Father Prior is in Northern Ireland today, having been invited to address the Carmelite Tertiaries of Belfast for the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Made of a Woman
«But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law» (Galatians 4:4). The Son of God is born of woman like the great drenching rain born of the little cloud rising over the Mediterranean. The woman of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a woman complete in every way, a woman in whose flesh the fullest feminine potential has been realized. Mary, the God–bearing woman, through whom Christ is given to the world, is the sign and promise of the God–bearing Church, through whom Christ is given to the world, and of the God–bearing disciple, through whom Christ is given and made present in situations as numerous as they are unique and unrepeatable.
In Our Lady, Saint Mary, in the Church, and in the individual disciple, Christ is conceived, brought forth, and given, «not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13) acting powerfully in the mission of the Word and the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. The fullest feminine potential of the Mother of God, of the Church, and of the soul is realized in a joyful, sorrowful, and glorious growth from one stage of relationship to another: from virginal readiness to bridal self–gift; from bridal self–gift to spousal fidelity; and from spousal fidelity to life–giving motherhood.
Virgin, Bride, Spouse, and Mother
In Mary Most Holy we contemplate a woman who is virgin, bride, spouse, and mother. The Church, too, is a woman who, down through the ages, knows again and again the experience of being virgin, bride, spouse, and mother «for the life of the world» (John 6:51). Each of you, embracing unreservedly your Carmelite vocation, will find yourself confronted with the fearful and wonderful possibility of becoming, like Mary, and like the Church, virgin, bride, spouse, and mother. «God sent his Son, made of a woman» (Galatians 4:4). The pattern of salvation is given, the matrix is cast, once and for all, in the Virgin of Nazareth. It finds completion in the feminine mystery of the Church, and is brought to a unique realization in each disciple’s conscious acceptance of the specifically feminine mode of relating to God and to the world. Isaac of Stella, a 12th century Cistercian, expresses this simply and clearly in one of his sermons:
In the inspired Scriptures, what is said in a universal sense of the virgin mother, the Church, is understood in an individual sense of the Virgin Mary, and what is said in a particular sense of the virgin mother Mary is rightly understood in a general sense of the virgin mother, the Church. When either is spoken of, the meaning can be understood of both, almost without qualification.
In a way, every Christian is also believed to be a bride of God’s Word, a mother of Christ, his daughter and sister, at once virginal and fruitful. These words are used in a universal sense of the Church, in a special sense of Mary, in a particular sense of the individual Christian. (Sermo 51: PL 194, 1862-1865)
Draw Us After Thee
This is why the sacred liturgy teaches us to pray: «Draw us after thee, O Virgin Mary; we shall follow in thy footsteps». All too often, men, if they consider the feminine pattern of holiness at all, are tempted to dismiss it as belonging exclusively to women. We men do this at our own peril. Women, for their part, enflesh the four stages of virginal readiness, bridal self–gift, spousal fidelity, and life–giving motherhood in what might be termed an iconic and exemplary fashion. Men, and even priests and prelates, learn this particular pattern of holiness precisely by standing in chaste relationship to women, a relationship characterized by reverence, humility, and collaboration, literally «in labour side by side». The Carmelite woman, be she in the cloister or in the world, be she unmarried, married, or widowed, is called to be virgin, bride, spouse, and mother. By contemplating Mary, she comes to participate, over time and almost imperceptibly, in the grace of the holy Theotokos, the God–bearer, the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Into the Mystery of Mary
By seeking the face of the Virgin Mary, by approaching her heart, by living in her presence, men and women alike are drawn into her mystery. It is Mary Most Holy who reveals to souls the grandeur of their baptismal consecration and chrismation. It is Mary Most Holy, who, by a discrete and efficacious influence, prepares souls to hear the Word of God. It is Mary Most Holy, who attracts souls after her into the via dolorosa and, then, to the altar of the Cross, to the sealed tomb, the Cenacle, and the mount of the Ascension.
Similarly, it is in the contemplation of the Virgin Mary that the mystery of the Church is disclosed and enfleshed. A Carmelite is a soul compelled by the Holy Spirit persevere in the night, that is, in the heart of the Church’s faith, waiting for the arrival of the Bridegroom with her lamp filled, trimmed, and ready. A Carmelite, be she (or he) in the cloister or in the world, waits for the cry in the night, Ecce sponsus venit, «Behold the bridegroom cometh» (Matthew 25:6). A Carmelite has no ambition apart from the unconditional gift of herself as a bridal soul, strong and unwavering with the Church in her vigil of compassion and contemplation at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). A Carmelite, hidden in the heart of the Church, carries within herself the weight of new life, and brings forth life, amidst pain and tears, for the salvation and joy of the world.
The Church, like Mary, is virgin by reason of the integrity of her faith and by that state of readiness for nuptial love to which she is brought, and in which she is held, by the Holy Spirit. It is the catholicity (or completeness) of the Church’s faith, held intact, that renders her, in every generation, ready for the new experience of the unchanging love of Christ. The individual soul, formed, enlightened, and healed in the virginal faith of the Church, is made ready for a personal nuptial experience of the new and unchanging love of Christ. This is what it means to be virgin. Too often we define virginity in a limited and negative way, referring principally to a state of physical integrity, or to the absence of the experience of sexual union. Such a narrow and negative definition of virginity disqualifies many and discourages most from pursuing the specifically Marian path of holiness.
The challenge of virginity addressed to every disciple has to do with coming to that human, and therefore spiritual, maturity by which one holds oneself in readiness for a divine love that is, at once, unitive and fecund. The process is not without pain, but it is the pain of growth. The soul is made ready for love by a costly adhesion to truth, and by a personal appropriation of the faith of the Church, integral and intact
The Church, like Mary, is bride because she subsists in the dynamic tension of the beloved chosen by her Lover and chooses, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, to respond with the unconditional gift of herself sealed in an irrevocable covenant of love. The bridal Church is characterized by the beauty conferred upon her by the Holy Ghost who clothes her in a raiment worthy of the wedding feast of the Lamb. The Church rejoices in the passionate declaration of the Bridegroom, «Thou hast wounded my heart, my sister, my spouse, thou hast wounded my heart with one of thy eyes, and with one hair of thy neck» (Canticle 4:9). The bridal stage of Marian holiness is not static, but dynamic; not fleeting, but abiding. Even in her eschatological perfection, the Church remains the eternal bride (Canticle 21:2).
To the Carmelite virgin called, with all Christians, to heavenly glory, and to every bridal soul, the liturgy of the Church sings, «Come, thou bride of Christ, receive the crown prepared for thee by the Lord».
The Church, like Mary, is spouse: «steadfast in her faith, relentless in her hope, unswerving in her devotion». Growth in the Carmelite vocation entails a passage from the virginal and bridal realities into the crucible of spousal love. Saint John gives us a feminine icon of the Church as spouse. «Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen.» (John 19:25). We contemplate the Church as spouse when we look at the Mother of God standing by the foot of the cross. The voice of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is an impassioned call to spousal fidelity, to the companionship of the Crucified. «If you decide for Christ», she writes, «you can even be asked to sacrifice your life. If you wish to be the spouse of the Crucified, you must renounce completely your own will and have no other aspiration than to do the will of God» (Second Lesson, Proper Office of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). The spousal way is one of faithful companionship marked by blood, and by tears. It is the way of the Cross and, by that very fact, it is the way of life and of joy, ineffable joy.
Finally, the Church, like Mary, is mother. The Church is fruitful. The fecundity of the Church in every age is the crowning glory of her virginal, bridal, and spousal realities. Mary, the Virgin, the Bride, the Spouse standing in the shadow of the Cross, enters into the fullness of the motherhood to which she consented when, at Nazareth, she was visited by an angel sent by God (Luke 1:26). Under the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, we see the motherhood of the Godbearer become increasingly inclusive, beginning with the adoption of the beloved disciple John (John 19:26); enfolding the disciples at prayer in the upper room (Acts 1:14); and extending to the least of Jesus’ brethren, with a predilection for the poor, the wounded, and the weak. «When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son.» (John 19:26).
One comes to Carmel to assume the responsibility and joy of spiritual motherhood: the Christ–life carried, the Christ–life brought forth, the Christ–life nurtured, sustained, and sent into the world for its healing and redemption. It is no accident that the monastic tradition confers upon the woman mature in the virginal, bridal, and spousal realities of her consecrated life, the title of Amma or Mother.
Men — sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, monks, abbots, deacons, priests, and bishops —should not shrink from this mystery, for while they are called to embody it in a distinctly masculine way, in a manner proper and unique to men, they are called nonetheless to bring Christ to birth, and to give Him to the world. Maternity of the spirit is in no way limited by the specificity of gender. «And looking round about on them who sat about him, he saith: Behold my mother and my brethren. For whosoever shall do the will of God, he is my brother, and my sister, and mother.» (Mark 3:34–35).
The Marian Way
The way of holiness revealed in Our Lady Saint Mary, and in the Church, virgin, bride, spouse, and mother, is the very life of any soul called to Carmel. «God sent his Son, made of a woman» (Galatians 4:4), and God continues to send Him forth, sacramentally, through the Church, and mystically, through the hearts of those who, hearing the Word, hold themselves in readiness for the torrent of love, «abiding in their cells, pondering the Law of the Lord day and night, keeping watch in prayer» (Rule of Saint Albert).
The abiding and familiar presence of the Virgin Mary in the sacred liturgy is the promise and safeguard of our growth from virginal readiness to bridal self–gift, from bridal self–gift to spousal fidelity, and from spousal fidelity to life–giving motherhood. Intimacy with the Mother of God is the gift of Christ to each disciple held in the gaze of Crucified Love. «After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own.» (John 19:27). An ancient Carmelite text expresses the extent to which intimacy with the Mother of God was treasured by the sons of Elijah on the holy mountain:
O blessed Mother, all of us who dwell on this mountain, water our hearts by drinking from thy fountains. We know that we are guided by thy hand, helped by thy assistance, illuminated by thy light. Mary, Our Lady, abide with us; in thee do we seek refuge. It is needful that the Mother remain with her children, the Mistress with her disciples, the Abbess with her monks. (The Book of the First Monks, Chapter 32)
The Beauty of Carmel, Mary, «Virgin, Bride, Spouse, and Mother» abides with all who, praying like Elias, prostrate on the holy mountain (3 Kings 18:42), look to the little cloud, and expose themselves to the driving rain of the Holy Ghost. The Mother of God accompanies us now to altar of the Sacrifice, bringing her own incomparable joy to Supper of the Lamb. Her word to us echoes that of the angel to Saint Elias» «Arise, eat: for thou hast yet a great way to go.» (3 Kings 19:7).