Visitation of the B.V.M. 2018

Mary & Elizabeth
Detail of fresco from Saint-Martin, Nohant-Vicq, France, c. 1135–40

I’m not blogging today as I shall be mostly at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, D.V., but if you are looking for something on today’s feast, you may find these two ‘oldies’ of use:

May Our Lady intercede for us all. Amen.

Note on the Illustration

The Visitation: Elizabeth Greets Mary, detail, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved May 30, 2018].

The Annunciation is very often accompanied by a second image of Christ’s conception: the Visitation. This can be depicted with Mary and Elizabeth embracing or with the two women speaking to each other, and Grabar has shown that the Visitation was the Christian equivalent of the parental embrace which was a standard image of conception in the pre-Christian royal biographical cycles. The Annunciation and Visitation were, then, originally ‘two parallel images of the same theme of conception, the second being added — in conformity with common iconographic tradition — to show the first witness to Christ’s conception.’ (Clayton, 144)


The Assumption of the B.V.M. 2014

The destruction of statues and icons of Our Lady in Mosul and Qaraqosh is a  reminder that, next to the Cross of her Son, images of Mary are powerful signs pointing beyond this world to the next, to the realisation of Christian hope and the perfection of heaven. She is already what we hope to be, so we call upon her prayers with joyful confidence. The words of the prayer we make are both a theological statement, expressing what we believe about Mary, and a mark of our love and trust in her concern for the Church. Let us pray them today with great simplicity and devotion, mindful of the Christians of Iraq and wherever there is persecution or need: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

For a short reflection on what Mary means to Catholics see here; for a summary of the Church’s teaching on the Assumption and other Marian doctrines, a quick search of this blog should reveal several entries.


Dying a Good Death

There seems to have been a lot of interest recently in dying well. I notice, for example, that the question of ‘terminal care’ has been addressed by both individuals and groups, and many suggestions have been made about how to make the process of dying easier both for the one who is dying and those close to them. I agree with many of their suggestions, but, oh, how much simpler the whole idea of a good death is if one happens to be Catholic! My own hope is that I will go to my death peacefully, shriven of my sins, anointed with oil, Communicated, surrounded by prayer; but if I die in my sleep, or alone and in agony, it can still be a good death. What matters is that one’s own death is united with the death of Christ our Saviour. I say this from a position of faith, aware that to many — even to many good Christians — it may not make much sense; so it is important to stress that it is not a ‘feeling faith’ I am talking about, but a willed faith. St Thérèse of Lisieux experienced great darkness and spiritual isolation before she died, but she died a good and holy death.

Most of the death-beds I’ve attended have shown me someone dying as they lived: with grace and humour for the most part, but sometimes with fear and confusion. It can be very painful for the onlooker, but one needs to remember that the act of dying is as important as the act of being born. It is a mystery, with depths we cannot yet fathom. Much must be taken on trust; but whenever, wherever and however we die, we die as part of the Church, as a member of the Body of Christ. We are never completely alone, never completely helpless. It is no accident that the commonest prayer to Our Lady, the ‘Hail Mary,’ contains the petition, ‘pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ It is a good prayer to pray for the dying, for one day we shall be among their number.


Faith and Doubt: a Diptych

When the solemnity of the Annunciation follows close on the heels of Low Sunday, as it does today, we are presented with a beautiful diptych of faith and doubt. On the one hand we have Thomas, hesitant about believing his fellow disciples, wanting to prove that the Risen Christ is indeed the Christ he has known and loved but seen buried in the tomb; on the other, we have Mary, opening herself to the angel’s word that she may conceive the Word of God, not doubting, simply questioning how it may come about.

The Fathers loved to say that Thomas by his doubting did more for our faith than all those who allegedly have no doubts at all; while Mary is the type of perfect faith whose surrender to God is the most complete any human being has ever made save for that of Jesus to his Father on the Cross. Faith and doubt, two sides of the same quest for God, two ways into the mystery of the divine; but why a diptych?

I use the analogy of a diptych for two reasons. First, a diptych can be closed. The dynamic of faith and doubt can indeed be a closed book to many. How often have you heard someone say, ‘I envy his faith’ when what was really meant was, ‘He seems untroubled by the same difficulties I am’? Faith does not protect against difficulty. Quite often, it seems to multiply difficulties. There is the constant struggle to know what God is asking in any particular situation, to square our experience with what we believe — most of the time — to be true. How are we to respond to the political questions of our day; how do we work out the right response to bioethical issues; how should we conduct ourselves, and so on and so forth. St Thomas had to work out what the Resurrection meant for him, but it wasn’t a once for all decision, after which life held no further complications; any more than Mary’s fiat solved all future problems for her or for her family.

Secondly, to open a diptych, to see what it contains, you have to use the hinge, the least obvious part of the whole structure. I think of prayer as the hinge between faith and doubt, holding both in tension, allowing us to see the bigger picture. Our Lady’s beautiful ‘Let it be done to me according to your word’ is equalled only by Thomas’s adoring ‘My Lord and my God.’ Faith and doubt alike bring us to the moment of wonder on our knees.


The Immaculate Conception of the B.V.M.

Murillo immaculate conception
The Immaculate Conception by Murillo

Let’s start with what the Immaculate Conception is, rather than what it is not. In the Constitution Ineffabilis Deus of 8 December, 1854, Pius IX defined that the Blessed Virgin Mary ‘in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain (labes) of original sin.’ In other words, unlike the rest of us, and entirely because of the merits of Jesus Christ (i.e. not her own), she was endowed with sanctifying grace from the first moment of conception. (Sanctifying grace is conferred on us after birth, through the Sacrament of Baptism.) In the narrowest sense, the doctrine refers to original sin only and makes no claim to Mary’s having remained sinless. Of course, Catholics do believe that she was personally sinless, and the Council of Trent placed under anathema anyone who teaches otherwise.

Although belief in the Immaculate Conception can be found early and was probably being celebrated liturgically in Syria by the fifth century, later generations have tended to confuse the doctrine with the virginal conception of Christ and even gone so far as to assume that Catholics believe Mary had no need of redemption. As Ineffabilis Deus makes clear, Mary was redeemed as all are, by our Saviour Jesus Christ, yet in her case the manner of doing so was exceptional.

In the Middle Ages the doctrine was much discussed. Theologians of the stature of St Bernard and St Thomas Aquinas expressed reservations about the formulae used and it was not until Pius IX, at the behest of a majority of the bishops, instituted a committee of enquiry (1851 to 1853) that the solemn definition given in 1854 took final shape.

Where does all this leave us today? People sometimes remark on the apparent absence of devotion to Mary in Benedictine monasteries. By that they really mean the absence of devotions (plural). Hopkins likened Our Lady to the air we breathe, and among monks and nuns I think that just about sums it up. We are privileged to live in a world of sign and symbol, where Mary and the saints are very close to us and highly honoured for their own closeness to God. Let Hopkins have the last word:

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.


The Assumption of the B.V.M.

In previous years I have written about the Catholic Church’s teaching on this subject. Rather than go over that again I thought I would spend a minute or two this morning reflecting on the position that Mary holds in the life of ordinary Catholics. For a fuller treatment, take a look at one of my earliest eBooks, Magnificat (link opens in new window).

Our essential belief about Mary is that she is the Mother of God, Theotokos, God-bearer. Everything else flows from that. Her preservation from the stain of original sin, her assumption, body and soul, into heaven after death, her invocation as greatest of the saints: all these derive from her role as Mother of God. The Church describes the reverence we show Mary as hyperdulia, not to be confused with latria, the adoration given to God alone, or dulia, the reverence we show, or should show, one another as human beings.

What this teaching doesn’t really convey is the warmth of Catholic devotion to Mary. She is both God’s Mother and ours: someone whose prayers we ask with confidence because she knows exactly what it is like to cope with the multitudinous demands of ordinary life. She is one of us, yet shows us what it means to be truly blessed. Hence all that tacky ‘art’, those sentimental hymns, the slightly over-the-top expressions of love and devotion. They are our imperfect human way of rejoicing in the gift she has given us: Jesus Christ our Saviour. Perhaps because we are women ourselves, or perhaps because we belong to such an ancient tradition in the Church, Benedictine nuns tend not to talk much about Mary. We have no special devotions, no flamboyant gestures. We don’t need them because Mary is very close. She is, in truth, Our Lady.