A GREAT SIGN APPEARED IN HEAVEN: A WOMAN CLOTHED WITH THE SUN AND THE MOON UNDER HER FEET, AND UPON HER HEAD A CROWN OF TWELVE STARS (Apocalypse 12: 1). The Scriptures give us very little in the way of detailed description regarding Mary's life and words, and nothing at all concerning her appearance while she was on earth. We know just enough to appreciate in a general way what kind of a person she was; we have some general idea of her great holiness, simplicity and ardent charity. The image provided by these scarce and spare accounts does not have the character of a portrait, but rather that of an icon. Thus the text I have just cited from the Apocalypse is eminently suited to reflect something of the holiness and grandeur of the Mother of our Savior, the Queen of heaven and of earth, for it portrays her after the manner of an icon that invites us to enter into the transcendent realm, where all takes place in the presence of the glory of God.
An icon depicts a concept of a personage, not those specific and personal lineaments that indicate the identifying characteristics of the individual portrayed. As a result we do not so much take in the image of the subject depicted in the icon as read into it what that image evokes in us. Father Thomas Reese, S.J., in a current editorial on the public reaction to the death of John Kennedy Jr. makes the following pertinent observations.
The great power of icons and symbols is that they are silent and ambiguous. The meaning of an icon comes more from within us- our memories, hopes and dreams- than from the icon itself.... When people become icons or symbols we stop listening to them and instill in them our understanding of who they are. If we really listened to them, we might hear things that would upset us and change our minds about them. We would rather see their picture than hear them speak (America, 181 (August 14-21, 1999) p. 2).
There is this large difference, however, in the case of Mary and the angels and saints depicted as icons, that she lives, as do all who belong to Christ, and interacts with us when we approach her in prayer. She assumes an active role in our lives, and obtains those graces and insights necessary for us to come to understand with a fuller knowledge something of her personality. In fact, as we gain insight into the mystery and person of her son, indirectly we also grow in our knowledge of her character and person.
The more Mary is shrouded in a mystery that is alluded to by the limited words found in the inspired scriptures the more necessary it is for those who would draw closer to her and enter into a more familiar relationship with her to imitate what she is. For it is only through having a character and dispositions that are connatural to her virtues that we can discover in a more detailed and concrete way, through lively faith and prayer, who she is in herself and what she is in her son. Only like can know like in the world of personal relationships and familiar sharing. It is not physical proximity or knowledge of the facts about another that is the condition for intimate understanding, but rather sympathy based upon shared values and shared experiences.
Jesus himself repeatedly taught this great lesson, as had the prophets before him. St. Matthew tells of an occasion when his apostles asked the Lord why he spoke only in parables to the people. His reply suggests how deeply he felt about revealing deeper truths about God and his mysteries. His respect for the things that touch upon the honor of his heavenly Father is such that he veils them in such a way that only the worthy can draw near to them. Certainly all that pertains to his Bl. Mother is included in these mysteries of which he speaks here.
To you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven; it is not given to them. The one who has will be given more, and he will abound; the one who is lacking will be deprived even of what he has. For this reason I speak to them in parables so that seeing they may not see and hearing they might not understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: "Hear with your ear and understand not, and looking see not. For the heart of this people is heavy and their ears are hard of hearing and their eyes are closed lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted and I should heal them (Mt. 13:10-15).
Only the pure of heart can see God; those who are proud are spiritually blind though they be doctors of the law. To draw near to God and to know him one must have a right intention in the heart; it is not enough to call upon his name. Acts and attitudes must be in conformity with his will and correspond to his holiness or He does not hear nor recognize those who would approach Him. From early times spiritual men and women understood that there is a need for all to undertake such practices as prepare us to receive God in his purity. We must train our inner senses if we would come to know the Lord Jesus and his Blessed Mother in a more familiar exchange as we live out our days in their presence.
The desire to have a more familiar and intimate union with God is deeply rooted in the human heart. The opening pages of the Bible suggest that the original state of Adam and Eve was marked by a regular exchange: "And they heard the voice of God as he walked in the garden at the evening breeze... and God called out to Adam (Gen.3: 8,9). Throughout the Bible the Patriarchs and then the prophets communicated with God whether by vision or hearing. The pious Israelites spoke of tasting the sweetness of God, or feeling his presence, and of the odor of sweetness that accompanied their sacrifices. This metaphorical and symbolic language no doubt refers to a variety of kinds of religious contacts with God, some clearly mystical and direct, others liturgical and still others occurring in personal prayer. The senses are said to function in these experiences in a more interior manner; some experience of God is best described by analogy with one or several of the senses, even while it is clear that God remains transcendent and beyond the senses in Himself.
With the Incarnation the experience of God as mediated by the interior senses is centered chiefly on the Word made flesh. In time, there developed a tradition in the Christian Church not only of metaphorical and symbolic language but of a real doctrine of inner experience [For this and a number of points related here cf. Pierre Doyere, m.b., Ste. Gertrude et les sens spirituels, RAM XXXVI, (1960), 429-446]. Origen was the first to develop a complete teaching on the spiritual senses. He taught that the interior senses can function only after the exterior senses are trained by mortification. Many others who followed him in time took up one or other aspect of that teaching. St. Basil repeatedly speaks of tasting the sweetness of God through meditating on his word. In his Prologue St. Benedict speaks of the spiritual eyes capable of beholding the divine light and of spiritual ears that can be trained to hear what God desires to speak to us. St. Bernard and William of St. Thierry are prominent among those writers who stress the experience of God that can be felt and tasted and seen with the senses of the spirit. James Walsh, s.j., [Guillaume de Saint- Thierry et les sens spirituels, RAM XXXV (1959), 27-42] notes that William elaborated his doctrine of the spiritual senses "because of the difficulty, common to all mystics, of finding adequate expressions of the ineffable (p. 40)." In various writings William treats the topic of spiritual experience and strives to suggest something of its content, even while realizing the limits of language. The following prayer to the Holy Spirit demonstrates this effort to descr ibe the ineffable.
O Spirit who examine all things and have knowledge of every voice, does the heart of your servant seek anything else than that my conscience be enlightened by seeing your glory and feeling your love? Does the intention of your poor one give birth to anything else? May my soul be purified by you. In treating of the things that properly pertain to you may they taste more sweetly of you and give off a more delightful fragrance. May your taste please my palate, the smell of your odor gratify, and my whole life be formed by you (Expositio Altera in Cantica Canticorum, PL 180: 524 B).
Father Walsh considers William to be in the first rank of the theologians of the mystical life in that he was the first to confront the mysticism of light with the mysticism of darkness, represented pre-eminently by St. Augustine and Pseudo-Denis. His teaching on the spiritual senses is an effort at a synthesis of the two traditions, and as such was influential on subsequent authors.
Gertrude the Great, who lived at Helfta, a convent that was formed by the Cistercian spirit, is a prominent representative of the group of mystics who elaborated a true doctrine of the spiritual senses, as P. Doyere points out (cf. op. cit., 433). There are numerous passages in her writings that witness to the importance she assigns to the spiritual senses. In particular her teaching consistently suggests the way in which the operations of these senses relate the individual to Jesus, and at the same time express the unity of the body and soul. Spiritual experiences restore the mystic to the life of the whole person, effecting a unity where there had been tension and dividedness. For example, she concludes one of her spiritual exercises with a moving prayer that gives expression to the desire for such knowledge of the Lord through the five spiritual senses.
There, there, my sweet savior, console with the sight of your honeyed presence. There console me with the taste of your dear ransom by which you redeemed me. There call me to yourself with the voice of your beautiful love. There receive me in the sweet embrace of your merciful forgiveness. There draw me to yourself by the fragrant breath of your spirit. Take me within your breath, and drink me in. There immerse me in the perpetual fruition by the kiss of perfect union. Grant me then to see you that I may possess you, and blissfully enjoy you eternally, for my soul has longed after you, O Jesus, the dearest of the dear. Amen (Gertrude D'Helfta, Oeuvres Spirituelles, tome I: Les Exercises, IV, S.C. 127, p. 154).
We have no such disclosures from Mary's life of prayer and longing. We do, however, have her Magnificat, a hymn of jubilation and of divine passion that, like St. Gertrude's text, expresses a deeply felt reaction to the experience of God's goodness and graciousness. Mary's canticle, unlike the Helfta nun's prayer, is a tissue of citations from a variety of Biblical texts. Her vocabulary and the phrases she employs are entirely those of the sacred book. Her joy and praise are the culmination of the hopes and longings of the saintly people of God; the words of her prayer reveal how fully she identified with the holy prophets and writers of sacred history, so immersed are they in the language and thought of her forebears. Her exultation is real, her sacred emotion is intense but she rather disappears as an individual to present herself as one with all those whose joy is in the experience of God. He is the focus of her thought and the source of her passionate praise.
Mary thinks in terms of the whole people of God, of all the true children of Abraham throughout the generations as she participates in the fulfillment of the promises made to him and the prophets. She naturally shares what is most personal to her, the joy of her motherhood, with all God's chosen ones. She does this, not in a self-assertive manner but in such a way as to witness to God's fidelity in the fulfillment of all that was promised to earlier generations. Henceforth, all generations will call me blessed, for He who is mighty has done great things to me. Holy is His Name.Mary contemplates God's fidelity and wisdom and does so from the depths of her soul. She was present at the cross when her son gave his life for us and breathed forth his Spirit. She was also present at the Pentecostal descent of that same Holy Spirit and continued to live under His guidance and by His inspiration until her time on earth came to an end. Then she was taken up into the presence of God in all his glory, introduced there by her glorified Son, the Lord Jesus. For these reasons she continues to be the mother of the Church and more specifically the model of all those faithful who seek the face of God already here on earth as far as that is possible to those living in this world. May her example of fidelity in faith and prayer and her continuing intercession obtain from her divine Son the gifts of that same Spirit he once conferred on his Church. And may we prove worthy to follow her and all the holy men and women who like her have believed in the promises given to those whose hope is the Lord and whose trust is in the God and Father of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
© Abbey of the Genesee
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