Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mary and her role in mercy

    One thing that particularly stuck out at me in the miracle readings we did for Thursday, and as a general theme in this course, is the issue of Mary’s agency. Some questions that I have heard repeatedly posed in class include inquiries into what kind of power Mary has, how much power she has, and whether or not she is given too much power in the different renderings of her we have studied. While many of our previous readings have raised the questions about Mary’s power in the royal and/or esteemed titles they bestow upon her, the miracle readings of this week give us some of the best possible answers thus far into what exactly is Mary’s power and how it works within the world. 

    Throughout the different miracle stories, we see much of the same language previously used to describe the virgin mother. Repeatedly she is called on as a protector, starting with the story of the tumbler – “Lady, you who can protect me,”  (11) – and carrying through the other miracle tales like when she saves those at sea in the accounts from Rocamadour (101, 121, 141). Again, we see Mary receive the title Star of the Sea (Rocamadour 97), and in the story of the knight whose wife mortally wounds herself, the Virgin is described as a guide – “the Lady who has led me through life” (106) – much in the same way that Bernard of Clairvoux describes how Mary ought to be viewed in his homilies. We even see language pertaining to the office of the Virgin in the consistent bridal imagery of Mary in Herolt’s miracle accounts (132), which draws to mind the bride of the Song of Solomon to which Mary is often compared. 

    Perhaps what I found most fascinating, though, were the different ways that Mary was able to act within different miracle collections. In the Contigas, as well as Herolt’s collection of miracles, there are many more instances in which Mary takes on more of an intercessor role, where it is through her pleas that God comes to work the divine into the situation and cause a miracle. In Contiga 14, Saint Peter asks Mary to intercede to God for him, and it is only through Mary’s request to Jesus that God grants Saint Peter’s prayer (21). Again, in Herolt’s account, we see this intercession role most clearly when the Virgin Mary asks her son for a drop of his blood to tip the scales in favor for the sinning monk, and Christ replies that “it is impossible to deny [her] anything” and provides his blood, giving the sinner a second chance (140). In these stories, Mary acts as an intermediary between humans and the divine, still giving her a job that affects the miracle story. 
   In contrast, the miracles of Rocamadour place Mary in a role with more power and direct agency in the unfolding of the miracle. Again and again, the Rocamadour accounts are told in a way so that God is often seemingly absent from the event of the miracle. Instead, it appears that Mary is acting with her own power, whether that be in saving her faithful from sea or healing those from mortal wounds. Her power is evident in both the language used to describe her personage, as well as the language used to describe her actions. In prescribing her power through action, this is done through the lack of passive language; in the story of the knight’s wife who harms herself, it is Mary who grants the knight’s prayers to save his wife (107), and in the tale of the knight’s house that is saved from the fire, “the Lady acted favorably towards her faithful servant, sending down a heavy fall of rain onto the house that it extinguished the brands within moments” (108). Over and over again, Mary answers the prayers of those who call out to her without any apparent aid from God. Even the titles bestowed upon Mary lend her powers not necessarily seen before in other readings. In the cases of those struggling at sea, Mary is called “Lady of the winds, soother of storms, ruler of the waves, restorer of all creatures” and it is she who “ordered the wind and sea to be calm” (121); in Book II Mary is called “star of the sea, empress of the winds, abater of storms” and once again, it is she who “soothed and calmed everything” (141). With all of these descriptions of Mary, I am left wondering, how does Mary have so much power? And where is God in these Rocamadour stories?

    In thinking of the role of Mary in the Contigas and Herolt’s compilation and the way in which Christ grants all that Mary asks for, I can’t help but be reminded of the passage in Bernard of Clairvoux’s homilies where he briefly touches on the idea that Mary is the only person God has ever been obedient to (Homily 1), and then even further back in our class discussions on the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, the idea that heaven couldn’t contain God but Mary could (Hymn 2, strophe 9). What kind of authority is thus attributed to Mary that she is both the one person that God cannot deny and the one person who can contain God? Is her ability to contain God somehow connected to the power she exhibits in the miracles of Rocamadour? Perhaps she always contains part of God in her, and as such the power she is given in the tales is simply God acting through her in a way that doesn’t make Him or His role necessarily visible to the human eye. Something we talked briefly about in class that sparked my interest was the idea of Mary as the giver of second chances. We see this in the miracle stories, of which almost all provide the characters within them a second chance to life, to reform their actions, to devote themselves to God; but we also see this in the parallels that are drawn between Mary and Christ and Adam and Eve, and that through Mary bringing Jesus Christ into the world, all of humanity is given a second chance at salvation. The view of Mary as the merciful mother is also evident in the miracle stories, most clearly in that of the woman who is attacked by wolves, in which Mary is “the Lady of mercy, the granter of forgiveness” and then later “For the Virgin is the golden vessel and the ivory tower. It is she who brings together all good things” (Rocamadour 152, 53). We have talked a lot about the purpose of Mary being the one who shows us God and helps us understand the divine, but perhaps a further question is what or who is that God that she helps us see? In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II describes God as merciful Love (26), and perhaps it is this God that Mary makes manifest in this world through her role as intercessor and the one who brings about second chances.  



  1. Thinking about SM’s question, “what or who is that God that [Mary] helps us see?” brought me back to last week’s class discussion on the divergence of Christianity from Judaism. The different translations of Isaiah’s famous prophecy, one referring to a virgin birth and the other referencing a young woman, illustrate a divergence in how special Mary and Jesus are. In one case, Mary is a young woman who gives birth to a mortal man. In the other, she is herself a miracle, “the golden vessel and the ivory tower” (Rocamadour 53). In Andrew of Crete’s Third Homily, he implores Jews to “understand the power of what has been said and do not struggle with the truth” (119). In other words, make a leap of faith and believe with us. (Sidenote: this seems somewhat ironic to me given that Mary herself was skeptical of Gabriel at first.) Though Immaculate Conception will not be defined until the 19th century, the story of the virgin conception and birth makes clear that Mary experienced exceptional and divine things before Jesus was even born. Perhaps Mary, as the first follower of Christ, is illustrative of the Christian conception of God. She helps us see him and, in the stories we read for Thursday’s class, she also helps him see us. Many of the stories we read, including the case of the tumbler, highlight the importance of intent when praying to Mary. You have to truly be devoted to her, and therefore to the Christian God she helped you see, in order to receive her assistance. In this sense, she truly is “she who brings together all good things” (Rocamadour 53), the intercessor, your last chance for salvation.


  2. I agree, this is an excellent question and very much at the core of the miracles that are attributed in the stories to Mary: Mary helps us to see God, but "what or who is that God whom she helps us to see?" This is one of the reasons that I try to avoid using language about Mary's "power" (although I admit I can fall into it in discussion): how we conceive Mary's power depends not just on our image of Mary, but likewise on our image of God, so to talk about her power or authority means we have to have a clear understanding first of what we mean by the power of God. In Christian (and, indeed, I believe, in Jewish) terms, it is inaccurate to talk about "the Christian God" because, of course, from within Christianity, God is the ultimate reality, the reality that Mary somehow contained; it is nonsensical to talk about God as if there were other options, as it were, other realities. Talking about whether Mary has power "in her own right" falls into polytheism (which, in Christian terms, is of course a problem!), for how could there be any power other than God's if God is the ultimate Being? So is the problem of understanding Mary's miracles one of agency or one of metaphysics? Do we read accounts of her miracles as ultimately about her or (as SM suggests) as about God? RLFB

  3. Your suggestion that Mary perhaps always contains within her some aspect of God brought to mind a question about Mary and what she tells us about ourselves, our potential. We've seen over and over the exalted status of Mary, she is without sin, the container of the uncontainable, the most perfect of all human beings, the model towards which we all should aspire (cf. Bernard). If this is the case, that human perfection ultimately trends to being more like Mary, might we see in her the fully realized potential of the relationship between God and man? In other words, in Mary do we see the ultimate potential of humanity? Understood this way, Mary can be said to have God within her in that she is the most perfect image of Him. How then does this nuance our discussion of her "powers"? Does this change how we understand ourselves, both in relation to God and to creation?

  4. I really appreciate Dan’s point about Mary realizing the full miraculous potential of humanity. Jesus himself promises his followers that if they have “faith as small as a mustard seed” they can order mountains to move around (Matthew 17:20), implying that any faithful Christian has the potential to enact miracles. And Mary as the perfect example of faithful humanity isn’t the only human being capable of miraculous intervention. Plenty of other saints had miracles attributed to their intervention, including miracles enacted while they were alive on Earth. Like the Marian miracle stories we read last week, these miracles are often described in language that implies the saint themselves are bringing about the miracle, rather than God through the saints’ intercession. For example, in Acts 14:10, Paul just tells a crippled man to stand up and he is healed, without any direct invocation of or even reference to God on Paul's part. In fact, the local people assumed Paul was Hermes, an assumption not unrelated to your questions about Mary’s “power”. To Paul, however, their confusion probably wouldn’t even have made much sense; if one who is faithful to God conducted a miracle, that miracle must have been brought about through the power and authority of God (for, as RLFB points out, he is the ultimate reality), and to attribute it to the human saint as if they were acting outside of God’s authority is a misunderstanding of the nature of God.

  5. There are two sides to God and his power; there is the wrathful God of punishment and vengeance, and the God of mercy and forgiveness. I see Mary’s purpose as an extension of God in the latter form, and becomes his counterweight when he exerts his wrathful side. This interpretation also aligns with what GT and Dan have been saying about how individuals such as Mary and Paul work miracles in tandem with God’s plan, and serve as his messengers rather than acting on their own volition. Mary does this, but is also the calming conscience within God, advocating for people, giving them a second chance even if they do not deserve it. She’s not necessarily her own agent, independent from God and therefore potentially usurping his power, but rather, an extension of God’s own power, the merciful and forgiving side of it that balances out the equally potent yet polar opposite half.