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Our Lady's Growth in Holiness

[Cross and Crown 14 (March 1962) 79-91]

WHEN the fullness of time had come, God sent his archangel Gabriel to greet the humble, young girl, Mary, as "Full of grace." Actually, Mary had been full of grace from the first moment of her conception; Pope Pius IX, speaking of that moment, tells us that her sanctity was even then so great that "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it."{{1}}

From these facts a problem arises. Since Mary was full of grace from the very beginning of her existence, was it not impossible that her grace could grow further? That which is already full cannot receive more.

The objection is drawn from an implied comparison with material things. An eight-ounce glass is full when it has received eight ounces, and no more can be added to it. But in the spiritual order things are much different, for grace does not grow in the soul in a quantitative way; it is not a matter of adding a certain bulk measure, as it were, to the bulk already present. Growth in holiness is essentially growth in the intensity of one's love of God and neighbor; in practice, love and holiness are interchangeable terms. This intensity is always capable of increase, because, on the one hand, the power of God to increase it is infinite, and on the other hand, the capacity of the creature can increase indefinitely.

St. Thomas tells us that we can speak of fullness of grace in three ways. The first two forms of fullness refer to the grace itself: it can be full either in its intrinsic excellence and intensity (intensive fullness); or it can be full in the range of effects to which it extends (extensive fullness). The last "fullness" is relative to the person who receives it: he is "full of grace" when he has all the grace proper to his assigned condition and role.{{2}}

Only Christ himself was full of grace in the absolute sense, incapable of receiving further increase. Our Lady was full of grace in the third way: she had all the grace that was proper to her surpassing dignity as Mother of God and associate of the divine Redeemer. And she had it, not merely in a barely sufficient measure, but in a superabundant way.

Now it is evident that since this third form of fullness of grace is a relative fullness, growth was possible to Mary, for her capacity for more intense love of God could and did increase.

To gain some slight appreciation of Our Lady's growth in holiness let us examine the chief principles that regulate spiritual growth. Afterwards we shall see how they apply to the principal stages in her spiritual life.

Principles of Spiritual Growth

Souls grow in their intensity of love of God chiefly in three ways: through meritorious acts, through prayer, and through reception of the sacraments.

To be able to merit, it is evident that a person must live in this present life as a wayfarer, for in the future life no one, not even the Blessed Mother or our Lord himself, can merit. It is likewise obvious that to merit an increase in love of God, a person must have the love of God: he must be in the state of grace. Similarly, the act by which he merits must be a free act, a morally good act, and an act that is supernatural by virtue of his intention as well as by his possession of sanctifying grace. Such are the basic requirements for merit.

Merit can increase in various ways. First, the greater the dignity and grace of the person who merits, the greater the merit; thus any work of our Lord had infinite worth, because of the infinity of his person. Similarly, the greater the intrinsic goodness of his work, the greater the merit tends to be. However, as St. Paul warns us (I Cor. 13:3), a person might perform works of great inherent worth yet, even if he should give all his goods to feed the poor, without love it is of no profit to him. Hence we need to add another condition which can elevate even little works to tremendous means of spiritual growth: a more intense love of God and neighbor.

This intensity of love is important not only as regulating one's degree of merit but also as determining whether or not a person will actually grow by his good work. For it is entirely possible that a person may merit an increase in holiness, and yet not actually receive it at the time he merits it. This is due, of course, not to any holding back on the part of God, something unthinkable for God's infinite generosity, but to man's own deficiencies: the person who merits may not be capable here and now of receiving the increase. For there is a difference between the conditions for merit, and the conditions for actual, immediate growth in holiness.

Growth in holiness is not a quantitative thing. Yet we can use numbers in a loose comparison to illustrate a principle. Suppose that the habitual love which a given person has is a love of five degrees. If he subsequently acts with an intensity of only three degrees, we call his action remiss. He will of course merit an increase in holiness, since his action is good. But he will not receive the increase at that time, since his action was remiss, performed at an intensity of three degrees, and so not disposing him to receive still greater love, but rather inclining or disposing him to a decrease. Of course, no gradual decrease in sanctifying grace is possible; sanctifying grace is either lost altogether by mortal sin. or it remains in the same degree, even though its possessor not only performs remiss actions, but even commits venial sins.

Similarly, if a soul having five degrees acts precisely at the level of five degrees, he will merit an increase, but will not receive it at once. For an act of five degrees done by a person with a habitual love of five degrees disposes him simply to remain at that level, not to increase or to decrease.

But if a soul acts with a fervor of love that is even a little above his habitual level, to that extent he is disposed to receive an increase at the very time of acting. He therefore receives whatever increase his new capacity can contain.

We see then how it is possible for a soul to advance in one sense and not advance in another. For although it is true that we must either progress or fall back, the advance may be only in merit, not in actual holiness. This explains the phenomenon noted by experienced spiritual directors that souls tend to run for long periods on a plateau, making no perceptible progress but yet not falling back. This may take place even with daily reception of Holy Communion.

Theologians are not agreed on the way in which the sacraments fit into these principles of growth. Some think that growth through the sacraments confers only a title to an increase, without giving the actual growth at once, in persons whose dispositions are not greater than their habitual level of love. Others think the sacraments always produce at least some small growth. Perhaps the truth may be that the sacraments give a growth greater than what we merit, but not greater than what we are capable of receiving at the time.{{3}}

Growth through prayer follows similar principles. In fact, prayer itself is meritorious. However, by prayer we can, and do, obtain more than we merit—even things such as final perseverance that are not subject to merit at all. Yet, obviously, we cannot hope to receive at the time of prayer more than we are capable of receiving.

Spiritual Growth in Our Lady

In ordinary souls both merit and growth are usually small, because of deficiencies in factors regulating the extent of growth. But when we return to our Blessed Mother, what a beautiful contrast meets our eyes!

The great St. Teresa of Avila said of God that "he would rejoice to do nothing but give, could he find souls capable of receiving."{{4}} In Mary he found no holding back, no resistance, no deficiency in generosity. "Gladly," therefore, as Pope Pius IX declared, "he so wonderfully filled her, more than all angelic spirits and all the saints, with an abundance of all heavenly gifts taken from the treasure of the divinity, that she, always free from absolutely every stain of sin, and completely beautiful and perfect, presented such a fullness of innocence and holiness that none greater under God can be thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it."{{5}}

Of course, these words were written with special reference to the Immaculate Conception, that magnificent grace given in advance of any possible disposition on the part of the holy Virgin. But they do apply with equal force to her whole life, in which her perfect openness and generosity conditioned her staggering merit and growth.

1. Our Lady's Merit

Merit, as we have seen, increases with the greatness of the work that is done; in Mary we find works far greater than those of any other mere creature. Merit increases with the dignity and degree of grace of the one who merits; in Mary we find both fullness of grace and, as Pope Pius XI wrote, "a dignity second only to God," which is, as the same pope adds, quoting St. Thomas, "a sort of infinite dignity, from the infinite good that God is."{{6}} But we saw, too, that no works, howsoever great, would profit the doer without love. We ordinary souls often are deficient in this respect, so that even when we merit, we often do not actually grow. Mary, however, always acted with an unreserved maximum of love. As a result, even small works of hers, such as sweeping the house, would be more pleasing to God than the painful death of a martyr; it is not mere difficulty as such that increases the merit of a good work. The difficulty, however, often provides a gauge of merit, serving as a kind of foil to evoke love; only great love can rise above great difficulties, though great love can rise even where there are no difficulties.

Our Lady by her merits grew, then, to the maximum degree intended by God. She also grew through her exalted prayers and through the sacraments, as we shall see later.

We can gain a better notion of her dazzling growth if we examine some of the principal stages in her life in the light of these basic principles.

The day of her Annunciation found Mary perfectly disposed for tremendous growth. She had long grown by her prayers and merits in a life that appeared ordinary in the eyes of those around her, though in the sight of God, her whole life had been far from ordinary. But on this day the archangel addressed to her the most extraordinary proposal ever to reach a creature's ears. She was asked to consent in the name of the whole human race to become the Mother of the Redeemer. According to the traditional view, she understood from the angel's words that her son would be divine. She understood likewise, from the Old Testament prophecies, at least something of his future suffering. She knew that God is one, yet she was asked to believe the angel when he spoke of a second person in God. All good Jews feared to pronounce God's sacred name, even in the course of prayer or in the reading of Scripture, but she was asked to receive him within her, to become his mother. She probably knew, at least in an obscure way from the prophecies, that this would involve great suffering for herself as the Mother of a suffering Redeemer. She could not fathom what might be the limits this suffering would reach. Yet without hesitation she spoke her fiat, which remade the world.

A soul grows in proportion to the greatness of his work, in proportion to his degree of grace, in proportion to his love. The greatness of Mary's work, a consent in the name of all mankind to become the Mother of the Redeemer, surpassed immeasurably any work that all creation had ever seen; her dignity was that of the one chosen to be the Mother of God; her own habitual grace had already been so great at the time of the Immaculate Conception that "no one but God can comprehend it" and yet had grown constantly since that moment; and now in her fiat there is the most absolute adherence to the will of God, an echo of the ecce venio of Christ himself, made with unreservedly intense love.

2. Mary's Sacramental Growth

But still another factor must be added to complete the picture. Sacraments produce grace even beyond the merit of the recipient, as divinely ordained causal instruments uniting us to Christ. Rightly do theologians add that the chief mysteries of the life of Christ must have produced in Mary also a sort of sacramental effect.{{7}} For what sacrament unites a soul to the author of grace in the way in which she was united in becoming his Mother!

Even before the Annunciation Mary's holiness was literally beyond the comprehension of any existing creature. What must it have become under the combined impact of all these factors of growth on that day! And what of the nine months continuation of that day. If the fifteen-minute presence of the sacred humanity in the Eucharist in an ordinary communicant produces growth even beyond his merit, though not beyond his power to receive, what must have been the growth worked during the months before Bethlehem in her whose capacity knew no restraint?

In the same period her holiness must have grown especially from her humility in not telling anyone about the privilege she had received. To ordinary souls, it would have seemed only reasonable to report the great apparition, at least to Joseph. Proper concern for her own reputation would seem to demand it. Yet we know that she did not speak a word in her own behalf, evidence of the most absolute docility to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, who often leads souls in marvelous paths, not contrary to, but beyond, what reason would suggest. And yet precisely because the motion given is superior to reason, the reasons for the decision are not made clear to the recipient. The soul is simply shown that the course proposed is the will of God, and so is good; that is enough for the perfectly docile soul. It amply sufficed for Mary, whom we rightly call the spouse of the Holy Spirit. May not this explain most easily how she would make a vow or resolve of virginity even in marriage to Joseph?

On the night of the Nativity heaven did indeed show its wonders. In all other respects the child seemed an ordinary infant—not manifesting his infinite personality. Nor was he willing to save himself from Herod by his own power. The status of a common fugitive seeking shelter in Egypt would be the remedy. Here was a heavy demand on the faith of Mary and an occasion for great spiritual growth.

But before that flight, there came the Presentation in the Temple. With what unreserved love did Mary offer her son. And yet at what cost, for the joy of the day was darkly clouded by the mysterious but piercing prophecy of the seven swords.

During the sojourn in Egypt and in the long years of the hidden life that followed, there were no miracles, nothing at all that would permit one to know that the growing boy was more than human. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. Priests or sacristans, who often handle sacred things, are in constant danger of developing hardness or callousness; only a lively, constantly active faith can prevent it. Here again was a long trial of the faith of Mary.

On the other hand, like any other mother, the Virgin would be powerfully drawn by nature to love her son. In this case, the strong love of nature fused into and stimulated, her already tremendous supernatural love of God: for both had one and the same object and direction.

Then there were the mysterious trials in which so beloved a son seemed to show aloofness: "Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" (Luke 2:49). And: "What is that to me and to thee?" (John 2:4.) Although Mary's soul had received superlative graces of light so that she did know his divinity and the great lines of the divine plan for his future mission and suffering, yet she was asked to endure darkness in some details, so that she did not understand what he meant in the Temple though her subsequent actions at Cana indicate at least partial comprehension.

But far greater darkness lay ahead. For when the apostles-all but John—had fled in dismay and seeming loss of faith, Mary walked bravely from the shadows of retirement, in which she had modestly kept herself during the glories of his public life, to take her place in the unrelieved blackness that hung over Calvary. There, as Pope Benedict XV wrote, "With her suffering and dying son, Mary endured suffering and almost death. She gave up her mother's right over her son to procure the salvation of mankind, and to appease the divine justice she, as much as pertained to her, immolated her son, so that one can correctly say that together with Christ she has redeemed the human race."{{8}}

Let us recall the criteria of merit: it increases with the intrinsic goodness of the work, with the dignity and grace of the person, and with the love with which it is done. Pope Pius XII wrote that it is the highest dignity of the ordinary Christian to share in the Mass, the representation of Calvary.{{9}} What was the intrinsic goodness and dignity of Mary's work of sharing in the tremendous original sacrifice from which all the power of the Mass flows! She did it so fully that "one can correctly say that together with Christ she has redeemed the human race." She did it, having a dignity which is, as Pope Pius XI said, "second only to God," a quasi-infinite dignity, from the infinite good that God is. She did it with a holiness and grace that had grown constantly at an unthinkable rate from a start already so great that "no one except God can comprehend it."

But more especially, how powerful is the love with which she acted. As we have seen, difficulty as such does not constitute the goodness of a work, but it can serve as a sort of occasion to call forth love, and it eventuates in a certain measure of love inasmuch as only great love can surmount great difficulty. What was the difficulty of this offering? As Pope Benedict XV said, she gave up her mother's rights over her son. An ordinary mother would have cried out: It is too much, it is so wrong. But Mary, with perfect conformity to the will of the Father, which was the will of her son, willingly, though not easily, surrendered her rights and instead of protecting joined wholeheartedly in the offering.

The grief of any mother forced to stand helpless at the deathbed of her son is proportioned chiefly to two things: to the greatness of his suffering and to the extent of her love. His suffering was all that human malice could contrive to inflict on a body most sensitive to suffering, on a person most fully deserving of all good, whose heart was torn by his very love for those who tormented him. It is simply beyond our ability to describe or understand. Our Lady, however, with a mother's penetrating heart, did understand, insofar as any creature could comprehend the suffering of God. But her pain arising from the atrocity of his torture was multiplied by the extent of her love for him. What was that love? Love of God and holiness are, as we have seen, interchangeable terms. Her love for her son and God had been even from the start such that "no one except God can comprehend it." It had grown from this incomprehensible state to a point doubly beyond our understanding—and yet this unthinkable love was the factor multiplying in her heart the pain that was already indescribable on the score of the inexpressible horror of his suffering. In all sober, literal truth we have to say that her pain was beyond the understanding of any other creature. And yet her love surmounted it, her love for her son and God, and also her love for us. For love of God and neighbor, though unequal, inevitably grow in proportion to one another. Her love for us, her spiritual children, then, was proportioned to a literally incomprehensible love. Therefore we cannot hope to fathom it.

We can also try to comprehend some measure of her merit from its effects, by recalling that Mary's cooperation in the Passion of her son was so great that, as Pope Pius XII taught, "our salvation flowed from the love and sufferings of Jesus Christ, intimately joined with the love and sorrows of his mother."{{10}} The number of theologians is growing who think this means that she merited our salvation even de condigno—in justice—though, of course, in a lesser way than did our Lord himself.{{11}} On the feast of the Seven Sorrows, the Church sings: "May so many tears of the Mother of God bring salvation to us, tears with which you are able to wash away the sins of the whole world."{{12}}

And yet, there is still another factor of growth to be added to this already tremendous picture: the quasi-sacramental effect of her association with Christ. For that association, by joining her to the very source of all grace in the very act of earning all grace, must have had the power to effect in her a growth even beyond that which her incomprehensible merits would call for, a growth bounded only by her ability to receive it, which, as Pope Pius IX reminded us, is greater than any created mind can picture.

After the glorious Resurrection and the mixed joy of parting at the Ascension, Our Lady was persevering in prayer with the apostles until the day on which the descending Holy Spirit, operating in a manner resembling that of the sacraments, but even surpassing them, transformed the apostles in an instant from timid, cringing men to fearless heralds who counted it all happiness to be allowed to suffer for their divine master. If such was the effect of Pentecost on these lesser souls, what must it have been on Mary herself! Again, we are forced to admit complete inability to picture it.

But Our Lady did receive the sacraments themselves as well. She did not need the cleansing effect of baptism, of course; yet it is likely that she who always, insofar as possible, shared Jesus' lot underwent baptism in the same spirit as did her divine son. But especially, we can be confident that she received the Eucharist daily at the hands of St. John during whatever years remained to her between the day of Pentecost and the time of her own Assumption.

It is commonplace to say that the power of the Eucharist to effect spiritual growth is unlimited in itself, being restricted only by our small capacity to receive that growth. In Mary, however, this capacity was far greater. Each reception of the Holy Eucharist would produce a wonderful increase in holiness, and the next day would bring a still greater growth, being proportioned, among other things, to the already higher degree of her grace from the previous day. St. Thomas, although he did not know precisely the law of the acceleration of freely falling bodies, yet was able to say of spiritual growth, "Someone may ask: Why must we make progress in the faith? Because a natural motion the closer it comes to its goal, the more intense it becomes."{{13}} Taking a hint from this, many theologians propose a comparison with a geometric series of numbers, in which at each step the number is multiplied by itself: 2 x 2 equals 4; 4 x 4 equals 16; 16 x 16 equals 256—and so on, until our dazzled mind is left helpless in wonder. Now it is true that spiritual growth is not really quantitative; yet the comparison is not too strong to illustrate the progress of her who at the very beginning had a holiness so great that only God can comprehend it.

3. Mary's Growth in Prayer

Mary grew, too, by her prayers, both vocal and mental. Some few souls, at the peak of their spiritual development, reach the exalted realms of the unitive way of mystical contemplation. Mary began where other souls leave off, and, fulfilling more perfectly than any other soul the Pauline injunction to pray without ceasing, took her flight into completely untraced paths.

We are not entirely certain that she ever died, though the great majority of theologians think that she did so, especially because of the constant parallelism of her life with that of her divine son. But we may at least say this: If she really did die, then her death must have come about from no other cause than love. Even in ordinary humans, death from powerful emotions is not unknown. In the greater saints, the love of God acts like a powerful, pulling force, comparable to magnetic attraction. When that force attains sufficient strength, the body is no longer able to hold the soul from taking flight to that center: Where your treasure is, there is your heart also. In Mary's case, her treasure had always been in her divine son. He had ascended to the Father; it was inevitable that the sheer force of love for him should eventually break the web of this life and take her to him.

We can speak of fullness of grace either in reference to grace in itself, or in reference to the recipient of grace. Grace in itself can be said to be full either in its essence and internal excellence, or in regard to the effects to which it extends. Fullness of grace relative to the recipient signifies that the recipient has all the grace required for his condition and role.

Our Blessed Mother was full of grace only in this last sense. Taking grace in all senses together, only Christ himself would be full of grace, for only he had grace capable of meriting our salvation in full justice by his own power; only he had the right, of his own power, to institute sacraments, and so on. Yet, insofar as any mere creature could approach Christ's fullness, Mary has done so. For the excellence of her grace is so great that only God can comprehend it, and the effects of her grace reach to all mankind, according to the words of Pope Pius XII: "Her kingdom is as vast as that of her son and God, since nothing is excluded from her dominion."{{14}} And just as he is always making intercession for us, so too no grace whatever is given to man without passing through her. And even when the last of the blessed shall have reached God, she will continue this inseparable association with her son, being a secondary, but indescribably wonderful, source of the very bliss of heaven. Pope Pius XII has said: "Surely, in the fact of his own mother, God has gathered together all the splendors of his divine artistry.... You know, beloved sons and daughters, how easily human beauty enraptures and exalts a kind heart. What would it ever do before the beauty of Mary.... That is why Alighieri saw in Paradise, in the midst of more than a million rejoicing angels ... a beauty smiling—what joy it was in the eyes of all the other saints—Mary."{{15}}

It is not surprising, then, that the same saintly pope also taught that her "most holy soul, more than all other creatures of God combined, was filled with divine spirit of Jesus Christ."{{16}}

When any soul enters heaven, its grace blossoms, as it were, into the light of glory. If the glory of the least soul there is so great that St. Paul could rightly say of it that eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man what things God has prepared for those who love him"—what must be the light of glory and the incomprehensible love of our heavenly Queen and Mother. In that light she sees and cares for all our needs, not just in some vague, general way, but with the personal care of the best of mothers. For although we are many, our number is not infinite—and so it is well within the competence of a soul whose light of glory is proportioned to a literally incomprehensible degree of grace.

Mary's unthinkable holiness is, then, not only for herself, but also for us. Eternal thanks then to the infinite generosity of him who is love, to our Father, who has given us such a Mother.


1Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854.
2Summa theol., III, q. 7, a. 10.
3Cf., for example, A. M. Lepicier, O.S.M., De gratia (Paris: 1907), p. 428, for the opinion that regarding the need for increased dispositions the sacraments operate on the same principle as other good works. For a contrary view cf. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947), I, 141-143.
4St. Teresa of Avila, Conceptions of the Love of Cod, chap. 6, The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Jesus, trans. E. Allison Peers (London: Sheed & Ward, 1949), II, 390.
5Pope Pius IX, op. cit.
6Pope Pius XI, Lux veritatis, December 25, 1931; AAS, XXIII, 513, citing St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theol., I, q. 25, a. 6 ad 4.
7Cf. F. Calkins, O.S.M., "Mary's Fullness of Grace," Mariology, ed. J. B. Carol, O.F.M. (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1957), II, 305-307.
8Pope Benedict XV, Inter sodalicia, March 22, 1918; AAS, X. 182.
9Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei, November 20, 1947; AAS, XXXVII, 552.
10Pope Pius XII, Haurietis aquas, May 15, 1956; AAS, XLVIII, 352. The usual English translations incorrectly render the Latin sit profecta in the present tense as "flows." The Latin has the perfect subjunctive in primary sequence, which must refer to the past. The present might indicate the individual or subjective redemption; the past clearly indicates the objective redemption.
11Cf. William G. Most, "Maria et Ecclesia: tentamina ad synthesim novam," Marianum, XXII (1960), pp. 270-289.
12Hymn at Lauds.
13Commentary on Ad Hebraeos [10:25] Bk. X, lect. 2.
14Pope Pius XII, Bendito seja, May 13, 1946; AAS, XXXVIII, 266.
15Pope Pius XII, To Italian Catholic Action Youth, December 8, 1953, The Pope Speaks, 6, p. 38.
16Pope Pius XII, Mystici corporis, June 29, 1943; AAS, XXXV, 247.



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