Tota Pulchra Es, O Maria

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Mary of Great Beauty

Some weeks ago, I stopped to browse at Cutler’s on Broadway, New Haven’s best and biggest record shop. For me, a visit to Cutler’s is as exhilarating as a visit to the library or the art gallery. So much to learn. So much to discover. Among the display of bestselling new releases what did see? A CD by the women known as The Anonymous 4 entitled: “La bele Marie,” — The Beautiful Mary. The cover features a 14th century Virgin and Child in limestone. The Virgin has a radiant smile; so too does the Child Jesus who, incidentally, appears to be holding a pet squirrel on a leash. The smiles of the Mother and Child are ravishing. The beauty of holiness radiates from them. Opening the the performance notes, my eyes went immediately to the epigraph: “Shining star, moon without darkness, sun giving great light, Mary of great beauty.” I was stunned. With young Yale students bustling all about me, with something quite secular playing from the loudspeakers, with the noises of Broadway in the background, there was a moment of Marian grace. “Mary of great beauty.” So long as there is room for Mary in the world, there will be room for beauty — and room for beauty means space for grace.

Beauty Will Save the World

“Beauty will save the world,” said Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin. Beauty will save the world; beauty saves the world even now, but not just any beauty — the beauty that saves, the beauty that heals, the beauty that makes whole, the beauty that beautifies is the beauty of Jesus crucified and risen. It is Christ Jesus, “the fairest of the children of men” (Ps 44:2) who makes beautiful with an indescribable beauty every soul touched by his redeeming grace, and every body destined for participation in the splendour of his resurrection.

Look to Her and Be Radiant

This saving beauty, this beauty of the Saviour and of the saved, is no romantic revery. It shines already in the loveliness of the Virgin Mary, immaculate in her conception and glorious in her assumption. So long as we remember to look to Mary, there is hope for us. Hope of salvation is hope of beauty restored, hope and unfading and ever-radiant beauty. There is a sense in which the psalmist’s words — “Look towards him and be radiant” (Ps 33:6) — are rightly applied to the Virgin Mother. “Look to her and be radiant; let your faces not be abashed.” What is the Holy Rosary if not a prolonged looking toward Mary?

Tota Pulchra

Today’s liturgy invites us to just such a contemplation of the Virgin Mary. The simplest and, I think, loveliest antiphon of the day’s Office is: “Tota pulchra es, Maria, et macula non est in te” — “You are all-beautiful, O Mary, and stain is nowhere in you.” Impossible to sing such a text without lifting one’s eyes to Mary. The antiphon is the voice, not of pious conjecture, nor of theological reasoning, nor of hearsay, but of experience. Only one who has gazed upon the Virgin can sing, “You are all beautiful, O Mary.”

That Face Which Most Resembles Christ

When Dante finally reaches Paradise, Saint Bernard is given him as guide. “The abbot tells the poet that the contemplation of Mary is the best way of preparing oneself to see the face of the Son in all its radiance.

Now to that face which most resembles Christ
lift up thy face; its radiance alone
can grant thee the power to look on Christ.

Look to the Immaculata

We have perhaps been tricked into thinking that beauty is something superfluous, a luxury item. For the christian, beauty is indispensable because beauty is crucial to the survival of all that is human. A soul deprived of beauty is like an organism deprived of oxygen. Where beauty has been squeezed out, souls begin to suffocate. Gerard Manley Hopkins was so right to compare the Virgin Mary to the air we breathe! A world, — a church — devoid of beauty is in the gravest danger. So long as we look to the Immaculata, so long as we continue singing, “Tota pulchra es, Maria” — “You are all-beautiful, O Mary,” our eyes will be capable of looking upon Christ in his beauty, and that beauty will indeed save the world.

2 Comments

How true that a world and a church devoid of beauty is in the gravest danger! May the Immaculate draw us in the odor of her ointments....

+Dear Father,
The beauty that saves the world is the beautiful Christ. Are you familiar with the passage from St. Augustine on Ps. 44? It is too long to quote here in its entirety, but here is a little- "He is beautiful on the cross, beautiful in the tomb, beautiful in death and beautiful in rising to new life..."
Another favorite quote is from St. John of the Cross: "If we saw the beauty of God, we would beg to die a thousand most bitter deaths in order to see if for a moment more."
This is not the exact quote, but the general idea. I wanted to share it.

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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