Mary Overload?

Hands up those who can remember Michel Quoist’s Prayers of Life! As a teenager they had a profound impact on my sense of where God is to be found in the gritty realities of everyday life. From an ecumenical perspective, the prayer ‘Help me to say Yes’ broadened by Protestant understanding of Mary, with its line, ‘God needs my Yes as he needed Mary’s Yes’.

Protestants have often, or even usually, ignored the biblical figure of Mary in reaction to what they see as the excessive claims of medieval and Catholic piety and dogma. They have even muttered such things as ‘Mariolatry’ (often while practising their own ‘bibliolatry’ – but that’s a debate for another day). In contrast, and prompted by Quoist, I have, each year during Advent, preached about Mary as a model of faith, an example to us on how to respond to God’s call – ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.’ I have even meditated upon the charismatic implications of the work of the Holy Spirit conceiving Christ within her.

Yet this week I found myself reaching a kind of Mary overload. Two things came together. First, while on my Italian journey I have been reading each day a few pages of Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation. It is, I believe, a spiritual classic but even classics are of their time and this isearly Merton and, at times very pre-Vatican II (because, of course, it was). Published in 1949, it is the fruit of the early years of his contemplative monastic journey when he seems to have been ecumenically unaware.Despite this, the book is full of gems – or perhaps I should say ‘seeds’ that encourage the reader to contemplate. But of course it is human, and so mixed.One moment he writes,

… if you want to have in your heart the affections and dispositions that were those of Christ on earth consult not your own imagination but faith. Enter into the darkness of interior renunciation, strip your soul of images and let Christ form himself in you by His cross. (p96)

Then within a few pages he is talking of Mary’s soul as ‘absolutely full of the most perfect created sanctity’ (p101), and ‘We believe that hers was the most perfect sanctity outside the sanctity of God…’ (p100)  I could quote further, but I expect you get the gist. I started muttering about the Vulgate’s mistranslation ‘full of grace’, about scriptural warrants for such ideas – and then tried to be eirenic and generous.

Coronation of the Virgin by Michele Giambono

The second thing was just the next day. I entered the first room of the Academia art gallery in Venice, with its medieval and early renaissance religious art, and found that nearly all the pieces were of Mary. Now, I’m very happy to spend time in front of pictures of the annunciation (Mary’s Yes) or images of the Virgin and Child (symbolic of incarnation) but when I realized that a third of the works in the room are representations of the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven – well – I had to take the weight off my feet and take stock. The first reaction was emotional and negative – then the reflection began and I tried to enter the world view of these artists and the spirituality that they express and provoke.

Leave aside for the moment the theological qualifications and caveats – I worked my way through them apace. Yes, coronation speaks of hierarchy. Yes, Mary seems to be given a mediatorial role which should only belong to Christ. Yes, there are dogmatic formulations about perpetual virginity and ‘the assumption of BVM’ which Protestants find very problematic…. yes, yes.

Then the closing lines of Charles Wesley’s Love Divine came to mind:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Here is a vision of the consummation of all things in which we all have crowns! Is it too big a step to see in the medieval vision of Mary’s coronation a prefiguring of our own destinies where ‘Love [bids] us welcome’ and gives each of us the place of honour. If this interpretation has any merit then the coronation becomes a symbolic representation of Mary’s place as the first Christian – chronologically – and, perhaps, prophetically.

Her Yes makes room for the Holy Spirit to indwell and enable Christ to be born. She is, as eastern Christians say, the Theotokos, the bearer of God. She also stands at the cross while most of the disciples ran away… And, perhaps, in these pictorial representations of her welcome in heaven we see the welcome that awaits all who trust in the child she bore for us and our salvation.

So – back to Merton. No coronation here, he is talking of Mary’s poverty and lowliness as expressed in the Magnificat.

It is because she is, of all the saints, the most perfectly poor and the most perfectly hidden, the one who has absolutely nothing whatever that she attempts to possess as her own, that she can most fully communicate to the rest of us the grace of the infinitely selfless God.

Well, I – we – might still hesitate with some of that, but its central theme is rich. As Paul puts it, ‘God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’; or as Kendrick puts it, ‘Our weaknesses become his possibilities’; or, as Merton continues:

This absolute emptiness, this poverty, this obscurity holds within it the secret of all joy because it is full of God.

Madonna and Child

Thursday 19th May

Arrived in Rome. I have settled into the Venerable English College where the hospitality has been warm and gracious. From my window I can see the clock tower –  and hear it every quarter of an hour – but not, thankfully, at night.

Friday 20th May

Today I crossed the Tiber into Trastevere and visited the church of Santa Maria. It was fairly early and the church was quiet. The mosaics were stunning but I was more affected by the play of light and shadow outside in the portico. I recrossed the Tiber – was distracted by some ancient columns behind the Theatre of  Marcellus (which I drew) and visited the Gesu Jesuit church – but the Baroque triumphalism left me cold. Strangely, I was also unmoved by the Pantheon, apart from technical wizardry of that concrete dome. The real find was the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which contains the tombs of the great mystic, Catherine of Sienna, and the great artist Fra Angelica.

There was a great stillness in the side chapel which contained an image of the Madonna and child – once thought to be by Fra Angelica but now attributed to his pupil Benozza Gozzoli. Tempera painted on silk and then mounted on board, the painting is exquisite but, far more, it invites reflection and prayer. I photographed it (hand held in poor light) and then simply sat and looked.

Mary, in blue, has a star on her shoulder, the traditional prompt that she is the queen of heaven. Yet there is a reversal here: while Mary is portrayed as the queen of heaven, Jesus who has come from heaven is holding a globe – the reason for his descent from glory. He is presented as a miniature adult as a sign that his coming is for the saving of this world. On the globe are marked Asia, Europe and Africa – all the known world when this was painted over forty years before Columbus sailed across the Atlantic. Salvation is world embracing – speaking of which – Mary is not actually holding Jesus who is standing of a balcony. Yet it is as though she is cradling him with reverence, cradling yet not holding him, protecting him yet not touching him. And over them both the Holy Spirit hovers – because incarnation (then and now) is through the work of the Spirit. God with us – God in us – God through us – the Spirit of creation, the Spirit of new birth, the Spirit of Christ. And here is the invitation for us to cradle with reverence Emmanuel, Christ in you the hope of glory. No wonder its called Madonna and Child giving Blessings…