Meek and Mild: Preparing the Way

caravaggio nativityI haven’t gotten to write much this Advent, and now I’m going to write about dealing with anger.  Please don’t draw any connections – it’s just been a busy time.

Advent is a time of preparation, a reminder that our whole life is preparation for the coming of Christ.  We prepare for our annual celebration of his first coming: by decorating and making cookies, by prayer and perhaps some fasting, by meditating on the mystery we will celebrate in the busy whirl that is Christmas.

We recall, perhaps in the Jesse tree, certainly in the readings from Isaiah and about John the Baptist and Mary, how through all of history God prepared for that first coming.

And we remind ourselves, by our annual observance, that our whole life is a preparation for his final coming, when at last we too shall meet Jesus face to face.  Every time we prepare for communion, we prepare for that ultimate communion, on our last day and on the Last Day.

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A voice is calling,

“Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness;

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

 

“Let every valley be lifted up,

And every mountain and hill be made low;

And let the rough ground become a plain,

And the rugged terrain a broad valley;

 

Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,

And all flesh will see it together;

For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40).

 

But a hymn reminds us, “make straight the way for God within.”

All the external preparations point to our internal.  How do we prepare the way within?

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This Advent I’ve been thinking about meekness.  I’ve been thinking about the beatitudes in general for a couple years.  A traditional reading notices three kinds:

The first three are about emptying ourselves of obstacles (the purgative way):

Poverty of spirit

Weeping

Meekness

The next two are about discovering who God is (the illuminative way):

Justice

Mercy

And the next two (or three) are about becoming one with him (the unitive way):

Pure in heart (who see God)

Peacemakers (called children of God)

(Those who are persecuted for him)

The illuminative way prepares the way for God within – but I’m thinking now especially of clearing the path.  Like Mary, we have to become poor with him, to set aside all our earthly distractions.  We have to weep with him, setting aside our worldly pleasures and embracing the pain of a fallen world, refusing to flee or cover them up.  And we have to become meek with him.

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I’m thinking about meekness partly because I recently, finally, discovered Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of meekness.

One way to understand the beatitudes is by their rewards.  Blessed are the meek | for they shall inherit the earth.  What are the meek?  Those who inherit: those who don’t fight for riches, but receive everything from their Father.

Still, what does meekness mean?  Thomas points out that Aristotle, that great observer of humanity, discuses the same word used in the Greek text of Matthew: praüs.  Aristotle says (in IV Ethics) that   praüs, meekness, is moderation of our anger.  Thomas sees it as a kind of self-restraint: just as we have to control our desire for food and alcohol and sex, so too our anger.

We can go a step further: clemency is self-restraint in regard to punishment.  It is closely related to meekness, but it’s worth noting the difference.  Clemency is about our external actions: we need to control ourselves when it comes to acting on our anger.  But meekness isn’t just about lashing out.  It’s about our interior life.  It’s the virtue that moderates our anger itself.

Mercy, we should note, goes a step further: mercy is the desire to help another person in distress.  Clemency just doesn’t hurt him; meekness doesn’t feel angry with him; but mercy goes out to help him.

our lady of millenium

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And meekness too is a beatitude, a way of clearing the paths for God to enter into our hearts.  I have been pondering Mary’s meekness in the beatitudes.  Meekness isn’t everything, but Mary has room in her heart because she is not full of anger, even as they scourge her beloved.

How do we cultivate this meekness?  It’s interesting that it’s a virtue, not an action.  These days we talk a lot about forgiveness, but two problems.  First, forgiveness is darned hard to do.  We can say the words, even repeat them internally – but have we really let go of our anger?  Second, it’s interesting that forgiveness isn’t in the Summa.  Thomas doesn’t think it’s the most helpful category.  I think he might be right.

Meekness is a virtue: not a single act, like forgiveness, but a way of being.  Virtues are cultivated by practice, by continually restraining our anger – just as you cultivate sobriety by not getting drunk, over and over again.

Meekness is also a fruit of the Spirit, in Galatians 5.  (In English, this spot in the list is “humility,” which is of course even greater.  But in the Greek and Latin of Galatians, and in the Latin Catechism, it’s meekness.  Letting go of our anger, of course, has a lot to do with letting go of our pride: meekness and humility go hand in hand.)

How do we cultivate meekness?  By not acting on our anger.  And by asking the Holy Spirit to pour his fruits and his gifts into our hearts – by asking, that is, Jesus to take our heart and make it like unto his, by begging Mary, full of grace, to pray for us sinners, that we may be holy as she is, including meek and mild as she is, and so make room in the inn.

our lady of vladimir

How does anger keep Jesus out of your heart?  What do you do about it?

 

For Mary

mary-baby-jesus1The last of St. Louis de Montfort’s descriptors of the spiritual life is “all for Mary.” (I am following the order in the often forgotten little book, Secret of Mary, which gives the bigger True Devotion a run for its money; both are fantastic statements of de Montfort’s doctrine.)

What does it mean to say “all for Mary,” and how does it work as a description of the spiritual life?

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First, it means “all for the true doctrine of the Incarnation.” As we have said before, the early Church judged that there was no clearer statement of Christology than calling Mary “Mother of God.” The key challenges to a right understanding of Jesus are Arianism (that Jesus is less than God), Monophysitism or Docetism (that Jesus is not really human) and Nestorianism (that the God-part of Jesus and the man-part are kind of two different persons).

To focus on Mary is, above all, to recognize that we easily lose track of who Jesus really is. If we are not careful, we slip into mistaken ideas of Jesus. To focus on Mary is to be careful about our Christology – to realize that we are constantly tempted to say, “Mary can’t really be Mother of God. That doesn’t make any sense.” To be zealously “all for Mary” is to be zealous about the truth of who and what Jesus really is.

Ironically, there is no other way to be truly Christ-centered than to keep Mary central in our thinking and devotional life.

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Second, “all for Mary” means being zealous for the truth of the Redemption. Again, falsehood is so very easy. Protestants tend to fall into a denial that Jesus does anything at all for us. The pleasant way to put the standard Protestant understanding is that Jesus saves us by covering our sins. But a truer way to put it is that in most Protestant understandings, the “good news” is that Jesus does not really care who we are, does not care whether we love God, does not care whether we love neighbor. “Forgiveness” turns into “Lucky us, Jesus doesn’t care.” This is really dangerous.

But equally – perhaps more – dangerous is that Catholics tend to fall into Pelagianism. I believe (above all from my experience teaching candidates for the priesthood, and talking to other people who teach them) that Pelagianism is raging among “orthodox” Catholics today. Pelagianism is the doctrine that we can save ourselves: if we just try harder, we can climb to heaven on our own strength. When was the last time you heard a homily about grace? This is raging, outrageous heresy, and it is extraordinarily dangerous to our spiritual life. It is a denial of Jesus, anti-Christ.

To say “all for Mary” emphasizes not only who Jesus is, but what he does for us. Mary is, on the one hand, against the Protestants, all-holy, fabulously holy. Holiness is possible; mystical ascent into the life of the Trinity is the Gospel. But Mary is also, against the Pelagian Catholics, entirely dependent on Jesus. That’s why we look to Mary more than to all the other saints. It is only proximity to Jesus that makes us holy. It is always his work, not ours. To be “all for Mary” is to keep the truth of the Redemption always before our eyes.

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Finally, “for” is a word about motivation, and love. Far more than any of the other words for true devotion to Mary, “for” Mary indicates fire, drive, passion. “All for Mary” means every step of the way, we ask what we are living for.

“All for Mary” means a real passion for evangelization. It means longing to see the image of Mary, radically holy because radically united to Jesus, repeated on every face we see. And thus being radically gentle.

“All for Mary” means a real passion for the possibilities of man. It means remembering that every person we see has the possibility to be what Mary is. Mary didn’t have to convert: God signals to us that his action always comes first by being with her from the beginning. But conversion is possible. The greatest sinner is still made of the same stuff as Mary. He can become what she is. He too can be raised into the life of the Trinity. And so I must love him.

Finally, “all for Mary” means a real passion for the work of God. It means repeating to ourselves, again and again and again, that Jesus saves, that grace is everything, that we totally depend on the mystery of the Incarnation. It means asking at every step, is the work of Jesus—what Jesus does for us—central to what I am doing now?

This is the spiritual life. This is Christianity.

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How do you keep alive the fire for Jesus?

Click here for more posts on Devotion to Mary.

Click here for the entire series on Names for the Spiritual Life.

Through Mary

mary-baby-jesus1We now come to St. Louis de Montfort’s third way of describing the Christian life: life “through” or “by” Mary – the French is par.

We look to Mary as the source of all life. The main point of doing this, and the way it shapes our life, is that we recognize our need for grace. On the one hand, simply to recognize that we are not self-sufficient is to make great strides in the spiritual life. The Desert Fathers said the heart of the spiritual life is simply to pray constantly the Psalm verse, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” To live in light of salvation.

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This frees us, on the one hand, to recognize our sin. On first read, de Montfort’s take on this can be off-putting. In an infamous passage, he tells us, “You will consider yourself as a snail that soils everything with its slime, as a toad that poisons everything with its venom, as a malevolent serpent seeking only to deceive.” I know I am not the only one who put this book away the first time I read things like that!

But de Montfort’s point is not about our sin, but our salvation. When we recognize that God sends his grace to heal us, we no longer have to hide our sin. We can acknowledge our stupidity precisely because we know it is not the last word. Pope Francis speaks of “the caress of the mercy of Jesus Christ on my sin”: the point is not to wallow in sin, but to feel that caress, and know that our sin is the occasion for God to send his healing mercy. I don’t have to defend myself; Jesus handles that.

Second, to recognize our constant need for grace is to recognize that, beyond our sin, God also calls us beyond the limits of even sinless nature. What the heart of man has never imagined, God has prepared for us (1 Cor 2:9). To live always by God’s power is to realize he calls us not to what our limited power can reach, but “to become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4): the very life of the Trinity.

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But why through Mary. Why not just say through Jesus, or with the Desert Fathers, “God come to my assistance”? In fact, de Montfort’s own motto was “God alone!” Why then through Mary?

First, ironically, because Mary emphasizes Jesus. It is so very easy for Jesus to become an abstraction: either a super man, or just sort of a face of God. The Incarnation itself – what happened in the womb of Mary – really does surpass our capacity for understanding. To focus on Mary is precisely to focus on Jesus. To say “all through Mary” is to say “all through the mystery of the Incarnation”: no grace comes to us except through that amazing union of God and man. That is the source of our healing – not some vague God in the sky, but the one in Mary’s womb.

Second, Mary helps emphasize for us the human effect. Grace is God’s work – but it is in the heart of man. To think of Mary as Queen of Heaven is important precisely because it reminds us that a human person can become Queen of Heaven, that we really can enter into the heart of God. That purity from sin is a possibility: an impossibility by our own efforts, but possible by God’s grace. And perfect, divine, Trinitarian love: that can actually happen in a human heart. Mary abides in the heights of heaven, in the heart of the Trinity! Gosh, that is so hard to believe that we need to think about it. To live “all through Mary” is to live in constant union with the truth of what God has done in her, and calls us to let happen in our own hearts.

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Third, to think of Mary is to think of the mystery of election, and predilection. Mary is lucky, the luckiest one of all. She did not earn God’s love. Nor do we. We shoud realize how lucky we are: to know the truth of the Gospel, and even more, to have the fire of the Spirit in our hearts. We should not put too human a face on God – it is easy to replace God with something far less. But it is important to remember the tenderness of grace, the personal relationship, the personal choice – not first ours of God, but God’s choice of us. Mary helps to give us that personal touch, without washing out the mystery of God.

All through Mary!

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How does Mary help you understand God, and Jesus?

Names for the SpiritualLife: In Mary

mary-baby-jesus1For the last several Fridays we have been considering different names used to describe the spiritual life. We are now considering the four ways that St. Louis de Montfort describes true devotion to Mary: with Mary, in Mary, through Mary, and for Mary. This week we consider what might be the most confusing, but also the most important of these phrases.

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For years, I thought “in Mary” meant something like “in her heart.” We can imagine ourselves praying, or – if you have a more diligent imagination than I do – maybe even living, working, conversing, within Mary’s heart. Such a meditation can be a way to imagine her love for us, her love for God, the purity of her intentions and motives.

This is a worthy meditation. But it doesn’t work with everyone’s imaginations, and it’s hard to make it describe the whole of our life: we can’t always be doing this imaginative exercise. I also think it might actually be more what he means by “with Mary.” Always we know that Mary is at our side, and always we try to walk alongside her, to live with her, to imitate Mary. That is wonderful, but I don’t think it’s what de Montfort means by “in Mary.”

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De Montfort, always flowery to the point of confusion, describes Mary as a “world,” a “terrestrial paradise.” I think what he means is less an imitation of Mary’s ways than a shaping of our worldview.

What Mary stands for is the total transformation of the person by the mystery of Jesus. Wherever we hear the name “Mary,” we can think “grace” – but the Gospel of grace made concrete, personal, real. Mary means a world in which God so completely heals the human soul that we live lives of perfect love, of God and neighbor. And a world in which God elevates us (sanctifying grace always heals and elevates) beyond our human nature into the interior life of God, the perfect love of the Trinity, which is the height of contemplation.

Mary, moreover, lives this grace as total gift. The Immaculate Conception means that God always makes the first move. Mary has absolutely nothing to credit herself with, and everything to thank God for. He made the first move. And then in her relation to Jesus we see Mary always moving outside of herself, to the source and culmination of grace. Mary’s life begins and ends with Jesus. God is her beginning, and God is her constant destination. This is the perfection of sanctity.

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To live “in Mary” is for this to be our constant worldview. What would it mean for us to view absolutely everything in light of this gospel of grace? Always to know that God can do it, that God is the source of every perfect gift, that God brings the healing of perfect purity, and the elevation of perfect love.

To make Mary “our world” is to see everything in this way, to begin and end our day, to face every difficulty, and every simplest task, in light of the mystery of grace. For Mary to be our worldview.

It means, too, to see the dignity of human nature: to look at every person and know that he shares the same nature as Mary, that God can do in him the most wonderful things that he did for Mary.

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We can live our lives “in Mary” by meditating on her two greatest prayers. We can pray the Hail Mary: pray it well during our rosary, and then pray it throughout the day, and try to learn from it who Mary is, what God has done in her.

And we can live our life, too, in light of the Magnificat, Mary’s own prayer and the perfect articulation of her worldview.

To live in Mary is always to “proclaim the greatness of the Lord” and “exult in God,” who we recognize as “our Savior.” To see ourselves as nothing but “lowly servants” whom he has “lifted up.” To know that he is mighty, and does great things. To fear only him, and the loss of him, and to trust in his mercy.

To live in Mary is to know that the “proud in their conceit,” the “mighty on their thrones,” and the “rich” will be sent away empty. Our strength is in being lowly, and hungry – and members of “his servant Israel,” and trusting him to lift us up. Our hope is in trusting his promise to those who believe – to Abraham and his children forever.

To live “in Mary” is to make our worldview Mary, Our Lady of Grace.

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What does Mary tell you about the world?

Names for the Spritual Life: Life with Mary

mary-baby-jesus1For the last few weeks we have been considering names for the spiritual life. In relation to us, we considered “sanctity” and “the interior life.” In relation to the Trinity, we had “life in the Spirit,” “life in Christ,” and “divine filiation,” which we further considered as “spiritual childhood.”

In the next four weeks, I propose to consider how devotion to Mary can be seen as a model for the spiritual life. Following the great Marian teaching of St. Louis de Montfort, I propose, first, that true devotion to Mary is no more or less than living out our baptism: that is, true devotion to Mary simply is the spiritual life/life in Christ/the life of divine filiation, etc. – though obviously de Montfort believes that Mary provides helpful ways of thinking about this. Second, de Montfort finishes his masterwork, True Devotion, by saying true devotion to Mary is best described under four headings: life with Mary, life in Mary, life by Mary, and life for Mary. Our next four weeks will consider these titles.

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We begin with life with Mary, or alongside Mary. As de Montfort understands it, we could also describe this as Imitation of Mary.

We considered a few weeks ago how imitation of Christ is a slightly deceiving idea. Jesus is God, and we are not. We are meant to put on Christ, to be Christ-like – but also to recognize our radical dependence on him. Imitation of Mary – life with, or alongside Mary – is in this sense a better description of the Christian life.

Imitation of Mary means imitation of her virtues, of course. Mary is a particularly fine model of the virtuous life, precisely because her life isn’t very interesting. We should imitate the saints, but most of the canonized saints are recognized by the amazing things they did. (Whereas, in fact, most of the saints are not canonized, because they did nothing by which the world would remember them.) Mary, by her connection with Christ, is the one saint who both lived a profoundly ordinary life and yet is easily recognizable.

Of course, Mary’s ordinary life still includes the extraordinary. She was called to radically consecrate herself to Christ. She suffered enormously, especially in the exile under Herod and even more at the Cross. She witnessed, and even participated in, the miraculous, especially at the wedding feast of Cana and at the Resurrection. She saw the miracles of the Church, especially at Pentecost.

But our ordinary life of sanctity must be extraordinary in the same ways. We too will have to suffer profoundly if we are to follow Christ. And we too will see miracles, though the world probably won’t see them. Nonetheless, like Mary, we should not expect to be miracle workers. At best, we will beg Jesus to care for our family and friends, and beg him to rise again when he seems lost – and we will see him do it. Meanwhile, we will serve him through our ordinary, humble lives.

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But a second and even more profound way we should imitate Mary, live our lives “with Mary,” is through profound reliance on Christ. Everything depends on our closeness to him. We look to her as the exemplar of a life lived in total dependence on him.

Of course, during his earthly life, she lived a closeness we can never have. But we can imitate her love of Christ by loving his face and voice as she did: by adoring his image, pondering his words. As a parent today might keep a picture of his children on his desk, so too we imitate Mary by keeping Jesus’s picture always before us.

But we can imitate her too in her life after his Ascension. We imagine what the Mass meant for her, what even the Church he had founded meant to her. For Mary, these were not just goods in themselves, but traces of him, the one her heart adored. The Bible – just being collected, in her time – was not just wisdom, it was his wisdom. She loved him. So must we.

And she lived from him, knew all her life flowed from the awesome event which was the life and death of Jesus Christ. That is what we most imitate in the life of Mary.

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The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth got to observe Vatican II. He didn’t like, though, that they said Mary is model of the Church; he preferred Joseph, a bit more removed. We should recognize Mary for the scandal she is. No, we are not a step removed. Jesus comes to lay in our arms, to be that close to us. We imitate Mary, live all our life alongside her.

What does life with Mary mean to you?