The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council
"Chapter 15 - Love of lowliness"
"The Father of Mercies willed that the acceptance of the predestined Mother should come before the Incarnation so that in this way, just as a woman contributed to death so also a woman should contribute to life."1 Vatican II thus describes the day of the Annunciation. Mary was2 "not just employed by God in a passive way, but ... she cooperated in human salvation by free faith and obedience." In spite of the doubts of some modern theologians, she must have known at least something of that to which she was consenting. Otherwise she would be largely passive, not free. But even if we were to accept the view3 that she knew only that He was to be the promised Messiah, without knowing of His Divinity, we still must stand amazed at this: Why did she not run quickly to the Jewish priests and exultantly tell them: "I feel it my duty to report to you that the one whom the prophets have so long foretold is now at hand. An Archangel appeared to me. I have conceived without the intervention of man. The Messiah is to be my son."
Of course, she did nothing of the kind. She did not even reveal her great secret to St. Joseph, she did not even speak to defend herself against the otherwise very plausible charge of adultery.
The later events of her life are of the same tone. She never sought for, never gained recognition for herself. When her Son was triumphantly offered Kingship by the crowds, there is no mention of her. But she did step forth from the shadows of modest retirement into the deep blackness of Calvary, after the Apostles, the sharers in His acclaim, had fled. She willingly took part in His disgrace, His shame, His rejection.
She not only did not seek recognition: she gladly accepted non-recognition, even disgrace. Why?
As we saw in chapter 8, she was accustomed to the darkness of faith, in which she often had to hold to two things that, humanly speaking, seemed impossible. On the one hand, she knew at least something of her own dignity, at least as the Mother of the Messiah. Probably she knew also that she was the Mother of God. Of that surpassing pinnacle Pius XI wrote that it is a4 "dignity second only to God" and he goes on to call it "a sort of infinite dignity, from the infinite good that God is." Yet, simultaneously, she considered and knew that she was nothing.
How reconcile these two things? Theologians love to speculate on such problems, and to dwell on them in a devout way is very profitable. No doubt she whom St. Luke tells us more than once was pondering these things in her heart, did meditate much on the question. Yet she knew too how to accept with magnificent faith that which human minds can understand but imperfectly at best.
St. Paul was later to write some remarkable lines about the nothingness of all creatures. To the Philippians he said:5 "It is God who works in you both the will and the accomplishment." In other words, when you do anything good, recognize that not only the external performance of good, "the accomplishment", but even the interior good decision of the will is God's work, not yours. He expressed it forcefully to the Corinthians:6 "What have you that you have not received? But if you have received" it from God "why brag as if you had not received" it from Him, but instead, had produced the good yourself? St. Augustine wrote of this truth with remarkable vehemence:7 "When God crowns our merits, He crowns His own gifts." Some have thought Augustine exaggerated. But if we realize what St. Paul was saying, that he really did mean that there is no good that we are or have or do that we do not receive from God, then we are forced to confess that our very merits are God's gifts.
Should we, as it were. move back deeper into the process of doing good, and say: "At least, I got the good idea of doing the good"? But no, St. Paul again confronts us with:8
"We are not sufficient to think anything by ourselves as from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God." And of course, if we have no good that we have not received: how could we claim even the good thought?9
If we see, then, and deeply realize that no good comes from us, we are reduced to a state of nothingness. And when we add that we not only cannot claim credit for good, but yet do deserve blame for the evil we do, then indeed our self
esteem literally falls below the zero line.
Mary, of course, had no sin, she did not therefore have to charge herself with falling below zero. But not even she, with a "dignity second only to God" could claim to have produced by herself the least good.
What then of the fact that the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, praise her virtue, extols her dignity? What of the fact that inspired Scripture itself tells us that we are sharers10 in the divine nature by grace? What of the confident words of St. Paul awaiting execution:11 "As for the rest, there is ready for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the just Judge, will give me on that day, not only to me, but to all who have loved His coming"?
We need to realize that there are as it were two levels on which we can speak of ourselves, the fundamental or rock-bottom level, and the secondary level. On the fundamental level, we must speak as we have done, must confess that we have nothing that we have not received. Yet, on the secondary level, what we have received is really ours, what He gives us belongs to us. He will reward us for what we do on the secondary level, with the crown of righteousness. This is really due us, from the "just Judge". We are, then. both wonderful and nothing. How, we cannot fully realize on this side of the great veil. But we can hold both truths, in the darkness of faith. Mary held to both with all her heart. She was glad not to have recognition. She knew that on the second level, she deserved it, and foretold that all generations would call her blessed. On the fundamental level, she knew that she had nothing she had not received, and was pleased at not being recognized.
Her realization of her total dependence on God was most deep, penetrating to the depths of her being. Some persons who seem religious will say to themselves, and to others: "I have done much for God. But I admit that I am nothing. I am the least of His servants." Such a statement can involve a most dangerous self-deception. The Pharisee who scorned the Publican in the Temple began his prayer by. saying:12 ''O God, I give thanks to you that I am not like the rest of men..." He admitted he was doing more than others, and he seemed to attribute it all to God: "I give thanks to you". Yet we know the judgment of the Divine Master who searches hearts: his prayer was rejected as hypocritical, in spite of words that seemed to give all credit, to God. He was, we gather, deceiving himself, telling himself he admitted he was good, but that that was quite all right, as long as he attributed everything to God.
Now of course, that would have been all right, if only he had, in the depths of his being, really known, deeply realized his nothingness. With such realization, a saint, such as St. Paul, could even tell his converts:13 "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." Mary too had such a depth of humility, for humility is not self-deception, but the virtue that makes us deeply know and fully embrace the truth about ourselves: that we are nothing, that all the good we are, have and do is from God.
She loved humility and non-recognition too because she knew, even before her Son preached it, how much God hates pride:14 "He resists the proud, but gives grace to the lowly." Christ showed the greatest mercy to sinners, to all but one kind of sinners. He had no patience with the pride of the Pharisees. Them He called15 "whitewashed tombs. Outwardly you seem beautiful, but inside you are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness." Humility is not the greatest of the virtues. That is love. But it is a peculiarly fundamental virtue: St. Augustine16 compares it to the foundation of a building. The taller the building, the deeper must the foundation be. How deep must have been the foundation of humility in her whose dignity was to be "second only to God"!
Furthermore, the Jewish theologians of her time17 insisted on the same truth which we saw in chapter 10, that there is a moral order, with which God is concerned. He wishes it to be balanced. Hence sin is considered as a debt. When someone sins, the scales must be balanced. Now Mary knew, and felt deeply, the deficiency in the reverence given to God. Of course, she did not have to listen to men taking the name of God in vain, as we do today. For several centuries before her day, the Jews had become so impressed with the sanctity of the name "Yahweh" that even in reading the Scriptures, they would never pronounce it. Only the High Priest could say that word, and he did it just once a year, in reading inspired Scripture in the solemn liturgy of the Day of Atonement. But she knew that in myriad other ways-by all manner of sins-honour was being denied Him. To balance that defect in the scales of righteousness, she gladly acquiesced in her own non-recognition.
But she knew too that a lowly status was very beneficial to her personally. Acceptance of the will of God for us includes everything, even a lack of recognition, even positive disdain and unfair treatment from others. It is far easier for us to see the will of God in such things as sickness, misfortunes caused by inanimate nature. But when trials come through the wickedness of another human being, then the level of difficulty is sharply raised. Our pride is not hurt when inanimate things cause us pain; but it is galling to be slighted by a being who should know better. Further, we see inescapably, that this person here and now is acting contrary to the will of God. We quite properly react against that. To see even some aspect of it as the will of God for us is specially difficult precisely because of the fact that we see the act as basically against the will of God. Yet as we indicated, there is an aspect in which this is the will of God for us. He does not will that anyone should do what is wrong to us, but He does will that we accept it as due to our sins. It is true, we perhaps do not deserve this particular thing at this time from this person. But by our sins, we do deserve the equivalent, and more besides. So we need to say to ourselves: "Perhaps this slight or offense is unfair, unjust here and now. But I am accepting it as the just recompense for things in which I did not receive the penalty that really was due to me." And, even without thinking of the fact that such things are richly due to our sins, we can look at the positive side, and say that even though someone else is acting wrongly, for us to accept it by way of atonement, to help balance the moral order,18 is something that pleases God, something He wills.
Of course, Mary could never say any slight or mistreatment was owed to her sins, for she was sinless. But she could, and did. gladly accept such things for the sake of atonement for the sins of others.
Furthermore, she knew there was a different kind of advantage for her personally. She could see, what we all see, that all too often those who receive recognition become proud. And those who gain actual power, are not infrequently corrupted by it. The flattery that commonly surrounds a man in a position of authority tends to damage his judgment. He is constantly being told what his subjects think he will like to hear. They never speak of his faults, never blame him. We are all in danger of excessive opinions of ourselves. When others provide no corrective against that, but instead, praise a man: that man is in much danger of believing he really is wonderful, and he can become even, in some cases, a monster of pride and arrogance. A lowly position protects one from such dangers.
Still more importantly, Mary knew well what St. Paul proclaimed so often and so forcefully: she knew that a man is made holy to the precise degree that he is not just a member of Christ, but is like Christ. She knew her Son19 "emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of man... He lowered Himself, being made obedient even to death, death on a cross." She rejoiced to be like Him. She knew well what Vatican II was to teach that the practice of poverty, chastity, and obedience20 "continually arouses the fervour of love, and especially [is] able to make the Christian person more and more conformed to the virginal way of life in poverty which Christ the Lord chose for Himself, and which His Virgin Mother embraced."