Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mother, Servant, Daughter, and Bride

We recently examined the accounts of Elisabeth of Schonau, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertude of Helfta, and Bridget of Sweden, all who recorded revelations and/or visions of the Blessed Mother.  Each of their visions, however, seems to depict the Blessed Mother in a somewhat different fashion.  What could be the reason for these differences and what can we take from them?  We must first recall some Theology: as human beings, we are all children of God created in His image (Genesis 1:26).  When God came to Earth, incarnate in the human flesh through the Blessed Virgin Mary, Christ chose the Church as his Bride.  Thus, all members of the Church are the servant sons, daughters, and brides of Christ.  Therefore Mary, the Mother of the Groom (Jesus) and a member of his Church, is also the Servant-Daughter and Bride of Christ as well.  This difficult concept is summarized in Song of Songs 2:16: "My love is mine and I am his." Each of these responsibilities belonging to Mary can be seen in the revelations recorded by Elisabeth, Mechthild, Gertude, and Bridget, giving us an image of the various emotions and thoughts Mary exhibits in order to fulfill her role.
            Elisabeth of Schonau's visions focus heavily on Mary's place as the Servant-Daughter.  Throughout the text, Elisabeth accounts her visions as occurring on multiple feast days with a specific attention to the Mass and the Liturgical Services. The Blessed Mother is most often depicted in a reverent fashion, preparing for or basking in the presence of Jesus: "I again saw her in celestial brightness worshiping in the presence of the great Majesty" (pg. 50).  Similarly, Gertude of Helfta focuses on the Mass. For Gertude, the Liturgy has become the narrative and she is experiencing it as a conversation.  Gertude, however, seems to be more focused on her relationship with Christ in her revelations.  In fact, she even appeals to Christ in hopes of understanding how to improve her own devotion to Mary.  Her revelations are overall very personal, as she recognizes herself as being called to supplant Mary in her devotions:

"Come, elect one, and stand in my place, with all the perfection in virtue which caused the Blessed Trinity to incline toward me, that you may please the Blessed Trinity as far as possible in like manner." (Chapter  49).

Gertude is thus personally invited by Mary to be a Bride of the Holy Trinity. It is Mechthild of Magdeburg, however, who delves deeper into the "Bride and Bridegroom" concept concerning the Blessed Mother.

"The sweet dew of the eternal Trinity gushed forth from the fountain of the everlasting Godhead into the flower of the chosen maid; and fruit of this flower is an immortal God and a mortal man and a living hope of eternal life. And our Redeemer became a Bridegroom." (pg.49)

Mechthild describes Mary's conception of Jesus through the Holy Trinity, and then refers to Christ as a "Bridegroom".   She continues on to define Mary's role as mother after being chosen as the Bride of the Holy Trinity.  Most interestingly, she describes Mary's nourishment to Christ as beginning before Christ was even born:

"The Father chose me as his bride- that he might have something to love; for his darling bride, the noble soul, was dead.  The Son chose me to be his mother and the Holy Spirit received me as his beloved.  Then I alone was the bride of the Holy Trinity and mother of orphans, and I brought them before God's eyes so that they might not all sink down, though some did. When I was thus the mother of many a banished child, my breasts became so full of the pure, spotless milk of true generous mercy that I suckled the prophets and sages even before I was born. Afterward, in my childhood, I suckled Jesus." (pg. 50)

Mechthild then proceeds in confirming the definition of "God's Bride" (Christ's Church - Christianity) that I presented earlier.  The most interesting part, however, is that Mechthild suggests that at the crucifixion, through the wounds of Christ, the Church was born and Mary, most rightful and resembling God in all parts, became its mother and nurse:

"later, in my youth, I suckled God's bride, Holy Christianity, under the cross when I was so desolate and wretched, as the sword of the physical suffering of Jesus cut spiritually into my soul.
            Both his wounds and her breasts were open.
            The wounds poured forth.
            The breasts flowed.
            The should was invigorated and completely restored
            As he poured the sparkling red wine
            Into her red mouth.
As she was thus born and made healthy out of the open wounds, she was like a child, and very young.  If she was going to recover completely after death and birth, God's mother was going to have to be her mother and her nurse.  This was and is as it should be, since God is her rightful father and she is his rightful bride.  She resembles him in all parts." (pg. 51)

Mecthild then continues in describing Mary's role as mother of the church and how she "suckled the holy apostles with [her] motherly instruction." According to Mecthild, Mary was therefore chosen as the Bridge of the Holy Trinity, nourished Jesus as his mother before he was born, and then became the mother of the Church during his death. If Mary nurtured Christ before his birth on Earth, and the Holy Trinity has existed infinitely before becoming incarnate in the flesh, is Mecthild suggesting that Mary existed before she was conceived on Earth as well?  In St. Bridget's Revelations, she quotes Mary saying "Know, too that there is no human body in Heaven but the glorious body of my Son and mine" (pg. 69). Does this support Mecthild's idea? As this whole concept is difficult enough to conceive (no pun intended), Mechtild continues to praise the perfection of Mary, and refers to her as a "goddess" (pg. 103), possibly leading to some confusion among readers.  We must not, however, take this out of context, as Mecthild did not intend to regard Mary as a separate divinity from the Godhead, but rather that she is the perfect reflection of the Holy Trinity. Mecthild gives Mary this adjective because she is so full of the grace of God that "no one can be compared to her" (pg. 103) as she "resembles him in all parts."
            Even though Mary's level of grace is unmatchable, she still suffered tremendously when Christ accepted his role in the Passion, as depicted in St. Bridget's revelations.  The Passion brought great agony to her: "Oh, how readily would I have laid myself there alive beside my Son, had it been His will!" (pg. 48). Echoing Song of Songs 2:16, St. Bridget also clearly makes known Mary's belonging to Christ, yet Christ's human connection to Mary.

"His pains were mine, because His heart was mine. For as Adam and Eve sold the world for an apple, so my Son and I redeemed the world, as it were, with one heart." (pg 63).

St. Bridget even implies that Mary suffered even more after Jesus' Ascension as she felt disconnected from him like a widow, and was "much afflicted with a longing to rejoin [her] Son."  Nonetheless, Mary lived for a long time after Christ's Ascension, and "God so willed it that many souls, seeing [her] patience and life, might be converted to Him."  Thus in The Revelations of St. Bridget we see Mary's complete role as the "Mater Sponsi" as she is the Mother of the Groom in her suffering during the Passion, the Bride of the Groom in her longing to rejoin Christ after his Ascension, and her role as a Servant-Daughter for God before she leaves the Earth in her Glorious Assumption.
            Mary's relationship to Christ is overall considered to be very difficult to grasp because of her roles as a Mother, Daughter, Servant, and Bride all at the same time.  While they still raise some questions, the revelations of Elisabeth of Schonau, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Gertude of Helfta, and Bridget of Sweden in the overall scheme of things most definitely help in gaining a deeper insight into understanding the meanings and mysteries of faith behind the Most Blessed Mother.

- AM


  1. Very nice account of the complexity of Mary's role as mother, daughter, servant, and bride of God and the way in which each of our authors engages with Mary according to her various roles. What do you make of the fact that each of the women seems to have understood her relationship to Mary and thus Mary's meaning so differently? To put the same question another way, why do you think their images differ so much? What do the differences tell us about devotion to Mary? Big questions, I know, but somehow we need to make sense of them!


    1. As we mentioned in class, perhaps their images differ because three of these accounts were recorded by nuns while the fourth, St. Bridget, was not a nun. Elisabeth and Gertude focus on the mass as most ancient nuns would tend to do, but what then does this mean for Mechthild? The bottom line, I believe, is that we technically can't try pinpoint a reason for Mary's choice of appearance in her revelations. As devotion increases, she is bound to respond in some way to those devoted, but to try to explain the reason as to why she appeared or responded the way in which she did is quite difficult. For example, why would Mary's appearance at Fatima prophesize (if that's an actual word) the conversion of Russia to CHILDREN? Was their FORM of devotion at such a young age responsible for the reason as to why THEY were chosen to receive such a mature prophesy? Difficult to answer. We know as human's we cannot fathom God...


  2. AM: Nice consideration of these different roles that Mary plays, as represented in these different writings, and I think you present a good explanation as to how she can be all of these things.

    At one point you ask: “If Mary nurtured Christ before his birth on Earth, and the Holy Trinity has existed infinitely before becoming incarnate in the flesh, is Mecthild suggesting that Mary existed before she was conceived on Earth as well?” Is this new or unique to our authors for this class? What about Frauenlob’s Mary as Wisdom, present at the creation? Still, there is something very interesting (for a variety of reasons) in the idea of Mary nursing the prophets before the Incarnation. It does cast the church as prefigured but inchoate in those of the Old Testament. As you mention, Bridget has Mary in an exemplary role for the church, which *could* be compared with her “nursing” those before the Incarnation, but I don’t think that they are the same thing (neither in potency nor in the implications of the metaphors).*

    At first, I thought that your opening paragraph might be an example of modern, “united” doctrine overdetermining the rest of your post. But I have to say that upon further reflection I understand how you are setting up your argument for Mary’s multiple roles as implicit and logically necessary given her multiple relationships with God. Well done.

    *I don’t mean to imply here that you make this argument. I’m just following my train of thought while reading your post.

  3. I really enjoyed this post because it summed up a lot of the questions that the readers posed for me as well. How can Mary be ALL of these roles? then again, how can she not? Don't all women hold numerous roles in their family and in society? I am also confused by the idea that Mary existed before her conception and before the world existed. This made me speculate that God always had Mary in mind; he always knew he would create a woman who would bring the Savior into the world and become his bride of human flesh. If so, then this would make Mary even more hard to imitate for humans. I feel that we've discussed how we are to relate to Mary as another being of human flesh and how difficult this would be. With this new notion of Mary always being in existence, it seems even more impossible to imitate her. Also, this makes it seem like she has always been deified. On the other hand, if she were always in existence, then it would be easier to understand her roles as Bride of the Trinity, Daughter, and Mother; for if God raised her as a spirit or idea until her Conception, or even until Jesus' conception, then she would have grown as God's daughter or the daughter of mankind. Then, after giving birth to Christ, she could become the Mother of humanity. These are again all just speculations, but this post and these reading really confused me, and thus, evoked many ideas to form inside my mind.