Thursday, October 29, 2015

Anselm & The Passion: Mary as Healer

An endless litany of descriptors seem to surround Mary throughout medieval texts: Mary as Queen, as bringer of light and wisdom, and as humble servant. Perhaps unexpected, however, is the addition of the designation of healer to this list. The Marian miracle stories and prayers of Rocamadour, Alfonso X, Herolt, and Gautier focused almost exclusively focused on Mary as a healer of physical ailments, or at the very least place her in texts which emphasize physicality. From curing blindness to washing the brow of our fervent tumbler, Mary as she is represented in these texts seems to have no limit to her convalescent abilities. Shifting to Anselm of Canterbury, however, we begin to see Mary not only as a healer of bodies, but also as a healer of souls. How and why does this shift occur? Is there theological justification for the image of Mary as a healer?

In the “Prayer to St. Mary” of his The Prayers and Meditations of St. Anselm, Anselm of Canterbury immediately humbles himself, telling us he was commissioned to write a prayer for St. Mary, and considers his third attempt alone worthy of “the great St. Mary” (page 106). One must question why Anselm included the versions of the prayer he considered substandard, particularly as only one prayer was requested of him. Regardless, Anselm includes his first two drafts, and in all three touches upon Mary’s role as a cleanser of spiritual sickness. Though he writes in the first person throughout his prayers, it is worth noting that Anselm seeks not to speak purely from his own personal experience, but rather is attempting to make his prayer easily accessible to his readers.

Anselm wastes no time in his first “Prayer to St. Mary” establishing the sinful nature of the human soul. Indeed, he subtitles this first prayer “when the mind is weighed down with heaviness,” immediately letting his reader know that the prayer comes from a place of internal grievance. After giving Mary her due praise, Anselm begins to deride his own sinfulness: “I long to come before you in my misery / sick with the sickness of vice, / in pain from the wounds of crimes, / putrid with the ulcers of sin” (lines 12-15). While Anselm’s language contains physical imagery such as “wounds of crimes” and “ulcers of sin,” the qualifiers within these phrases let us know that Anselm’s metaphors are just that: metaphorical. Even so, Anselm continues to use highly visceral language throughout his first prayer, referring to himself as “filthy and stinking” and “scarcely aware of the extent of [his] sickness” (23, 22). Not only does Anselm liken spiritual suffering to physical ailment, but he also calls on Mary as a healer while using the language of bodily illness: “What I want to ask you, Lady is / that by a glance from your mercy / your will cure the sickness and ulcers of my sins, / but before you I am confounded / by the smell and foulness of them” (45-49). Though Anselm may be buried in his sinfulness so much so that he cannot even see the depth of it, a single “glance of [Mary’s] mercy” will purify his soul.

Anselm does not spend much time discussing spiritual sickness in his second prayer, but his third, he again emphasizes the foulness of his sins, though the majority of his time is spent discussing the healing power of Mary. “I confess that my heart is unclean, / and I am right ashamed to turn towards such cleanness, / but I turn towards it to be made clean / in order to come to it” (21-24). In contrasting his own sins with Mary’s “cleanness,” Anselm seems to point specifically to her virgin purity; this is made clearer further in the prayer when Anselm notes that it is “by [Mary’s] child-bearing / I am brought forth from eternal death” (60-61). The “eternal death” to which Anselm refers is clearly damnation as a result of sins, but hell itself is the absence of God; in giving birth to Christ, Mary offers us the chance to know God and thus reach heaven. While Mary’s immaculate conception may save her from the dirtiness of human sin, it is the birth of Christ that offers true salvation: “Through your fruitfulness, Lady, / the sinner is cleansed and justified / the condemned is saved and the exile is restored. Your offspring, Lady, redeemed the world from captivity, / made whole the sick, gave life to the dead” (109-113). Though Mary herself may not represent salvation, she gave birth to Christ who in turn “gave life to the dead,” and thus she is capable of providing the means to achieve salvation.

While an examination of Anselm’s prayers reveals how Mary might cleanse the sinner of his foulness, they do little to explain why Mary has come to fulfill a healing role. “Texts of the Passion” offers an elaborate depiction of Mary at the Passion of Christ and may provide an answer. Mary’s emotional suffering as she witnesses Jesus’ torture, crucifixion, and death is described in extreme physical terms: “Dying, she lived; and living, she died. Nor could she die, who was a living dead person; in fact she stood wounded with cruel pain, waiting for the body of Christ to be taken down from the cross” (177). Mary’s pain during the Passion sounds much like the pain of sin that Anselm so thoroughly describes. Like Anselm, however, Mary does not give up hope: “She did not despair but piously and rightfully sorrowed, hoping bravely and firmly believing that he would rise on the third day according to to his promise, when he had conquered death. In her alone, during the three days, the faith of the church rested” (181). Though incapable of sin herself, Mary seems to understand the pain of being separated from God, and thus seeks to cleanse the impurity of our souls so that we might never be without Christ as she was.

(Woops, forgot to sign my initials!)


  1. The connection between Mary and healing actually seems (at least to me) to be a very natural one. One of the most important pieces of evidence for this, as you pointed out, was her suffering at the Passion. Though most of the texts we've read that deal with this topic date to the High Middle Ages, recognition of her role at the Passion of her son goes back to Simeon's prophecy to Mary in Luke 2:35. This prophecy - "and a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also" - links physical and spiritual suffering by the combined imagery of the immortal soul and a physical sword. This physical-spiritual juxtaposition, as we have seen, is at the heart of Mary's mysterious role: she provides the ineffable, bodiless, divine God the Son with a concrete, physical, human body.

    Once again, as you said, this doesn't exactly explain how Mary suddenly has jurisdiction over healing of the sick. (The only biblical example of supernatural healing I can think of that isn't done by God Himself is Raphael's healing of Tobit - though I might be missing something!) But Anselm's fascination/obsession with imagery of decay, illness, and putrefaction seems to link into your last comment - imitating Mary's purity and proximity to God is a beneficial preventative measure for safeguarding our own souls. Yet Mary is also the only human being whose body was assumed directly into heaven. Everyone else has to wait after their death until the Last Judgment to be reunited with their body - but Mary doesn't. Is there really that big of a gap between body and soul? Is Anselm arguing that Mary bridges the two extremes, or is he trying to say something about the nature of the soul? (Or both?)

    F. S.

  2. Very nice attention to the details in Anselm's descriptions of his sinfulness, particularly the very visceral, fleshly metaphors he uses to describe his spiritual state. I would have liked to hear more about what his use of this kind of language tells us about the translation that you note in your opening comparison between the healing that he hopes Mary will accomplish in his soul and the healings that she accomplishes in the miracle stories: Anselm is actually writing earlier than all of the miracle story collections that we read, except the stories included in Peter Damian's letters, which suggests rather that Mary's power to heal spiritually precedes the hope that praying to and serving her might also have physical effects. It would have also been helpful to hear more about Anselm's own appeal to Mary's suffering in his prayer to Christ, which is arguably the model for the kinds of meditations that we see in the later Middle Ages, as for example in the "Lamentations" of Bernard. RLFB

  3. The connection between spiritual and physical health is an interesting one, and it seems to me full of nuance deeply intertwined with medieval ideas about the union of body and soul. Sickness seems on its face a bad thing, yet many of the saints are sickly, and some even rejoice in that sickness, taking the suffering of illness as redemptive. Is there a similar thing going on in Anselm's spiritual sickness? A sense in which these pangs that Anselm feels are a prelude to the cure, and that worse than suffering these ulcers of the soul is not noticing their presence at all? I don't think this is directly present in Anselm, but it may be lurking beneath the surface somehow.

    Interesting also that all Anselm requires is "glance" of Mary's mercy, vision plays such an interesting role in our sources this week. How can we be healed simply be being looked at, what does that mean and what does it entail for how we think about vision?

  4. In your observation of Mary's capacity to heal both body and soul, I see a similar phenomenon to one that I described in my previous post regarding the coalescence of holy Mother and divine Son in St. Bernard’s homilies. Where it seemed to me that the Cistercian tradition articulated a transforming view of Mary (as heavenly queen on one hand, and as earthly woman on the other in a dualistic manner similar to Christ who is the God-man), I think you have taken note of an equally intriguing example of where the person of Mary increasingly is becoming a perfect impression of the person of Christ. As Mary offers restoration to the penitent in both their physical and spiritual health, this dual function mirrors the accounts in the Gospels in which Christ makes a point of healing the lame, curing the diseased, or giving sight to the blind in conjunction with the forgiveness of their sins. To put it another way, just as Jesus healed bodily and spiritually, Jesus through Mary extends to Anselm the hand of one who can heal the ailments of his soul, which are described with as you put it the “visceral” language of physicality. To offer one theory in response to your question as to why Mary is now a healing agent – in both senses of the word healing – I would bring attention to an account in the third chapter of the Acts of the Apostles where Peter and John heal a lame man, so as to parallel the Mother of God with the post-Pentecost Apostles. Such a parallel may suggest the agency of healing as one belonging to those in communion with the Holy Spirit, Who works through the Apostles in the events after Pentecost and Who in other places of Marian devotion is noted as Mary’s spouse.

    - W.K.