Thursday, May 17, 2012

Imitating a Deity?

Yesterday’s readings really provoked a lot of thought within me on what it means to revere and to please Mary. Mary of Agreda approaches a new perspective on Mary and provides a lot of insight not only into who Mary was as a human, but who she is now as a deity. Mary of Agreda also seems to be urging the reader to attempt to imitate Mary, as impossible as that sounds, in order to achieve some of her grace and wisdom. However, Mary of Agreda really sets the stakes high for us. She describes Mary as the perfect human. On page 56, she says, “She was born pure and stainless, beautiful and full of grace, thereby demonstrating, that she was free from the law and the tribute of sin,” and on page 596, that she was preserved from impure temptations and thoughts. Mary of Agreda then goes on to say later in Chapter One, Book Seven, that Mary tells her to “strive with all thy powers to imitate me as an exercise” and to “be very devout toward my sweet name.”

How can we possibly reach the level of grace and devotion that Mary held? How can we, as lowly humans born with original sin and constantly prone to failure, become like Mary in any possible way? How can we imitate a woman chosen by God to serve as the Mother of Christ and the Restoratrix for mankind? How is Mary even human, then, if she was born without temptation like we were?

As I look deeper into these initial thoughts that crossed my mind, I realized that Mary is not posing something so daunting to us, she is not trying to intimidate us with her perfection; she is trying to guide us by her example so that we may become closer to God. I think in The Glories of Mary, Alfonsus de Ligouri gives us exact ways in which we can strive for this unattainable perfection. Mary urges us to devote our minds to prayer, discipline ourselves, fast, observe silence and obedience, not give impatient answers, receive Communion, and to ask Mary for pardon for negligence and promise fidelity. These are all things Mary practiced in her day-to-day life, so in order to fully welcome Mary into our minds and hearts, and to achieve some inkling of her grace, we must imitate how she lived in her human life.

Mary of Agreda tells us that God gifted Mary with the knowledge of Creation and infinite wisdom, so she is trying to pass this along to us for our own benefit because she is truly the Mother of us all.  As Alfonsus de Ligouri says, she is the Queen of Mercy, not the Queen of Justice, so she is more interested in pardoning us than condemning us. She wants us to reach that level of closeness with the father that she herself has reached. Looking at Mary of Agreda’s work of Devotion from this perspective, I feel more of a sense of encouragement that Mary is standing right by my side at all times, that she is always here for guidance, reassurance, and inspiration when we are tempted to go against God’s will. Mary is not simply a human figure, she is a deity in her own right, and has the full power to steer us in the way of the Lord. 

Furthermore, Mary of Agreda’s depiction of Mary as a somewhat goddess, even while human, really captured my attention. After giving birth to Jesus, Mary of Agreda says that Mary “remained in this ecstasy and beatific vision for over an hour immediate preceding her divine delivery” and “her body became so spiritualized with the beauty of Heaven that she seemed no more a human and earthly creature. Her countenance emitted rays of light, like a sun incarnadined, and shone in indescribable earnestness and majesty, all inflamed with fervent love…her soul wrapped in the Divinity and she herself was entirely deified.” So, was Mary a human or a deity? She was a perfect human, born of human flesh and qualities, yet without human impurities. She is the prime example for how we should be.

Later, Mary of Agreda says that she occupies the same high place in heaven as God and Jesus hold. I feel that why shouldn’t she occupy this same position? She devoted her whole life to God, to purity and humility. She accepted graciously the duty of conceiving Christ and knowingly opened her life to suffering, as she knew bearing and raising Christ, and then watching him brutalized and killed would bring. These selfless acts, along with her pure, unending love deify her and place her in likeness with the Father. After all, she is the Mother.

--SS

12 comments:

  1. I think it would be interesting to contrast this Mary of Mercy that we found in Mary of Agreda's works with the Mary we found in the readings for the Mater misericordiae where she seemed to function more as the Mary of Justice in a way. I guess you could say that she was “encouraging” people to follow her role but something about the comparison between these two sets of depictions seems off to me. Is Mary’s role supposed to alter so much to the people? In the Mater misericordiae readings she seems to be more of an authority rather than a role model, not that the two can’t go hand in hand but it seems like she has the ability to punish more in earlier times whereas in the texts of Mary of Agreda, she is more of an example of human perfection meant to be achieved, set in front of us as a goal of sorts. Also, it seems like previous texts asked us to do things to honor Mary and praise her where the emphasis on emulating her may have been secondary. Here, all of the prayers, fasting, etc. is for the sake of emulation.
    LLD

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  2. I think we need to be careful with how we use the language of deified/deity. Mary does not become "a" deity, but "the" Deity. She is infused with the one Divinity. Now, this question of her humanity is an interesting one--how can she remain human if she is so unlike us? How can she be imitable if she's so divinized? I think here it's important to bring the discussion back to Christ. We are sometimes say that Mary "reveals God" to us and that is true, but especially she reveals the God-Man to us; her humanity his humanity and his divinity hers, through his Incarnation, death, and resurrection. So while we cannot be born without original sin, we can receive the same grace from Christ as Mary has received, grace which liberates us from that curse and allows us to imitate her in contemplation. If we are just looking at Mary, of course imitation is impossible; we are looking in the wrong place.

    R.C.H.

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  3. I agree with what RCH has said: Mary is *NOT* "a deity." According to Mary of Agreda, she has been "divinized," infused (as RCH puts it) with the one Divinity, NOT transformed into a deity herself. The distinction is a very important one, if difficult for those of us inclined to think in terms of "gods" and "goddesses" to grasp. Gods and goddesses are individual, separate entities, but God (as Christians understand God) is not so much an entity, as Entity: Being. To become "divine" as Mary of Agreda describes it is to participate fully in this Being, to be filled with Being; it is not to become somehow another divine being distinct from Being. This is why it is so important that Mary of Agreda opens her account with a contemplation of the Trinity: everything that follows about Mary is a way of showing us that Trinity; Mary reveals God by participating as fully as is humanly possible in God. This is why (as you very rightly put it) she is able to guide us to God by her example, but it by no means makes her a "deity in her own right."

    RLFB

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  4. SS: My feeling is that we can see the sort of transformation that we reviewed in Maria de Ágreda in Biblical texts (for example, in the Gospel of John and several of Paul’s epistles). I also think that it is comparable to one of the messages of Bridget’s revelations.

    I like how you have made the jump from Mary and her characteristics to the sorts of practices that anyone, presumably, can do to draw nearer to God. On page 5 of Maria de Ágreda, she mentions that she had the vision of the ladder before her for some time without understanding it. So she tried to improve herself; she confessed, tried to get rid of some of her weaknesses, etc. In time, as she continued these pursuits she was given a revelatory explanation of the ladder as symbolic of Mary’s life. Maria does indeed seem to be setting out a path for personal “rapprochement” between us and God, and she gives us Mary as an example–a light along the path–of how this may be done.

    It seems to me that you are trying to choose your language carefully with “deity,” “goddess,” “somewhat of a goddess,” etc. Is Mary one of these but not the other? Is she any of these?

    ~TA

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    1. Yes: The way R.C.H. puts it: "She is ‘THE’ Deity.” This is what I think can be found in John and Paul.
      (Well phrased!)
      ~TA

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  5. I thought LLD’s comparison between the “Mary of mercy” in Mary of Agreda and the “Mary of justice” in the miracle stories was quite fitting. As the commentators above have discussed, Mary’s role alongside the Divine is to become infused with Divinity, to become one with the Divine. In this sense, Mary’s roles are naturally all encompassing and disparate because they reflect the variety of God’s roles human life. LLD refers to Mary’s role changing “to the people”. If devotion to Mary is meant to channel a kind of conduit to fuller appreciation of the Trinity, it is only appropriate that she be many things to many people, and sometimes many different things to the same person. Looking back across the historical sweep of our readings, it is clear that this is the case. Some of the medieval writers, especially those concerned with Mary as Seat of Wisdom, intentionally presented Mary as a tapestry of many (infinite?) roles in an effort to guide devotion toward contemplation of the grandeur and incomprehensibility of God. It is interesting to speculate whether Mary as “filled with Divinity” and thus somehow a part of God was how Catholic faithful continued to picture her into the early modern period. In his lecture, Zach discussed the movement of focus of Marian devotion westward into the New World. I wonder how similarly colonial Americans viewed the issue of Mary’s many apparent roles in comparison to their European counterparts several centuries earlier. In light of Mexico’s conversion from the earlier polytheistic Nahuatl practice and the extent of Marian imagery around them, was there an issue with parishioners erroneously “deifying” Mary in her own right (maybe during a period slightly earlier than Mary of Agreda’s)?

    PWR

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  6. I liked your discussion of the visions of Mary of Agreda in which Mary is supposed to act as a model for all other human beings. You state, “that Mary is not posing something so daunting to us, she is not trying to intimidate us with her perfection; she is trying to guide us by her example so that we may become closer to God.” In conjunction with this statement you mention the comfort inherent in the idea that Mary is by your side day after day functioning as both guide and inspiration. You use these statements to support your conclusion that Mary fills these roles as a deity in her own right as that can be the only way that she could have the “power” to act as the guide to God. Your discussion brought to mind the works of many other authors that we have read this quarter who place Mary more in the role of intercessor or mediator instead of divinity as she completes similar tasks. The miracle stories of the many monks and knights that were given a second chance at salvation by the Virgin seem especially pertinent. The very early works such as the “Akathistos Hymn” also mention this idea of Mary as the bridge to heaven. I am wondering what is different in this case that makes Mary turn from an intercessor filled with Grace to a divinity in her own right?

    MAM

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  7. My initial reaction when reading the descriptors you have used in this post regarding Mary's nature (as Zach pointed out, the carefully chosen distinctions between "deity," "goddess," "somewhat of a goddess," etc.) was similar to those responses above that immediately refute your identification of Mary as some kind of individual goddess in her own right. However, the rest of your reasoning gave me pause, and I reconsidered what exactly is at stake in these descriptions as employed in Mary of Agreda's writings. It seems to me that these fine grains of essential difference (i.e. between "divine" and "deified," "a goddess" or "the goddess") are marked by postmodern theological ideology, the sort of perspectives from which we are naturally inclined to examine these texts. However, in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world from which these terms are derived, there was no real distinction in the natures of what was "divine" or "deified" or even a "demigod;" all of these were simply supernatural beings with powers and knowledge far beyond the grasp of the human domain. In her late Renaissance cultural environment, this is the theistic heritage with which Mary of Agreda would have been intimately familiar, and would have assumed equivalent familiarity on the part of her readership. After reading the way that she describes Mary, I must agree with your observation that the author makes the Virgin into a figure decidedly more-than-human. It is difficult to identify any sort of middle ground between the universalist polytheistic lens of pagan Antiquity and the inflexible monotheism of modern Christianity, but this is exactly where Mary of Agreda attempts to position her revered namesake; in becoming one with the Trinity, the holy Virgin is assumed into divinity full stop, regardless of our modern semantic hair splitting concerning the author's use of terminology.

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  8. I think that the whole amalgamation of the Trinity is a conceptual grey space between monotheism and the ancient pagan religions. A single god split into three separate, yet simultaneous aspects? You can’t try and tell me this is something that makes immediate logical or even illogical sense. Throw Mary into that mix as the defied human that is not God and what you are left with is a theological mess. However that mess is probably the most wonderful part about Christianity. In strict monotheism or paganism the answer is straight forward, but the tangle that is the godhead of Christianity requires a lot of thought and contemplation to understand. In fact it takes a lot of understanding to comprehend the very nature of salvation and how it works. It is this striving for understanding that gives Christianity its layered subtle meaning and the distinction been ‘a deity’ and ‘the deity’. I do not know enough about the evolution of language to make any kind of claim about the medieval understanding of linguistics. However I think it would be wrong to say that they did not make these complex theological arguments in the way we makes them today, the clearest example of this being the debate over the Theotokos and (separately) the divided or singular humanity/divinity of Christ.

    Balex

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  9. I agree with MAM in appreciating your siting the Virgin as the model of humanity because I feel that this is essentially the purpose and beauty of the works of Mary of Agreda. This necessitates, as others mentioned above, that we keep distinct and understand the Virgin is not "diety" but rather divinized or holding a divine office in Heaven that is so unique and fitting for her as Mother of Christ. She is a model precisely due to the relationship with the persons of the Trinity which Mary of Agreda illustrates in her work by synthesizing the particular stories of her life and the life of Christ. She is a model of perfect union and this union is achieved in her life, through her life. This, to me, explains why the stories and the details of the stories (though they might seem absurd on any level of serious belief or fact) are so important. They almost physically carry you in and through the purifying and perfecting life of the Virgin. Even though we cannot all be the Mother of God, we can and are created in order to achieve union with God, the same God with whom Mary achieved perfect union with herself.
    FL

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  10. I also think it's interesting to think about the way Mary of Agreda portrays Mary as the "perfect human" we're supposed to strive for, but I don't think this is a very novel concept, nor is it meant to be daunting. My first thought is of Aristotle's 'telos,' that the acorn is striving to become the oak, and of Plato's 'forms'...the ideal has always been the most basic human goal, and I would argue that it is thanks to this instinct to create an ideal that innovation and industriousness even exist. The important distinction is that Mary is an ideal that not only will never be attainable, but also should not be attainable, for if someone were to attain the level of perfection of Mary, she would have to BE Mary, because she is dignified by the honor of giving birth to Christ, which can never happen again, according to doctrine. In this way, the ideal human is not a general concept that can be strived toward or a diffuse 'form' that exists as a potential within each person; it is a specific individual, and this does give her a kind of 'god-like' status, even if she is not actually deified.

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    1. Sorry, that last post was me, Alice B.

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