Thursday, November 5, 2015

What Do They Think Mary is?

One of the questions looming in the background of any study of Mary is whether her cult conflicts with Christianity’s monotheism. Is she a thinly veiled rehabilitation of pagan mother goddesses? Is she a distraction from Christ? My intent here is to closely examine how Mechthild of Magdeburg and Elisabeth of Schonau describe the Virgin’s position in the celestial hierarchy, or her relationship to the trinity and to us. I believe this reveals that there understanding is rooted in an understanding of heaven and love that make the categories of human and divine largely beside the point.
            Mechthild’s use of the word “goddess” to describe Mary sets off the pagan alarm bells, but on the whole, her writings do not at all depict Mary as a figure abstracted from her humanity. Mary is not the sole, or even primary, female in Mechthild’s writings. As was hinted in the class readings and can be seen further by looking at the whole scope of her work, Mechthild is primarily interested in the soul as God’s bride and the formation of the soul in this role. How ought the soul act toward its bridegroom? Mary enters the picture only as a contingency plan after the fall. She says, “the Father chose me for his bride – that he might have something to love; for his darling bride, the noble soul, was dead” (Mechthild, 50). Mechthild later elaborates, saying that before Christ “no human being was so holy that his spirit could or would ascend to the eternal heights…but it was this virgin who drew our Lord down here with the sweet voice of her soul” (197-198). The virgin is decidedly a created being, but, in her humanity, she is uniquely pleasing to God in a way that procures our salvation. Yet, moments later, Mechthilde tells us that “the longer she carried [Christ], the more radiant, beautiful, and wise she became” (198). Mary is not born perfect, but she receives her virtue back with interest. 
After God chooses Mary as his second wife, she becomes a universal mother, suckling the faithful of all times and places: “If [Holy Christianity] was going to recover completely after her death and birth, God’s mother was going to have to be her mother and her nurse. This was and is as it should be, since God is her rightful father and she is his rightful bride” (51). That said, this position of celestial honor does not seem to set Mary up as a separate authority or power from God. Her role as mother is more necessary than voluntary: “If you no longer wanted to suckle, the milk would cause you much pain” (51). This is because the “pure, spotless milk of true, generous mercy” is not Mary’s but something given by God to His people through Mary.  In fact, Mary is told, “You shall go on suckling until the last day. Then you shall become dry, for then God’s children – and your children – will be weaned and fully grown for eternal life” (51). Mary’s motherhood in some sense ends – her children grow up and do not need milk from her any longer. Since Mechthild also emphasizes at length that souls will be united with Christ as brides, this indicates that both the special roles of Mary are less unique than suspected. Mary seems to occupy a space between human and divine, but she is far from alone in that space. If Mary is a goddess, what does that make her adult children or the souls that marry God?
While Elisabeth does not make Mechthild’s faux pas of calling Mary a goddess, she is likely to alarm modern readers with her lack of interest in distinguishing between Jesus and Mary. In her vision of heaven, “on the throne one sees the mirror of the Godhead, the likeness of humanity, the light of the Holy Spirit…on the throne is our Lady, St. Mary…for with her child she has healed the wounds of all men who accepted grace and could and willed to preserve it” (103). Mary is sitting on God’s throne, and Elisabeth gives her joint credit for mankind’s salvation. Elisabeth later sees in the sign of the sun virgin, Mary offering us salvation: “the drink in the golden cup is the sweetest and most plentiful grace of the Holy Spirit, which came upon her more abundantly than upon the other saints of the Lord. And she offers this drink to others when, at her intervention, the Lord makes His faithful ones sharers of this same grace in the holy Church” (125). From the perspective of hard categories of divinity and humanity, this passage is completely baffling. The Holy Spirit is divine, but in some sense subject to the human Mary.  On the other hand, Mary has received grace in a way comparable to the other (human) saints. Even so, she is the one that intercedes with the Lord and convinces him to share the grace. The vision seems to have almost no explanatory power, but it causes some confusion. To make matters worse, the vision is originally supposed to be of Jesus, not Mary, but in the appearance of a woman.  In fact, “the Lord willed it to be done in this way that the vision could so much more easily be adapted to also signify His blessed mother” (124-125).  Why is Jesus so invested in worship of his mother?
            I believe this is intelligible because Mary’s glory depends deeply on her close union with God. We see in Mechthilde’s discussion of the soul as bride that this union is in some sense attainable by man. I believe, then, that the relationship between Mary and God is meant to illustrate the nature of heaven. While formally distinctions and personalities remain, the complete unity in love and communion with the trinity overwhelms those distinctions. When Mechthild writes that “with her child [Mary] has healed the wounds of all men who accepted grace and could and willed to preserve it,” we are tempted to question it (103). Wasn’t it Jesus who healed the wounds of all men. How can Mechthild just casually add Mary in like that? These questions miss the mark because neither Mechthild nor Elisabeth seeks to draw any distinction between Jesus and Mary. While implicitly understanding them as different (creator and created), they take for granted that these two people united in perfect love are in no way at odds with each other. For this reason, the bride and bridegroom both rejoice in prayers directed to either. Having been overcome by the light of God, “the sublime reflection of the Holy Trinity lingers on [Mary’s] countenance,” (Mechthild, 265) and as a result “she resembles him in all parts” (51).



  1. While Mechthild does not fully abstract Mary from humanity, her usage of “Goddess” terminology is notable in its uniqueness and its implications.

    For Mechthild, a notion of Mary as Goddess seems to be intimately tied to an understanding of sin. Mary exists at the margin of being able to sin and being unable to sin. Mechthild explains first, “…you [Mary] were able to sin; for you had been created a full human being in your complete feminine nature and in full virginity” (110). She follows by stating, “But Lady, noble Goddess above all pure humans, you were also not able to sin….for the heavenly father watched over your childhood with the foresight of his having chosen you long before…” (110). It is in her ability to not-sin – conferred upon her by God – that her God-like nature arises. However, Mechthild clearly does not think Mary is equivalent to God. She states later – notably through the voice of Lucifer – that Jesus was the only child ever born and begotten without sin (200). Mary is not God because she, despite later being made unable to sin, was not born and begotten without it.

    I am particularly fascinated by Mechthild’s ideas about sin’s relationship to being human. It seems that Mechthild uses Mary’s once-held ability to sin (and later to suffer pain) as proof for her “full humanity.” This seems to suggest then that Jesus, who was “born and begotten without sin,” might not be fully human (and might not have suffered on the cross) in Mechthild’s schema.

    A. Fialkowski

  2. This is very nicely put: "the relationship between Mary and God is meant to illustrate the nature of heaven." Yes! I think you have captured beautifully what is at stake for both Mechthild and Elisabeth in their assimilation of Mary to God, respectfully, for Mechthild, with Mary as the image of the soul wedded to God and become Godlike in her perfection; for Elisabeth, with Mary as the woman sitting in the sun who is also the humanity of Jesus. It is Mary's resemblance to God that fascinates both of them, not a desire to set Mary in equality with God as divine. And yet, Mary is divine, as are all souls, because she, like they, is made in the image and likeness of God--a mystery indeed! RLFB

  3. Firstly, I love the phrase “pagan alarm bells”. Very funny!

    Secondly, having read more modern takes on Mary and then going back and reading your post, I was struck by the unimportance of Mary’s free will in the Mechthild material you referenced. As you pointed out, the suckling she provided was not voluntary but required and facilitated by God. God’s control is also evident in the quote A.F. referenced: “But Lady, noble Goddess above all pure humans, you were also not able to sin….for the heavenly father watched over your childhood with the foresight of his having chosen you long before”. It is not that Mary does not want to sin, so much as God prevents her from doing so.

    I think this could be key to why Mechthild can get away with describing Mary as a Goddess. If Mary is a tool of God, she cannot be a threat to God. She is the image of God because she was designed that way.

    Given the comparison between Mary and the soul, I wonder what this means for souls and the agency of humans over their lives/ salvation. Would Mechthild have believed in predestination? Even if she did not, her ideas could be seen as a predecessor of such a belief.