sedes sapientia

A model for our time of crisis

This month of May gives us a chance to consider how the Blessed Virgin Mary relates to every area of life. But since we are not just individuals, but are also social beings, this includes our public and communal life. Her life bears upon our questions about education, politics, and society, since she presents to us the startling reality of humanity fully unified with God. A theme woven into Newman’s thoughts about Mary is that, by God’s grace, Mary’s human nature was perfected in her earthly life and is glorified in her heavenly life. While it is God’s grace that kept Mary from all sin and the taint of Original Sin, it is Mary’s choice for virtue and choice for faith that made her a worthy co-operator with God’s grace. Her total reliance on God in her heart, mind, and soul allowed God to totally rely on her and be raised as her child in her womb, arms, and home. Newman explains these thoughts in a letter to his friend E.B. Pusey, an Anglican priest. Just as Eve, writes Newman, was a “real agent” of the fall by her sinful choice, Mary is a real agent of redemption by her grace-filled righteous choices. Mary completely co-operated with the Holy Ghost’s work in her mind, soul, and body.

Therefore, Mary was totally justified, totally just, totally perfected. This defined her earthly life and defines her heavenly mission as a powerful intercessor, close to Christ and his throne in body and soul. Mary lived a perfect life of virtue, both divine and human. In the letter to Pusey, Newman says that awe and surprise should attend the realization that “a creature has been brought so close to the Divine Essence,” which creates a “new idea … new sympathy, new faith and worship.” True love and worship of God in the human sphere are only made possible by his Incarnation, by the fact that he had and has a human mother. This new idea does not just change our private religious devotion–it changes the way we perceive the trials, history, and progress of whole human cultures and peoples. Mary models to us, and effects for us by her supernatural motherhood the possibility for both the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) and the cardinal or natural virtues (prudence, moderation, justice, courage), with the help of grace to take root and actually be achieved in sanctified human persons and societies.

In particular, Mary’s model of the virtue of prudence is important in the immense crises in our culture. Prudence is seen by philosophers as the governor of the other virtues, since it includes one’s ability to see and choose the good. In education, government, ethics, medicine, and many other fields, it is increasingly difficult to see and choose the good. James M. Hanlon, in his wonderful little book Living the de Montfort Consecration, argues that in times of cultural crisis people fall away from prudence in one of two ways: either to a “Leftist pelagianism,” wherein man can make his own decisions for himself without the aid of grace, or to a “Rightist quietism,” wherein man can neither do nor choose anything at all, but is utterly dependent on grace at the expense of any action, hoping God will simply intervene and do everything for us without our effort.

Hanlon says that prudence is the ability to choose the good with “solertia,” or “clear-sighted objectivity in the face of unexpected situations.” Mary, immaculately conceived and free from all concupiscence, did not have a mind darkened by sin. She could clearly perceive the good objectively. Scripture shows us: the Angel Gabriel appears and tells her she will conceive a son. Mary asks a clarifying question: “How can this be? For I do not know man.” The angel explains the Holy Spirit will overshadow her. She pauses. She considers. And responds: “Let it be done to me according to thy word.” She sees and perceives the good from God’s perspective. God gives her a choice, and she prudentially chooses the good for herself and the redemption of the world. Hanlon says that, today, “prudence [is replaced by] cunning and mere planning techniques … moral decisions grow ever more numerous, more bewilderingly complex, and more significant for individuals, nations, and mankind.” But Mary presents to us her life as a model for prudence. Unlike Eve, who sought private knowledge at the expense of life, Mary submitted, was open to, the mystery of Divine life by seeking to understand. As we seek to know and choose the good in our difficult times, let us allow the Virgin Most Prudent to be our model, intercessor and guide to God, that his Presence may be truly rooted in our hearts, our families, our schools, our communities, and our nation. As we consider, with prudence, how to be open to God’s life and human life, how best to educate our children, how best to cultivate in them knowledge of truth, how to foster and support institutions that adhere to truly Catholic educational principles, let us take the Blessed Virgin Mary as our model and guide to choose the good, and let us consecrate our families, and our children, and our schools to her.

N.b. For a short and powerful collection of Newman’s thoughts about Mary, see Mary the Second Eve, a compilation of Newman’s writings on Mary from his letters to friends and reflections, edited by Sister Eileen Breen, F.M.A. This collection includes evidence of Newman’s hearty affirmation of and love for all the Church’s Marian dogmas, including the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and her titles as “Second Eve” and “Theotokos,” as well as the power and efficacy of her intercession.

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