Saturday, April 28, 2012

"A mystery only metaphor could contain"

I've been struggling with this post, as is only appropriate, and attempting to place my thoughts into words that seem insufficient to describe what is at work, not only in the Marian mystery, but in these texts. Which, again, is only appropriate, for as we discussed in class, our poets have staged the mystery of how Mary, as vessel, might “contain the uncontainable” as a problem of how words might attempt to “describe the indescribable.” We also mentioned that one way to attempt this is by sheer length of description, as Walter's attempt to exhaust Marian attributes (or, in other cases, to systematize them) is really an expression of infinity— to list all that one could possibly contribute to Mary and then declare that she yet supersedes them all.

By offering so many possible metaphors, the poets suggest that she is many things simultaneously, not bound by any particular comparison but combining and surpassing them all, to create a composite of attributes that is yet non-composite (I am reminded at this point of the encyclopedic/natural science tradition of reading aspects of nature as the reflection of divine attributes; perhaps it is not that Mary is like a cell, but rather a cell like Mary). “KP” posits that “The answer of why these songs are so difficult to comprehend is that they have so many underlying themes.” I agree, this is a very important aspect of the difficulty—the very multiplicity and richness of the referents (Song of Songs, wisdom literature, etc.) creates a sense of cognitive vastness, of so many individual possible correlations that the whole seems unattainably incomprehensible.

But what else might be happening to assist this effect of infinity and indescribability? I am hypothesizing that there is also something even more deliberate at work in these poems, suggesting a complexity that surpasses that of multiplicity. Compare, for instance, these two passages from Walter of Wimborne:

3.  Hail, glorious virgin,
you who are the comment and gloss
of prophetic scripture,
whose gloss lays bare
that which is veiled 
by the hard shell of the letter.

8.  Hail, virgin, cell of the Word,
concealing the light-beam of deity
under a cloud of flesh;
hail, virgin, covering of God,
through whom the clouded, bleary, blind
eye of the mind has its salve.

Mary's role in the first is that of revealing; in exegetical terms, she is the explanation, the text that pulls meaning from content, the addition that gives purpose to an already written text. She frees and unveils. In the second passage, Mary conceals, she clouds, she provides a “cell” for the Word. On the surface, so to speak, these passages appear in conflict-- Mary simultaneously veils and unveils. Yet this is what I think is a “productive cognitive dissonance,” if I may be allowed such a jargon-y phrase. The contrast is, I assume, deliberate. What can it mean that Mary simultaneously veils and unveils? The metaphors appear incompatible. And yet it is the case, and force us into some mental gymnastics. In this case, perhaps they can be reconciled by inferring that in both passages, Mary is an agent of human understanding—first by giving something a clear explanation, then by giving that explanation a form that is accessible to human cognitive abilities (she “clouds” the Word so that the “clouded” human thought process can keep up.)

But can the metaphors always be reconciled? I also agree with “DAY” that light, and especially reflected light, is a powerful Marian image that describes her relationship to the divine. To “DAY”'s examples I would add this one:

86.  Hail, bright torch of heaven,
whose brightness and splendor is never covered
by damp cloud,
whose face produces a quivering [dazzle],
at which the cherub, that he may gaze upon it,
is compelled to blink.

Yet, then, what do we do with this?

18.  Hail, cloud shot through
with the flames of Phoebus and adorned
with the rainbow of divinity,
you who conceal the light under a shadow
and who cover the eternal Word
with the mantle of our flesh.

Is she light or is she cloud? Is she veil or is she mirror? The answer, I think, is both; the contradictions open up new cognitive associations as we attempt to align them into something that is a unified, comprehensible whole, and in moments when that is simply untenable, we are forced to acknowledge that she is both and she is neither because she herself is simply not containable in metaphorical terms. The dissonance created by these metaphors creates a larger space in which she may dwell. This is perhaps also the point of lines in which Walter juxtaposes opposite images, as in s.77, “through you the crooked is made straight,/ through you the ancient one becomes a boy.” Mary's “span” is sufficiently broad as to bring together polar opposites:

84.  Hail, virgin, through whom
your diseased host is made healthy,
through whom the exile returns;
hail, through whom harsh death
is subdued, which loosens
and unbinds that which is joined.

All this is not to deny that “every keen rhetor sours/ and seems paltry in eloquence” (s.35) when they attempt to describe Mary, but to assert that part of this “souring” is not only running out of words because no amount of words is sufficient, but also recognizing that though Mary is logic, she yet defies logic. The overlapping and competing metaphors gesture to whole that not only supersedes them in number of attributes, but reconciles them. The very juxtaposition, confluence, or divergence of the metaphors help the poets to say something about Mary, even as they must admit that they can say nothing; or, perhaps, to repurpose Frauenlob's words,

“See what is mixed, what is unmixed,
and what is threshed from the mixture.
If the mixture keeps its force,
how it rejuvenates the source!” (s.17)

(The phrase that I used for my title, and most of the ruminating that went into this post, must be attributed to Professor Fulton Brown's talk on Thursday at DePaul)


Friday, April 27, 2012

Frauenlob the Outsider

Listening to the recording of Frauenlob’s Marienleich included in our text reinforced its context as a song to be performed.  Somewhat uniquely among our Marian readings, this performance was not primarily meditative or liturgical, but first and foremost entertaining.  From the liner notes provided on the Sequentia Ensemble as well as from Newman’s text, I glean that the recorded performance is based upon surviving copies of Frauenlob’s original musical score (see p. 144).  The harp accompaniment is modern (albeit presumably in the medieval style of improvisational accompaniment), as is the ensemble performance (Frauenlob would have performed the song alone, also singing the Mary parts).  The notes for the main vocal line are Frauenlob’s.

Assuming the recording provides at least a relatively accurate account of the song’s “mood” as performed (bear with me: I don’t study music formally), what struck me as particularly appealing was its accessibility.  While the poetry of the Marienleich is certainly fraught with complexity and erudition, I can picture Frauenlob’s noble patrons finding his performances entertaining and even vaguely catchy (I am thinking of strophe three).  Perhaps this is intentional: strophe three especially conjures the sensual love-related images of the Song of Songs.  In any case, the extent to which the Marienleich as a musical performance can be said to be popular as well as devotional music interested me.

Newman’s contextual material about the poet’s life and art paint Frauenlob as quite the celebrity.  Like many (musically serious) modern entertainers, he was deeply engaged with a group of like-minded contemporary artists, both competing with them and borrowing elements of their work to carry on shaping the craft.  He also appears flamboyant, eager to show off, and perhaps a bit egotistical, as befits a man calling himself “praise of ladies”.  As much as this perennial entertainer’s showiness - in combination with his secular noble audiences and vernacular composition - conjures up an image of medieval rock star, Frauenlob’s portrayal of Mary as God’s wisdom in Nature hints at deeper ambitions. 

Frauenlob’s mysterious origins outside the cloister and the noble court render his distinct erudition noteworthy among his minstrel peers, as Newman maintains.  The question of how he obtained his unlikely education aside, does he advance his philosophical knowledge in the Marienleich purely as a theological statement, or as a means to showcase his ability before wealthy patrons?  While those motivations may certainly underlie Frauenlob’s work, his sapiential portrayal of the Virgin suggests the poet was deeply concerned with matters of unification and the theme of coming together.

As we discussed in class, each of the Marienleich’s strophes explores various means in which Mary both can be understood by and participates in the various branches of medieval humanistic scholarship.  In a sense, by personifying God’s wisdom present at the moment of creation and enduring into the present as the figure of Mary, Frauenlob unifies the liberal arts, recombining the classical female wisdom figures into one supremely Christian entity.  At the same time, he denies the charge that the conception and theotokos confound the principles of logical thought, instead choosing to weave Mary intimately with those very principles.  By injecting the universal into the categories, Frauenlob not only demonstrates his own learning, but also may show a concern for bringing disparate elements of his society together. 

At the risk of becoming overly anecdotal regarding a figure for which I lack the proper autobiographical information, it seems Frauenlob’s position as itinerant minstrel – while allowing him access to prestigious noble courts throughout the Empire – also made him something of an outsider.  As Newman mentions in her contextual material, traveling entertainers like Frauenlob were appreciated for their talents but also looked upon with suspicion (or opportunism) as potential spies (p. 48-49).  Frequenting the courts of high nobility, Frauenlob was not himself noble; gaining access to devotional material and theological treatises of monks and nuns, his position remained firmly outside the cloister.  It is possible that this rare position in medieval society colored Frauenlob’s art, leading him to draw connections between the many worlds he saw during his travels rather than to solidify their differences. 

As a possible case in point, Newman frequently mentions the paradoxical fact that while Frauenlob is poetic champion of ladies and of Our Lady, there is no surviving material about any of the real women in his life.  Although this may be a symptom of lack of evidence, medieval German society as a whole – especially among the nobility – was very male-oriented in a way places further west were somewhat less so.  With perhaps few opportunities to enter the “world of women”, Frauenlob attempts to draw them into favorable connection with the patriarchal mainstream, again showing a concern for linkage and cohesion over division.

To return for a moment to the accessibility and what must have been the popular form of the musical performance, it can be argued that this mode of presentation made the otherwise difficult metaphorical puzzles and allusions more palatable to a lay audience.  Frauenlob does not compromise in maintaining the complexity and mystery of the poetry in the manner of Hildegard’s songs, but couches these intricacies in a medium his audience will enjoy, encouraging them to seriously contemplate them.

Newman rejects the notion that Frauenlob’s work was didactic in the way Walter of Wimborne’s may have been.  Frauenlob is an artist before he is a teacher.  But this does not necessarily negate the possibility that the Marienleich carried some social weight.  The picture Frauenlob paints of a Mary who embodies the divine wisdom of God and thus unifies the disparate notions of sense, spirit, and intellect goes hand in hand with another unification: bringing serious contemplation of the Virgin out of the cloister and into the seat of worldly power.  Perhaps the only kind of person who can succeed in this feat must come from neither one.


The Mirror

If you've ever read a book on the 12th century renaissance (and who hasn't?) you've almost certainly encountered the famous lines of Alain of Lille from his poem Rhythmus de Incarnatione Christi,” which are taken to be paradigmatic of the approach taken by 12th century thinkers to Creation:

Omnis mundi creatura
quasi liber et pictura
nobis est, et speculum

All the creatures of the world
are like a book and a picture
and a mirror to us1

Much like Eriugena, and to some extent because of Eriugena, these thinkers viewed the world as a sphere of continuous and infinite divine revelation.2 Nature acted, to use the memorable phrasing of Eriugena in his commentary on the Gospel of John, as one of the two vestments of Christ, simultaneously covering and revealing the figure of God.3 Through reading the Book of Nature, through meditation, contemplation, and prayer, the devout could hope to receive the illumination which would enable them to see the divinity reflected in nature.

In both Hildegard and Frauenlob, we find Mary depicted as a mirror of the divine. With the (very brief) sketch above in mind I think we can unpack these images to understand better how Mary functions in their texts, especially in relation to the divine, and I believe we can see some real similarities to the prayers of Anselm, which at the outset appear quite different than the work of our Benedictine abbess and wandering minstrel.

Hildegard tells us:

O how great
in its powers is the side of man
from which God brought forth the form of woman,
which he made the mirror
of all his beauty
and the embrace
of his whole creation.4

Over a century later, Frauenlob, writing in the voice of Mary:

I am the mirror of great purity
in which God gazed before all time.
I was with him when he formed creation,
he gazed at me with desire unceasing.5

This, we have Mary as a mirror, a mirror gazed at by the divine. This of course raises the question: what does this mirror reflect? The answer, I think, lies in one of the most dominant images in both texts: light. Mary reflects the light of the divine, through which all creation is illuminated.

and your womb
illumined all creatures6

Light metaphors, configuring God as the sun, as illuminator, as supreme source of light, are quite common, especially within the neoplatonic tradition. Notable I the metaphor, used often in the Greek tradition but present in the Latin West as well,7 of union with God as analogous to the relation between the light of the Sun and the air. In sunlight, the air is wholly infused with light, in a very real way it can be said to be light. Yet there remains a distinction. They are not wholly identical even as every square inch of air is permeated by the light from above. Thus also the human soul in union with God. We can conceive of Mary-Mirror in similar terms. The overpowering divine light shies out from the mirror, when we look to Mary it is this divine light that we see. The ability to distinguish between the mirror and what if reflects is lost. Frauenlob strikingly collapses this distinction, Mary speaks: “I God, they God, he God, this I will never hide.”8

Light pours forth from Mary, both in the form of her Son, Himself a sun,9 and from his reflection, infinitely emitting from the mirror-vial of her womb:

he wrought by art a mirror-vial
and sat down in its midst awhile
to stake his skill against ill will.
The mirror-vial contained him
in his greatness, framed him
until he burst from it, unquenched
and blossomed like a flowering branch –
whole the vial, intact, untouched.10

I think we can see clear similarities here to the Mary of Anselm's prayers,. She too was an illuminator, driving away the darkness, and making the divine visible within Creation. Like Anselm, both Frauenlob and Hildegard also play with Mary's relation to time.


You are the shining white lily
on which God gazed
before all creation.11


I was with him when he formed creation,
he gazed at me with desire unceasing.12

We can see that Mary's place in salvation history was ordained from the beginning. In the neoplatonic understanding of creation as the unfolding of the eternal ideas of God within temporal reality, Mary shone, she illuminated, as an object of God's contemplation (His gaze) before she appeared within history. Again the eternity of God, His distinction from the temporal, collapses and expands time around the central moment of the Incarnation, the in-breaking of the absolute into Creation. I think we can thus see real continuity between the prayers of Anselm, Hildegard, and Frauenlob, despite their apparent differences. They stand within the same stream, although perhaps at different places along its path.


1The subject of the book and picture, what the mirror is reflecting, is of course the Divine. I think there is a lot of room to unpack this image, especially given that mirrors in the 12th century didn't necessarily give a reflection of the quality that we are used to today, but instead one necessarily distorted by the materials they used. This, however, is a topic for another day.
2See my last post, for more on Eriguena's understanding of creation.
3This phrasing is taken up by, Honorius in his Liber Duodecim Questiones, and the idea behind it persists throughout the period.
4St. Hildegard of Bingen. Symphonia. trans. Barbara Newman (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988) 131
5Frauenlob. Frauenlob's Song of Songs trans. Barbara Newman (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 2006) 25
6Hildegard 125
7Here, as in my last post, I'm unable to give a proper citation due to the fact that all of my books currently sit in precarious stacks of boxes, apologies again. Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and Eriugena all, as far as I can remember use this image.
8Frauenlob 25. A similar union, of Christ and Mary's will also seems to occur in Anselm's prayers, particularly his second and third prayers to Mary.
9“But O dawn/from your womb/a new sun has come forth” Hildegard 131
10Frauenlob 29. I was unable to discover exactly what a “mirror-vial” was, but I imagine a mirrored container infinitely reflecting the divine light within, as two mirrors facing each other project our reflections into infinity.
11Hildegard 123
12Frauenlob 25

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Understanding Mary

Wednesday’s readings differed from Monday’s readings in almost every way. Mary was seen as personal and relatable as she discussed her experience witnessing the Crucifixion of her son. Details were given to make us relate to her sorrow and it was easy to follow along. Now Mary is elevated and sometimes is not seen as a woman. Wednesday’s readings were difficult to follow along and had to be read slowly so you can comprehend the metaphors and contemplate what the meanings were. Why were they so hard?

I think they were particularly difficult because they were portraying difficult themes and concepts. The major themes discussed in these songs were the Incarnation, Mary as the New Eve, and Mary’s virginity. All these have been focused on in class before, and are all connected to each other, but when you think about it, it’s hard to grasp. Therefore, as we listened to the slow melody of one of them, Ave Generosa (Hildegard’s Symphonia number 17), we had time to let the words sink in to us. Furthermore, the music would react to the words in the song, like the word joy, which helps direct us to the crucial parts of the song and helps us understand what is meaningful. The Incarnation made the Word into Flesh and Mary is so important because she contained the Uncontainable. The many metaphors reinforce this idea and drive it home with repetition. We are left with no doubt of Mary’s importance as she is the one who enables us to be redeemed us after Eve made us fall.

Speaking of Eve, the songs refer to Mary as being present at the moment of creation with God. This portrayal of her is that she is Wisdom. Frauenlob’s Marienleich is rich in this theme. Mary is more than a person here. She is cosmological and she transcends the natural realm as is evident from talk about the sun and moon. She is no longer someone we can relate directly with, as on Monday because she is elevated. How do we relate to her then? This question is hard to answer because before she is our mother, but now she seems to have more of a divine status. Instead of identifying with her, we honor and praise her. That’s the best answer I can think of really, but it raises the concern of worshipping Mary. She refers to herself as almost divine when she discusses her relationship with the Trinity but it had to be clear that she was not divine otherwise that is heresy.

St. Paul identified Christ as Wisdom. (1 Cor. 1:24) I was looking at pictures portraying Mary as Sedes Sapientiae and found images similar to the famous Virgin and Child Enthroned images. That’s when I realized that Jesus, or Wisdom, is seated on Mary’s lap, making her the Seat of Wisdom, or Sedes Sapientiae. Why does it seem that Mary is calling herself Wisdom though? Since Mary is the Mother of Christ, then that would make her Lady Wisdom then, which might be why she is referred to as Wisdom. This concept would have had to be understood otherwise it sounds somewhat heretical to place Mary this high up.

What I like about these sets of readings is how Mary is given all these titles. She’s a virgin, a bride, a mother, Lady Wisdom, and the New Eve. So many themes are woven into these songs. We get a sense of her whole being and her role in salvation instead of an intense focus on a part of her life. Most of the metaphors and allusions can be found in the Bible, especially the Song of Songs. We also get a sense of why she deserves praise and honor because she has a role in everything. All this takes thought and contemplation so the songs make us stop and process all this and helps us understand why she needs so much praise.

Walt Wimborne discusses in Ave Virgo Mater Christi that no amount of praise for Mary will ever be enough. The distinction must be kept in mind between praise and worship. While Mary is many things, she is still a creation. Yet she deserves praises because she plays a huge role in the salvation process. She’s a virgin, but became a mother. She is the bearer of God. That certainly deserves praise. She is our mother and can intercede and pray for us which Walt demonstrated. A phrase from class which really stuck with me was “How do you describe in words the one who gave birth to the Word?” I’ve been thinking about that and it is completely true! How does one honor the person who brought Christ into this world? Not only that, but she works with us and prays for us. How do we thank her enough?

The answer of why these songs are so difficult to comprehend is that they have so many underlying themes. If a person could guess where all the allusions and metaphors are from, that would be pretty awesome. We know they are found in Scripture and the liturgies. The Marian Psalters were broken into divisions of fifty and that how we pray the rosary-Mary’s prayer. I think about this and I wonder why many people today do not recognize Mary’s role in our salvation or how her obedience is another fulfillment of the Old Testament. I see why it is easy to confuse her human status with a more divine sense, but it seems to me that her role is central to the Christian faith.


Divinizing Mary?

“I God, they God, he God: this I will never hide.” (Frauenlob 12)


Even if Frauenlob was just an ordinary minstrel, a comment like this could be considered heretical. Mary as God? Mary as more than just eternal Sapientia, but as divine? This theme can be found throughout his Marienlob, in a manner much more prevalent than before. Consider this example:

“Becoming and unbecoming
start with birth, so I may say:
I am their pure beginning…
I am the Form beyond each form,
drawn from the inmost meaning’s norm,
which was and is and ever shall be blooming” (Verse 17)

Here, perhaps appealing to the educated listener’s knowledge of logic, Mary claims that she not only gave birth to God, but came before God. Oh, Chicken and Egg puzzle, how perplexing you are! Newman, on page 106, also draws our attention to the fact that in Aristotelian theology, forma formarum is a term for God. Then again, this concept of Mary’s divinity is not new. We have already encountered Epiphanius of Salamis, who argued against this Collyridian doctrine in his Panarion. Epiphanius maintains that Mary cannot be a goddess because there is nothing spectacular about a goddess giving birth to God. Basically, if Mary was not human, then there could be no salvation. So what changed? Did Frauenlob, 700 years later, decide to ignore Epiphanius and the Church’s teachings? Did the doctrine of salvation change? Based on Frauenlob’s extensive literary background and rumored ‘doctor of theology’ status, I bet that he knew full well about the Panarion and the history of this complex question. That begs the question, why would he write this? My (educated) guess is that Frauenlob attempted to address the issues of his age. To support this claim, we should look at his fellow ‘poet theologians,’ mainly Hildegard of Bingen and Walter of Wimborne.

Hildegard wrote her Symphonia around 150 years earlier, and it is clear that her interpretation of Marian theology is not quite the same. In her various antiphons, Mary is portrayed more as a conduit for divine light than as divinity itself. Still, there are a couple of intriguing passages. In Antiphon 21, Hildegard writes, “God gazed at you like an eagle staring into the sun,” and in 16, “To a submissive woman the king came bowing.” God is in such awe of Mary’s purity, power and humility! Have we encountered these images of God in reverence of Mary anywhere in the past? Additionally, in Antiphon 12, Hildegard tells us to “Seek the supreme one in the form of a woman surpassing all that God made.”  Hildegard’s descriptions of Mary make it seem like Mary is not quite human. She is an object of divinity, but not explicitly divine. Hildegard’s Mary does not have as much agency as Frauenlob’s Mary, but Hildegard was never one for blatant feminism – she had her legitimacy as a mystic and position as Magistra to think about – and she was writing a century earlier than Frauenlob. Still, Hildegard’s Mary seems much more corporeally liberated than the previous encounters we have had with the eternal virgin.

In Walter of Wimborne’s Ave Virgo Mater Christi, we are presented with a wealth of analogies, from the very ordinary (Mary as a loaf of bread) to the incredibly convoluted (Mary as the pyx of divinity - yes, I looked that word up). Even though Walter was writing in a completely different geographical location, his depiction of Mary is very similar to Hildegard’s and Frauenlob’s. But is Walter’s Mary divine? His virgin certainly has a significant amount of agency, more agency than Hildegard’s virgin. She actively inverts hierarchies, evidenced by her success in “join[ing] God with mud and the lowest with the highest” (Verse 9). Mary also seems to have some supernatural qualities. Walter describes Mary in Verse 18 as the “rainbow of divinity.” And when she “respond[s] with practiced words” (Verse 113) at the Incarnation, does that mean that she had some higher knowledge that she would be chosen to carry the Son of God?  Walter’s description of Mary’s physical presence hints at Mary’s godliness:

“Hail, beautiful through whom, in whom
the light of beautiful Divinity
rises near us.” (Verse 94)

Even if you argue that Jesus is the Divinity mentioned in the verse above, can he shine both in Mary’s womb and through Mary? Is a certain amount of ambiguity intentional? What about Verse 140, which describes how Mary came into being:

“Hail, in whose form
Nature more powerful than art
exhausted her talent,
but when Nature failed
the art of God the Father
completed the task.”

It seems as though Walter’s Mary is not exactly divine, but she, like Hildegard’s Mary, is definitely not just Nature’s art, not just a human.

Based on the works of Frauenlob, Walter and Hildegard, I assume that some people in the 11th and 12th centuries worshipped Mary as a fourth member of the Trinity. Did these poets temper their messages so that they would be able to continue their art? If they did temper their messages, what does it say about the strength and size of the Marian-focused Christian population? Or the power of a folk theology versus a doctrinal theology?

It may be true that I am over-interpreting certain passages in these poems. Mary is not consistently given aspects of the divine, by any means. I merely wanted to point out that she was described in the same terms and given powers similar to either one or all three members of the Trinity. I am curious to see if Mary continues to be divinized in this way, and when this extreme adoration of Mary will lessen. I bet our friend Martin Luther will have something to do about it! 


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why the Sorrow?

From our class discussion in the last class, there seemed to be one overarching theme regarding Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows. The readings all attempted to make Mary very personal and relatable; many of the authors wanted to be able to experience everything that happened to her and see what she saw. The Mary we are encountering in these readings is one that we want to take the place of; WE want to be next to the cross, WE want to see him dying. What we see specifically in these readings is an emphasis on sharing in Mary’s pain and sorrow at the cross. My question is: Why? Why the sorrow?

Here’s what I can come up with. We are to be imitating Mary as best we can because she is the closet human to the Holy Trinity (as one person from our class has put it in an earlier post). What is Mary full of? Grace. Because she was full with grace, she found favor with God. How do we achieve this? I would like to propose that based on these readings and their emphasis, suffering like and WITH Mary is essential and crucial.

Now this is not to say that we should not attempt to imitate the Christ; He is, after all, God Himself. But that is the issue. We can see that he is fully man because he walked with people, conversed with them, ate and drank with them, had physical, personal, intimate relationships with those around him. However, he was also fully God and, as the same person that I paraphrased above said, this is “a mystery of the faith” so a lot of the temptations and extraordinary patience that He faced and had may not come to us in the same manner because of our sinful natures prohibiting us from reaching that stage of grace and holiness. Yet we run into a similar problem with Mary. Because she was so full of grace that she found favor with God, the goal of mimicking her in that because more difficult. However, it is something we can attain because she was solely fully human.

Because we want to imitate as best as possible the human side of both Mary and Jesus, we want to make that aspect come out as vivid and obvious as possible. Here is where we introduce John of Caulibus’s Meditations and put it in comparison with the Gospels. What we see in the Gospels is a very brief description of the crucifixion and the events leading up to Golgotha. More specifically, we get the following from all the Gospels combined:

·         A description of Jesus’s arrest
·         Jesus’s “trials” in front of Jewish and Roman leaders
·         “Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him.”
·         His sentencing
·         A brief description of his walk to Golgotha
·         “They crucified him”

In the six or eight chapters across the Gospels that refer to this event, there is not much more else in terms of details that arise. There is no description on how wet Judas’s kiss was, how tightly they tied Jesus when they arrested him or even how, whether it was just his hands or his whole body, as seen in the Mel Gibson’s Passion. We don’t know exactly how the trials went in terms of if there was an order or complete disorder, an exact number of how many people were at each. We get nothing more than “Pilate (or the Gentiles) took Jesus and flogged him.” His sentencing is also quite short and not as drawn out as I’m sure John of Caulibus might have done. The walk to Golgotha has nothing more than the interaction with Simon to carry the cross for Jesus. Finally, as was mentioned in class, “they crucified him” is about as detailed as the four Gospels get. John of Caulibus’s Meditations go into more detail about the flogging and crucifixion than the whole of the Gospels do about the whole narrative.

Why? Some might argue, and did in class, that it could be an issue of audience, that those whom the Gospel writers were writing for and to had a more familiar knowledge of crucifixion that John of Caulibus did. However, because it doesn’t really explicitly say that John of Caulibus was writing to anyone, and therefore was probably writing for himself, I would agree more with the idea that a big reason for (or at least a huge consequence of) this elaborate retelling of the Passion narrative is to bring across Jesus’s humanity. We can see that in the art of this later period. This humanization is also why suddenly tears, grief, and loss appear on the face and countenance of Mary in later pieces of art. There is an attempt to make Mary appear more human, and therefore, attainable as a role model.

Bringing all of this back around, part of making Mary appear more human is making her more grievous during the crucifixion. And in our attempts to mimic her, we must also attempt to mimic her sorrow. We see that in the Stabat Mater.

“At the cross, your sorrow sharing,
All your grief and torment bearing,
Let me stand and mourn with you…

Fairest maid of all creation,
Queen of hope and consoloation,
Let me feel your grief sublime…

Virgin of all virgins blest!
Listen to my fond request:
Let me share your grief divine…” (Bolding and italics added for emphasis)

Again, we see this longing throughout Anselm of Canterbury’s Prayer to Christ. He makes a point to bring out the grief the “most merciful Lady” (pg 96) while all throughout wanting to be there at the scene of the crucifixion.

All of this to say, that in order to worship and imitate Christ, we must seek after the one that was closest to Him (cf. Anselm of Canterbury  pg 112) and imitate her as best we can in all aspects. One question I do want to leave with is this: Is this prayer, the prayer to suffer like Mary, a prayer we can pray knowing we can suffer like her, or is her suffering too great for us?

-- OGC

The Font of Theophany

In the grand tradition of the man with only a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail, my mind frantically tries to hammer texts into a shape where I can point say, “Hey look it’s Eriugena!”  Therefore, I was struck by the passage in Anselm’s third Prayer to Mary where we are told that:

you [Mary] showed to the world its Lord and its God
whom it had not known.
You showed to the sight of all the world
its creator whom it had not seen…
You brought forth the world’s reconciliation,
which, in its guilt, it did not have before.[1]

This passage immediately brought to mind Eriugena’s famous statement in book three of the Periphyseon:

For everything that is understood and sensed is nothing else but the apparition of what is not apparent, the manifestation of the hidden, the affirmation of the negated, the comprehension of the incomprehensible, the understanding of the unintelligible, the body of the bodiless, the essence of the superessential, the form of the formless, the measure of the measureless, the number of the unnumbered, the weight of the weightless, the materialization of the spiritual, the visibility of the invisible…[and so on][2]

Before we can unpack what the similarity between the ideas expressed in these two passages means, we should get a little background on Eriugena.  John Scottus Eriugena was an Irishman serving as a court poet and scholar for Charles the Bald during the middle part of the 9th century.  Although relatively little is known about the man himself, he had a great impact on the thought of the Middle Ages through his translations and commentaries on the works of the Greek Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and, above all, Pseudo-Dionysius – whose influence is pronounced especially from the 12th century onward.  Besides these, his magnum opus the Periphyseon (sometimes known as On the Division of Nature) influenced a number of thinkers, although this influence was often muted and filtered due to the condemnation of the Periphyseon in the early 13th century.  The Periphyseon is a maddeningly complex text, within which John describes the ex nihilo from which all things were created as God Himself.[3]  As a result of this, Creation is understood by John as fundamentally a theophany, a revelation of the inaccessible divine to humanity.  Every aspect of creation then, from worms to the sun and everything in between and above including creation as a whole, can be understood as a form of divine revelation, a manifestation of the hidden, inaccessible truths of God.

So, how does this connect to Anselm’s depiction of Mary?  There’s no direct evidence of a link between Anselm and Eriugena.  Anselm, never one for citing his sources, never mentions him and searches for direct borrowing, including searches that I’ve (rather amateurishly) carried out myself, have proved largely fruitless.  However, copies of Eriugena’s works were available in northern France during the time Anselm was at Bec (and when he wrote the prayers to Mary) and later at Canterbury.[4]     More subtle (and fascinating) similarities between the two authors have been noted, although not explored at length.[5]  Whether there is direct influence here or not, Anselm’s language seems to construct Mary as a theophany, in the same sense that Eriugena described creation.  Mary brings forth the visible form of what was hidden, makes known what is unknown.  Anselm construes this in highly visual terms, Mary grants sight of the divine.  She is an illuminator who Anselm beseeches to “let my darkness by illuminated,” from who “light was born into [the world].”[6]  These visual notions pervade Anselm’s third prayer.[7]  He craves the sight of this Mary-theophany: 

Lady, wait for the weakness of him who follows you;
do not hide yourself,
seeing the littleness of the soul that seeks you!
Have mercy, Lady,
upon the soul that pants after you with longing.[8]

More than simply acting as a theophany, Mary seems for Anselm to be the font of all theophany.  She is the one through whom the invisible God becomes visible, but we know that God had made Himself manifest within creation prior, historically, to Mary, the burning bush, the whirlwind that Job encountered, etc.  Likewise, think of the striking passage where we are told:
            God brought forth him without whom nothing is,
            Mary bore him without whom nothing is good.[9]

Yet, we know that God looked at Creation and declared it good long before Christ had appeared within it historically.  
How should we understand this?  I think the answer lies in Anselm’s understanding of time evident in Cur Deus Homo, where he discusses how the Virgin Mary could be cleansed of sin prior to giving birth to Christ through Christ’s death, despite the fact that this death (obviously) hadn’t happened yet. Anselm’s reasoning here is incredibly dense, and impossible to summarize with justice within the limits of this post, (apologies for incoherence here) but the eternity of God, His simplicity -- his unchanging unity of will, action, and person -- and the relation of all Creation to God though the Incarnation both compresses all time into the moment of the Incarnation and expands this real historical event to a fundamental truth about the nature of Creation itself.[10]  Thus, from and through Mary transforming divinity flows into this world throughout time, inextricably linking creation with recreation, and making manifest God, who without her would remain invisible and unbridgeably distant from us.[11]


[1] Anselm The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion. trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: Penguin, 1973) 118
[2] John Scottus Eriugena. Periphyseon trans. I.P. Sheldon-Williams & John J. O’Meara (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1987)  633A
[3] God in this sense is nihil not because of privation (I have nothing in this box) but in the sense of excellence.  He so transcends created reality and the perception of the human mind that He can rightly be called nothing.  I should note that it takes Eriugena a few hundred pages to get to this point, so there’s no shame in being baffled by it on first glance.
[4] For the presence of Eriugena in France, see the use of his thought by Anselm of Laon in the Glossa.  On Canterbury, I would love to provide a citation, but unfortunately I got this info from a dissertation by Paul Dietrich, my copy of which is currently packed in a box and awaiting movement to my new apartment this weekend.  In its absence, I’ll point out that Honorius, who was very likely a disciple of some sort of Anselm and with him at Canterbury, certainly had access to and the ability to work at length with a number of Eriugena’s works.
[5] See for instance Giulio d'Onofrio’s Vera Philosophia (Brepols, 2008)  or M.B. Pranger’s The Artificiality of Christianity (Stanford, 2003).  Perhaps one day an intrepid graduate student will write his dissertation (expected June 2047) on the interplay of these two figures in the writings of the scholar who could rightly be called the most notable disciple of both, Honorius.
[6] Prayers and Meditations 116 & 118 respectively.  It’s also notable that Eriugena was fascinated by the metaphysics of light, and that this was a common theme that 12th century thinkers took from his works.  See for example Werner Beierwaltes. Negati Affirmatio: Or the World as Metaphor.” Dionysius. 1 (1977) 127-130.  (Honorius also takes up this idea, see upcoming amazingly well-written and learned final paper for this course by Dan Yingst)
[7] I think there’s a good reason for this if we look at the progression laid out in the three prayers.  One could almost write half a blog post on it, before deciding that Mary as theophany is more interesting and writing on that instead.
[8] Prayers and Meditations 120
[9] Ibid 121
[10] See Anselm Why God Became Man in Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works ed. Brian Davies &  G.R. Evans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) from roughly 335 onward.  I’m also indebted to Pranger’s discussion of this topic throughout The Artificiality of Christianity, particularly Chapter 8, and apologize for my failings in adequately representing the arguments of both Pranger and Anselm therein.
[11] Space constraints force me to omit a more detailed elaboration of this, but I feel that it’s important to note that Anselm’s configuring of Mary as a theophany does not render her less human, less real, less historical, any more than Eriugena’s description of Creation as primarily theophanic makes it less a material real thing, nor does it detract from any of her other roles which Anselm elaborates.  We must always be careful not to introduce distinctions between the historical and the spiritual, or the divine, where none existed in medieval thought.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Question of Empathizing with Christ

In last class’ readings, there is a marked demand for the reader to empathize with Christ and his suffering. By encouraging people to feel what Mary and Jesus felt, the authors are trying to further the participatory nature of devotion. If the reader experiences what Mary and her son experienced, then he can understand them better, and thus he can truly devote himself to God. But a problem arises. We are merely human, so how can we hope to experience what Christ felt?

John of Caulibus in his Meditations on the Life of Christ approaches this problem by reminding us of Christ’s humanity. He describes the crucifixion of Christ in gory detail in order to inspire strong emotions to reach devotional glory. Part of this attempt to make his readers empathize with the suffering of Christ is to consider Jesus as just a man: “so that you may be deeply compassionate and spiritually nourished at the same time, avert your eyes briefly from his divinity and think of him as just a man” (249). He evokes an image of a humble, noble, blushing, young man, ridiculed and splattered with his own blood. Caulibus asks us to “be moved by both devotion as well as compassion” (249). For now we see him as one of us, simply a human being, humiliated and suffering.

Then Caulibus asks us to again look at him as the divine being that he is, his “imperial Majesty incarnate, … with reverence and blushing, dressing himself the same as if he were the lowliest of men…. Admire him and conform yourself to him” (249). Now we see the god. He is admirable and great, “immense and eternal” (249). To see this god humbly bending down, naked as a criminal, is striking.

We as humans can relate to him as a man, but it is his humility as God that makes him praiseworthy. It is thus vital that Caulibus reminds us of Christ’s duality as man and god. Because he is divine he should be admired, but because he is human, we can aspire be like him. This may be the only way to truly be devotional, for Christ is both god and man. To deny his humanity is to deny what makes him miraculous and to deny his essential divine paradox. While he is God and must be praised and admired, he is also human and thus can be emulated. But some may question whether it is appropriate to reduce Christ to a man. If it is irreverent to relate to Christ in this way, then this leaves us with the same problem as before: how can we possibly understand the sufferings of God?

Perhaps the advocating of devotion to Mary as a sort of proxy to empathizing with Christ is in response to this problem of relating to Christ’s suffering. Since Mary is human, there should be no possible impropriety in examining her as such. In fact, to me, the touching aspect of Mary’s role in the crucifixion is her basic humanity. A mother watching the death of her child is always devastatingly grievous, even if he is not the son of God. Looking at Mary as simply the weeping mother of her dead child is a powerful image. I think Michelangelo’s Pieta (included below) captures this special kind of sorrow. It is so basic that it needs no words. It is quiet, somber. The image of the mother holding her fallen son is just wrong, unacceptable.

But in this devotion of Mary, there is still a problem. It is impossible to truly understand her and relate to her as she is not a normal human being, but is in fact the mother of God. In fact, her relation to Christ is such that she is inextricably connected to Christ, even to the extent that she shares his pain. “The wounds of the dying Christ were the wounds of the mother” (175).  She is the mother of God, and as such, she has the strongest connection to him and thus experiences a higher suffering. Pseudo-Bernard says in his Meditation on the Lamentation of the Blessed Virgin that “the tongue cannot speak, nor the mind conceive the extent of the sorrow which affected the pious innards of Mary” (177) and that even the angels wept for her when “they saw the mother of Christ bound with such sorrow” (181). Her sorrow is so deep that she is described as dead (177). So how can we, as common humans, possibly relate to Christ through her?

These authors seem obsessed with trying to empathize with Christ and his suffering. Whether they do this by concentrating on his pain or by praying to Mary and suffering through her, they are fixed on being able to feel the sorrow that the crucifixion deserves. But Christ tells us not to cry for him. “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep over yourselves and over your sons” (Pseudo-Bernard, 167) and he tells his mother to “put away grief” (175). This brings into question the meaning of devotion and what God intends for us in attempting to reach the glory of God. While John of Caulibus, St. Anselm, and Pseudo-Bernard constantly ask us to “meditate” and “reflect” and “concentrate” on the suffering of Jesus and his poor mother and as they pray to Mary to give them the ability to weep and suffer as she did, Jesus tells us not to weep for him. I do not think that what these authors are attempting to do is wrong or inappropriate, because it seems to me that they are simply trying to praise God to the best of their ability. But perhaps Christ is telling them that they are missing the point. They should in fact rejoice, for he “ascends to the glory of the father’s majesty” (Pseudo-Bernard, 175). They should, and we should, rejoice, for it is with the crucifixion that we are saved.

Suffering, Salvation, and Empathy

The readings for today across the board were highly descriptive, and focused on the corporal vision of Christ. As we see in the Anselm reading these are men who really want to be able to see Christ. They attempt to achieve this through meditation and contemplation on his suffering. The highly descriptive nature of the readings invites the reader to engage in a participatory form worship, reflective of the fact that these writers themselves were attempting to participate in the Passion of the Christ. I think the reason this is so important is the fact that Christ’s suffering is the sacrifice which is the source of our salvation. God sacrificed his only begotten son for the salvation of our sins, so to understand the corporal suffering of Christ is in a way to realize and understand salvation.  I think it even becomes possible to think of salvation in two parts the human and the divine. In understanding the corporeal suffering of Christ we are able to gain an understanding of the human sacrifice which God made for us in the process of our salvation. However it is through the contemplation of Mary that we must come to understand the divine aspect of the sacrifice that God made.

I think this then has a very significant impact on how we view Mary, not as redemptress, but as the witness to Christ’s suffering. She not only participated in the conception of Christ which ultimately leads to salvation, but witness’ salvation itself in the form of the sacrificed Christ her son. As we see in the readings Mary had a special relationship with Christ, he was the flesh of her flesh, she fed him from her breast, and watched him grow from child into a Man. She was literally the mother of God, and as a result has an understanding of God and his divinity that is difficult for us to grasp. However it is at this point that Mary’s humanity becomes important, because it is the fact that Mary is human that allows us to empathize and relate to her. Through attempting to understand Mary’s pain and suffering we can begin to appreciate the divine sacrifice that God made in sacrificing his only begotten Son. In understanding Mary’s loss of Christ it becomes possible for us to begin to conceive of God’s loss. Mary’s suffering takes on new meaning, transcending the simple pain of that a parent feels for the loss of the Child, but the immense godlike pain that Mary suffers as the result of her special relationship with Christ. She feels the pain of two parents, she who conceived the Christ without knowing a Man in the same way that God feels the immense loss of his son. I emphasize again the fact that it is Mary’s suffering as a result of her particularly special loss that gives the suffering enormity and this enormity that then gives us a better understanding of God. In this context it is through Mary’s humanity that we gain access to God and the divine aspect of the crucifixion and salvation.    

The powerful imagery in this context then becomes extremely important because of its ability to induce the empathy that allows us to participate in salvation. In empathizing with Christ and his suffering we gain and understanding of the human sacrifice God made, and truly come to realize that God became Man. In becoming Man god gained the understanding of the nature of human sin, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:24).  It is then this empathy for Mankind, derived from his human experience, that allowed god to forgive us of our sin. It is only then through empathy and understanding that we can truly understand salvation for at the heart of salvation is forgiveness despite everything suffered. This forgiveness is given enormity through the understanding of the suffering, not only the corporeal but also the divine. Through our empathy with Mary we understand the divine aspect of God’s sacrifice as God the father. This then is why Mary continues to pop up in prayers to Christ such as in Anselm, because it is only through Mary that we are able to gain a full perception of Christ.

While a distinctly different approach to Mary than many of the other readings we have done for the course, I think it is necessarily different. In fact one could argue that this concept of Mary was bound to emerge from the combination of her role in salvation as mother of God, her humanity, and her humility. As Mary was humble before God so to must we be humble, but that humility is derived not from empty piety but rather from the full understanding of the sacrifice made and the forgiveness given. In fact once we understand Mary as the means of understanding God, the connection between the divine and the human, we can better appreciate her other roles in salvation and the special context and place she is given in the Catholic cannon. While I think this is something that all the readings have touched up, it is the participatory nature of these writings which not only allows for access, but also understanding.

This reflection is really an amalgamation of both the reading and the discussion we had in class. I wish that I could better cite the particular ideas that different people and readings contributed to this post, but I honestly don’t know that I could. However I certainly recognize this post as a lager synthesis of everything that people discussed and said in class rather than any singular creation of my own.

-Blake Alex

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Mother of All and the Face of Hope

As I was reading the miracle stories, a line from a book I recently read for another class, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, came to mind:  “Although both men and women may have fondled babies, spanked toddlers, and chastened teens, the affectionate side of child-rearing was symbolically liked with mothers, the authoritarian with fathers.”  Though, as the subtitle of the book makes clear, Ulrich was describing motherhood in a very specific context, that of colonial America, the general view of motherhood seems to me to hold true not only in modern times, but to some extent, throughout history. To think of Mary as a mother is certainly nothing new, however to me it is a key to understanding the vastly different types of stories collected in our readings. Indeed, several stories deal with mothers calling on Mary on behalf on their children, with one in particular seeming to appeal to Mary as mother.  Herlot tells a story of a woman whose son has been taken prisoner.  Though calling on Mary again and again, her son is still gone, so this mother goes into the church and takes an image of Christ, saying “…as my son was taken from me, so will I take away yours….” How better to appeal to Mary than as a mother who has lost her son?

Perhaps part of the reason why I identify with Mary so personally within these stories is that Mary, in her role as mother, is fundamentally relational.  If she was not the Mother of God, Mary would be admirable and perhaps even worthy of praise because of her faithfulness, but she would not be Mary as we understand and celebrate her.  It is only within the context of this relationship that Mary becomes significant and enters into the salvation story.  The reason these stories get told and retold, is that they are so relatable, so personal.  God, formless and all-powerful, alone uncreated can seem foreign and incomprehensible.  Even Jesus in the completeness of humanity, is still God.  Mary, though, is not only a person, but a person that we all know and hold in special regard.  She is a mother.  Even those who have no mother or are mistreated by theirs, I think can still connect powerfully with the idea of motherhood.  Motherhood, indeed, is the most intimate of relationships—even in situations where constraints on time and social norms may have caused the role to look a lot less nurturing than we understand it to be today (Ulrich in her book calls this extensive motherhood, with many children and many chores, as opposed to intensive mothering, with time to play and cuddle with children). In raising children, they also serve as their children’s’ most valuable teacher. Mothers, in their role as nurturer, also show love even when it is not deserved and are quick to respond to their children in their times of distress (gee, this is making me miss my mom!).   When I first read through these stories, I was a bit shocked at the stories that seemed to show as, what the called in class (and I also have written in the margin), vengeful.  It sat uneasily with me to see Mary in this light, and I had difficulty understanding it.  The more I thought about Mary as a mother, however, the less uneasy I became.  Mary did not act for the sake of causing pain in retribution for a slight (true vengeance)—instead, in each instance, Mary’s punishment ultimately brought about repentance, which, presumably, was the point.  Though it is still difficult to think of Mary as causing pain, it is much more clear why she might serve in the role of punisher.

Mary’s role as mother makers her an extraordinary advocate.  Through Mary, there is hope for all.  As we discussed in class, these stories depict a tremendous variety of people.  Mary comes to the help of empress and beggar alike. Both the wise and the “half-witted” (as in the case of the priest who knew only one mass) are granted her mercy. Whether your sin is willful, as those of the many thieves that graced our pages, or coerced and resisted as is the case of the pregnant nun, it is not beyond the mercy of Mary.  She does not turn her back on the faithful or the wicked. Mary even shows mercy on a Jewish boy (from my understanding of the context, being Jewish would have been seen by many as worse than being wicked). Mary regards no distance, as Mary in the form of the Lady of Rocamadour worked in lives of those at the church and those far from it.  Death and a deal with the devil, both of which are boundaries ordinarily seen as insurmountable by all but God and Jesus, are overthrown by the mercy of Mary.  Mary’s mercy can conquer even the protest of God (particularly vivid in Herlot’s story of Theophilus). We discussed in class how it perhaps seemed unfair that someone who is faithful may have to wait and wait for Mary to grant a miracle, while others just have to cry out in their time of need and are automatically granted what they need.  To me, that suggests the purpose at the heart of these stories: there is always hope.  If you have led a life of sin, you still have hope in Mary; and if you have been faithful but still suffer, do not give up, because Mary still hear your prayers and will intercede. All of these stories, as seen so poignantly in the story of the Tumbler, show that Mary will accept you for whatever you are, so long as you are willing to submit your heart.  Mary is emblematic of the hope of salvation.  She is its human face, even more so than Jesus.  And she is not only human, but stands in relationship that is uniquely intimate, uniquely loving, uniquely sustaining, and uniquely trustworthy. The hope of all humanity is represented in the form of Mary, one who loves as only a mother can.  --LB