God's Masterpiece: Mary's Place in Creation

Chapter 3 of Mother of God by Fr. Cyril Bernard Papali O.C.D.

“She is the brightness of the eternal Light, the unspotted mirror of the majesty of God and the image of His Goodness.” (Wisdom. vii, 26.)

          Again the Church has only breath-taking things to sing about the Blessed Virgin. Philosophers have spun syllogisms and sophisms over the possibility of creating the best creature possible. And yet no philosophy can take us anywhere near an understanding of the all but infinite perfection of this marvellous creature. She is the only being whom God created precisely to show what a good thing He can make. And He has succeeded. This masterpiece of His hands has corresponded so well with His ideals and ambitions that He has simply no wish to make another.

          Her perfection is of an order surpassing that of all other creatures not merely in degree but even in kind. She is the “spotless mirror of the majesty of God”. The metaphor of the mirror is very much to the point. All objects reflect the rays of the sun, but the mirror does it in a manner altogether different. Only in the mirror can we see the sun, because only the mirror reflects his rays perfectly, without distortion and diminution. All other objects reflect light in their own imperfect and distorted way thus revealing themselves and not the sun. so too all creatures are the foot-prints and images of God in their own remote and imperfect way. Only Mary is the immaculate mirror, the perfect picture of God, “the image of His goodness”.

          Being a creature she is finite, it is true, but only God knows her limits. To all others she is all but infinite. She is the only creature that is absolutely perfect, free from all defects and endowed with every gift, natural and supernatural, in the highest degree in which God has ever decreed they should be found in a pure creature. In that sense she is the most perfect creature possible, for she has attained the peak of perfection that God has decreed as realisable by creatures, and has given God the maximum glory He wishes to derive from creation. It is philosophic, or course, but idle all the same, to argue that no creature is the best possible because God can always make a better one. It is one thing for God to have the power to create and another to have the will. And here we have a creature whom God made to display all His wisdom and goodness and power, and who has corresponded perfectly with His designs. To express it in our own imperfect terms, God has exhausted His ordinary omnipotence in creating her. That was what St. Bonaventure meant when he wrote: “Mary is that being than which God cannot make a greater. He can make a greater earth and a greater heaven, but not a greater mother”.[1] Philosophers are free to talk about her limitations. But Pope Pius IX in his Encyclical Ineffabilis Deus assures us that her perfection is such that nothing beyond it is conceivable under God and none can ever comprehend it but God. And St. Thomas Aquinas was putting it mildly when he wrote in his Summa that “All that pertains to perfection must be found in the Blessed Virgin”.[2]

          Her perfections belong to the natural and the supernatural orders, and in both she is the last word of God. Even the natural perfection of her body and soul makes her the gem of creation and the wonder of the angels. The Church does not scruple to apply to her these words of Wisdom: “For she is a vapour of the power of God and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty God; and, therefore, no defiled thing cometh into her. She is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of the stars; being compared with the light, she is found before it”.[3] The scriptures are full of allusions to her exquisite beauty and perfection, and the Church seems to fall into an ecstasy of delight as she gathers these scriptural blossoms into a wreath of liturgical praise. Here are a few of the refrains: “Thou art all fair O Mary, and original stain is not in thee”, “Thou art most beautiful and sweet, O Holy Mother of God”, “Rejoice O Virgin most glorious, beautiful above all else, most exquisitely adorned, and pray to Christ for us”, “Who is she that ascends like the rising dawn, beautiful as the moon, glorious as the sun, formidable like an army in battle array?”

          And the Fathers of the Church have caught up the strains and vied with one another in extolling the perfections of Mary. They seem to know no limits when they speak about her, and yet they are far too sober and saintly to be carried away by mere enthusiasm. They represent the infallible tradition of the Church. Dionysius the Carthusian was merely borrowing from the early Fathers when he wrote: “From head to foot there was absolutely nothing in the Blessed Virgin either in body or in soul that might be in the least unbecoming, reprehensible or indecorous. Indeed the whole was formed by the infinite wisdom of God, most beautifully arranged and exquisitely finished, with nothing superfluous or out of the way. For as it is proper that the Humanity of Christ should shine with all the perfections of nature and grace in the highest degree of excellence by reason of the hypostatic union, so after Christ His Mother should have the same excellence, for after the hypostatic union there is nothing so intimate as the union of the Mother of God with her Divine Son”.[4]

          And this consummate perfection belonged not merely to her soul but even to her body. Richard Victorinus has said; “It is no wonder that she is radiant whom the rays of glory have filled; that she is beautiful who has contained the effulgence of light. There is no doubt but that this fire of divine love and interior radiance shone out exteriorly also so that she who had the purity of angels had also an angelic countenance”.[5] “The Blessed Virgin had the best natural gifts and the most perfect bodily proportions,” says St. Antonine in his theology,[6] and he proceeds to set forth the reason why the Evangelists made no special mention of her surpassing beauty. George of Nicomedia contemplated her beauty and broke forth in this rapturous cry: “O most beauteous beauty of all beauties, O Mother of God, the fairest ornament of all beautiful things!”[7] St. Peter Damian addresses her: “Virgin Mother of God, whose beauty is the wonder of the sun and the moon.”[8] St. Anselm explains: “O thou most lovely to see, most lovable to contemplate, most delightful to love, how thou exceedest the capacity of my heart!”[9] There is a very remarkable passage of Richard Victorinus which had long been attributed to Dionysius Areopagite: “Unless I believed in thy son whom Paul has preached to me, I should now have fallen prostrate at thy feet adoring thee as the very Godhead; and unless I had the gift of faith, I could not have persuaded myself that God the Creator of the universe could exceed thee in beauty. But now I know that He inhabits the incomprehensible light of which thou art a ray sent out to us that thou mayest illumine us whom the first woman brought forth blind.”[10] St. Andrew of Jerusalem calls her a living statue shaped by God Himself, the incarnation of beauty at its best. To St. Damascene she is the masterpiece of nature and grace working together. Gerson goes one better in his sermons and depicts nature and grace in a contest with each other exhausting all their treasures to enrich the Mother of God. But the Saints were not poets alone. They have expressed their thoughts about the Blessed Virgin not only in figures of speech. All their deep learning, the precision of logic and the weight of theology have been brought to bear on this subject.

          A theological treatise on the beauty of the Mother of God might seem almost ridiculous to the modern mind. But not so to the saints. Everything about her had a special appeal for them. They studied the least detail with the awe and earnestness which this mighty work of God deserves. Whether or no the medieval Schoolmen were preoccupied with determining the number of angels that can dance on the point of a needle, they certainly seem to have been at considerable pains to number, even split, every hair on Our Lady’s head. They had not lost the sense of supernatural values. Here is a characteristic example from the theology of St. Antonine: “According to Aristotle, there is a natural power in things to procreate something similar to themselves. Unless, therefore, nature errs or is impeded, the son will be similar to the father or the mother. Hence it follows that the Divine Son Who was born of a mother, without a human father, by the power of God, who can neither err nor be impeded, must necessarily be similar to His mother and she to Him. Now He was most comely as the Scripture says: ‘comely above all the sons of men’ and ‘the angels desire to look on Him.’ Therefore the Virgin Mother of God was most beautiful.”[11] St. Thomas of Villanova expresses the same idea in almost identical words. St. Antonine again argues the same point from a slightly different angle: “The human body is more beautiful and more noble than the bodies of all animals because of its union to a rational soul; therefore the nobility of the body is intended for and augmented by the nobility of the soul which is its end and perfection. For the matter and form must be mutually proportionate. If therefore the soul of the Blessed Virgin was the most noble soul after that of her Divine Son, her body was, consequently, the most noble and most beautiful one after that of the Son. The body of the Son being united to the Divinity was the most perfect in beauty; hence the body most intimately and immediately related to it must be next to it in excellence and beauty. That was the body of His Mother.”[12] And the great St. Thomas Aquinas concludes his discussion of this subject with these words characteristic of his solid soberness: “Sanctifying grace did not only repress in the Blessed Virgin all inordinate movements, but influenced others too in such a way that no one could ever have any immodest affection for her.”[13] And St. Bonaventure quotes some Jews as claiming that the Blessed Virgin had this marvellous thing about her, that while she was exceedingly beautiful, no man could ever feel any carnal affection for her.

          This characteristically Catholic view of he Blessed Virgin has had a profound influence on the whole life of the Church and found expression in all her arts. In fact the ‘Madonna’ is the central theme, inspiration and life of all Christian fine arts. That is as it should be, for she is the masterpiece of God Himself. Without her we might not have had a Raphael, a Michael Angelo or a Murillo. This explains the fact that fine arts flourish within the Catholic Church as they do nowhere else.

          The Saints are quite agreed that the Blessed Virgin, besides the perfection of nature, had all the preternatural gifts in a most eminent degree. She was endowed with infused knowledge and wisdom of the highest order and had all her mental powers fully developed from the very beginning. Her body was gifted with immortality, incorruptibility and the rest of the prerogatives that belonged to man in Paradise. Conceived immaculate she must be immune from the corruption of our fallen race. It was so with Christ and it must be so with His Mother. Not that human bodies, or any material thing for that matter, can be incorruptible and immortal of their nature. The were made so by a special privilege God had granted man in Paradise. This same privilege belonged to Mary in a pre-eminent degree. Hear St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “The Blessed Virgin had no stain of sin to cause death, but merely the forces of nature as they were before the fall of man. For human nature even then, however perfect, was of its nature mortal. But God had given man a special privilege and grace that would overcome this tendency of nature and preserve him immortal. This was the case with the Most Holy Mother of God. She too, though overflowing with all good things and free from the least stain of sin, had nevertheless the same nature that binds all men to death, and was  therefore mortal. But God had given her the privilege of immortality, and if she chose she could have avoided death altogether and ascended to heaven as she was living. But she would not use this prerogative.”[14]

 

 

[1] Quoted in Expositiones in S. Evang, Hongkong, Sermo in fest. Annun. Punct. i.

[2] Summa Th., Pars 4, dist. 30, quaest. 2, art 1.

[3] De Laudibus Deiparae, I, 1.

[4] In Cantica c. 26.

[5] Summa Theol. Pars 3, tit. 15, cap. 10.

[6] Oratio in Paresent. Deiparae.

[7] Quoted in Janssens, Summa Theol., Tom. V., pag. 195.

[8] Oratio 51 (52), P. L. clviii, 55.

[9] In Cant., c. 25.

[10] Op. cit., loco cit.

[11] Op. cit. loco cit.

[12] III Dist. ii, q. i, a. 2 ad 4.

[13] III Dist. iii, q. 3.

[14] Homilia de Dormit. Deiparae.