Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Church on Mary as the Temple, Queen, and Wisdom

    We talked a lot in class about the way that Henry Adams describes the Virgin Mary as a symbol, rather than someone who simply is, and the way this changes her essence. However, in my own reading of the Adams’ pieces I think there is an undeniable tension in the way he views Mary – that perhaps he cannot quite decide upon who she is to him. While he does give much exploration to the idea of Mary as a symbol and force and that at times Mary has overshadowed the Trinity in people’s devotion to her (90), upon further reading I got the impression that in her popularity Mary became a way for people to interact with the Divine. He references Mary as the Temple of the Trinity, the Church in which the Trinity is absorbed (95). Even the hymns and poems that he cites contain Marian language that has become quite familiar over the course of this class; Mary is emphasized as mother of Christ and the Word, a path of heaven, home of the Triune God, an imperial abode (93-94). There is even the idea that through Chartres we are surrounded most apparently by Mary, who in turn is the one who presents the Son, and it is Christ who is representative of the Trinity, which coming full circle, finds its home within Mary (100). In that line of thought, then, is a church built in Mary’s honor better suited for allowing the laity to access the Divine because it mirrors the way in which Mary is actually the Temple of the Trinity?
    Even beyond the Temple language, Adams also references Mary’s relationship with Wisdom, in a way that calls to mind my question from last week’s readings from The Mystical City of God – is Mary the Temple for Wisdom, as well as for Christ? The Adams reading answers this question in the affirmative when it talks about how the medieval people saw the Virgin: “’Wisdom has built herself a house, and has sculptured seven columns.’  That house is the blessed Virgin; the seven columns are the liberal arts. Mary therefore has the perfect mastery of science,” (91). Adams acknowledges the existence of these Old Testament interpretations of the Virgin Mary as part of medieval Marian tradition, and recognizes the role Chartres plays in representing these roles of Mary in that it makes the seven liberal arts as part of Mary’s person and the church functions as a portal for its parishioners to access the Divine through Mary.
    Interesting, though, is that even though Adams addresses all of these aspects of Mary as the Temple and queen, he also makes the claim that the Church has always been at odds with these interpretations of Mary, which he says come from the laity. Yet he quotes members of the Church, like Bernard of Clairvoux, for his evidence of the temple and queenly language in regards to the Virgin. And what’s more, we see in the papal documents that even the Church in 20th century did agree with those same Temple and queen comparisons. Actually, something that surprised me somewhat in our readings from Tuesday was just how much the papal documents seem to agree with the major interpretations of Mary in Scripture that we have been reading about, despite the fact that from the handout of the first day we know that many of those interpretations don’t fall under the modern list of where Mary can be found in Scripture. The papal documents embrace the role of Mary as Temple even more so than Adams, I think, in that they don’t use the same symbol language when describing; rather, Mary is the Temple, the ark, the queen, and made in God’s likeness. Where I see Adams struggling with whether Mary is what medieval Europeans thought she was or whether she symbolizes something else, the Church in contrast very definitively states that Mary is that Temple and presenter of the Divine.
    Particularly in the M[u]nificentissimus Deus, we see lots of temple language as support to the tradition that Mary’s body was also assumed into heaven, like her soul. Perhaps most convincing in this argument, and clear in the belief that Mary is the temple, is St. Bellarmine’s testimony: “And who, I ask, could believe that the ark of holiness, the dwelling place of the Word of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit, could be reduced to ruin?” (Item 34). However, not only do we see this agreement of Mary as temple, but there are also points in the Lumen Gentium that argue to Mary being queen and made to be like Christ, much in the same way that Christ makes Mary, his beloved, like him in The Mystical City of God. The Church states in this document that upon her assumption, Mary was “exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe, that she might be there more fully conformed to her Son,” (Item 59), and later that the Word is echoed in Mary, and so the Church rightly looks to her that through following her example and understanding her favor from God, Christ “may be born and may increase in the hearts of the faithful” (Item 65). In all of these ways, it seems the Church is in agreement with the Mary of the early to middle ages; yet the one point I do not see an expected connection is between Mary and Wisdom. In no place do these papal documents reference any sort of relationship between Mary and Wisdom like the one that Adams refers to. Rather, instead of suggesting that Mary was bestowed with extraordinary wisdom, the documents point out that there were things beyond her comprehension, namely when Jesus had “taken up with the things that were His Father’s business; and [Mary and Joseph] did not understand the word of their Son” (Item 57). How does this instance of Mary’s lack of knowledge and understanding stand in contrast to the way we have been talking about her in relation to Wisdom during this course? Or even more, what does this mean that this moment goes very much against the Mary described by Sister Mary of Agreda who is bestowed with all of the knowledge of the world and full understanding of the Divine?



  1. You are grappling with exactly the questions that I hoped you would be by this point in the course! Yes, Adams seems to know the older tradition, particularly the way in which Mary was seen as the Temple of the Trinity and the House that Wisdom built--but does he understand it? He describes the sequence in which Adam of St. Victor hails Mary as the "Triclinium of the Trinity" as a "nursery rhyme," and insists (as you point out) that such descriptions are made "in defiance of dogma." As I read it, he is citing this Wisdom tradition only to point up its (apparent) absurdity, at least to hard-headed Americans who understand (as it took centuries for the French to do) that building such magnificent churches yielded next to no return. Is he ambivalent? Absolutely! But is he able in his ambivalence to get over flinging that contemptuous glance over his shoulder like Gibbon did? Very good observations also about the way in which the older tradition of seeing Mary is still visible in the constitutions of the Church. What is interesting is how modern scholarly studies of Mary nevertheless for the most part still insist that it is only in the New Testament that Mary actually appears. Can the older tradition of reading Scripture survive as a living understanding when historical-critical interpretations insist that it has no basis in the ancient understanding of the texts? This is the question that Mary raises! RLFB

  2. I think that the questions you raise at the end about Mary in relation to Wisdom are very important ones. There seems to be a certain dichotomy intrinsic to Mary, one which surfaces with the question of her wisdom. On one hand, though extraordinarily devout, Mary is decidedly a human woman, often portrayed as humble, particularly in her depiction prior to the Annunciation. On the other hand, however, she is the Mother of God and of the Word, born without original sin, and very close to her son, Christ. As such, we have often seen her described as a "mirror" that reflects divine nature, the means by which the laity can try to see and understand God. In Sister Mary of Agreda's work, this knowledge Mary possesses—a common theme seen previously in medieval sources and again in Adams—reaches towering heights: she learns everything about the natural world, becoming God-like in preparing to bear Jesus. As you mentioned, the papal documents suggest something different. Instead of having that access to Wisdom, she did "not understand the word of [her] son." I cannot find an easy way to reconcile the two depictions of the extent of Mary's knowledge—there not might even be one. Though Mary's dual nature of human woman/God-like temple of Christ is arguably one of the reasons for the flourishing of her cult and importance in the Church, it can raise questions in areas like this one (particularly when Church doctrine conflicts with earlier tradition).