Thursday, April 15, 2004

Our Lady: Woman and Warrior

When researching the subject of the Blessed Virgin Mary, what is most obvious is the wealth of material which one must grapple with and, secondly, the greater and greater degree of doctrinal and dogmatic definitiveness with which the Catholic Church has presented to the faithful the complete reality of the Mother of God. Whereas, by the seventh century, the doctrinal questions concerning the nature and person of Our Lord Jesus Christ had been resolved by the first six Ecumenical Councils of the Church, the doctrinal and dogmatic clarification concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary has continued into the nineteenth and twentieth century (e.g., the dogmatic definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption), and we can even assert that such an attempt at clarification continues into our own (e.g., concerning Our Lady as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Cf. Newsweek, Aug. 27, 1997).

Just as the Catholic Church moves, perhaps, towards a definition of the last of the great Marian doctrines, there is another aspect of Our Lady which is distinctly and, without question, pertinent, and even essential, for our times. As the tide of Feminism has risen, hopefully, to its high point in our time, it is imperative for those who wish to remain faithful to Tradition to look to the most perfect of woman in order to both provide for ourselves an ideal and model of feminine virtue and to help us purge ourselves of the Feminist preconceptions which only those in the best of circumstances could have avoided acquiring, even “subconsciously.”

That is why I intend to consider, in this article, the Blessed Virgin Mary as our “Lady.” Why as “lady”? On account of the fact that the “lady,” in all of her various aspects and roles, is commonly accepted to be the model of what all woman, on the natural level, ought to be. Just as the masculine ideal is one of being a “master,” whether of one’s own house or of one’s craft, the noble feminine ideal of the “lady” includes both the aspects of “mistress” of her master’s house and the inspiration and companion of those who enter into battle.

A) Mary as Lady

This topic and focus suggests itself, on account of two “controversies” regarding the Mother of God, one etymological and one exegetical. The etymological question concerns the meaning of the Holy Name “Mary” itself. Of course, “Mary” is the English form of the Hebrew Miryam or Miriam, which was the name of the sister of Moses (giving rise to speculation that the name is of Egyptian origin), and of several women in the New Testament as well as of Our Lady.[1] This name is analogous to the Syriac and Aramaic name Maryam. This same name appears throughout the Vulgate Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, as Maria. The difficulty in interpreting the name lies in the fact that there are 70 possible meanings of the name Miryam.[2] Even though all of these exist as possibilities, there are some meanings, which are more likely than others. The interpretation of the name thought to have been given by St. Jerome, stella maris or “star of the sea,” is not the one favored by current scholarship. Instead, following the lead of St. Peter Chrysologus and St. John Damascene, along with the meaning of the name in the Syriac tongue, the rendering of “lady” has been given; “lady” signifying here the counterpart of a “master” or “lord.”[3] Moreover, this particular interpretation appears to be more probable when we consider the some of the other interpretations given to the name by various scholars; all appear to be aspects of the model feminine type, which we would refer to as a “lady.” For instance, we have “mistress,”[4] the “strong one” or the “ruling one,”[5] the “exalted one,”[6] and the “gracious” or “charming” one.[7] Of these other renderings, the most widely accepted is that of the “fat” or “well-nourished” one.[8] As we might imagine, for the peoples of the Near East to be “well-nourished” was synonymous with beauty and bodily perfection. “Mary,” then, implies the beauty and perfection of the true “lady.”[9]

B) The New Eve

Not only does the very Holy Name of Mary indicate the ways in which she is truly blessed amongst women, but the role of the Mother of God as the New Eve, the woman of obedience and holy submission as opposed to the Eve of rebellion and autonomy, indicates the way in which Our Lady, as a woman, has crushed the head of the serpent by her exemplary possession of specifically feminine virtues. Just as Eve was misled by Satan on account of her inconstancy, changeableness, and exaggerated concern for the sensibly immediate (i.e., the attractiveness of the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil), the Blessed Virgin Mary conquered the ancient tempter of Eve by simply accepting all that God willed to bestow upon her and achieve through her. Mankind begins its ascent to sanctification through the voluntary passivity of a woman, whereas it fell from this state of sanctification on account of Eve’s aggressive attempt to dominate the will of man through subtle manipulation.

That a woman should be a conqueror through passive acceptance of the will of another, rather than through the assertion of her own will, is testified to by the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church when they speak of Our Lady as the New Eve. The teaching of Our Lady as the “reversed” Eve, appears in the Ave, maris stella: “Oh! by Gabriel’s Ave, Utter’d long ago, Eva’s name reversing, Establish peace below.” This teaching of Our Lady as being a “reversed” Eve, appears in Venerable Pope Pius IX’s bull Ineffabilis Deus, defining the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.[10] St. Irenaeus (c. 180) expresses the common understanding of the Fathers when we states: “Eve was led away by an angel’s word to flee God after transgressing His word. Mary has good tidings brought by an angel that she should bear God within herself after obeying His word.”[11] So it is by Our Lady’s very being and her acceptance of God’s will that she conquers the seducer of Eve.

When speaking of Our Lady as the “passive” conqueror of the ancient Adversary of mankind, we necessarily refer to the passage in the Book of Genesis in which God curses the serpent by stating the following: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel (Gen. III, 15).” It is concerning this passage that we encounter the second of the “controversies” mentioned earlier. This one is exegetical. Assuming that the “she” mentioned is a prophetic reference to Our Lady, is it she who will crush the head of the head of the Evil One or will it be her “seed” who crushes it.

The “difficulty” lies in the fact that in the Vulgate text, the pronoun (ipsa) refers to the woman, while in the Hebrew text and, also, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text,[12] the same pronoun refers to the seed of the woman. According to the Latin Vulgate, the woman herself will win the victory; according to the Hebrew text, she will be victorious through her seed. Rather than seeing some intentional corruption of the original text by St. Jerome, who was fully conversant with Hebrew, we ought to see the Vulgate translation as an explanatory version expressing explicitly the fact of Our Lady’s part in the victory over the serpent, which is contained implicitly in the Hebrew original.[13] Therefore, if Our Lady crushes the head of the Evil One and, on that account, establishes eternal enmity between her offspring and the serpent’s, she either does it on account of her very being (i.e., her Immaculate Conception) or she does it through her acquiescence to God’s redemptive plan, her Fiat. Whichever reading we should give this passage, Our Lady conquers through an exemplary instance of the feminine virtue of voluntary passivity.

For St. Bernard, there is no question as to the implications or the intent of the passage from the third chapter of Genesis. He, likewise, understands Our Lady’s triumph to be a reversal of Eve’s seduction. Moreover, St. Bernard understands it to be significant that it was not merely a “person” who was chosen to crush the head of the ancient serpent by her existence and her acts of voluntary submission to the Divine Will, but, rather, a woman. Here we see the essential connection between womanhood and maternity, both in the natural and in the supernatural orders; while Eve was the mother of all in the order of nature, Mary is the mother of all in the order of grace.[14]

St. Bernard speaks of Our Lady as woman, mother, and valiant conqueror of the Evil One, when he states in one of his sermons, “Of whom, then, if not of the Virgin, does the Lord appear to have spoken when He said to the serpent, ‘I will put enmities between thee and the woman?’ But if you are not yet convinced that He was alluding to Mary, attend to what follows, ‘She shall crush thy head.’ For whom but Mary was that victory reserved? She undoubtedly crushed the serpent’s venomous head by bringing to naught every attempt of the wicked one to seduce her with his suggestions of pleasure and pride. Again, whom else but Mary was Solomon seeking when he asked: ‘Who shall find a valiant woman?”[15]

In the above, St. Bernard recognizes that in light of the way in which God was going to redeem mankind, through the Incarnation and the propitiatory Sacrifice of the Cross, it would be a woman, a woman who would combine the two morally licit forms of feminine life, by whose immaculate being and by whose fiat all who shall be saved will be saved. In the following passage, he again points to Our Lady as the one chosen by God to fill the role of the “valiant woman”: “But he knew also from the Scriptures the promise made by God - and it seemed to him only natural [emphasis mine] - that he who had conquered by a woman should be conquered by a woman. And hence he [King Solomon] cried out in an excess of admiration, ‘Who shall find a valiant woman?’ That is to say, ‘If the salvation of us all, and the recovery of our innocence, and our victory over Satan, thus depend upon a woman, it is absolutely essential to find a valiant woman, who shall be capable of accomplishing so difficult a task. But who shall find such a valiant woman?’ . . . . ‘Far and far from the uttermost bounds is the price of her.’”[16] With the Blessed Virgin, we have a woman who is valiant, because she is steadfast. It is the New Eve who forever refutes Virgil’s stricture in the Aeneid that: Varium et mutabile semper femina.

C) Our Lady’s Sorrows: Passion and Endurance

The victory of Our Lady over the Evil One spoken of in Genesis involves a combat, which has three distinct aspects. The first is the most purely passive. The term “passive” here, refers not to a state of inactivity or any state which lacks actuality, rather, I use the term in the sense that Aristotle used it to describe an attribute of a being by which it receives some form of actuality or perfection from another being. It is in her Immaculate Conception, in which she, from the first moment of her existence, exists free from all stain of Original Sin that she inflicts the first defeat on Satan. Since it was her soul which was free from Original Sin, and since the soul is the “first act” of a living being, in the very primal actuality of her being she defeated Satan’s desire to make the entirety of mankind endure a period during which they did not bear within themselves the very image and likeness of God. It is on account of the sinlessness of her being that the Little Chapter of Prime in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin states: “Who is she that cometh forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in array?”

“Rejoice, O Virgin Mary, thou alone hast destroyed all heresies in the whole world.” This antiphon from Matins in the Little Office, states clearly the understanding of the Church which holds that Our Lady, by being the Mother of God, defeats all heresies which in any way throw into question the Hypostatic Union (i.e., the union of a human nature and a divine nature in the Divine Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ). The dogma of the Divine Maternity was affirmed at the very same Ecumenical Council (Ephesus 431) in which the unity of the two natures in one Divine Person was asserted. If Mary is the Mother of God, then she is the mother of the “whole” Christ, the Mother of a Christ who cannot be divided. From the moment of Our Lady’s Fiat, the Divine Logos would be Man and God, Soul, and Body for Eternity. By her voluntary Fiat, unlike her Immaculate Conception, Our Lady was not purely passive. Her single affirmation of the Father’s will for her, was what made her the instrument by which the True Religion was introduced into the society of men. St. Bernard emphasizes the refutation of heresy as being a consequence of Our Lady’s Fiat, when he states, “For Mary is the woman, promised of old by God, who shall crush the serpent’s head with the foot of her virtue, and for whose heel he has lain in wait with many wiles, but all to no purpose. It is through Mary alone that every impious heresy has been vanquished. One heresiarch maintained that Christ, although brought forth by her, was not formed from her flesh. . . . whilst [another], unable to endure that she should be called the Mother of God [i.e., Nestorius, condemned by the Council of Ephesus], impiously sought to deprive her of that crowning title. But the serpents lying in wait have been crushed, the would be supplanters have been trodden under foot, the slanderers of Mary have been put to confusion [by true doctrine], and, behold, all generations now call her blessed.”[17] We find a perfect artistic representation of this teaching that by being the Mother of God Our Lady puts to rest the intellectual fermentation of unbelievers, in the chapel of St. Januarius in Naples. There we find a fresco by Il Domenichino showing the triumph of the Virgin Mother over the Protestant Revolt. Here we find a young hero treading underfoot Luther and Calvin, who are identified by name in inscriptions. He carries a white banner on which we read three answers to the protestant attacks: Semper VirgoDei GenitrixImmaculata. In Emile Male’s book Religious Art After the Council of Trent, we read the following description of this overtly apologetic work of art: “Against the innovators, the young champion of the Virgin affirms that she was virgin before and after the birth of Jesus, that she is the Mother of God and not merely the Mother of Christ, and finally that she is free from original sin. Near him a young woman, Prayer, carries the rosary that the Lutherans denounced as an invention of Satan. The Ave Maria mounts up to the Virgin, who is on her knees before her Son. She offers to Him the prayers of mankind which have moved her heart to pity, and two angels put into the scabbard the sword of divine wrath.”[18]

It was, of course, in her internal suffering, exemplified in her Seven Sorrows, that Our Lady showed herself completely to be both woman and warrior, that is, a true lady. In the fourteenth century, we hear St. Catherine of Siena exclaiming, “O Mary, you bring us the fire of God’s mercy! Your are the liberator of the human race, since Christ purchased it with His passion, and you, Mother, purchased it with the pain of your body and the anguish of your soul.”[19] When we meditate on the most “active” way in which Our Lady participated in Our Lord Jesus Christ’s conquest of Satan, we find that this active role was, likewise, a type of “passivity,” a true passion. How can one who is continuously submitting be considered a “valiant” woman, a woman useful in and used to battle? To fail to see the valiant nature of Our Lady’s life and her passion is to fundamentally misunderstand the true nature of the virtue that has always characterized the valiant, the virtue of fortitude or courage.

According to Aristotle and, before him, the Classical Greek ethical tradition as a whole, fortitude was considered to be the virtue which regulated and rightly channeled our natural fear of the horrible, so that the object provoking our fear would not interfere with our attainment of the difficult and great good. The quintessential possessor of this virtue was the warrior, the man who faced, as part of his normal life, the most naturally horrible thing, death. To be brave in battle meant to so control our fear of death, that it would not interfere with our achievement of the difficult good of victory in battle, hence, safety for the commonweal from its enemies. Notice here, that it is not the man who does not fear who is brave, he is simply reckless; it is the man who fears, but does not let fear become his master, who is the man of true fortitude.[20]

Concerning this virtue possessed by the valiant soldier in battle, St. Thomas Aquinas makes a very interesting and penetrating point. Of the two principal acts of fortitude, endurance and attack, endurance is more of the essence of the virtue.[21] Keeping in mind that fortitude has to do with allaying the fear of death, St. Thomas gives three reasons why endurance is more difficult than an aggressive attack. First, because endurance normally infers being attacked by something stronger than oneself, whereas, aggression connotes that one is attacking as though one were the stronger party. Second, because he or she who endures already feels the presence of danger, whereas the aggressor looks upon danger as something to come. Finally, endurance implies length of time; it is more difficult to remain unmoved for a long time, than to be moved suddenly by the call to attack.[22] This is why St. Thomas speaks of the martyrs, who were “valiant in battle,”[23] as the ones who manifested the virtue of fortitude to the most heroic degree. They endured by cleaving to the good of the Faith and to the good of Grace amidst the roaring beasts.[24]

It is Our Lady, undergoing an internal suffering at the foot of the Cross, that we would attribute endurance to in the highest degree. Her endurance, however, for which she is given the title Co-Redemptrix, is an endurance different for the one of the martyrs. Her exemplary endurance, for which she can, also, be given the title “valiant in battle,” mirrors that of her Divine Son. Just like the Holy Martyrs, Our Lord and Our Lady did not attack the unjust like a soldier would in a just war.[25] They endured a great evil, the infliction of death, in order to attain a great good. Our Lord Jesus Christ, however, did not have to “cleave” to the good, since He is the Good, the source of all grace, and the intellectual expression of God the Father’s own being. Neither was he faced with a superior and, circumstantially invincible force; He is the Omnipotent Lord of all. He laid down His own life; it was not taken from him. The real sufferings, however, both psychological and physical, had to be endured. It was precisely by enduring those sufferings, and enduring the death that was the consequence of those sufferings, that evil, death, sin, and Satan were defeated. By endurance they were reduced to naught. Here we are confronted with a conquering passivity; one that will not be moved.

Our Lady of Compassion, the one who stands at the foot of her dying Son’s Cross, does not undergo the physical pains which afflict her Redeemer. Neither is she, being a human person, stronger than those who oppress her by lacerating her only begotten Son. Rather, her own sufferings, which were her sympathetic endurance of the Passion of her Son, were not an enduring of, but rather, an enduring with. By enduring with her Son to the end, to His death, by standing with Him, she shared in the redemption of all of mankind; to her belongs the booty of the Savior. “Bruis’d, derided, curs’d, defil’d, She beheld her tender child; All with bloody scourges rent. For the sins of His own nation, saw Him hang in desolation, Till His spirit forth He sent.”[26] It is with the tears, that only a mother could shed, that Our Lady showed herself to be the consummate woman, warrior, and lady. The true Mistress of the Lord’s household.

[1] A Dictionary of Mary, compiled by Donald Attwater (New York: P.J. Kennedy and Sons, 1955), pp. 200-202.

[2] The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XV (New York: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913), p. 464A. Cf. Bardenhewer, Der Name Maria in Geschichte de Deutung desselben, Freiburg, 1895).

[3] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464A. Cf. Dictionary of Mary, pp. 200-202; also, St. Bernard’s Sermons on the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. A priest of Mount Melleray (Devon, Great Britain: Augustine Publishing Co., 1987), p. 33, note.

[4] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464A. Also, Haneberg, Geschichte d. biblisch. Offenbarung, 4th edition (Regensburg, 1876), p. 604.

[5] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464A. Also, Bisping, Erklarung d. Evang. Nach Matth. (Munster, 1867), p. 42.

[6] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464A. Cf. Caninius, De locis S. Scripturae hebraicis comment. (Antwerp, 1600), p. 63-64.

[7] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464A. Cf. Haneberg, p. 604.

[8] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464A. Cf. Schegg, Evangelium nach Matthaus, Bd. I (Munich, 1856), p. 419.

[9] Catholic Encyclopedia, pp. 464A-B.

[10] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464B.

[11] Dictionary of Mary, p. 204.

[12] St. Bernard’s Sermons, p. 18, note.

[13] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464B.

[14] Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 464B.

[15] St. Bernard’s Sermons, p. 18.

[16] Ibid., p. 19.

[17] Sermons of St. Bernard, pp. 210-211.

[18] Emile Male, Religious Art After the Council of Trent, trans. Dora Nussey (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1936), p. 169.

[19] Fr. Valentino Del Mazza, Our Lady Among Us (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1978), pp. 66-67.

[20] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 123, Art. 5, sed contra and corpus. Also, Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book III.

[21] ST, II-II, Q. 123, Art. 6.

[22] ST, II-II, Q. 123, Art. 6, ad 1.

[23] Office of the Martyrs, ex Heb. xi, 34.

[24] ST, II-II, Q. 123, Art. 5, ad 1.

[25] ST, II-II, Q. 123, Art. 12, ad 3.

[26] Sequence for the feast of The Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary.