Marian Piety from the Cistercians

Mary Most Holy: Meditating with the Early Cistercians, ed. E. Rozanne Elder (Cistercian Publications: Kalamazoo, 2003), pp. 401, ISBN: 0879071656 -- $29.95.

While Mary has continually been honored within the Christian tradition, her place was not always so prominent. One of the many developments of the twelfth century renaissance was an increased devotion to the cult of the Virgin Mary in medieval Europe.

Prior to this period devotion to Mary was not foreign to medieval Europe, but her cult was much more localized – as devotions at Chartres or Le Puy illustrate – and was much less theologically sophisticated or celebrated as in the Byzantine East, where devotion to the Virgin had been prominent ever since the Council of Ephesus affirmed Mary as Theotokos in 431. The Cistercians were critical players in the explosion of Marian piety in Europe during the high Middle Ages, which mirrors the order’s own rapid expansion in this period. Mary Most Holy is a collection of various Marian prayers and meditations composed by Cistercians during the twelfth and thirteenth century.

The medieval Cistercians’ devotion to Mary was manifest in a variety of way. All the order’s houses and monasteries were dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Moreover, their white habits honored her purity, while her image appeared on the seals of the various abbeys. She was also prominent in the prayer life of the white monks. Each of the seven daily offices includes a reflection on her unique vocation and the Salve Regina was sung at the close of the day.

Naturally, the figure at the center of this intersection of the Cistercians and the veneration of the Virgin Mary is St Bernard of Clairvaux. His homilies on Christ’s mother are well known – the most famous of his writings in this regard being his homiletic commentaries on the Song of Songs. In fact, his strong Marian piety was probably a natural outgrowth of his devotion to and emphasis on the humanity of Christ. However, as Elder rightly points out, Bernard’s much publicized devotion to Mary has often resulted in him being given too much credit for the upsurge in Marian devotion during this period. Still, he did promote her cult within the order, so it is no surprise that his reflections on the Virgin Mary far outnumber those of the other Cistercians in this collection.

The Marian meditations are divided up into thirteen sections, such as ‘The New Eve’ and ‘The Purification of Mary.’ Each section begins with a selection from scripture that sets the theme for the meditations that follow. Elder also provides footnotes for the scriptural allusions evoked or found in many of these Cistercian prayers. The reflections for the most part are very brief (usually running no more than two pages), adding to the beneficial use of this text as a meditative tool.

Mary Most Holy is a valuable compilation of medieval Cistercian reflections on the role the Virgin Mary in salvation history as well as her preeminent mediating power between God and humanity. Besides its usefulness for meditation, this collection indirectly attests to the significant contribution of the white monks to the growth of Marian piety during the Middle Ages.

Vincent Ryan
St. Louis University

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