The Immaculate is a living ideal, a pattern of life to be replicated by our external comportment, and more importantly, by our interior lives. She lives enthroned, not merely in paradise, but in the hearts and minds of those who truly love Her. In this way She is alive and active in and through us, influencing directly the choices we make as a Mother who loves and nurtures us. This we must remember every time we think of Her. Here we will find true enlightenment and our feet will be led into the way of peace (Luke 1:79) to “the summits of our desired holiness,” to peaceful rest and blissful union with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But to achieve this our thought of Her must be prayerful and profound. This is only made possible by humble meditation and prayer.
Thinking about the Immaculate
St. Maximilian Kolbe was a man who during his whole life meditated and contemplated in this fashion. He was consumed by a truth in which he believed with all his mind and heart. Often he spoke of his love and zeal for the Mother of God in terms of a “fixed ideal,” and for love of Her he wished to live, work, suffer, be consumed and die.
Now, St. Maximilian was not an idealist, not a man chasing after a dream. Nor was his ideal some abstract principle formulated by philosophers, rather it was a person, the knowledge of whom had been handed on to him through infallible divine revelation. This person, the Church taught him, is the Immaculate Mother of God, given to us as our Mother by Her divine Son. Throughout the Christian era the Church had spoken about Her in the most solemn fashion, indicating the central and unique role She plays in salvation history, and defining precisely the nature of Her dignity and role in the lives of men. For this reason St. Maximilian came to fully appreciate the holiness of this Woman without stain, and the love of the Mother of God who became also our Mother.
For good reason, then, Saint Maximilian links together a disciplined reading or study habit with a filial prayer relationship with Mary. Perfectly harmonized spiritual reading or study and a prayerful dependence on grace constitute the kind of meditation, leading to contemplation that fuels progress in the interior life. This is not merely a philosophical approach to life, which deals with everything in terms of some abstract ideal, nor is it simply a convenient or consoling spiritual experience of a transcendent person. Rather, it is a deep relationship with God who reveals and saves, and who is the only theoretical and practical basis for resolving the demands of life in this world.
Truth and Life
In the person of St. Maximilian, truth and life are perfectly harmonized. A man of great apostolic works and a hero of charity, St. Maximilian is hailed by our production-preoccupied culture as a practical man. Publisher, journalist, founder, reformer, missionary, scientific and organizational genius: he was a man ahead of his times. However, his indomitable energy, productivity and his concern for his fellow man are senseless if not for his life-long contemplation of the truth. In particular, one question preoccupied his thoughts from his youth to the death cell: Who are you, O Immaculate? In his blurring activity St. Maximilian was not a fanatic, nor a superman. He was a poor banished child of Eve, like the rest of us, who had been transformed by his ideal, because this ideal was true, and because this truth was the Woman conceived without sin, who became the Mother of God and the Mediatrix of All Grace.
St. Maximilian was not a pragmatist, anymore than Our Lord Himself, whose practicality led Him to the Cross. Catholic metaphysics does not permit one to make judgments about truth on the basis of practicality. Today, many mistakes are made at this level, not only by secularists, but also by devout Christians of all sorts. When we choose the means to an end, we immediate assume that the most powerful and efficient is the correct or best one, and our inclination is not to apply prayerful discernment to the means we adopt, but to beat the opposition to the punch. But this is a kind of naturalism which not only fails to put the faith already believed into practice, but by its nature it precludes a rudimentary docility and prevents the Holy Spirit from becoming the true and best instinct of the soul.
If St. Maximilian had indulged himself in such a vice he would not have sacrificed all the good he could do in the world for the life of one man. This great figure of our modern age, when faced with the titanic crisis of Auschwitz, did not have recourse to contemporary methods of “problem solving,” nor to his political skills, nor did he make use of his innate genius to ingratiate himself with the Nazis and escape suffering. (He had a German sounding surname, for example, and with the diplomatic talents that he possessed he could have easily found a way to alleviate his woes.) The truth, the virtue of prudence and the movement of the Holy Spirit dictated otherwise.
This curious fact is key to understanding and appreciating the Marian spirituality of St. Maximilian, because without that understanding the Saint’s behavior remains an anomaly. In the death camp St. Maximilian was eagerly sought out by his comrade prisoners for his advice and priestly ministration. Both in personal conversation and in clandestine group conferences, his exhortations were neither of “positive-thinking” psychological approach, nor merely pastoral, but profoundly theological. The bottom line was not “How do we deal with this?” but “How do we unite our minds and hearts to the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary?” The answer to the latter question was the key to the former. Amazingly, when once asked how to deal with the nightmarish reality of Auschwitz, St. Maximilian replied: “Meditate upon the mystery of the Immaculate’s relationship to the Blessed Trinity.”
Unfortunately, this is where contemporary western society is tempted to dismiss the spirituality of St. Maximilian, or simply to treat this instance as the isolated idiosyncrasy of a genius. But the Saint’s writings attest to the fact that this suggestion in the death camp was consistent with his philosophy of life, and a sound philosophy at that. Real-world problems St. Maximilian consistently dealt with on the basis of the doctrine of the Church—not from the point of view of a mere academic, but of a saint and mystic who had pondered on these truths throughout his life. Contemporary society’s preoccupation with concrete sensate impressions and the need for immediate results, while it has obvious legitimate pragmatic advantages, has in the long run undermined the primacy of the Uncreated Word, the Wisdom of God, and the Truth which sets us free.
Thus, it is pertinent to point out that the information democracy of the new media is both a blessing and a curse. Ostensibly information is a good thing, insofar as full disclosure of the realities important to our future are made more accessible. But this is not the same thing as theological thinking (in the sense of mystical theology), especially when each person acts as master of the information received, spawning narratives based on unknown percentages of pertinent information and then immediately politicizing the information in the service of the true faith. It is true that faith comes through hearing and this means that those who do not have the faith must hear the truth from someone else. But those who do already have it cannot truly serve the faith, if faith does not bear fruit in them by a truly supernatural life. This means that reason must operate on a higher level than that of mere calculation and further be defined by an openness to the direct action of the Holy Spirit, whose instinct and inspiration is never a mere function of calculation.
St. Maximilian knew this this and lived it. And he also knew well, that all men in whatever social or economic circumstances they find themselves are capable of living in a stable peaceful dimension, which transcends the appearances of ordinary daily life. This dimension is no less real than the concrete world we live in; however, access to it is not found on merely natural level. This dimension is the kingdom of God, which is within the baptized, and in which they find the nobility of the children of God, living as members of the family of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Access to our heritage in that family is through spiritual birth from the Woman who is Daughter of the Eternal Father, Mother of the Incarnate Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit.
It is easy to lose patience with this line of reasoning, and seek more “practical” solutions to life’s problems. This is what separates the saint from the “good Catholic,” and this is precisely our point. An essential requisite disposition for the kind of sanctity to which God calls us is prayerful humility, the kind that is eager to let God form the interior life His way.
To Become Her
In this regard, St. Maximilian proposes the Immaculate as the ideal to imitate by way of meditation and prayer. She who is quick to listen and slow to speak (cf., St. James), eagerly professes that She is the slave of the Lord (Lk. 1:38). This is first of all true with respect to Her mind. St. Augustine, in fact, says that She first conceived Our Lord in Her mind, before She conceived Him in Her body. She was obedient first of all in virtue of Her faith, by which She believed that the words spoken to Her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Lk. 1:45). Her womb was the garden enclosed (Canticles 4:12), but Her ears were open. Figuratively speaking, Jesus entered Her womb through Her ears, that is, through Her mind. But all of this takes humility, patience, and lifelong pondering in the heart to appreciate.
We must desire to understand the role that the Immaculate has in sanctifying our thought. She was no superficial thinker. Just a cursory glance at the dialogue of the Blessed Virgin with the Angel Gabriel is enough to convince us that She was reflective and profound in Her thought. Her one question was well placed and direct. Even though Her life was to be radically changed by the request of the Angel, and even though She would have to act in view of promises as yet unfulfilled, Mary made Her choice simply on the reliability of God’s messenger whom She knew to speak the truth.
Hers was not a practical decision. It was theological, which is to say, it was mystical.
I say it was not practical because it was not efficient. Nor was it calculated, or ostensibly ordered to some intermediate goal, which itself was ordered to another. It was not politically advantageous. It did not have the support of a peer group. It was not the best alternative among many. There was no alternative plan in the event that it proved ineffective. It involved no negotiation, maneuvering, nuanced explanations or double meanings. It was a decision that had no exception clause, and there was no “out” in the even that Mary thought She got more than She bargained for.
No, Hers was a theological decision because, as a consequence of Her faith, She lived at a supernal level of wisdom. Not only was Her conception Immaculate, but so was Her life. For this reason, St. Maximilian counseled that we read about Her on our knees.
The day he was finally arrested and shipped off to Auschwitz—a journey from which he would never return—he woke up one of the friars (his secretary) long before the community’s morning rising. And then on his knees, he dictated to this friar some of the most (if not the most) profound theological and mystical insights that ever proceeded from the human mind on the relationship between the Immaculate and the Holy Spirit. When, he was done, he calmly went off to die.
That represents as closely as possible for fallen human nature the decision making process of the Immaculate. And that, brothers and sisters, is the only thing that is going to save us from the mess we have been making—all of us—in the Church today.
We don’t all have to be theologians or have extraordinary gifts, but the Holy Spirit does need to be the principle of all our choices and actions. This is not a luxury or a special vocation for only some followers of Christ, but it is especially incumbent on those who profess to be clients of the Immaculate.
O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you, and for all those who do not have recourse to you, especially for the enemies of Holy Church, and those recommended to you.
Happy Solemnity of the Immaculate.