More often than not, the texts we read in class – even if they are straightforward – tend to contain some assumption or detail within them that doesn’t seem to quite mesh with our expectations from the reading. Being sensitive to these jarring moments and asking questions about them is often a valuable mode of historical inquiry. I think it’s useful, then, that we address this question that comes up again and again, of why so many prayers to the Virgin Mary – rather than Christ – and why so many miracle stories where these prayers are fulfilled? As we observed in class, there is more to these stories than meets the eye, and a look at the corpus of miracle stories as a whole gives us something to say about the particulars of Marian devotion that might explain why exactly the Virgin is in everyone’s prayers.
The Marian miracle stories are not just shallow fables, spread throughout Europe to amuse or frighten naïve rustics; beneath their simple exterior they contain a deeper devotional message. Clearly there should be something more: the stories were compiled by monks and theologians (and sometimes a king) precisely because the stories had some inherent worth to them as literary and spiritual works. The many scribes through whom these works survive did not suffer countless cramped wrists and strained eyes just to waste their paper on a silly yarn devoid of spiritual value. Indeed, the Cistercian Caesarius of Heisterbach (ca. 1180-ca. 1240) wrote a huge collection of miracle stories – including some about the Virgin Mary – that were accompanied by dialogues discussing the theological value of the tales. I find it unlikely that someone would carry out this enterprise if the stories were originally irreverent and missing the theological worth that we now give to them.
This suggests that the body of miracle stories belies some greater truths about devotion to which everyone from the lowliest tumbler to the richest king was meant to adhere. At this point we run into my original question: why is it that Mary is such a universal addressee for intercession? In many miracle stories, one who is devoted to the Virgin is invariably given a second chance by Mary, who is able to stay the hand of justice even when the subject’s wrongdoing seems unpardonable by any reasonable standard. Murderers are given reprieves from hangings, the most theologically ignorant monks are granted benefices by virtue of their saying of the Hail Mary, and Christ Himself is apparently stymied by her when about to punish the sinner. Sometimes, the miracle stories hint at a hierarchical muddling. In all cases but one, in all the Marian miracle stories we have read, there is no question of Mary’s omnipotence and supremacy in all matters spiritual and worldly. However, there is a moment in Johannes Herolt’s Miracles of the Virgin Mary, story 62 (14 in the document), where the Virgin prostrates herself before the Host. And yet in other miracle stories, she is the one who has the authority and ability to mollify Christ when, in His anger, He decides to mete out punishment to some offender. In reading this story as well as other stories of Marian intercession, we might be forgiven for asking, “Who’s in charge here?”
The author of The Miracles of Our Lady of Rocamadour also addresses this tension; the purpose of the stories is to render praise to Christ and honor to Mary. In the preface to the third book of miracles, he writes
For given that the Creator of all has deigned to restore for the praise and glory of his name, should we…refuse to show obedience to the divine will and command? Without him we are nothing, and with him and in him we can achieve much. So why should we not attach ourselves to the tower of strength, the fount of wisdom, the plenitude of all good things?
The message of the passage is devotion to Christ, but in the miracle stories themselves, it’s not Christ who takes the role of “tower of strength” and “fount of wisdom”, but Mary!
I think the most satisfying explanation for this dilemma is the one we discussed in class. In light of our discussion of these miracle stories, we see that those who prayed to Mary had one specific aspect of hers in mind. The act of prayer to Mary was carried out in front of a figurine of the Mother, as in the case of the Shrine of Rocamadour. The vast majority of the time these figurines artistically depict Mary seated, holding the infant Christ, in her role as Throne of Wisdom. Thus, even when the stories themselves do not use this specific epithet (stella maris is more common), the image and associated symbolic undertones are always present, so that wisdom is also sought in Marian devotion. The prayers are not only for heavenly intercession from injury and disease (though that’s definitely there); they are appellations to Mary for an increase in inner light. Viewing the stories from this new layer of intention, Mary’s intercession is not only merciful, but guided by the promise that the benefactor of Mary’s mercy will use this second chance in search of this inner clarity. This is why most of the miracle stories of Mary interceding on the behalf of the sick, stupid, or wicked end with the subject of the story devoting themselves to a heightened spiritual service. The few “reformed criminal” stories that don’t end this way have the subject making a full confession and then dying a good death, attaining a different sort of inner light, but one that fulfills the Marian mission nonetheless. In this way, albeit indirectly, Christ’s justice is carried out, even though Mary is the active participant in the tale.