Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mary's Relationship to the Almighty in 'The Mystical City of God'

Following the lesson I reread Book III, Chapter 1 of The Mystical City of God, which focuses on the novena before the Incarnation. Over these nine days, God elevates Mary to understand and share in his omnipotence and omniscience so she would be worthy of carrying his only son. Mary of Agreda’s focus on characterisation makes the dynamics of this relationship very interesting. It is manifested as both a teacher/ pupil relationship but also lovers before the consummation of the Incarnation. Mary herself constantly humiliates and degrades herself yet also appears to hold power over God and his decisions. It is clear she is constructed as a mirror for God, but sometimes this dividing line seems very vulnerable and she herself appears almost deified. I’m going to explore the nature of this ‘correspondence of a creature with its Creator.’

In the nine days of the novena, God shares with Mary all that can be known by any creature bar God alone. With Genesis as the basis for the first six days, Mary is able to read through the scripture and see what lays behind it. She ‘perceived and understood’, understanding how and why God did as he did. She is allowed into the decision making process, or even the mind, of the Lord. She even understood ‘in how far and in what way it was a void,’ glimpsing and quantifying what existed before creation itself. In addition to this she also understands the sinfulness and lowliness of the human race and is overcome with sorrow, ‘She debased herself more than all the children of Adam with all their miseries.’  It is interesting to consider whether we can read some of Mary of Agreda’s intellectual frustrations into the description of the knowledge that the Virgin received. After the third day Mary of Agreda writes ‘In comparison with her all those skilled in medicine in the world would appear but ignorant even after the most thorough studies and largest experience.’ Having talked about Mary of Agreda’s frustration at being prevented from travelling as a missionary due to her statues as a woman and nun, I felt at some points a similar frustration can be detected towards the intellectual limitations of her life. The Virgin is clearly held up as a general example, ‘an object of admirable emulation to the angelic spirits and an unparalleled example for men’, but perhaps she is simultaneously a very personal role model for Mary of Agreda herself, empowered and fulfilling many of the roles the nun yearned for.

The Virgin Mary also shares in God’s power. On the second day God made her ‘a corresponding participant in the divine Omnipotence’ and she is ‘raised to sovereignty over the sea, the earth, the elements and the celestial orbs, with all the creatures which are contained therein.’ In addition, she is able to step outside normal time with the Lord and perceive ‘all the creatures of the past, present and future.’ This was necessary partly so she would be the most perfect of all the Lord’s creatures so that she could infuse perfect humanity into God’s son as ‘like begets like’. The power she receives from the lord here also acts as the base of her intecessionary power. If ‘the strength of the Lord had not come to her aid, she would not have been able to bear the impetuosity of her desire to assist and save mankind.’ In sharing in God’s power and knowledge she derives the ability to act as ‘the mother and advocate of sinners.’

The way Mary of Agreda presents this divine relationship and exchange is quite varied. On one level it appears pedagogical. Mary, the perfect pupil, ‘was taught and comprehended’ and gains the knowledge to elevate her above all humans and even the angels. Perhaps more striking, however, is the erotic aspect of the relationship. God refers to Mary as ‘My spouse and dove’ and there are parallels made to the Song of Songs and to the Old testament marriage of Esther. There is also a constant pattern of yearning and fulfilment, the Lord being ‘strained in waiting for the time’ he can redeem man and bring about the ‘fulfilment of this desire’. Later, the Lord seems to play with Mary, tantalising her by saying the ‘ungrateful behaviour of men… does not merit the execution of this promise.’ This cause Mary to degrade herself and petition him further until he gives in. Mary of Agreda then claims, ‘His apparent hesitation was merely a device of his tender love in order to enjoy so much the longer the voice of his Beloved, causing her sweet lips to distil most sweet honey.’ The Lord toys with Mary for his own pleasure in a sometimes overtly sensual way. There is a strangeness to this as the Lord attempts to transform Mary ‘more to a likeness of her God in order to make her worthy of being his Mother.’ This seduction takes place both in preparation for a consummation that will also make Mary his Mother.

The active role that Mary increasingly plays in God’s decisions throughout the novena is striking. She is tested by God, as Jacob was, and asked what her name is. Her answer impresses God so much he is ‘wounded and weakened’ by desire for her. She appears to motivate God to send his Son, Mary of Agreda claiming she, ‘next to her most blessed Son, is the cause of their salvation.’ Another strangeness exists in the way Mary’s agency and power towards God is derived from her constant humiliation and debasement. Whatever the Lord shows her, she reverts to a position of extreme humility and consideration of the ‘measureless iniquity and malice of men’. The more she does this the more God desires her and the more powerful she appears.

Mary of Agreda works hard to distinguish Mary as the mirror of God. In learning of God’s power and knowledge The Virgin sees him increasingly clearly and the ‘veil fell more and more from the secrets of the infinite wisdom.’ Sometimes the power she derives seems to elevate her to the same level as the Lord, giving her ‘sovereignty’, yet this is always tempered by the fact her power is always derived from the Lord. She ‘reflected his infinite attributes and virtues...under the colours and lights added to it from on high.’ The fact that the closeness of this divine relationship is dependent on Mary’s constant debasement and submission ensures the correct hierarchy remains intact.

W. Russell


  1. I really enjoyed the close read you offer here, and it led me to wonder how we might shift back from the picture you describe to the idea of Mary as a model for Sister Mary. How might the pedagogy and union through abasement and humility manifest in her own monastic life and what more might we be able to say about how this mirrored the struggles of her own life? It certainly seems likely, as you suggest, that she might take the limitations placed on her as akin to the trials of Mary as she humbled herself before God.

    Fascinating also is the fact that Sister Mary's book might be the most complete and comprehensive picture of what deification, the end goal of the Christian life, actually looks like. Certainly there's a richness here that cries out for even greater exploration.

  2. I, too, very much enjoyed your close reading of Sor Maria's description of Mary's pre-Annunciate novena. This to me is one of the things that makes Sor Maria's work so fascinating: she is at all times extremely precise in her descriptions of Mary's relationship with God, even as (to a casual reader) she seems to be somewhat unrestrained in her willingness to attribute charisms to the Virgin. I would have like to hear more about the tension you explore here between Mary's being filled with knowledge and God's seduction of her as his bride: what kind of relationship exactly is Sor Maria suggesting between love and wisdom, and how does it help us understand the mystery of the Incarnation itself? RLFB