Mile wide, but inch deep. Jack of all trades, but master of none. The temporal nature of our existence forces us to pick between skimming the surface of many topics in a subject or becoming an expert in only a few. However, the constant element in either approach is that it is simply not possible to learn absolutely everything about one particular subject. Similarly, as this week’s readings have shown, the approach to describing Mary as a Spotless Mirror of God’s Majesty can come in essentially one of two formats: (1) that of Wimborne and Conrad who use a wide range of metaphors and titles to understand Mary but fall short of rigorously examining any specific one, or (2) that of Marquard and Scotus who deeply explore only a few elements regarding Mary’s nature and life. In this post, I will examine the tradeoffs in each approach and the universality similarity of the authors’ inevitable inability to fully uncover the mysteries of Mary.
Wimborne and Conrad: Multitude of Metaphors
Wimborne and Conrad begin their pieces with the crux of Marian devotion: the greeting of Gabriel at the Annunciation. Each author then expands upon this event using variety and number of metaphors as their main devotional tools. All 164 stanzas in Wimborne’s “Ave Virgo Mater Chrisit” begin with some basic variation of Gabriel’s words and then continue to offer sets of metaphors, titles, and other praises in reference to Mary. For example, one of my favorite stanzas is number 9: “Hail, virgin, abyss of honey, / you who drive far away the ancient gall / of death and sorrow, / you who with the needle of providence / joined God with mud / and the lowest with the highest.” We can see in this and other stanzas how Wimborne uses many short yet descriptive images to paint a mural of the Blessed Virgin. Conrad too uses the beginning of the “Hail, Mary” to start his commentary, and is he more explanative per metaphor yet less loquacious in terms of the total number of metaphors than Wimborne. In addition to explaining what Mary’s 5 prerogatives are and the 9 woes from which Mary was saved, Conrad also gives explores 4 names for Mary, the most striking of which is “Star of the Sea.” Using a nautical analogy, Conrad describes how with the combined effort of the wood of the ship (the wood of Jesus’ cross) and the guiding light of the star of the sea (Mary), the pilgrims on the ship will safely be able to sail to the shore of salvation. Unlike Wimborne, Conrad gives a much more detailed and Scripturally-based explanation of his metaphors and apparently likes using three parts in each level of his analysis.
What we see in both Wimborne and Conrad is that despite the multitude of metaphors in their approach to praising the Blessed Virgin, we are still left with the unsolved underlying mysteries. Mary is described as the “Temple of Solomon” by Wimborne or “Star of the Sea” by Conrad, but at the same time the real meaning at the core of these metaphors eludes us. In other words, while we know what and temple or star is and how Mary could be thought of as a temple or star, we really can’t understand that to which the metaphors refers, namely what it means for Mary to be the Mother of God whose guides the faithful as an intercessor in heaven. Again, I don’t think it is possible to elaborate specifically on the temple imagery used to describe Mary other than to repeat that Mary is a temple for Christ, and we can’t fully understand what happens when Mary co-mediates on our behalf and guides us in times of trouble. In reality, the core meaning of such seemingly simple metaphors end up being beyond our ability to comprehend, and so Wimborne and Conrad use a myriad of them to try to continually grasp at what is essentially unreachable.
Scotus and Marquard: Crosshair Analysis
Scotus and Marquard extensively explore only specific parts of the nature of the Blessed Virgin and don’t use the numerous metaphors of previous authors. In his defense of the idea that the Mary was not conceived in Original Sin nor ever took any stain from it, Scotus focuses on this issue alone but explores it to great depth. He mainly argues against the two-fold objection that Mary must have been in sin at some point because she was conceived via carnal lust and because otherwise she would not have needed the redemption of Christ. Scotus offers some fairly complicated theological arguments, but the main gist of his defense is that is it more excellent for Mary to have been saved from ever falling into sin that to have been saved right after falling, meaning the Virgin needed Christ’s salvific power more than any other human being. Similarly, Marquard narrows his focus on another element of Mary’s nature, namely how she is a quiet contemplative who had a mystical union with her Son. Marquard offers support for his hypothesis by citing how infrequently Mary speaks in the New Testament, and he uses Augustine’s three modes of prayer to explain how Mary prayed as one who (1) was filled with true faith and love, (2) believed herself unworthy to know what was revealed to her, and (3) was eager to perform virtues. In all things, Mary was characterized as a contemplative who had a humble passivity to the will of God.
While Scotus and Marquard write in detail on one aspect of Mariology and don’t try to briefly cover many different metaphors like Wimborne and Conrad, neither despite their strict analysis can fully unveil the mystery about which they are writing. We see that Scotus admits his own argument is one from the perspective of greatest excellence, and Marquard in his excursions into speculative theology cannot but offer a persuasive argument about Mary as a mystical contemplative. The further each author explores an element of the nature of Mary, the more often they run into the realm of faith and that which is beyond reason and necessity. Again, even this different approach to understanding Mary ends up not being able to explain everything. Which path gets us closer to discovering some truth about Mary: many understandable metaphors using images like the temple which don’t try to explain how only Mary could contain all of God, or a detailed metaphysical proof on Mary’s sinless existence that nevertheless cannot fully explain why it is necessary for her to have been graced to live this way?
To directly compare the broadly descriptive pieces by Wimborne / Conrad with the narrowly focused writings of Scotus / Marquard is not totally fair given that these authors have different agendas for their selected pieces, but the point still stands that whether your strategy is to use an overwhelming amount of aesthetic imagery or a strict, detailed analysis of an aspect of Marian theology, neither approach will help us solve the mysteries behind the person who is the Spotless Mirror of God’s Majesty. And maybe that’s the point.