Friday, November 6, 2015

Tradeoffs in Understanding Mary

            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.



  1. You mention that these authors have different agendas in each of their pieces, and I think that party explains their different methodology. This different agenda also implies a different audience. Readers of Walter of Wimborne could use his poems as a sort of prayer or meditation. A reader would likely not do the same with Scotus’s work, but instead might study it to better understand the mystery and perhaps critique the argument using the same methodology.

    Professor Fulton Brown quipped in class that around the time Scotus was writing, academics were “inventing the footnote.” We see what resembles modern-day academic citations in Scotus’s references to Augustine, Pope Leo, Anselm, Bernard, and other authors. I think this reveals that along with different agendas and different audiences, the authors’ different strengths explain the differences in their writings. It’s simple enough – good painters paint, good preachers preach; and likewise, good poets will write poems, and good academics will write dense, specific, and narrow treatises.

    Based on this reading, Scotus was a good philosopher and academic. However when he tries his hand at metaphor, it is not pretty. In his passage that begins, “Someone offending a king so injures him that the king is offended by each of the offender’s natural children, and he disinherits everyone who offends him, etc.,” (p. 41) Scotus compares God to a king and Jesus to a perfect mediator. He uses this to show why Mary must have been conceived without sin. However his image does not seem familiar enough to evoke a deeper understanding, and the passage is even harder to follow than the rest of his writing. I’m unfamiliar with Scotus and his work, but based on this, it does not seem he was meant to write poems and use flowery imagery.


  2. What does it mean to be the Mother of God? How can she be the Great Intercessor on our behalf, while simultaneously being the Fortress and Gate of the Lord? I think you’re spot on with your commentary on the different approaches taken by this week’s authors regarding the nature of the Virgin, but I do want to point out another side of the reasoning behind the long psalter-like stanzas of Wimborne and the dense philosophical logic of Scotus. That we humans cannot understand the precise essence of Mary is probably true – but that is the very driving force behind a lifetime of faith and devotion!

    Conrad mentions feeling a duty to pay homage to Mary by praising her to the best of his ability, so even if his particular analysis of Mary’s nature falls short, perhaps Marian writing and oratory is, at its core, a highly personal engagement between the thinker and the subject? We’ve talked about how praise could be service to Mary in our discussion of the Hours; maybe what Wimborne and co. are doing is not attempting to explain Mary, but to spend time holding her in their thoughts and setting a model for laymen to follow? And speaking of meditation, I think it’s also possible that although we may never be able to capture Mary in any medium, we may achieve a deeper understanding of her through the symbols and titles collected through hours of reflection and contemplation – in other words, we should be Marquard’s Mary of contemplation, so that anyone looking into our hearts could see the splendid Theotokos!


  3. Your final sentence, that the ultimate inability of either of these methods to grasp the character of Mary is essentially the point, sounds eminently plausible to me. It seems that Mary has become such a mirror of God that our talk of her has run into the same problems that we encounter when we attempt to speak of God, how can we talk, or even think, about something which is so far beyond us, yet is at the same time closer than we can conceive? In reading an author like Conrad, I wonder how much of the point ultimately lies beyond the page, within our own minds as we struggle to reconcile, understand, and meditate on the seemingly infinite proliferation of images that he offers. The images act as a gesture, pointing us to a place beyond images where we might actually encounter Mary, and through her, Christ and salvation. Similarly, digging into the apparent minutia, every conclusion only leads us on to more and more increasingly infinitesimal, yet no less important, questions, always directing us beyond our own thought, to something which lies both in the very deepest part of ourselves and radically beyond our words and concepts.

  4. I like very much the contrast that you draw here between Conrad and Walter's and Scotus and Marquard's methods in attempting to make sense of Mary and the conclusion that you draw about why both methods ultimately fail--because to describe or explain Mary is to describe or explain a mystery that cannot be fully contained, any more than it is possible to explain how she contained God. This is one of the things that I like most, too, about the thirteenth-century discussions of Mary--how they push the very limits of understanding and description only to come up short, which their authors acknowledge even as they attempt to explain that which cannot ultimately be explained. RLFB

  5. The crux of Marian studies, of Marian poetry and exultation is a hard subject to define even with the help of Walter of Wimborne and Conrad of Saxony at the helm. They invoke to Mary with this image of Gabriel but this interlude is not what makes her the mystical mistress in their minds. Many women in the Bible, both Old Testament and New, encounter the angel and are given the gift of a child so this is not a new trope to find in theology. However, why they invoke this as the entrance to calling upon and studying Mary is a better way to look at it. For Conrad by breaking down the Ave Maria, it is a way of finding meaning in every phrase and make it less mechanical. In this same breadth that he is inviting the mother of the Word of God, he is saying that he speechless and so Conrad is using her words and those of her contemporaries in the Bible to have words of his own. Walter of Wimborne is attempting the same with his 164 stanza ode to the mother of God, mirroring the number of psalms where prophecies of Mary and her child are often found and like them creating a song of praise for the life that will be and that was. In essence, although they are using the same starting point, they are just following suit of their predecessors. It does not mean though that this point is where Mary’s importance can be found at its’ peak but rather one where her own words can be used to be in conversation, mystically or lyrically, with Mary herself.
    - A. Graff