Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Shift in the Role of Marian Devotion

In the letters of Peter Damian and more generally in the proliferation of the Little Office among the laity, I sense a new theme of Mary – Mary as a subject worthy of prominence in every-day life. This is in contract to the theme of Mary described by earlier writers – Mary as a primarily theological subject who aids in our understanding of Jesus and scripture generally.

Earlier writers’ concern with Mary was primarily theological and intellectual. Their goal was to expose who Mary is, why she matters, and how their understanding of Mary advances their understanding of Christ and Christianity. Many early writers were deeply concerned with Mary as where Jesus comes from. Because of the theological understanding which is core to Christianity that Jesus had to be fully human, he had to be born of human. But Mary had to be a special human to be worthy of giving birth to the savior. Early writers’ understanding of this was reflected in their writing, which sought to explain Mary as such a special human. For example, the author of the Protoevangelium of James was concerned with the Mary’s divine lineage and her family’s connection with the temple. He and the author of Pseudo-Matthew also attempted to fill in details about Mary’s own birth for this purpose.

On the other hand, exposition on Mary as where Jesus comes from also played an important role in fleshing out an understanding of Jesus as divine. Mary’s most important title in the early Church was Theotokos, or birth-giver of God. This title troubled certain early writers, such as Nestorius, who insisted that the creator could not be born of creation. Nestorius’s opposition embraced the paradox and used other paradoxical imagery to expound on Mary as Theotokos. These arguments about Mary as Theotokos were also Christological arguments about Jesus’s nature.

Early authors were also interested as Mary as a key to understanding scripture. For example, the author of Pseudo-Matthew wrote about Mary as a fulfillment of prophesy. Irenaeus also wrote about Mary as a fulfillment of prophesy, and used this understanding to argue for a Christian reading of scripture over the Jewish reading of scripture and also to argue against certain heresies. Irenaeus and Tertullian drew parallels between Mary and Eve in order to expound upon Mary’s role in salvation history. Lastly, Andrew of Crete and Germanos of Constantinople viewed Mary as the lens through which to read scripture. To them, understanding Mary and reading scripture in light of Mary would lead to a deeper understanding of scripture and God.

These views of Mary presented by early writers were theological and intellectual. They each represent a theoretical understanding of Mary tied to other theoretical interests. These views of Mary would be useful only for somebody deeply contemplating the mysteries of the Jesus’s nature, the trinity, scripture and its fulfillment, etc. In other words, these writings on Mary would be less useful to laity seeking only to live in a Christian matter. For example, it is not absolutely necessary to understand the theological implications of Mary as Theotokos to live a good life worthy of God’s mercy.

However Peter Damian sought to bring Mary to the masses and justified his goal by pointing to very tangible and practical benefits of Marian devotion. He and others like him were successful; as we learned in class, every literate woman, man, and child was familiar with the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Thus, Mary was no longer discussed as only useful for contemplative discernment of the Church’s mysteries. Laity began to see Mary as someone who grants health, well-being, protection, and access to God’s mercy.

Peter Damian recommended that everybody – laity and religious alike – should take up praying the Divine Office. He also recommended that “he whose spirit burns a little more fervently with the love of God will also go so far as to find time daily to attend the hours of the Blessed Mother of God.” (Letter 17, p. 157). He argued for this recommendation by telling stories of people who were deeply devoted to Mary, either by reciting her office, simply praying to her, or even just praying at a church dedicated to her. These people were granted all sorts of tangible benefits.

For example, one story tells of a man who made a pilgrimage to pray at a church dedicated to Mary. On his journey home, he fell ill and died. As it happens, this man did not live the most holy life, and the devil came to redeem the man as his own. However, Mary came to the rescue, and after a discussion with the devil, she commanded the man to return to his body and confess his grave sin. The man did so, died, and went to heaven. This is an important story because it illustrates that Mary is no longer just the way to God intellectually and theologically. Mary is now the way to the actual presence of God. Just as she leads people to a deeper understanding of God, she also literally leads people to God.

In another story, a cleric who recited the Little Office daily became sick. Mary then appeared to him and provided her breast milk for his nourishment. This story again illustrates the very practical benefits of devotion to Mary. In addition to providing spiritual nourishment like the early writers explained, Damian argues that she can provide physical or practical nourishment.

This shift of focus is exemplified in two related but contrasting metaphors used to describe Mary.  Each metaphor describes Mary as a mirror, that is, a way to God. However the metaphors differ in what purpose Mary as a “mirror” serves. In the first metaphor, Andrew of Crete describes Mary as “the intellectual mirror of discerning foreknowledge, through which the renowned interpreters of the Spirit mystically contemplated the infinitely powerful condescension of God on our behalf.” (Wider Than Heaven, p. 207). This demonstrates the view of Mary as a provider of intellectual benefit. She helped the “renowned interpreters” – a phrase most certainly not intended to denote the Everyman – understand the mystery of the incarnation. In contrast, Peter Damian tells a story in which a man prays to Mary and addresses her as the “mirror of virginal chastity and example of every virtue.” (Letter 106, p. 183). This image shows that Mary is for everybody. Understanding her, being devoted to her, and following her example helps people live in virtue. Thus, Marian devotion touches on every-day life. People don’t just need Mary to know how to understand the Church’s mysteries; people need Mary to know how to live.



  1. You do a good job of noting the distinction between what Peter is writing about compared to some of his predecessors, though I would suggest that they might be more concerned with the day-to-day than it appears at first glance. One question you might have wanted to consider is how might Peter's readings have understood these practical benefits. Surely, they couldn't all expect to be nourished by the Virgin's breast milk, was Peter setting them up for disappointment?

    It's also fascinating to think of the notion that a mirror could somehow also be a path to God, how can something which we normally think of as passive and reflective draw us towards God? Was it as a model, or is there something more here? A different understanding of what it meant to be a mirror, to reflect? And what might this tell us about both the medieval worldview in general and medieval devotion in particular?

  2. You are right that we see a different aspect of devotion to Mary in Peter's letters, but as dyingst notes, I would caution you about drawing too sharp a distinction between Peter and our earlier authors, especially Proclus, Andrew, and Germanos. To a certain extent, the difference you note here is a difference of genre: what we have from Proclus, Andrew, and Germanos are homilies preached on feast days, while what we have from Peter are personal letters. In their homilies, the Byzantine authors talk all the time about how all of the people have assembled to celebrate the Virgin's feasts. The problem is that we do not have the texts of the liturgy for those celebrations so it is difficult for us to make comparisons between the way in which Mary was depicted in the liturgy before Peter's day. Also, we need to remember that what Peter was recommending in his letters was a highly structured practice of saying the psalms--he clearly expected his readers to be able to deal with some fairly complex imagery! RLFB

    1. Thank you for the input cautioning against drawing too sharp of a distinction.

      Regarding the fairly complex imagery, I did not mean to suggest that Peter was promising is addressees breast milk or miraculous visions. I only meant to show that the imagery he used pointed to tangible benefits that could help people every day, as opposed to benefits that help in reading and dissecting scripture. Such practical benefits, I imagine, are the same sorts of benefits men and women prayed to God for - health, well being, the virtues necessary to avoid sin, mercy, etc. I think Peter was using imagery to tell his addressees that praying through Mary could help with their every-day needs that they already pray for.

      I hope that clarifies my initial post. Thanks again for the input.


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  4. I’m in complete agreement with you that these texts connect Mary to the laity in a more tangible sense. Peter Damien “humanizes” her even more in his interpretation, as you mentioned, as a way of trying to convince others to recite the Office daily and utilize it. The intentional daily recitation of the Office itself and how it was presented to the common man in the Book of Hours practically screams MARY IS IMPORTANT TO YOUR UNDERSTANDING OF FAITH. However, the bishops and priests that discussed the definitions of Mary for the time before the Office, while not necessarily “screaming” that idea, were certainly talking it around. I would disagree with you that the definition of the Virgin Mary was not as important to the common man in earlier times. It may not have been as clear or tangible as it is in the Office, but I would say that just her importance being considered a matter of theological discussion within publicly read and produced texts gives her a high degree of prominence. As for her solely “intellectual and theological” role up until the Office, the Marian feast days and festivals existed not as solely theological gatherings, but tangible ways to interact with and discuss Mary’s value to Scripture and her role in Christ’s story. The Office even retains and reflects some of its Psalms and hymns and antiphons from these feast days and the speeches previously mentioned that discussed Mary were read during these days. The Virgin Mary then, was still very much a considered idea in the church body, as well as the church’s head. The only difference between before and after the institution of the Office among the laity would probably be how the clergy’s definition of her within the Office changed perceptions of her (although not the level of importance of that definition) and how many times a day the laity considered her in prayer.