Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Marian relationship through the Little Office

The deeply personal relationship with Mary that emerged in the middle ages in the Western church is striking. Not imposed from above, Marian devotion of this kind seems to have been a result of the spiritual yearnings of the general laity and clergy. The immediacy, and even physicality, of the Virgin’s intercessory activity that emerges through the ‘exempla’ of Peter Damien’s letters surprised me. For most people this relationship would have manifested itself through the Little Office of the Virgin Mary. This would have been the daily point of contact, the plane on which the relationship took place.

The personal care and attention the Virgin bestows on those who are devoted to her is emphasized in Damian’s stories. The story of the Burgundian who dies after going on pilgrimage to the church at Podio, which was dedicated to the Virgin, illustrates this. Damian vividly describes the ‘black swarms of demons’ and even seems to suggest they have a good case for his soul. Yet due the fact he ‘ended his days in such a holy manner’ and ‘gave assistance to his (the Lord’s) Holy Mother’, he is allowed another chance at salvation. The dynamic of the relationship is important. Because ‘the man died on a pilgrimage in my service’, he is saved. Those who become servants of Mary gain her intercession. A relationship of service is, by its nature, a very personal and singular arrangement. It requires a consciously individual commitment to serve the Virgin. Damian’s stories suggest the value of this commitment, as Mary acts on behalf of her ‘servants’ regardless of how deserving they are of it. He describes the cleric who ‘had no tact for religious life, no quality that reflected the gravity and decorum pertaining to canonical discipline.’ Yet still, due to his daily devotion, the Virgin visits the ‘delinquent bishop’ who removed the inept cleric’s stipend and strikes him with a rod that seems to allude to the rod of justice. The bishop’s decision seems just, yet the comparative value Damian’s stories place on devotion to Mary emphasizes how powerful this relationship can be, bringing apparently disproportionate good to her ‘servants’.

The help Mary gives in the letters can either be aggressive and forceful or more maternal and caring but is always immediate and direct. When recounting the story of the dying cleric of the diocese of Nevers in Letter 166 who was revived by the virgin’s ‘milk from her sacred breast’, Damian is keen to stress the ‘vestige of milk’ that could be seen on the cleric’s lips when he is revived and praising her. The physical evidence of her intercession seems important. Mary’s aid extends directly from the divine realm into the physical. She is a very immediate presence. This may explain why Damian wants to constantly establish the personal link through which he came by these stories. In name checking his sources, ‘my sister’s boy, Damianus,’ ‘I learnt from my brother Damian…’, he attempts to ground the Virgin’s actions in the real world. Similarly, in letter 17, he attempts to overlay the patterns of nature over the liturgical format, ‘because by active work throughout the four seasons of the year we tire our bodies, composed also of four elements, we therefore sing four psalms in celebrating the morning office.’ He does this to persuade the laymen he is writing to that The Little Office is a natural and true thing to do, and through it the Virgin’s aid can help you in the physical world of nature that surrounds us.

As we said in class, the antiphons that frame each psalm work to insert Mary into the divine message that underlies each psalm. Not only, as Wieck argues, does it add a ‘musical motif’ that hangs over the recitation of each psalm and integrates the Virgin, it also mirrors Mary’s divine role as the bearer of God. Her antiphons surround the Psalms, the word of God, just as the temple surrounded the Ark and her womb surrounded Christ. The way the Psalms and Antiphons interplay give a richness of symbolic and divine meaning to the Little Office but also articulates the relationship of the Virgin to God and therefore the believer’s relationship to God through the Virgin. Mary sits at the juncture between God and man and, as Baltzer argues, represents the most direct route to freedom. This is the liturgical representation of all of Peter Damian’s stories. Just as Mary was the one who delivered Christ, our salvation, into the earth, so can your service on earth earn you your salvation, through Mary.

The way the Little Office developed was perhaps the inevitable result of the nature of this personal relationship based upon servility. Most obviously we see this in the way large psalters designed for group worship were increasingly replaced by small, decorative books of hours designed for personal use. Wieck shows how these books were often made for specific individuals, with their faces incorporated into the illustrations. Claude Goiffier, who was First Gentleman of the Privy Chamber in Henri II’s reign in France, incorporates his coat of arms (page 61). Wieck calls this self-aggrandizement but it also shows how people were defining their identities though this relationship to the Virgin. Marian devotion was also taking the place of personal patron saints. Reading and meditating on the Little Office in private was by itself an individualizing process. As literacy increased people were taking control of the way they worshiped Mary. The desire for salvation is of course an intensely personal thing. If Marian devotion was seen as the best means to gaining salvation, it is understandable that the development of the Little Office of the Virgin reflected this.



  1. This is a very nice meditation on the significance of "service" for the development of devotion to Mary. I wonder if you could take it a bit further: why service? I am not sure that I made this clear in class, but one of the things I have been trying to suggest is that the imagery of the Scriptures itself creates the modes of devotion that we see in the history of Christianity, most particularly the idea of "service" as it was originally performed in the temple. In this sense, it is not so much that devotion to Mary became more personal as that the idea of service created the idea of a personal devotion. In other words, the language of service was already there in the Scriptures gave shape to the way in which Christians understood their obligations and relationship to God. This is why (as I read it) it is so important that Mary declared herself a servant of God: it is the core way in which human beings are expected to respond to their Creator. Does this make sense? RLFB

  2. The "physicality" of Marian devotion is a very interesting subject. We might see it as relating back to the earlier course materials which focused so heavily on Mary as the connection between the divine nature of Christ and the human race. If Mary is the physical, human, earthly link it is no surprise that devotion to her takes on this concrete form, anchored in visible Creation. It would be interesting to take this insight further. Is Mary somehow more "present" (or at least seemingly more present) in the physical realm than God? What does that tell us about Mary, God, Creation and our relation to all three?

    One caution I'd add is against assuming that salvation was indeed seen as so intensely personal in the Middle Ages. That's certainly present in how we think about Salvation post-Reformation, but does it hold for the Middle Ages? That's not to suggest that we are saved communally, but more that there's a good bit more emphasis on our social and communal relation to God during this period than we see later.

  3. It’s really interesting that you focus on the idea of servii here; not only does it reinforce the idea of servants and servitude in relation to priests/the Temple that we’ve seen before, but it also reinstates Mary’s role as intercessor. As you mentioned, Mary’s role here is extremely physical; as opposed to being a mirror of God or the light by which we might understand divine will, Mary is literally stepping in on behalf of the faithful. I think your point about the inept cleric and Mary “bringing apparently disproportionate good to her ‘servants’” is interesting; you say that the bishop who punishes the cleric (and who is in turn punished by Mary) seems just in his verdict, but Damian is writing to defend the addition of the Marian office. Damian seems to be speaking directly to those who would criticize the Marian office as excessive, novelty, and inconsistent here; the cleric may have “no tact for religious life” and no groomed regularity in his prayers, but his devotion to Mary is sincere, and that is why she acts on his behalf. The recitation of the Office of the Virgin is a service, and as Damian demonstrates, Mary always protects her servants and those who would harm them.