Friday, November 6, 2015

Without Woe but with Sorrow

Conrad of Saxony’s “Mirror of the Blessed Virgin Mary” says that Mary was “absque vae,” or “without woe” (II). He describes at some length the ways in which she is “entirely immune” from woe, including “the woe of original sin, of original misery, and the woe of the punishment or pain of hell,” and the fractal-like component parts of each kind of woe. From this chapter, we might have expected Conrad to describe Mary as consistently happy, free of all kinds of woe, despite the trials of her life.

However, in the next chapter, he describes Mary according to a translation of her name: the “bitter sea” (III). One of the kinds of bitterness he ascribes to Mary is that “Mary in the Passion of her Son was filled with bitterness when the sword of sorrow passed through her soul.” He compares this to the “bitterness” Noemi describes when she changes her name to Mara to articulate the pain she feels at the death of her sons. This chapter does not mention the word “woe” at all, but it seems to describe Mary as full of pain.

I am not sure how these parts relate to one another. The pain that Mary felt at the crucifixion, if it felt like a “sword of sorrow” as Conrad describes it, certainly sounds like woe. Of course, they are different kinds of woe-- he never said that she was immune from emotional pain-- so there is no direct contradiction, but there does seem to be a complicated tension.

One of the kinds of woe he describes Mary as being immune from is the pain of “that original curse pronounced against Eve, ‘Thou shalt bring forth children in sorrow.” This strengthens the apparent tension in two ways. First, if Mary is immune from the woe of childbirth, which ordinary women also face, should she not be immune from the even worse woe in her soul at seeing her son crucified? Second, and more interestingly, the word “sorrow” is both the word in the verse about Eve and the descriptor Conrad chooses for the “sword” that passes through Mary’s soul at the crucifixion. The linguistic similarity makes it harder to explain away the tension by saying that they simply refer to totally different things.

It seems like part of this tension is a general one we have seen in other texts as well: Mary is powerful and totally unlike other women, but also has universally-recognizable maternal traits. To the extent that this is what is going on in the “Mirror,” it is not necessarily a weakness; it could be just another of the miraculous paradoxes that surround Mary as well as Christ. However, it does seem to me that something more complicated is happening here. Conrad seemed too adamant about Mary’s total exemption from woe of all kinds to suddenly forget about that and describe her woe in detail in the very next chapter, and the pain she he describes her feeling at the crucifixion is too central to that chapter to be ignored.

-- ADM


  1. I agree that there is this paradox in Mary's character as an unattainable paradigm of virtue and goodness while at the same time functioning as a relatable intermediary, a maternal figure. I found the points that you brought up to illustrate this paradox from Conrad interesting—that in one chapter he would describe the lack of childbearing woe that she had to suffer, but in the very next discussing her agony and sorrow at the crucifixion. I tried resolving this for myself with Conrad's first chapter, where he lays out Mary's "five sweet prerogatives." She was "pure," "full," "firm and secure," "worthy," and "useful"; of these five, "firm and secure" seem to me the most relevant to the split between a painless childbirth and the suffering of a mother deprived of her son. Conrad explains himself: "she was most firm and secure, because of the Divine Providence within her"—the way I'm trying to interpret this to myself is that the points you bring up don't necessarily contradict themselves. Since Mary was pregnant with Jesus, it would make sense that her pregnancy and labor were miraculously easy. By the same token, the fact that Jesus was her son would only have greatly magnified her pain at his crucifixion.


  2. It seems obvious that Conrad is making some sort of technical distinction between woe and sorrow/pain, and it would have been interesting to plumb a little more deeply into the character of each in order to nuance out the difference between the two. However, I think you hit the nail on the head when you call us back to the Incarnation as a model in the final paragraph, Mary is secure in her connection to Christ, her role in salvation history, but that very role entails that she must suffer as much as any martyr. Similarly, Christ removed from human cares and suffering in his divinity, yet dying tortured, alone and abandoned. We might think of these as paradoxes, but I think it's more useful to recognize that what many of the medieval authors are striving to do is to see precisely how it's not a paradox, how the reality of the Incarnation unifies these apparent opposites and allows us to see the truth of things, not as opposites predicated on paradox, but as a supreme unity, a whole. And, for us, the fascinating thing is that they choose to do so with Mary.

  3. Very nice attention to the particulars of Conrad's description of Mary, but I would have liked you to delve somewhat deeper, perhaps even by reading further in Conrad's text to answer your question about how he can describe Mary as both "a vae" and a "bitter sea." dyingst makes a good suggestion, that we are dealing here with a distinction between woe and sorrow, perhaps woe being the state of sin and sorrow being the response to the need for Christ to suffer? Definitely a contrast worth exploring! RLFB

  4. I agree with dyingst that a distinction must exist between Conrad’s understanding and use of the words “woe” and “sorrow.” I admit I am still grappling with the exact difference between the two, but here are my attempts to parse out Conrad’s meaning, Is, perhaps, the difference as Prof. Fulton Brown suggests that woe is associated with sin, while sorrow is a response of sorts to Christ’s suffering? Glancing through the concordance for “woe” seems to confirm Prof. Fulton Brown’s suggestion. The concordance turns up a lengthy list of phrases referencing “guilt,” “sin,” “punishment” and other phrases of that sort, complementing the impressions from our reading selection. I think ADM’s comments about the use of “sorrow” to talk about both Eve and Mary is useful for understanding how “sorrow” operates for Conrad. Though the concordance holds significantly fewer references to “sorrow,” at least four of those (five total) references revolve around motherhood and children. It seems to me, based on the concordance, and the specific example of Mary’s “sorrow” at the death of her son, that “sorrow” is a feeling linked to the fate, and perhaps the loss, of child(ren). “Woe” seems the result of wrongdoing. “Sorrow,” however, it seems comes from someplace beyond one’s own wrongdoing or even one’s child's wrongdoing. “Sorrow” comes as result of one’s children, through perhaps no particular fault of their own, dealing with the consequences of living in a world after the Fall.