion of the Catholic sacramental system.
Authentic Marian mysticism is the same kind of “spirit” that gives life in the Eucharist. Mystery calls for humility and reverence, not control or presumption. Sacraments and sacramentals are not a way to manipulate God.
The earth’s fertility, as a natural mystery, which even the farmer cannot control but only “tend,” points to a much more important and supremely mysterious fertility that is wholly virginal, which is consequent of being born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (Jn 1:1). Our Lady’s virginal maternity (the Incarnation), the Resurrection (the Redemption) and the Eucharist (the Church) all point to the miraculous, the immediate intervention of God in history. And He continues to intervene concretely in a stable manner through the all the Sacraments of the Church, and more transiently through actual graces, and through the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, both sanctifying and charismatic.
Stratford Caldecott (pray for him, he is does not have much more time in this world), calls the Rosary a very “metaphysical prayer,” not in the New Age theosophical way but in the sense of that which is beyond what we see and accounts for it in the order first causes. Metaphysics is another name for wisdom. Caldecott writes:
Mary is like the primordial waters lying open before the life-giving action of God at the beginning of the world. By praying we are trying to become like her, receptive to the will of God. Mary’s fiat (“Let it be to me according to your word”) echoes God’s fiat (“Let there be light”) in the very beginning of creation, and her Son’s fiat (“Let not my will but thine be done”) in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22: 42).
The Marian disposition of the soul and the Marian dimension of the Church together form the ground of transformation in Christ, because there is an exact parallel between the overshadowing of the Virgin at the Annunciation by the Holy Spirit, the hovering of the Spirit over the gifts on the altar (epiclesis) and our own transformation in Christ, especially in the reception of the Eucharist.
Catholic metaphysics is rooted in the Blessed Trinity and the inner relations of the three persons. St. Maximilian said, that just as the Holy Spirit is the fruit of the fullness of the love of the Father and Son in eternity, so His Spouse, the Immaculate Conception, is the fruit of the fullness of the love of the Father and the Son in time. In Her womb and through Her history, God chooses a time, a place and a person through whom He bestows on all men the fullness of his charity. In the fullness of time (Gal 4:4) and from thence forward Christ will be formed in this way, through Her consent.
The Immaculate Conception is not a quality, but a free person who is totally open to the will of God because She has never been under the power of the enemy. Even more, “by one andthe same decree” the Immaculate was predestined with Christ to be the means of salvation, in such a way, that from the Incarnation of Christ to His second coming at the end of time She remains the unique, omnipresent, and “omnipotent” instrument of the Holy Spirit for the salvation of mankind. Her universal mediation, or Her action as one “in the middle . . . not as an outsider, but in her position as mother” (RM 21) is the ground, the terra virgo, the virgin earth on which we stand (cf. Gen 2:7).
One might say that the Immaculate Conception and her “active and exemplary presence” in the Church (RM 1) is the condition sine qua non for our participation in the divine life, what the Christians of the East call theosis or divinization. Without Her we can have no true understanding of or participation in the supernatural or mystical.
The Marian mystagogia of May devotions, particularly the recitation of the Holy Rosary, is the spontaneous and intuitive sensus fidelium of this metaphysical ground of the spiritual life. The physical beads made holy by the prayers of the Church form a chain from this world to the next in which the person of Mary stands in the middle as prism through which we come to know and experience the sacred mysteries at a deeper level—not simply at the level of assent, but of understanding.
Something may happen when we pray the Rosary for which no merely natural calculation can give an account. Not only do we do we bring to mind the mysteries of the faith, but we do so through Her eyes, as Her own memories, which are active, exemplary and immediately effective within our souls. For us personally, because of the presence of the Immaculate, time and eternity coincide in a manner that is analogous to the intersection that occurs in the sacred liturgy. The eternal and unchanging mysteries of our faith invade the present moment and subsume it in the mystery of divine providence. Thus, the Immaculate becomes for us personally the mistress of history.
Heart of the Church
If Eucharistic mysticism demands reverence, Marian mysticism is reverence. Our Lady is at the Heart of the Church unity Head and members in Her fiat, that is, Her continual assent which began with Her conscious awareness of God’s presence within Her soul and continues throughout history. She is the Mother of the Head who gives us the Eucharist, but She is also our Mother who received the Eucharist during Her earthly life and now mediates that grace by Her presence within the Church and within our souls.
Authentic Catholic mysticism is Marian, because without Her there is no Eucharist and no Church to receive the Eucharist. As member of the Church She is also its Mother, and their She stands between Head and Body as the heart, the one in the middle who unites because of Her maternal mediation.
In the next post, we will tie all this together as we consider why all authentic mysticism must be, not only Eucharist and Marian, but also Ecclesial.