Newman’s sermon “Faith and Experience” asks us to use the eyes of faith to consider the things of God, and understand that God’s ways are beyond our experience. We must not measure the things of faith by the things of this world. Appearances will deceive us, whereas God’s work takes place in hiding, in secret, in word and sacrament, in a way that surpasses the understanding of the world.
We can learn to wait in God’s presence, to adopt the eyes of faith, by looking to the Blessed Virgin Mary as our model and mother in faith, as one to emulate, and one to be truly spiritually nurtured by in accordance with Christ’s will, who says to his beloved disciples from the cross, “Behold, thy Mother” (John 19:27). The Blessed Virgin lived an earthly life, and now lives eternally in heaven, gazing constantly upon her Son in adoration. To grow close to her is to join her in this gaze, to look with constant love and affection upon our Lord, listening constantly to do whatever he tells us (John 2:5).
And yet, it is not infrequent to hear even men and women of faith and good will complaining that the Blessed Virgin Mary, because of her perfection and sanctity, is unrelatable. To be sure, in a good way, stories of saints whose early lives were marked by sin and error can inspire us to see clearly how we, too, may rise from our sins and cooperate with Christ’s work of redemption. Newman, in keeping with his sermon, suggests that the Blessed Virgin Mary is only unrelatable from the perspective of earthly experience. But from the eyes of faith, on the firm foundation of our baptisms, the Blessed Virgin Mary is not only the most relatable, but the most necessary saint to relate to in order to find ourselves on the path of salvation in Christ.
By a special, miraculous application of Christ’s grace in advance, Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin, just as Adam and Eve were created before their fall (CCC 491-3). This is the Church’s teaching of the Immaculate Conception. But perhaps even greater to consider is that the Blessed Virgin Mary never in her life fell into actual sin. This is not to say that she was a demi-goddess; she was and is a human being perfected by God’s grace. Her perfection was on-going; for her entire life, she grew in virtue, just as each one of us should. Teachers of the Church, from St. Athanasius to St. Augustine and St. John Henry Newman, draw upon Scripture to show that to sin is to negate our God-given humanity. Sin does violence against the image and likeness of God in us. So, to sin is to fail to be fully human; to sin is to be less-than human, and therefore the Blessed Virgin Mary was the most human person in history. We sin when we convince ourselves that we need not grow any better in this life; we fall into pride or apathy or vice. Newman was famously captivated by the notion that “growth is the only sign of life.” If something stops growing, it is dead. The Blessed Virgin Mary gives us the highest model of being fully alive: constant, unfailing growth in virtue, continually pondering in her heart the mysteries of her son’s life (Luke 2:19), and continually accepting the depths of grace God offered her.
This life that she lived preeminently we also can live sacramentally. At our baptisms, and after stepping out of a good contrite confession, we are just as immaculate as she was at her conception and for her life, by God’s grace. And we can persevere in that holy state with careful habituation, sincere effort, and constant openness to God.
Mary models the perfect disciple who, simply, never stops following her Lord. And, as disciples of Christ must, she prays for other members of His body (James 5:16), constantly interceding for them as she constantly adores her son. Therefore, still in heaven, as the most perfect Christian disciple, she is also the most loving and most powerful prayer warrior, to whose recourse we can fly just as our earthly mothers are often the first we go to for comfort in our sorrows and trials. The word for “intercession” in biblical Greek literally means “to hit the mark,” just as the opposite meaning, “to miss the mark,” is evoked by the word for “sin,” hamartia. Mary, during her life on earth and now in heaven, always “hit the mark” by constantly adoring her son, and such excellent spiritual marksmanship, by a unique grace of God, explodes in a shower, a treasure-trove of intercessory grace for all of us. God, our good heavenly Father, longs to give good gifts to us His children (Luke 11:11). And as a good father would love to see His children sharing their gifts with each other, he entrusts to his disciples spiritual gifts that they in turn share with each other (Psalm 149:6-7). This is why we pray to the saints, and pray especially to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose role as spiritual mother exceeds in kind the role of the rest of God’s spiritual adopted children. By praying to saints in heaven and for each other, we are simply being what we are as the Body of Christ, enjoying the mutual benefits of belonging to a heavenly family across time and the grave.
We can only rise to perceive these truths if we acknowledge that without God and His revelation, “we are very blind,” that we need His teaching and what He reveals; we receive all things as gifts from Him. Newman’s conclusion to “Faith and Experience” invites us, like the Apostles, to pray, (indeed, to never cease praying), “Increase our faith:”
Let us come to Him honestly: we cannot help ourselves; we do not know ourselves; we need His grace. Whatever perplexity the world gives us, whether about the doctrine of regenerating Baptism, or about the Church Apostolic, or about the necessity of maintaining the Gospel faith, or about the doctrine of everlasting punishment, let us come to Him with pure and sincere minds; imploring Him to reveal to us what we know not, to incline our hearts when they are stubborn, and to make us love and obey Him honestly while we seek, and not to seek mere barren knowledge, “which perisheth with the using.