Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Purity of Mary

Lately I have had any number of discussions with various friends and acquaintances about whether the Blessed Virgin Mary struggled with the concupiscence of the flesh. Let us begin with the definition of concupiscence as given in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
In its widest acceptation, concupiscence is any yearning of the soul for good; in its strict and specific acceptation, a desire of the lower appetite contrary to reason. To understand how the sensuous and the rational appetite can be opposed, it should be borne in mind that their natural objects are altogether different. The object of the former is the gratification of the senses; the object of the latter is the good of the entire human nature and consists in the subordination of reason to God, its supreme good and ultimate end. But the lower appetite is of itself unrestrained, so as to pursue sensuous gratifications independently of the understanding and without regard to the good of the higher faculties. Hence desires contrary to the real good and order of reason may, and often do, rise in it, previous to the attention of the mind, and once risen, dispose the bodily organs to the pursuit and solicit the will to consent, while they more or less hinder reason from considering their lawfulness or unlawfulness. This is concupiscence in its strict and specific sense. As long, however, as deliberation is not completely impeded, the rational will is able to resist such desires and withhold consent, though it be not capable of crushing the effects they produce in the body, and though its freedom and dominion be to some extent diminished. If, in fact, thewill resists, a struggle ensues, the sensuous appetite rebelliously demanding its gratification, reason, on the contrary, clinging to its own spiritual interests and asserting it control. 'The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.'
According to Fr. John Hardon, S.J. in his classic work The Catholic Catechism: "From the time of her conception, Mary was freed from all concupiscence and also (on attaining the use of reason) free from every personal sin during the whole of her life." (The Catholic Catechism, p.158) In The Glories of Mary, St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church, writes of Mary:
Mary certainly could not be tormented at death by any remorse of conscience, for she was always pure, and always free from the least shade of actual or original sin, so much so, that of her it was said: 'Thou art all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot in thee.' From the moment that she had the use of reason, that is, from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception, in the womb of Saint Anne, she began to love God with all her strength, and continued to do so, always advancing more and more, throughout her whole life, in love and perfection. All her thoughts, desires, and affections were of and for God alone: she never uttered a word, made a movement, cast a glance, or breathed, but for God and His glory; and never departed a step, or detached herself for a single moment, from the Divine love. (The Glories of Mary, p. 351)
Here are excerpts of what the Fathers wrote of Mary and her purity (one gets the distinct impression that they did not view her as a typical teenage girl):

Patristic writings on Mary's purity abound.

  • The Fathers call Mary the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption (Hippolytus, "Ontt. in illud, Dominus pascit me");
  • Origen calls her worthy of God, immaculate of the immaculate, most complete sanctity, perfect justice, neither deceived by the persuasion of the serpent, nor infected with his poisonous breathings ("Hom. i in diversa");
  • Ambrose says she is incorrupt, a virgin immune through grace from every stain of sin ("Sermo xxii in Ps. cxviii);
  • Maximus of Turin calls her a dwelling fit for Christ, not because of her habit of body, but because of original grace ("Nom. viii de Natali Domini");
  • Theodotus of Ancyra terms her a virgin innocent, without spot, void of culpability, holy in body and in soul, a lily springing among thorns, untaught the ills of Eve, nor was there any communion in her of light with darkness, and, when not yet born, she was consecrated to God ("Orat. in S. Dei Genitr.").
  • In refuting Pelagius St. Augustine declares that all the just have truly known of sin "except the Holy Virgin Mary, of whom, for the honour of the Lord, I will have no question whatever where sin is concerned" (On Nature and Grace 36).
  • Mary was pledged to Christ (Peter Chrysologus, "Sermo cxl de Annunt. B.M.V.");
  • it is evident and notorious that she was pure from eternity, exempt from every defect (Typicon S. Sabae);
  • she was formed without any stain (St. Proclus, "Laudatio in S. Dei Gen. ort.", I, 3);
  • she was created in a condition more sublime and glorious than all other natures (Theodorus of Jerusalem in Mansi, XII, 1140);
  • when the Virgin Mother of God was to be born of Anne, nature did not dare to anticipate the germ of grace, but remained devoid of fruit (John Damascene, "Hom. i in B. V. Nativ.", ii).
  • The Syrian Fathers never tire of extolling the sinlessness of Mary. St. Ephraem considers no terms of eulogy too high to describe the excellence of Mary's grace and sanctity: "Most holy Lady, Mother of God, alone most pure in soul and body, alone exceeding all perfection of purity ...., alone made in thy entirety the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit, and hence exceeding beyond all compare even the angelic virtues in purity and sanctity of soul and body . . . . my Lady most holy, all-pure, all-immaculate, all-stainless, all-undefiled, all-incorrupt, all-inviolate spotless robe of Him Who clothes Himself with light as with a garment . . . flower unfading, purple woven by God, alone most immaculate" ("Precationes ad Deiparam" in Opp. Graec. Lat., III, 524-37).
  • To St. Ephraem she was as innocent as Eve before her fall, a virgin most estranged from every stain of sin, more holy than the Seraphim, the sealed fountain of the Holy Ghost, the pure seed of God, ever in body and in mind intact and immaculate ("Carmina Nisibena").
  • Jacob of Sarug says that "the very fact that God has elected her proves that none was ever holier than Mary; if any stain had disfigured her soul, if any other virgin had been purer and holier, God would have selected her and rejected Mary". It seems, however, that Jacob of Sarug, if he had any clear idea of the doctrine of sin, held that Mary was perfectly pure from original sin ("the sentence against Adam and Eve") at the Annunciation.
Paul Haffner in his book The Mystery of Mary offers a brilliant discussion about Mary and concupiscence which I recommend reading in full. Haffner says: Not only was Our Lady freed from original and actual sin, but also from concupiscence....The Angelic Doctor offers the various opinions of absence of concupiscence in Mary....Either that concupiscence was entirely taken away from her by her first sanctification or it was fettered. (The Mystery of Mary, pp 93-94)

As for the relationship of Our Lady and St. Joseph, St. Augustine of Hippo (who was not the first Calvinist as some people seem to think, but a Father, Doctor, Bishop and Saint of the Church) remarks that theirs was a true marriage, albeit unconsummated according to the flesh. To quote St. Augustine (I know, he would not be popular on the preaching circuit today):
The entire good, therefore, of the nuptial institution was effected in the case of these parents of Christ: there was offspring, there was faithfulness, there was the bond. As offspring, we recognise the Lord Jesus Himself; the fidelity, in that there was no adultery; the bond, because there was no divorce. [XII.] Only there was no nuptial cohabitation; because He who was to be without sin, and was sent not in sinful flesh, but in the likeness of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3 could not possibly have been made in sinful flesh itself without that shameful lust of the flesh which comes from sin, and without which He willed to be born, in order that He might teach us, that every one who is born of sexual intercourse is in factsinful flesh, since that alone which was not born of such intercourse was not sinful flesh. Nevertheless conjugal intercourse is not in itself sin, when it is had with the intention of producing children; because the mind's good-will leads the ensuing bodily pleasure, instead of following its lead; and the human choice is not distracted by the yoke of sin pressing upon it, inasmuch as the blow of the sin is rightly brought back to the purposes of procreation. This blow has a certain prurient activity which plays the king in the foul indulgences of adultery, and fornication, and lasciviousness, and uncleanness; while in the indispensable duties of the marriage state, it exhibits the docility of the slave. In the one case it is condemned as the shameless effrontery of so violent a master; in the other, it gets modest praise as the honest service of so submissive an attendant. This lust, then, is not in itself the good of the nuptial institution; but it is obscenity in sinful men, a necessity in procreant parents, the fire of lascivious indulgences, the shame of nuptial pleasures. Wherefore, then, may not persons remain man and wife when they cease by mutual consent from cohabitation; seeing that Joseph and Mary continued such, though they never even began to cohabit?
St Alphonsus Liguori has a more poetic approach (which is why I long ago took him for my spiritual father) especially when discussing anything to do with the Most Holy Virgin. Of Our Lady's marriage to St. Joseph he says:
By reason of her purity, the Blessed Virgin was also declared by the Holy Ghost to be beautiful as the turtledove : 'Thy cheeks are beautiful as the turtle-dove's.'7 'Mary,' says Aponius, 'was a most pure turtle-dove.'8 For the same reason she was also called a lily : 'As the lily among the thorns, so is my love among the daughters.' 9 On this passage Denis the Carthusian remarks, that Mary was compared to a lily amongst thorns, because all other virgins were thorns, either to themselves or to others ; but that the Blessed Virgin was so neither to herself nor to others, for she inspired all who looked at her with chaste thoughts. This is confirmed by Saint Thomas, who says, that the beauty of the Blessed Virgin was an incentive to chastity in all who beheld her. Saint Jerome declared that it was his opinion, that Saint Joseph remained a virgin by living with Mary ; for, writing against the heretic Helvidius, who denied Mary's virginity, he says, ' Thou sayest that Mary did not remain a Virgin. I say, that not only she remained a Virgin, but even that Joseph preserved his virginity through Mary.'3 An author says, that so much did the Blessed Virgin love this virtue, that to preserve it, she would have been willing to have renounced even the dignity of Mother of God. This we may conclude from her answer to the archangel: 'How shall this be done, because I know not man ?'3 and from the words she afterwards added: 'Be it done to me according to thy word,'4 signifying that she gave her consent on the condition that, as the angel had assured her, she should become a Mother, only by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. (The Glories of Mary, pp. 457-458)
I think we are safe in assuming that the love Our Lady and St. Joseph had for each other was the love of true spouses but the love which spouses share in heaven. Because of Mary and Joseph's unique mission as parents of the Son of God, they began to live the life of Heaven even amid the many perils, trials, and sufferings of earth.

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5 comments:

Georgette said...

Thank you for this wonderful list of what the Fathers have to say about Mary's eternal freedom from sin! It is annoying when protestants insist she was "just a sinner like us", but it is incomprehensible when Catholics repeat this garbage. Definitely a bookmark-worthy post!

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Gette; I am hoping it will be a helpful tool that will help in discussions on the topic!

Georgette said...

Oh, and I almost forgot!!

Happy Birthday, Elena!! :)

Alexandra said...

A super post! This was my understanding as well, and what we were taught. I've never heard a Catholic think otherwise! Purity is purity, and Mary was new ark of the covenant, so the pure could never co-exist within the impure. She was free of all sin always. As a Catholic this is hammered into your head from the beginning.

Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle said...

An amazing post! Thank you, Elena!

God bless!

Donna-Marie