Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fear, Reverence, and Humility

I think the most theologically-surprising part of The Mystical City of God isn’t all of the details about Mary’s life. Some of those are definitely strange, but they’re not categorically different than many of the other things we’ve read: imagining the important points of Mary’s life is a very old tradition, even if Mary of Agreda is interested in a different kind of detail. The part that seems most surprising to me is how important and transformative she thinks this work is.

In the first chapter, Mary of Agreda writes that she felt it was “improper to put off the writing” of the book because “the Most High had intimated this as the fitting and opportune time.” She then quotes God’s historical account of sin and salvation, where the important periods are from original sin to Moses, when “men governed themselves according to their own inclinations and fell into many errors and sins; and from Moses until the Incarnation, when “they again committed sin by not obeying” the law given to Moses. The Most High then told her that “just as I chose the opportune time for the greater manifestation of my mercy, so I now select this time for showing toward them another very great favor”: this book, which will explain God’s anger and let people avoid it (7-8).

Mary of Agreda seems to see the revelation she received as important on a cosmic scale, comparable to Sinai or the Incarnation. Most of the other Marian works we’ve read have, of course, said that Mary is important, but I can’t think of any others (except the Gospels) that are claiming to usher in a new era of salvation history.

Mary of Agreda frequently emphasizes her own smallness and humility, especially in this first chapter. For example, she quotes Christ’s praise of God from Matthew 11:25, praising God for having “hidden these high mysteries from the wise and from the teachers,” but where Matthew’s Christ ends by saying that God has revealed the mysteries to little children, Mary of Agreda says He has revealed them to “me, the most insignificant and useless slave of Thy Church” (5). Mary of Agreda puts herself in Christ’s place by adopting his words as her own, but by the end of the sentence, she puts herself in the place of the insignificant “little children” instead.

The “three things” Mary of Agreda says she paid attention to while writing the book also demonstrate the same humility. She says she kept in mind that “the creature must ever [...] abase itself in proportion to the condescension of His Majesty,” that “all men, who are so forgetful of their own salvation” must “consider and learn what they owe to the Queen and the Mother of piety,” and that she must be “willing to have my spiritual director, and if necessary the whole world, find out my littleness and vileness” (6). Both the first and the third of these three principles center on humility, abasement, and littleness.

When I first read the book, I read all of these statements of humility as simply part of the genre: many writers we’ve read (notably Bernard) have begun by talking about how unfit they are for the task of writing about Mary. Some of them connect it to Mary’s own humility, while others paint their smallness in contrast to Mary’s majesty, but there is certainly a long tradition of Marian works beginning with the writer’s humility. It also reminded me of Hildegard’s visions, which she claims that she did not want to write down, and actually refused to write them down until she was forced to by being stricken with an illness as punishment. All of these techniques seem to absolve the writer of responsibility for anything inappropriate that might be in the work, but more than that, they seem to be just a part of the genre of works about Mary.

But looking at it again now, in the context of her salvation history in the beginning, I wonder whether her humility actually evokes a different ancient tradition: that of Moses. Numbers 12:3 says that “The man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.” Moses demonstrated that quality at the burning bush, when he claimed not to be a good enough speaker to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. It seems like Mary of Agreda’s claim to be giving a new work that would deliver people from sin in the same way as Moses’s Law or Christ’s Spirit might be related to that humility that is a hallmark of Moses.  

-- ADM


  1. Interesting comparison between Sister Mary and Moses, that was not something that I had previously considered. I wish you had said a little more about the cosmic scope of The Mystical City, because I found it fascinating how she shifted between this grand scope and "smaller", humble scale. It's worth considering what the union of the two tells us both about the conceptions of Mary and God operating for Sister Mary and the nature of medieval devotion more generally. There seems to be this sense that the contemplation of small things with great humility will allow us to expand our vision out to a cosmic scale and then back again. There's an interesting rhythm to it, and we might wonder if there's a connection to the rhythms of the liturgy or the monastic life which provided the context for so much of what we've read.

  2. I, too, am intrigued by the comparison you draw here between Sor Maria and Moses! I would have liked to hear more about what kinds of claim you see Sor Maria making about her work as an actual revelation, as opposed to an exegesis of the Scriptures. We have had at least one example of this kind of claim previously, in Elisabeth of Schonau's request to be told more about the details of Mary's death and assumption. Is Sor Maria actually claiming that the details that she is able to give thanks to the teaching she has received are salvific (i.e. necessary)? How far will the comparison to Moses hold? Has she received a new law? Or is she more like a prophet? She does not claim to have had revelations about things to come, only more details about Mary's and Christ's earthly life, and yet she is also shown the pattern of the temple, much as Moses was shown the pattern of the tabernacle that he was to have made. A very nice insight, worth developing! RLFB

  3. I agree that it was very astute of you to point out how Sister Mary compares herself to Moses in order to make a claim about the importance of her book. One difference between them that I saw, however, was that Sister Mary has a more active role in the interpretation of what she has received from the Lord. She claimed, “They commanded me to… write down so much of them, as I might bring myself to understand. The exalted and high Lord gave me a law, written not only on tablets, as He gave to Moses, but one wrought by His omnipotent finger in order that it might be studied and observed” (6). While Moses simply receives and shares the tablets, Sister Mary emphasizes how the distribution of these new messages from the Lord is dependent on her writing, understanding, study, and observation. Additionally, each of her cries of humility draws attention to her own role in the Lord’s process.

    We discussed in class how The Mystical City of God is a work of theology, in a way that most other recounted visions we studied were not. Given how Sister Mary emphasizes the role of her own study, I think she was aspiring to be seen more as a “theologian who has visions” than a prophet.