Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Astrolabe of the Divine

 Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries
            - Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī

In my 9th grade year, my boarding school required we take a course in world religions in place of a history course, and in that class, I first ran across this quote of Rumi which has  stuck with me since then. In reflecting on our class discussion of Mary of Agreda’s Mystical City of God, this quote came to mind, and I found that the same role that love plays for Rumi is played by the Virgin Mary for Mary of Agreda. We touched on this idea many times in class, though in slightly different terms. Generally, we have observed this phenomenon in depictions of Mary as a spotless mirror or light-refracting crystal. In this way, it would seem that Rumi and the venerable Mary of Agreda would agree, perhaps among other things,  on the idea that humans – being unable to grasp the divine itself – must use other means to discuss or to understand effectively the divine.

As I noted, this idea is not new at all to Mary of Agreda; it has been a prominent part of the tradition at least since the homilies of St. Andrew of Crete if not before. However, I see in the Mystical City of God a full flowering – in rather rococo form that I find not inappropriate to the subject matter – of the Marian tradition into this role. If I may be permitted to make a rather arcane metaphor, Agreda’s Mystical City of God could be bright Silmaril born of the tradition, the two interwoven trees. While I feel this metaphor could be extended further, I will refrain for now to return to the main matter at hand.

While, in many ways, Mary of Agreda’s work is a distillation of the previous tradition in how it views Mary; there is innovation too in both the extent of the claim as well as the theological basis for this claim. In the Mystical City of God, Mary is depicted as wholly a true intermediary between normal humans and the Godhead whereas in earlier traditions there was an uncomfortable tension between the fact that she was both an “unspotted mirror”, the perfect reflection of the divine, but herself still absolutely human. This tension came to the fore in the high Medieval debates regarding not only the validity of the immaculate conception itself – taken up as we’ve seen between the Dominicans and the Franciscans – but also the question of when exactly Mary was rid of original sin or whether she was stained by it at any point. Mary of Agreda through her work resolves this issue with a bold theological claim that Mary was a particular human who existed as wholly an intermediate being between people and God. The argument is made in many ways, but it can most clearly be seen in Mary of Agreda’s description of the order or “instants” by which we understand how God came to manifest his divine knowledge or plan or being – as Mary of Agreda describes these things are not easily divisible (Mystical City of God, 12).

Beginning with the first instant, Mary of Agreda describes how God recognizes and comprehends fully his own divine nature that, like “the sun should diffuse its light”, is inherently creative and communicative without any loss or detriment to itself. The second instant describes the duty of that creation to magnify the same God as the “manifestation of his greatness”. Next, the third instant involves the manner in which this communication will take place, and to that end, the necessary existence of Christ as hypostatically God and man was preordained.

Finally, in the fourth instant, Mary of Agreda comes to discuss the Virgin Mary. In this instant, the existence of Mary was effectively born or decreed to be. I find it particularly interesting that this followed directly from the instant in which Christ himself was preordained – who In turn proceeded from the necessary creative outpouring of a perfect divinity. This distinctly reminded me of the origins of the Marian cult in the Christological arguments against Nestorianism in the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. The fifth instant involving the origin of the angels both good and evil in the mind of God followed afterwards. The origin of the angels as following that of Mary is of note particularly because it prefigures why Mary is the “empress of heaven” and ergo holds authority over the angles. This comes up later in the Mystical City of God with Mary’s guard of 1,000 angels, but also in St. Louis de Montfort’s The Secret of the Rosary in the account regarding the man wracked by demons that were forced out by the invocation of the Virgin – who preceded them and therefore is accorded the greater authority (The Secret of the Rosary, 88-91). Finally, in the sixth instant, humankind and their fall from grace is prefigured – though their nature as being free, and as having both the faculties to know God and the ability to distinguish good and evil came in the third instant.

This particular description of the “order of instants” in the mind of God effectively constitutes – among other things – a theological argument for the immaculate conception since the Virgin Mary’s existence predates humankind itself and their corresponding original sin – though not human nature which is how she can partake of the good in human nature without being tainted by the evil. In this way, these instants set up Mary of Agreda’s goal of depicting Mary as the perfect human, a divine human, someone we can understand because while we can’t grasp divinity – being mere humans – it is much easier to grasp a human who displays perfectly divine characteristics through whom or by whom we can begin to penetrate, as far as we are able, the mysteries of God. The Virgin Mary is the immaculate astrolabe – for what is the use of an astrolabe if it is not perfectly accorded with the stars – so likewise Mary of Agreda’s theological treatise on the divine naturally traces the terrestrial life of the Virgin.



  1. The astrolabe metaphor is a beautiful one, I can see why you've found it so striking, and I think you're right to see Mary as operating in a similar manner for Sister Mary. I liked also your contention at the end that Mary proves to be more "graspable" than Christ because she mirrors the divine attributes within the human frame, it seems an elegant answer to the question of why Marian devotion was so prominent and why these theologians devoted so much space to her. Do these divine attributes that we see mirrored in Mary also pull her further away from us, however, making her ultimately just as ungraspable as her son? What does Sister Mary offer us to help mitigate this? Or perhaps, we can see what Louis encourages with Marian prayer in our other reason as in part an attempt to both bridge this gap and make visible the mirror that is the Virgin.

  2. I, too, like the astrolabe metaphor very much! (And, of course, the Silmarils!) I also found your discussion of the various instants of creation in the mind of God especially helpful for thinking through what Sor Maria seems to be claiming about Mary as the Immaculate Conception: how it is not only fitting, but necessary that, as the one pointing us to God (as star of the sea or astrolabe), Mary must have existed in the mind of God before the prefiguration of the fall or even the angels. (This makes me think of that other creation story, in which the Ainur sing the song of creation based on the themes that Iluvatar has proposed...) Perhaps this is another way of thinking, too, about why Mary is so helpful to us in giving us a way to think about God: without Mary, we cannot see the order of creation as clearly; Mary mirrors the thoughts as well as the words and actions of God. RLFB

  3. There are quite a few aspects of Marian devotion that remind me of certain beliefs and images in Islam. It would be interesting to study the correspondences there. Mirrors are frequent images in mystical strands of Islam and holy people in Islam are called "Friends of God," like Mary. I'm curious about the extent of influence on Marian devotion by Islam, particularly in Spain. The angels in the Mystical City of God seem to rely on a well-developed mythos or "angelology" that could probably be traced to a lot of different sources, including Judaism and Islam. (In the Qur'an, God creates angels before humans and makes them bow before Adam. One of them refuses to bow and "falls" like Lucifer.) Most of all, I see correspondences between Mary and Muhammad, because they are both defined simultaneously by their humanity and their exceptional status. Neither is an object of worship on the level of God, but they are perhaps more special because of their proximity to other humans despite their incredible importance. Some similarities are coincidences, I'm sure, but I also suspect there was a lot of borrowing and theological posturing between the two religions as Marian devotion developed. - JF