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!)