The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council

"Chapter 20 - Spouse of the Spirit"


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Vatican II stresses the special relation of Mary to the Holy Spirit:1 "... before the day of Pentecost, we see the Apostles 'persevering with one heart in prayer with the women and with Mary the Mother of Jesus and His brothers,' and Mary too with her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who already at the Annunciation had overshadowed her." And, as we have seen, the Council urges all priests to imitate her in following the Spirit:2 "They will always find a marvelous model of such docility [to the Holy Spirit] in the Blessed Virgin Mary, who, led by the Holy Spirit, devoted herself totally to the mystery of the Redemption of men."

It is this perfect docility to the Holy Spirit that alone can explain the otherwise inexplicable reactions of Mary after the Annunciation. First of all, one might have thought she would reason somewhat this way: "An angel has just told me I am to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. Surely, the People of God ought to have a right to know about this, to share in the joy. And especially, as a matter of respect to the High Priest, I should go to him at once." Yet we know the truth: she kept silent, did not tell the priests, she told no one. In fact, she did not even tell St. Joseph. Again, we might reasonably have expected her to say to herself: "Even if I tell no one else, at least Joseph has a right to know. He is my husband. If I do not tell him, I will be failing in love, for I will put him into a most uncomfortable position. How could he help thinking me guilty of adultery? He will feel obliged, being a just man, to put me away as a sinful woman. And that, to say the least, would be disrespectful to the child conceived within me." Yet, it was necessary to send an angel from Heaven to inform Joseph at the very last moment, when he was on the point of divorcing her. Mary would say nothing.

How could she act in such a way? St. Paul gives us the key. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul draws a contrast between the "natural man" and the "spiritual man". He writes:3 "The merely natural man does not take in [understand] the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot know them, for they are examined [understood, appreciated] in a spiritual way. The spiritual man examines everything, but he himself is examined [understood] by no one."

In other words, there are two kinds of men, and two ways of acting. The merely natural man does not go beyond human reasonings, the sort of reasonings we suggested above. Now of course, human reason is good. Paul is not preaching irrationality, things contrary to reason. No, but he tells us that the second kind of man, the spiritual man, is enabled to go to heights to which mere human reason could never lead him. Human reason cannot penetrate as far as the Spirit does. That is why Paul a bit earlier had represented God as saying:4 "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." That is, God will show that human reason, in comparison to divine wisdom, seems to be no wisdom at all.

In speaking of the spiritual man, Paul makes a comparison. Just as only the soul within each man can know his innermost depths, similarly, only the Spirit of God can know the depths of God:5 "For no one knows the things of man except the soul of man, which is in him. So too, no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God." The spiritual man, having the Spirit of God, is enabled to know the wisdom of God.

Mary had that Spirit, was more docile to the Spirit than any other mere human being. The wisdom of the natural man would have led her to tell everyone of her great privilege. But the Spirit judged it better for her to imitate the lowliness of Him who6 emptied Himself, taking on the form of a slave... [and] lowered himself, being made obedient even to death, death on a cross."

Actually, there are as it were three kinds of guides a person may follow in making his decisions.

First, one may do what he wants, when he wants, as he wants, because he happens to feel like doing so. This is really the level on which animals live. It is the level of whim, of feeling. A dog is completely predictable. If he is hungry and has food, he will surely eat; if he is tired, and has the opportunity, he will without doubt sleep; if he happens to feel like anything else, and has the chance, he will most surely take it. It would be merest foolishness to put a plate of juicy hamburger under a dog's nose and say: "Nice doggie, don't touch. Wait till meal time."

Some persons live on this dog level, as we said. And, what is more regrettable, even astounding, many today are saying that that is the freedom of the sons of God, the highest level on which to live. They scorn obedience, say it takes away much, if not all, of the spiritual value of what one could do. They must simply do as they want, when they want, because they happen to feel that way. That was not Mary's way.

Those who follow human reason live on the second level. It is obviously higher than the animal level. This human reason is often aided by the Holy Spirit in a certain sense. But not in the same way as that which St. Paul described as the way of the spiritual man. For the natural man, working by reason, even with some help from the light of grace, still cannot attain the higher reaches of the Spirit and divine wisdom, for he still basically depends on reason, even though that reason has a certain aid from grace. Reason has to move in a plodding way, from one step to another, in reaching its conclusions. It cannot soar free from the need of the intervening steps.

But when a soul is sufficiently receptive and docile, three the Spirit will as it were take over, by what are commonly called the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. These Gifts produce many marvelous fruits. They not only guide us to the highest realms, they also bring courage that is more than human. they bring infused contemplation.7

But we are concerned here with their effect in guiding souls. Under the inspiration of the Spirit received through the Gifts, a person does not need to reason step by step to the right decision. Rather, the Spirit puts into his mind at once, ready made, the answer that God wants the person to find.

Both experience and theology show a remarkable fact: sometimes this guidance through the Gifts of the Spirit brings certitude, sometimes it does not. In general, when the decision is of any consequence, and there is opportunity for consultation, the Spirit does not give certitude. He wants us to refer the matter to the competent authority, if an authority is involved in the matter, or, if not, to consult a good spiritual director. The reason is this: the Spirit loves obedience and humility.8 He wants us to obey. Further, there is great danger of self-deception in this type of guidance, precisely because the control of careful reasoning is not present, the answer is, as it were, handed to us ready made. Many persons could claim a sort of direct line to Heaven, and, on that pretext, flout all authority. Or at least they could be the prey to autosuggestion. To guard against such things, the Spirit commonly gives certitude only in these cases when there is no opportunity for consultation, and where the matter in question does not really fall under the domain of any existing authority.9 The Spirit did not lead Mary to consult the authorities because on the one hand, their permission was not required for the Incarnation, on the other hand, they were too hardened to recognize the movements of the Spirit.

Why do not we meet with more of the effects of the Gifts in our own lives? It is not that the Spirit is sparing with his guidance. Rather, the trouble lies in ourselves. We are not sufficiently attuned to His guidance. In chapter 11 we explained that the attractions of creatures on us are like a gravitational force, tending to pull our thoughts, our wills, our sensory nature to their own level. To the extent that they do that, they make it that much less easy for us to rise to the divine level. In other words, if the Spirit wishes to send me a light, it will tend to move me away from creatures; but if I allow myself to be ruled by strong pulls from creatures, His action on me may not register at all. If I am accustomed to following whim, to doing what I want, when I want, as I want, because I happen to want it-that is the very opposite of the condition needed to be sensitive to His promptings.

To acquire receptivity to the Spirit, we need to follow the same path Mary followed, the way of mortifying the attractions of creatures, of giving up desires for them, of aligning our wills instead with the will of God, the way of preferring humility and non-recognition. Her way is the real way of becoming perfectly docile to the Spirit.

At very least, if we cannot always rise to the highest level-and really, long persevering effort is needed to gain the receptivity for living habitually on that level-we can at least avoid living on the animal level of whim. A great help for that is simply this: with the aid, if possible, of a good director, we form for ourselves a set of spiritual policies. We steer our path according to these policies. Of course, such policies should be revised periodically, to adjust to changed conditions outside us, and to our spiritual development. Such revision, again, is best done with the help of a prudent director. By such a means, if we fall short of the highest level, we will at least avoid the lowest. We can imitate Mary at least at a distance.


1 On the Church § 59.
2 On Priests § 18
3 1 Cor. 2,13-14.
4 1 Cor. 1,19.
5 1 Cor. 2,1 1.
6 Phil. 2,7-8.
7 Cf. Chap. 17 above.
8 Cf. Chap. 9 above. St. Paul, though Christ spoke directly to him on the road to Damascus, still needed to consult a human guide in Damascus, by divine arrangement.
9 Cf. remarks on guidance in Chap. 9 above.