Blessed Virgin Mary: January 2009 Archives

At the School of Saint John Eudes

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Priestly Union with the Blessed Virgin Mary

Yesterday, in my entry for the feast of Saints Robert, Alberic, and Stephen, the founding abbots of Cîteaux, I alluded to the mystical espousal of Saint John Eudes to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Already as a young man, John Eudes placed a wedding band on the finger of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This was a portent of things to come. As a priest, a reformer of the clergy, and an outstanding preacher, he experienced the fruitfulness that results from what one must dare to call a spousal intimacy with the Mother of God.

Saint John Eudes presents this grace as something to which all priests should aspire. To describe it he uses the French word alliance: covenant, bond, or union. Significantly, the same word is used to designate a wedding ring. I decided to translate the following passage from his Memorial on the Life of Ecclesiastics:

The Eternal Father

Consider that priests have a special alliance with the most holy Mother of God. This because, just as the Eternal Father made her participate in His divine paternity, and gave her the power to form in her womb the same Son whom He begets in His bosom, so too does He communicate to priests that same paternity, giving them power to form this same Jesus in the Holy Eucharist and in the hearts of the faithful.

The Son

As the Son made her [the Virgin Mary] His cooperator and coadjutrix (helpmate) in the work of the redemption of the world, so too does He make priests His cooperators and coadjutors in the work of saving souls.

The Holy Ghost

As the Holy Ghost, in an ineffable manner, associated her [the Virgin Mary] with Himself in the most divine of His operations, and in the masterpiece of His that is the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, so too does He associate priests with Himself to bring about an extension and a continuation of this mystery in each Christian, in whom the Son of God, in some manner, incarnates Himself by means of Baptism and by the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

Mediatrix of All Graces

Just as the Eternal Father gave us His Son through her [the Virgin Mary], so too does He give Him to us through His priests. Even as all the graces that come forth to us from the Heart of God pass through the hands of Mary, so too are they given us by the ministry of priests. This in such wise that, just as Mary is the treasurer of the Most Holy Trinity, priests too bear this title.

The Sacrifice of Christ

Finally, it is through her that Jesus was offered to His Father at the first and last moment of His life, when she received Him in her sacred womb, and when she accompanied Him to the sacrifice that He made of Himself on the cross; and it is by means of priests that He is immolated daily upon our altars.

Mother of the Sovereign Priest

This is why priests, being bound by so intimate an alliance and so marvelous a conformity to the Mother of the Sovereign Priest, have very particular obligations to love her, to honour her, and to clothe themselves in her virtues, in her spirit, and in her dispositions. Humble yourselves that you should find yourselves so far removed from this. Enter into the desire to tend thereto with all your heart. Offer yourselves to her, and pray her to help you mightily.

I Love Them that Love Me

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San Bernardo alle Terme

One of my favourite churches in Rome is San Bernardo alle Terme. It is a luminous round church, built in 1598 on the site of the hot steam baths of Diocletian. Immense paintings by an artist named Odazj dominate the two side altars: the one on the right is dedicated to Saint Bernard, the one on the left to Saint Robert of Molesmes, the first abbot of Cîteaux. The first time I visited the church of San Bernardo I was so taken by the magnificent painting of Saint Bernard in the embrace of Jesus Crucified that I failed to understand the significance of the one depicting Saint Robert. It was on a later visit that I discovered it. It has, with the passing of time, become rich in meaning for me.

Saint Robert of Molesmes and the Virgin Mother

Saint Robert, whom we celebrate today with his two immediate successors, Saints Alberic and Stephen, was the founding abbot of the New Monastery at Cîteaux in 1098. The painting in the church of San Bernardo alle Terme shows Saint Robert clothed in his white cowl. Abbot Robert's face is entirely recollected; his head is bowed, illustrating the twelfth step of humility in Chapter Seven of the Holy Rule. At the center of the painting we see the Virgin Mother of God in all her beauty. Her face is radiant. She wears a rose coloured dress with a blue mantle and pale brown veil. The Infant Jesus, leaning on her knee, is in conversation with an angel. Angels surround the Queen of Heaven on all sides, fascinated and thrilled by what she is doing.

Mystical Espousal to the Virgin Mary

Our Lady is placing a wedding ring on Saint Robert's finger. Robert, overwhelmed by so tender a love, offers her his right hand. The painting depicts the Mystical Espousal of Saint Robert to the Virgin Mary, a theme not often represented in art. Even in the annals of holiness, mystical espousal with the Virgin Mary is not encountered very frequently. We hear of it in the lives of Saint Edmund of Canterbury, of the Premonstratensian Saint Hermann-Joseph of Steinfeld, and of the Dominican Alain de la Roche. In the seventeenth century, Saint John Eudes wrote of Our Lady as the spouse of priests, and bound himself to her by means of marriage contract. Does not the liturgy attribute to Our Lady the words of Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs: "love them that love me" (Prov 8:17)?

Saint Joseph

In the painting I am describing it is clear that the initiative is Our Lady's. She appears to have drawn Saint Robert upward to herself to receive this ineffable grace binding him to her. Now, the most extraordinary detail, to my mind is this: just above Saint Robert and a little to his right, none other than Saint Joseph is looking on! He is pointing to his staff, the top of which has flowered into a pure white lily. What does this mean? Saint Joseph is saying that intimacy with the Virgin Mary is the secret of holy purity. He is pointing to his flowering staff to say that one bound to Mary, as if by a marriage bond, will be pure. She is the Virginizing Bride. One who obeys the injunction of the angel to Joseph -- "Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost" (Mt 1:15) -- will find that she communicates the grace of a fruitful purity to those who bind themselves to her in a permanent and exclusive way.

Not Good for Man to Be Alone

Already in the second chapter of Genesis, God said to Adam, "It is not good for man to be alone; let us make him a help like unto himself" (Gen 2:18). The complement to this word of God to Adam is the word of Jesus Crucified to John: "After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own" (Jn 19:27). Every union of a man with a woman, even, and I would say especially, the union of hearts and souls, is ordered to a spiritual fecundity. "Whoso findeth me, findeth life," says Our Lady, "and shall obtain favour of the Lord" (Prov 8:35).

Saint Benedict

Perhaps this is why the artist shows the Patriarch Saint Benedict, the father of a progeny too great to be numbered, accompanied by an angel holding his pastoral staff and the open book of his Rule, in the lower left hand corner of the painting. Saint Benedict gazes upon what is happening to Saint Robert with an expression of gratitude and wonder.

New Beginning and Authentic Renewal

What exactly is the message of this extraordinary painting? You may recall what Pope Benedict XVI said on the occasion of his visit to the abbey of Heiligenkreuz in September 2007:

Where Mary is, there is the archetype of total self-giving and Christian discipleship. Where Mary is, there is the pentecostal breath of the Holy Spirit; there is new beginning and authentic renewal.

Saint Robert's mission was to launch a new beginning at Cîteaux; it was to foster an authentic renewal of life according to the Rule of Saint Benedict. He could not do this apart from Mary.

Mediatrix of All Graces

In the Gospel given us for this feast, Our Lord says: "I have appointed you, that you should go, and should bring forth fruit; and your fruit should remain" (Jn 15:16). Robert's mystical espousal with the Virgin Mother is the promise and guarantee of spiritual fruitfulness. The same Jesus who says, "Without me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5), wants us to understand that, by reason of the Father's mysterious over-arching plan, without Mary, the Mediatrix of All Graces, we can do nothing. "When the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman" (Gal 4:4). Just as the first creation required the presence and collaboration of Eve at Adam's side, so too does the new creation, and every particular manifestation of it, be it personal or corporate, require the presence and collaboration of Mary, the New Eve, at the side of Christ, the New Adam.

Our Lady and the Holy Spirit

Cîteaux was a new creation, a particular corporate manifestation of the Kingdom of God in all its newness. The same may be said of every authentic reform and renewal of monastic life, sacerdotal life, and apostolic life in the history of the Church. Whenever and wherever the Blessed Virgin Mary is welcomed and loved, she attracts a mysterious descent of the Holy Spirit. Our Lady prays for us at every moment, saying, "Thou shalt send forth thy spirit, and they shall be created: and thou shalt renew the face of the earth" (Ps 103:30).

Saint Robert's Legacy

In 1099, one year after the foundation of the New Monastery at Cîteaux, Saint Robert was obliged, by a bull of Pope Urban II, to return to the abbey of Molesme as abbot. He remained there until his death in 1111. Saints Alberic and Stephen Harding succeeded him as abbots of Cîteaux. Abbot Robert's love for Our Lady, the Virgin Mother who had placed a ring on his finger, was part of his legacy. Cîteaux flourished because Mary was present there, present as she was in the house of Saint Joseph, her most chaste spouse; present as she was in the house of Saint John, the Beloved Disciple; and present as she was in the midst of the apostles on the first Pentecost.

Earthen Vessels

Weakness, fear, tribulation, and humiliations are unavoidable in the Christian life. Each of us carries the precious gifts of God in his own peculiar frailty. Saint Paul says:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency may be of the power of God, and not of us. In all things we suffer tribulation, but are not distressed; we are straitened, but are not destitute; we suffer persecution, but are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we perish not (2 Cor 4:7-9).

The Blessed Virgin Mary is accustomed to carrying earthen vessels. The secret of holiness is to place our weakness in her immaculate hands.

All Things Made New

She who placed a wedding ring on Abbot Robert's finger will not deny us the grace of a fruitful intimacy with her Most Pure Heart. It is with His Mother, and through her, that Our Lord fulfills the promise made to Saint John on Patmos: "Behold, I make all things new" (Ap 21:5).

2009 Belongs to Our Lady

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For over thirty years now, my dear old friend Father Jacob, O.P. and I have renewed our consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God annually on January 1st. Experience has taught me the wisdom of entrusting the new year to Our Blessed Lady, Mediatrix of All Graces. Readers of Vultus Christi may want to join me in asking the Mother of God again today to open her hands over the entire year.

I offer today my translation of the sublime prayer of Saint Ildephonsus of Toledo (+667). This prayer, taken from his treatise De virginitate perpetua Sanctae Mariae, is one of the earliest expressions of total consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In it, heralding an expression that Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort will make famous, the Bishop of Toledo declares himself the slave of Mary, Handmaid of the Lord. He also emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit with theological keenness and tender piety.

To illustrate the prayer, I chose Murillo's painting of the Virgin Mother bestowing on Saint Ildephonsus a splendid (blue and gold!) chasuble woven in heaven, to reward him for having written so beautifully in defense of her perpetual virginity.

Prayer of Saint Ildephonsus of Toledo, Bishop

The Abundance of the Sweetness of Thy Son

I come to thee, only Virgin Mother of God,
and fall prostrate before thee,
who alone didst cooperate in the Incarnation of God.
I humble myself before thee,
who alone wert found to be the Mother of my Lord.
I pray thee, who alone wert found to be the handmaid of thy Son:
obtain that my sins be wiped away;
command that I be cleansed of the wickedness of my deeds,
and, that I may love the glory of thy virtue,
reveal to me the abundance of the sweetness of thy Son.

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Thou Art His Co-Worker in My Redemption

Bestow upon me the gift of proclaiming the true faith of thy Son,
and of defending it.
Grant that I may cleave to God and to thee,
that I may serve thy Son and thee,
that I may be His bondsman and thine;
His, because He is my Creator,
and thine, because thou art the Mother of my Creator;
His, because He is Lord of the angelic powers,
and thine, because thou art the handmaid of the Lord of All;
His, because He is God,
and thine because thou art the Mother of God;
His, because He is my Redeemer,
and thine because thou art His co-worker in my redemption.

The Body by Which He Healed My Wounds

That which He wrought for my redemption,
verily He formed in thine own person.
That He might be my Redeemer,
He became thy Son.
That He might be the price of my ransom,
He became incarnate of thy flesh.
The Body by which He healed my wounds,
He took from thee so that He, in it, might be wounded.
The mortal Body by which He took away my death,
He took from thy mortality.
The Body by which He brought my sins to nought,
He received sinless from thee.
This nature of mine that ahead of time, in Himself,
He placed above the angels in the glory of His Father's right hand,
He assumed -- humbling Himself -- out of thine own true body.

I Am Thy Slave

Therefore, I am thy slave,
because Thy Son is my Master.
Therefore thou art my Lady,
because thou art the handmaid of my Lord.
Therefore I am the slave of the handmaid of my Lord,
because thou, my Lady, didst become the Mother of my Lord.
Therefore I have become thy slave,
because thou didst become the Mother of my Maker.

By the Holy Spirit

I pray thee, I pray thee, holy Virgin,
may I, by the Spirit through Whom thou didst give birth to Jesus,
have Jesus and hold Him.
By that Spirit through Whom
thou didst conceive this same Jesus in thy flesh,
may my soul receive Jesus.

Let the Spirit gift me with the knowledge of Jesus,
this Spirit by Whom it was given Thee to bear Jesus and to give Him birth.
Let the Spirit in Whom thou didst declare thyself the handmaid of the Lord,
choosing that it should be done unto thee according to the Angel's word,
grant me to proclaim the heights of Jesus with lowliness.

To Love Jesus and to Fear Him

In the Spirit thou didst adore Jesus as thy Lord
and gaze upon Him as thy Son;
in that same Spirit may I love Him.
And may I fear this same Jesus,
with that reverence by which He, truly being God,
became subject to His parents.

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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