Updated: Aug 5
Aquinas said, “Just one old woman knows more about the things that pertain to the faith than all the philosophers who ever lived” (Sermon 14). He said this because, in contrast to the old woman, the knowledge of the philosophers whom he had in mind was not shaped by faith. In fact, their learning blinded them to the truths that the old woman knows.
Aquinas would admit that he too, along with the old woman, knows more about things that pertain to faith than these same philosophers.
It seems that, for Aquinas, only the very learned and the very unlearned “get it”.
When it comes to getting the significance of the blessed Mother, Aquinas is surely right. When Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the assumption, he focussed on two things – (i) the most sophisticated mystical theology from the doctors of the Church, and (ii) the faith of ordinary Catholics. Both groups got it. Both groups knew, in their heads and in their hearts, the significance of the blessed Mother. Devotion to the blessed Mother has always been strongest among the most learned and the most unlearned of Catholics.
This is perhaps why, in an age where everyone seems to be moderately learned, devotion to the blessed Mother seems to be declining. In this post I’d like, briefly, to accompany the video above by explaining veneration of the blessed Mother in light of these two elements – (i) what Aquinas and the doctors of the Church know, and (ii) what the “old woman” and the piety of ordinary people knows.
First, Aquinas. (1) Aquinas knows that you can only be one with Christ in faith (2) he knows that faith comes through the presence of the Holy Spirit, (3) he knows that veneration of the blessed mother is a beautiful route to relationship with the Holy Spirit, and therefore (4) he knows that veneration of the blessed mother is a fundamental pathway to union with Christ.
Let me explain these 4 things.
(1) Who can learn about Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ? Everyone can. He's written about in the New Testament. He has been studied. It is history. We all encounter Christ in the Bible. Some come to know him there as Lord while others come to know him there as just a guy, who lived and died in Judea, not unlike many other failed revolutionaries. What’s the difference between these two groups? What is the difference between, on the one hand, the people who learn about Jesus and know him as the incarnation of God and, on the other, the people who learn about Jesus but know him only as a dead Galilean? The difference is that one group sees in faith and the other group doesn’t.
(2) Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. To See Christ in faith is to see Christ through the lens of the Holy Spirit. Only through the lens of the Spirit can we see who Christ really is — true God and true man. The Holy Spirit is the source of faith. The presence of the Holy Spirit is necessary to know and relate to Christ. And, for the doctors of the Church, knowledge of, and relationship with, the Holy Spirit, is enhanced through veneration of the blessed mother. Why? Because no one in human history (who wasn’t also true God) was more filled with the Holy Spirit than the blessed Mother. To venerate her, to reflect on her and her life, is to see the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in a unique way. This is because, as I'll touch on in point (3) the blessed mother was capable of giving herself to God to a degree that we are not.
The Holy Spirit wants union with us, the Spirit seeks to become one with us. But we, due to the legacy of original sin, have a desire to push back. We accept the presence of the Holy Spirit in our bodies with our embodied “yes” but we also, far too often, reject this presence with our “no”. The Blessed Mother, in contrast, accepted union with the Holy Spirit to a unique degree. How?
(3) The blessed Mother was born without with original sin. She was set aside in the order of creation so she would be free to accept this union with the Spirit and her Son. How do we know this? Because at the annunciation she manifests a freedom and capacity to give herself to God, a freedom that is only made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, either (a) the life, death, and resurrection of Christ do not free us from the tyranny of fallenness (as she shared in this freedom prior to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection) or (b) she, uniquely, was not in thrall to the tyranny of fallenness, that is, she, uniquely, was set apart from original sin from conception in order to be able to freely respond with a “yes” to God’s request to her. While Aquinas may differ, from, say, Bonaventure on the precise moment of liberation from the consequences of original sin, most theologians of note for the guts of two millennia agreed that it was (b).
From this “yes” on her entire life represents a continuous acceptance of the Holy Spirit. Hers is a life marked by “yes”, never “no”. And because of this, by the end, her body was saturated with the Holy Spirit. It was impossible to see where the Spirit ended and she began. And so, this body, her body, was not for death, or decay. Her body was saturated by the Holy Spirit and so eternity (God) was present with and in her. She was assumed into heaven as heaven was present in her through the Holy Spirit. She was one with the Holy Spirit, saturated by the Holy Spirit. She wasn’t saturated by the Spirit by nature - unlike her Son. She was not God! But she was the recipient of union with God on a level unlike any other creature who has ever, or will ever, live. She was saturated fully while on earth. No one else ever will be.
The point of this is that we can see and relate to the Holy Spirit in and through the Blessed Mother. She was full of grace, full of the Holy Spirit. As such, being one with the Holy Spirit, she is a bridge between heaven and earth. When we look on her, we will see the Spirit, the Spirit who permeates her every cell. When we relate to her we relate to the Spirit because she is saturated by the Spirit.
(4) Let’s remind ourselves of where this started – with the 4 things Aquinas knows. if relationship with Christ requires faith, that is, if it requires the Holy Spirit, this is something that can be enabled and enhanced through relationship with the blessed Mother as she is saturated by the Spirit. This saturation (the dogma of the assumption) is made possible by her freedom from the tyranny of fallenness (the dogma of the immaculate conception). As such, we can come to know the Holy Spirit through veneration of she in whom the Holy Spirit is present and operative – the blessed mother. Relationship with her leads to relationship with the Holy Spirit, and thereby can make the difference between seeing Christ as a simple historical figure and the saviour of the world. She enhances knowledge of her son.
"Why not", some might say, "relate to the Holy Spirit directly?". Good luck with that! We are human beings. We think in terms of things. The Holy Spirit is not a thing. It has nothing visible, nothing material, no thing on which our gaze can rest. Therefore, we need help in contemplating the Holy Spirit. The blessed Mother offers this help. Contemplation of her, her life, her body, her heavenly glory, enables contemplation of the Holy Spirit.
Contemplation of God, as Augustine tells us, is an encounter. It is not simply a “thinking”. It is an opening of us toward being filled by the God we contemplate. It opens a channel allowing the flow from the Spirit to us. The Blessed Mother is, as such, an icon of the Holy Spirit. She facilitates relationship with the Spirit in whom and ONLY in whom, can we know Christ.
Because of this the doctors of the Church know that the blessed Mother is, therefore, the greatest aid we have in relating to the Holy Spirit and through the Holy Spirit, to her Son. She is a unique gift. It may be possible to know Christ fully without the Blessed Mother. Maybe. The Spirit can be contemplated in His works. But it is much more difficult, much more abstract, less personal. It can happen, but why reject this gift from God to the Church? Why go outside God’s plan for salvation? in which the blessed Mother was set aside from conception?
The poor and pious have never needed persuading of this. Aquinas’ old woman knows instinctively that the Mother of God leads us to her Son. The rosary, for example, allows a unique relationship with Christ. In prayer we commune with the blessed Mother; we inhabit her experiences. In the sorrowful mysteries, for example, we experience, as a Mother, what it must have been like to see her son crowned with thorns, mocked and ridiculed as he bled and stumbled. Can you know the love of Christ for us without this? Yes, probably. But when you see Christ being scourged at the pillar through a Mother’s eyes you know the suffering of the Son in a unique way. You feel the sorrow. You know the sacrifice made by Christ and, in this sacrifice, you know and feel, really feel, the love that Christ has for you.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus insults and threatens the Pharisees, in John’s gospel he seems to glide through life. These distinct images of Christ are images from men, men who, perhaps, never met Him. Of course, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, we can encounter the Son as He is through the words and images of scripture. But, additionally, a truly deep and distinctive experience of Christ is possible when seen through his mother’s eyes. Again, it is a gift given by God, a gift that too few Catholics today avail of. It is a gift that fuels and facilitates union with Christ in and through the Spirit. It is personal. Very personal.
At the wedding of Cana, Jesus, fully divine but also fully human, concedes to his Mother. He gives in, in love, for his Mother. If you are, like me, a sinner, then you know you don’t deserve God’s total love and, like me, you will turn to His Mother and your turning will not be in vain. We sinners know this. God has given us a Mother to turn to, a Mother in whom we know the Son, a Mother who intercedes with her Son for us. The unlearned, and us sinners, know this in our cells, and we always have.
We began with the angelic doctor, Thomas Aquinas, let’s end with another theologian, my fellow Irishman and fellow sinner, Shane MacGowan, of the music group, The Pogues.
In the song "Lorca’s Novena", MacGowan tells the story of the brutal assassination of the gay Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Lorca too was a sinner and a Catholic. The song tells of a “miracle” wherein Lorca’s body was sought by the killers who assassinated him so they could mutilate and ridicule it. It is a brutal song. A song truly from the margins. It echoes the poetry of Lorca who knew he was a sinner, who never felt righteous, and who was brutally murdered, a Lorca who turned in his life to the blessed Mother for a grace he knew he didn’t deserve. His body, set aside by he assassins for desecration, disappeared, MacGowan writes the miracle as a result of women praying a Novena for Lorca - a strange, irrational appeal from mothers to the Mother to ask her Son for an undeserved grace in the midst of something horrible and brutal. They prayed like millions of angels and sinners have prayed before them
“Mother of all joys,
mother of all sorrows,
intercede with him tonight
For all of our tomorrows”
And like angels, and sinners, and saints, and children, and me, they found their prayers to the blessed Mother answered.
For anyone interested, here's MacGowan's song. It's not nice, it's not acceptable, it uses forbidden terms. It comes from the dark places. While we often imagine Marian devotion as a sanitized thing, historically it comes from the margins. It bubbles up from desperate people who need a Mother, not to judge but to love and help.