Into the face that most resembles Christ now look: for by her radiance only she can render you prepared for seeing Christ. (Paradiso 32.85-87)
So says St. Bernard to the pilgrim Dante, urging him to gaze into the countenance of Mary, as they stand at the threshold of the Beatific Vision. They are words I have only recently begun to understand.
Years ago, when I was a young man trying to scour off the grit of academic secularism, corrosive to the intellect as well as to the soul, I turned to writers whom I thought had confronted and wrestled to the ground the most urgent questions regarding God and man. Many and various are the thickets and bogs and moors into which a lost soul may wander, and strange are the means by which God may lead him back at last. As for me, I picked up Does God Exist? by the celebrity theologian and papaphobe, Hans Kung.
There I found what I needed, at least for the time being: an engagement with the likes of Pascal and Descartes, Marx and Nietzsche, Spinoza and Kant, and dozens of other intellectual stars of various magnitude. Kung was a masterly summarizer and critic of other men’s thoughts, generous with his opponents unless he found them from within the Church herself. Yet he fought steadfastly through the crosscurrents to conclude not only that God exists but that He is made manifest uniquely and unrepeatably in the person of Jesus Christ.
It gave me the confidence to challenge the age again, and that was something; I hope it will not sound ungrateful if I add that it was not sufficient. I began to think; but I did not think well, because I was not obedient. For Scripture does not say, “Obey according to the light you are given.” Rather, light follows upon obedience: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. But he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” On 14:21).
There is one comment of Kung’s especially that reveals the folly I came to embrace. Dismissing what he called the banality of Mary’s words to Bernadette, to the children at Fatima, and to every peasant, child, and parish curate to whom she has appeared, Kung said, “I would trade all the Marian apparitions together for one additional sentence by Saint Paul.” And I, who wished to soar with Kung at those same Barthian heights, and who had found the old Italian folk pieties—the statues of Mary in the backyard, the prayers to Sant’Antonio for lost keys and wallets, the holy oil to ward off a superstitious malocchio—less like a fortress of faith than a field of rubble after the revolution, I was proud enough and dumb enough to agree with him.
Of course Kung was speaking nonsense. Nor do I now wish for another sentence by St. Paul; God made no mistake when He ordained that the Scriptures be as they are, no more and no less. To speak as Kung did is to recast Paul as a theologian, not as the God-inspired writer of letters to the early churches. We might legitimately wish for another play by Shakespeare, but not for another letter by Paul, unless we implicitly assume that Paul is like any other author,
only wiser. Indeed, lacking another sentence by Paul, many a disobedient theologian has gone hankering after strange scriptural flesh: the Gnostic gospels, the Kabbala, Sufi poetry, or the gauzy cobwebs of his own imagination.
By the grace of God I’ve been spared those blind alleys, and have come to suspect that Kung had it upside down: that the Catholic Church appropriately looks to Mary as the Queen of Theologians, because in her mysterious silence and her simplicity she lives what the theologian as a theologian can at best describe. The theologian can explain to us, if he deigns to descend from his endowed chair, what sense it makes that we should become as little children; but Mary herself bore the little Child, and to whom should she appear, if not to peasants and children? To put it another way: Without the humility and obedience of Mary, all the brilliance in the world will but stoke the flames a fraction of a degree higher on that last Day when Truth Himself will cast our illusions into the pit.
Would not Paul help shovel them in? At first glance, you could hardly find two saints more unalike than that argumentative tentmaker and the Mother of God. Small of stature and not blessed with a fine oratorical voice, Paul was yet essentially masculine, afire with the boldness of a great man’s heart. We see him ever in public, relishing the combat of words and ideas. He strode up to the Hill of Mars and dared to tell the Athenians, those jaded literati, what they already believed, but ignorantly and ineptly. He preached in synagogues knowing that he would be for the Jews a sword of division. Those same old comrades would pelt him with stones in Lystra and leave him for dead. He rebuked Peter and sent Mark packing home. He stopped a centurion cold by claiming Roman citizenship; he faced down a governor and compelled extradition to Rome, where he must have known he would be poured out like a libation, to use his prophetic words to Timothy.
His letters are extraordinarily muscular; fibers of coherent thought are bound one to another in the most intricate ways, yet never vague, never speculative. If he were to walk the earth today, he might see what the electrostatic properties of the surface of a lake could have to do with the stars above—see it, and show it, and deliver you a sound reproof if you were charged to preach it and yet still could not get it. He sees, and explains, what the body of Christ in the Eucharist has to do with the Body of Christ that is the Church; sees, and explains, why we inherit the promise of Abraham by faith, and yet why love is a greater thing even than faith; sees, and explains, why the joyous freedom of a Christian is like the obedience of a son. Paul’s mind is a flint that strikes out sparks: He cannot write three sentences without compressing startling truths into unforgettable and often paradoxical form, as if, never enjoying the leisure for easy development, he too had to redeem the time, for the days were evil. Peter admitted that his brother Paul’s letters were hard to understand; and would the poor mother of Nazareth have found them any easier?
Consider a single verse from Romans:
But now we have been set free from the Law, having died to that by which we were held down, so that we may serve in a new spirit and not according to the outworn letter (7:6).
If I were to tease this verse as a theologian—which I am not—how many questions would I have to tackle? Is the Law then null, and may the saved do as they please, as the Antinomian heretics would assert? Or was the old Law wicked and therefore dead, as the heretic Marcion taught? Was it the Law itself that held us bound, or was it our sin under the Law? Does the “new spirit” enable us to set aside even the literal words of Christ, or the literal words of His apostle, Paul?
I am not suggesting that such questions cannot be answered, or that Paul is ambiguous. Indeed, I think that Paul is remarkably consistent in his preaching. I mean to say that the path to understanding Paul is, so to speak, Mary’s path. It is first and last not the way of a professional theologian, but the way of an obedient and possibly unlettered woman of Galilee.
This way can be found in Paul himself. For beyond the sweat and struggle of theology, of finding words to express the revelation of God, lies the revelation itself; and when Paul beholds that revelation, it is as a mystery of obedience, humility, and love. Words fail him, and he can but stutter as a poet and urge us to worship in silence. It is not the wisdom of the vision that stuns him, but the foolishness:
For the Jews ask for signs, and the Greeks look for ‘wisdom’, but we, for our part, preach a crucified Christ—to the Jews indeed a stumbling-block and to the Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:22-25).
We are to become fools likewise, seeing in powerlessness our greatest strength, adopting the mind of Christ Jesus, “who, though he was by nature God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be clung to, but emptied himself, taking the nature of a slave and being made like unto men. And appearing in the form of man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). We are to “walk in love” (Eph 5:2), simply, even quietly, yet shining as examples of light to those who are in darkness, shining most clearly in our daily acts of obedience and love. Indeed, the wife’s obedience to her husband, and the husband’s self-sacrificing love for his wife, point toward “a great mystery” (Eph 5:32), even the union of Christ with His Bride, the Church, at the consummation of time in eternity.
Is this not Mary’s way? Her appearances in Scripture are full of strange yet meaningful silence. When she is troubled by the angel’s greeting, and hears his prophecy that she will bring forth the Son of the Most High, she replies, with great simplicity, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?” (Lk 1:34). Her bashful expression harks back all the way to the beginning, when, after the Fall, Adam “knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have given birth to a man-child with the help of the Lord” (Gn 4:1). That would be the expected way in which one would bear a child from the Lord; but Mary seems to sense that something else is foretold. Perhaps, as the Church has long held, she had already expressed her intention to dedicate her virginity to God; in any case, she does not know what the angel means, and the angel’s explanation can hardly clarify matters for her: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35).
We have grown too familiar with words that “explain” the impossible by means of the unfathomable. The Holy Spirit, the Son of God? But note that Mary does not probe further. Mystery here verges upon mystery; it is not Mary who will know man, but God who knows Mary, to the profoundest depths of her being. Her reply should be the first words contemplated by any theologian as he takes up the pen: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
To Joseph and not to Mary are granted the revelations of what to do to protect the little Child and His mother;Mary, handmaid of the Lord, is also the obedient wife of Joseph, nor could she truly be the one without being the other also. Yet although Joseph keeps a sharp eye on the rulers of Israel, not trusting Archelaus, the son of Herod, but staying out of his way by taking his family north to Galilee (Mt 2:22), we are not told of his inner life, his thoughts about the mysteries wherein he played so important a role. We are told, several times, of Mary—not what she thought, but that she thought. What such a simple and innocent person thought might well have lain far beneath, or far beyond, the realm of words.
So when those shepherds, ragged perhaps and missing teeth and none too clean, came to the stable and “found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger” (Lk 2:16)—a most unlikely first public appearance of the Son of the Most High—they straightaway went public with it, happily making it known abroad. Mary, whom it concerned most, did not. As her Son many years later would shy away from public announcement of His ministry, of Who He was, lest the mystery be flattened and reduced to the ancient Palestinian equivalent of a headline, a vacuous something that everyone would immediately think they understood, so Mary “kept in mind all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). When they bring the Child to the Temple, the old Simeon bursts into glad thanksgiving, at which both father and mother marvel; but alone to Mary comes the warning: “And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (2:35). She does not ask what sword that will be, and her own no doubt troubled thoughts she does not reveal. Twelve years after that, they will bring the boy Jesus, now entering His young manhood, back from the Temple where He had been tending His Father’s business by discussing the Law in public, among the renowned teachers. Jesus will then resume His own life of long, mysterious silence and simple obedience, subject to them, but His mother “kept all these things carefully in her heart” (2:51).
Indeed, though Jesus is our brother, we are taught by Mary a love for Him that lies beyond familiarity. For Jesus must separate Himself even from that mother’s love: She who knows Him better than any other human being is told, again and again, that she does not know Him: “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk 2:49). “What wouldst thou have me do, woman? My hour is not yet come” (Jn 2:4). “Behold my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt 12:49-50). In her deep measure of knowledge, and in her lack of knowledge, Mary rests content to follow her Son to the foot of the cross. There, providing both for the weakness of her age, and for the weakness of His Church to be, Jesus looks to her and to the disciple whom He loved—with what gratitude and reverence does the apostle John refrain from naming himself!—and speaks a few simple words of kindness: “Woman, behold thy son.” And, as if instructing us in how to follow His own secret life of obedience, “Behold thy mother”. (John 19:26-27).
Yet we must also believe that Jesus loved Mary more than son ever loved mother, and to this love a few of His humblest parables testify. “The kingdom of heaven,” He says, “is like leaven, which a woman took and buried in three measures of flour, until all of it was leavened” (Mt 13:33). From whom but His mother, whom He saw daily preparing the meal for their table, did He derive that picture of patience? And who among women if not Mary hid away the leaven, waiting for the fullness of time? Consider too the simplicity of the woman who loses one of her ten pieces of silver and sweeps the house till she finds it, and when she finds it she calls all her neighbors to come over for a feast, to rejoice with her (Lk 15:8-9), possibly spending in celebration almost what the piece is worth! Can we doubt that here we too have a glimpse into that life in Nazareth, where dwelt the childlike mother and her Child and Creator?
So if the theologian finds it too simple to dwell upon the reverence of Mary, let him learn to be simple again; and if the woman of the world finds it too humbling to follow the silence of Mary, let her learn again to keep her peace;and if the preacher and bustling man of affairs is impatient to advance his career or the Kingdom of God, whichever comes first, let him learn again the patience and quiet of the mother and of the Savior Himself, whom he claims to honor. For the greatest theologian of them all called himself the least of the apostles, and “heard secret words that man may not repeat” (2 Cor 12:4). And the apostle to whom were given the keys of the kingdom, who was an eyewitness of His majesty (1 Pt 1:16), dares not name the day nor the hour of the Lord’s coming. And the beloved friend who took Mary into his home, in his most sublime theology will recommend to us little children simple obedience and love, while for his part he speaks only “what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and our hands have handled: of the Word of Life” (1 Jn 1:1).
Mary, then, is the Queen of Theologians not so much for her words, but for her silence; not for her glory, but for her humility; not for her self-displaying success, but for her obedience. Her one moment of extended speech is an eloquent poem of praise. The Magnificat gives all the glory to God, who has lifted up the lowly and thrown the rulers down from their thrones—and surely also the tenured from their chairs. Catholics who call it “banal” to meditate upon Mary’s life, or upon her simple instructions to children and peasants to pray unceasingly and obey her Son, mistake not only Mary but Christ. The Jews expected a military king;the Greeks looked for a Plato or an Aristotle. What does the modern Catholic theologian seek? Will his savior come bearing advanced degrees, from the Athens of our day? Mary points us toward her Son because she, more than anyone who has ever lived, is likest her Son: Hers is the face that most resembles Christ.
Amateur theologian though he was, Dante understood. When Bernard beseeches the Virgin to pray that Dante might look upon his Maker face to face, and that he might remember a trace of it for the benefit of those whom he would instruct on earth, Mary replies, but not in words. Her act is simple, gracious, and profound:
The eyes beloved of God and honored best,
fixed on the man who prayed, showed her delight
in prayers that rise from a devoted breast,
And then they turned to the eternal Light,
wherein, we trust, no creature else
can send created vision with such perfect sight.
Not a word passes her lips that might draw our attention from the Son she loves. Instead her speaking eyes and her silence lead us to Him. Doctrine is necessary, but we are not saved by doctrine; theological disquisitions are necessary, but none will lead souls into bliss. Only Christ saves—He who dwelt in a small clay and thatch house, with His quiet mother, 2,000 years ago. Paul preached no theology but Christ; let the theologian remember.
For if you cannot understand the deep truth revealed by that weathered old terracotta shrine on the lawn, then perhaps you are too wise to understand the words of Christ. In such a case, it is best to leave Athens, or Corinth, and come down to Galilee. Truth Himself has said it: “I praise thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and prudent, and didst revealed them unto little ones” (Mt 11:25). Unto little ones indeed, and for the sake of us toddlers all, unto our Mother.