On Mary the Mother of God, Queen of the Universe

To attempt to read the psalms and other texts of the Marian Office in this way is to step into a beam that will require us to see not only the Virgin but indeed the whole of Christianity in a light most modern Christians, not to mention most modern scholars, have never seen, so convinced have we become that those who saw by it could only be deluded — or mad.

–Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary & the Art of Prayer, xxxii.1

Just as the Lady made the Lord visible on his throne in the temple, so Mary made here Son — and therefore, his relationship to the Father and the Spirit — visible when she bore him in her womb. If, as her medieval poets so often complained, Mary was beyond description, it was not because as a woman, even a virgin woman, she had given birth to a man, even a perfect man, but because as a creature, she had given birth to her Creator and Lord.

–Fulton Brown, Mary & the Art of Prayer, 439.

I.

For my 90th birthday, a former student, Scott Walter, sent me a book kindly signed by the author, Rachel Fulton Brown, who is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago. The book was very impressive. It was published, to me unexpectedly, by the Columbia University Press. I say “unexpectedly” because I could not, a priori, have imagined that this distinguished press would have concerned itself with the history of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. But that it did so proves why it is a distinguished press. It is concerned with true scholarship and original reflection even of such seemingly unlikely a topic as why did so many people in the middle ages have copies, often elaborately designed and presented, of this Office of the Blessed Virgin. How did such Marian devotion develop? What did it mean both to them and to us?

This book is the product of massive and original scholarship. (Brown has written two earlier books on medieval devotion and life.) Mary & the Art of Prayer contain 480 pages of text and another fifty pages of footnotes, index, and bibliography. In her acknowledgements, the author thanks for assistance everyone including her dog (xiv). She adds: “Rhetorically, prayer may take many forms. In acknowledgements, it takes the form of thanksgiving” (xiii). Brown indicates that writing this book, getting it published, entailed many difficulties. Her husband encouraged her to go on with it for, as he thought, “Mary wanted it published.” On finishing the book, I can see his point, for the book requires an almost total rethinking of how we look on Mary today, this in the light of how medieval Christians understood her. We come to see that the scope and range of much of our present devotion is narrow and oblivious to what is really out there to be known.

The book is divided into five chapters all related to the Office of the Blessed Virgin: 1) “The Hours of the Virgin,” 2) Ave Maria,” 3) “Antiphon and Psalm,” 4) “Lesson and Response,” and 5) “Prayer.” The conclusion to the book is entitled, after the night prayers of the Office, “Compline.” This ending reflection contains an account of the book of the seventeenth-century Franciscan nun Sor Maria de Jesus de Agreda and her book on the Mystical City of God. This famous book turned out to be a summary and compilation of all the strands of devotion and theology that was found in the middle ages. The main burden of Brown’s presentation about Mary were from Richard de Saint-Laurent, Conrad of Saxony, and a gentleman called simply “Pseudo-Albert,” all relatively unknown.

When I read the very first lines of the “Inviatory” that introduces Mary & the Art of Prayer, I was struck by its acute understanding of what was at stake: “Devotion requires an object.” You cannot be devoted to thin air or to yourself. “Like the imagination, devotion takes its shape and purpose from its object” (xxiii). This affirmation is realism. It is good Thomism. “Truth is the conformity of mind and reality.” Our minds are made to know what is; they do not create it. This position is why everything, not just acknowledgements, requires thanksgiving as its first response. For us, reality begins in receptivity of a good we did not make.

Modern psychology and thought are often blinded by their own theories. They purport to study our feelings and emotions, not what might cause them. They come to doubt the existence of things, especially things with their own intrinsic order not made by man. Consequently, as empirical evidence of their trade, they are only left with the accounts of the emotive reactions of the saints and mystics. But it is Brown’s insight that we cannot really understand feelings and reactions if we do not know of what it is that causes them. The concern of the book thus becomes those who showed devotion to the Virgin. It was the Virgin who caused the emotions and feelings. This locus is where we must begin if we are to understand the great flowering of devotion to the Blessed Mother in the middle ages.

Thus, from the its beginning, we study in this book the devotional and manuscript record of the middle ages. We see its ubiquitous Marian concern that touched music, architecture, poetry, manners, war, love, family life, piety, and philosophy. We wonder with Henry Adams, who often appears in this book, what was the cause of this outpouring of creative beauty that we see everywhere in medieval life, a beauty that myriads of visitors to this day still travel to Europe to marvel at? Adams thought the Virgin was like the dynamo, power. But she did not actually “do” anything. Rather she caused things to be done. How? Why? When Descartes and Hobbes lost the notion of final cause, they simultaneously lost their capacity to understand the middle ages.

The best way to understand what this book is about is to begin by looking in the Index for the name of Joseph, the spouse of Mary. In a book of this size, Joseph is mentioned but twice, in both cases incidentally (134, 451). Ever since the Reformation and modern historiography, we have looked at the Gospels alone for our information about Mary and Joseph. Anything that seemed to have a magical or supernatural cause, we tended to minimize or exclude. In the Gospels, we find little mention of Mary and even less of Joseph.

Yet, here we have Rachel Fulton Brown telling us, convincingly, with example after example, that the middle ages were full of devotion to Mary. They saw in the Virgin what the psalms and wisdom literature saw when they described the creation of the universe as itself a playful scene, not certain passages in Plato. Mary was there. We think that it is science alone that can tell us things about the causes of things. What it tells us is by no means uninteresting or untrue. But the saga of Joseph and his bride Mary, the flight into Egypt, and the carpenter’s son, these were not the focus of attention. For medieval men and women, Mary was everywhere in the Old and New Testaments. Her principal feast days — the Immaculate Conception, her Nativity, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity of Christ, the Presentation, the Assumption — were great occasions. It is the burden of the Brown book to show how this concern with Mary was both possible and intelligible.

II.

The difference between Brown and the moderns in their understanding of Mary is that Brown did not simply write off the efforts of the medievals to explain Mary as fantasy or, as Voltaire called it, madness (472). In a sense, this book itself is a manual of piety. It asks us, as readers, to use our imagination to try to see how the medievals thought of the antiphons, psalms, and stories that sought to explain to us just who Mary really was. Later on, Ignatius of Loyola used the same approach. We are challenged to repeat in our own way the words and hymns that bear the meaning these medieval Christians gave to them. The book is ordered to make this exercise of piety possible to us. A goodly selection of prayers, songs, and stories are given, often given several times. Stories, like the juggler dancing before the shrine of the Virgin, that were told over and over again, deserve to be told to us, even if we assume they are just legends.

It is easy enough to write off the medieval community as backward and naïve. But that same community contained some of the best minds that ever existed. So, we must be cautious about our skepticism and the superiority of our own intelligence. And that is precisely what, when reading her, Brown intends for us. There is too much here simply to write off as unworthy of consideration. We do need to take another look at this “object” of devotion, the Virgin as the medievals saw her. Once we have found this object, we can begin to understand how a whole culture can be infused with a picture of the world and its origins that serve to explain why such people did what they did. It was because they believed in what they did. This belief was the origin of their astonishing actions that produced the artifacts of mind and body, of art and architecture, that Brown brings to life for us.

III.

The book, as I have said, is basically a commentary on the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, its composition and content. How this Office related to the basic divine office of the Church is part of the explanation of its content. It belongs to a tradition that goes back to the worship services of the Jews of the Old Testament. Brown is very careful to identify her sources. She cites an amazing number of authors and the relation of their work to scripture. Those familiar with the Litany of the Blessed Mother recall her to be designated as “the Cause of our Joy,” “the Mystical Rose,” “the Tower of David,” or any number of surprising phrases that often seem to be better addressed to her Son. This possible divinization of Mary has been a concern in theology throughout the ages.

Brown, however, is most careful to explain Mary in such a way that she is not divine. On the other hand, her place in creation is at the center of the drama that we know as the plan of God for our redemption. To explain this role, Mary came to be seen as present from the beginning. It was through her “Be it done unto me” that made the Incarnation of the Word into this world possible. He was true God and true man. It was only right to see that, in a sense, she was the first object of God’s creation. She was the one around whom all else would follow. It is in this capacity that Mary is the “object” of devotion. She is not a goddess. But without her, the kind of creation and, ultimately, redemption that the Father had in mind for the human race could not be possible.

Under this rubric, as the finite creature that embodied all that God intended for His creation, we see Mary’s final status before God, as Mother, Spouse, Virgin, and the seat of Wisdom. The medievals knew of the Gospel’s biographical facts about Mary’s life from Nazareth to the Cross and her final Assumption. This ordinary life is the life of Mary we moderns are usually called to imitate. And this path is perfectly fine, but for the medieval, it missed the whole universal presence of Mary in her, as it were, present status, as assumed into heaven and the mediator on the human side of man’s relation to the Father and Son and Spirit.

This is the Mary that built the cathedrals and whose praises were found constantly recited in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin by those who built monuments of word and stone to her. Brown notes that within a century or so, some eighty major cathedrals and five hundred churches were built by these people who lived mostly in small towns but still created monuments of surpassing beauty, monuments which were themselves praises of the Lord in honor of the Virgin.

In the second from last paragraph of the final chapter on prayer, we read:

Mary, as her medieval devotees encountered her in her [Book of] Hours, was the beautiful temple crafted by the true Solomon, through which, as her servants, Christians offered their prayers, serving her in the hope that one day they might behold unveiled the face of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth whom she had enclosed in her womb. (457)

The “object” is why devotion arises. The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us because Mary made it possible by her “Be it done unto me.”

In the very last paragraph of this same chapter, Brown provocatively asks us: “What would you do to find yourself in such a tale? One Ave? One hundred and fifty Ave’s (the Rosary)? The service of your heart, mind, body, and soul?” When Mary herself was confronted with the same question, her response was “Let it be cone unto me according to your word.” This is the response on the human side that caused the world, as we know it, to be and to be as it is. It is the response that the medieval devotees of Mary understood to justify their devotion to her as Queen of Heaven, as Mother of God.

As I read this last paragraph, especially the question that asked: “What would you do if you find yourself in such a tale?” I recalled that the two citations at the very beginning of this remarkable book were both from Tolkien. The first citation was from the Lord of the Rings and it asked us to “wonder what kind of a tale we had fallen into.” This query is what Christianity is about. Some tales are true. We are already in the tale about our redemption. We, none of us, are on the outside looking in. We are all inside looking out. The drama is already going on and has been since the beginning of time.

The second citation is from Tolkien’s essay on fairy tales. In this essay, he states the famous lines: “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find as true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.” Tolkien here invented the word eucatastrophe to describe what Christianity was about. It was indeed a catastrophe that turned out well.

Rachel Fulton Brown has shown us, in an unforgettable way, how the Virgin and her Hours explained to us that we are indeed, each of us, already within the tale. The point about Christianity, as Chesterton explained in his “Ethics of Elfland,” is that what we would want to be true if we could have it is, indeed, true. In the end, this truth, this “object” of devotion, is what Rachel Fulton Brown has reconfronted us with in her masterful book, Mary & the Art of Prayer.

  1. Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary & the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Blessed Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Fr. Schall, for writing this essay; thank you, Dr. Fulton Brown, for your book and your work for helping us understand the stunning magnitude of what we in this post-modern, post-Marian era have lost. The current vacuum where once dwelt an ecclesial heart aflame with true devotion, aches and mourns our loss. Pastors and theologians of our day, current in the latest “renewal du jour” that is promised to perk up attendance and support, donations and pledges – lo, even tithes! – seem to have no clue whatsoever how authentic Marian devotion could bring back to the Church the heart that is no longer there.

    She leaves a sign on her web page (https://history.uchicago.edu/directory/rachel-fulton-brown) that point us to the key – a key that Fr. Schall rightly and succinctly identifies as the post-reformation rejection of the final cause of things:

    “In my research I have paid special attention to the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is more than just the Virgin whom Christians believe gave birth to the Son of God. She is the key that unlocks the medieval era itself. As I argue in the proposal for the Companion to the Christian Tradition that I have been invited to edit for Brill, to understand the place of Mary in medieval Christian devotion, it is not enough to study her as an art historian or a musicologist or a literary scholar or an historian or a theologian. To understand Mary as medieval Christians imagined her, one has to understand everything. She is there in the art and the architecture and the music. She is there in the literature and the liturgy and the liberal arts. She is there in the most elevated expressions of human imagination and in the humblest prayers for help. She is there in the politics and in the ideals of marriage, in battle cries and in pleas for mercy for the oppressed. Medieval Christianity is inconceivable without her, and yet, since the Reformation, Christians have struggled to explain why she should have been there at all. “All the steam in the world,” Bostonian Henry Adams (d. 1918) once opined, “could not, like the Virgin, build Chartres.” He might better have said, ‘build Christendom.'”

    How impoverished our world has become, emptied of purposes for things! How emptied so many lives have become, despairing of purposelessness! How shallow so many of our parishes, our liturgies, and for so many how shallow our faith has become deprived of Mary, mother and model, immaculate heart-center of His Church.

    The Catechism includes, among many reasons for the place Mary OUGHT to hold for us all, this:

    “By her complete adherence to the Father’s will, to his Son’s redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church’s model of faith and charity. Thus she is a “preeminent and . . . wholly unique member of the Church”; indeed, she is the “exemplary realization” (typus) of the Church.” (CCC 967)

    In a “church” without her – which is what we seem to be attempting to construct, in hand-holding with the non-Catholic world – what indeed is left?

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