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.