Our Lady, Our Abbess, Our Queen
Writing in an essay in the book Priez sans cesse – 300 ans de prière, (Desclée de Brouwer, Editeur, Paris, 1953, p. 177), Dom Jean Leclercq, O.S.B. demonstrates that a Benedictine devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, under the title of Abbess, was not uncommon in the Middle Ages. Originating in monasteries of the Cluniac obedience, devotion to the Blessed Virgin as Abbess was also not unknown among the 17th century Benedictine monks of the Congregation of Saint-Maur.
At Tre Fontane
Not surprisingly, the same devotion made its way into the hearts and cloisters of of the Cistercians. When, in 1975, I visited the Trappist monks at the Abbey of Tre Fontane in Rome, I was struck by a statue of the Mother of God enthroned in the reading cloister. The Blessed Virgin is depicted seated, dressed in the white cuculla of the Cistercians and wearing the abbatial insignia of the ring and pectoral cross. In her right hand she holds the keys of the monastery, and in her left the crosier or pastoral staff used by abbots and abbesses. The inscription below the statue reads: In me omnis spes, “In me is all hope.” How many generations of monks and laybrothers in need of hope paused before this statue to entrust themselves to the Mother of Jesus, their heavenly Abbess and Queen?
Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration
Mother Mectilde de Bar, familiar to the readers of Vultus Christi, as the foundress of the Benedictines of Perpetual Adoration, and the “Teresa of Avila” of the Benedictine Order, renounced the abbatial title for herself and all her successors in perpetuity, and attributed that title and its duties to the Mother of God alone.
The 28 May 1654, M. Mectilde de Bar wrote to M. Dorothée Heurelle:
In myself I find nothing whatsoever that is capable of giving me joy, except for one thing that has given me great satisfaction. It is that I have had a statue of Our Lady made. She is much taller than I, holding her Child on her right arm, and holding a crosier in her left hand, to signify she is the generalissima of the Order of Saint Benedict, and the most worthy Abbess, Mother, and Superior of this little house of the Holy Sacrament. It was brought to us on Saturday, the vigil of Pentecost. I must admit that her arrival sent a thrill of joy and consolation through me, and seeing my holy Mistress take possession of her domain and of this very little convent. She is not yet altogether finished, because she must still be gilded and made perfectly beautiful, and after she is perfectly complete, we shall have her blessed, and then placed on a throne prepared to this effect in the middle of our choir between the stall of our Mother Subprioress and mine. She is admired, and certainly she is beautiful, and consoles me extremely.
The Image of Our Lady Abbess
On 22 August 1654, Mother Mectilde proclaimed the Blessed Virgin Mary the only abbess and perpetual superior of the Institute. Delegated by the prior of Saint-Germain, the Abbé Picoté blessed the statue of Our Lady. The next day, Mother Mectilde placed Our Lady’s image in all the regular places — choir, chapter, refectory, dormitory — so that she might, in some way, preside at all the community exercises. She want Our Lady’s feasts to be celebrated brilliantly, and prescribed special prayers to the glory of her Most Pure Heart and Immaculate Conception. Thus, was Our Lady forever chosen, named, and recognized as the most worthy and most eminent mother, abbess, and superior in chief of the first fledgling monastery of the Most Holy Sacrament. The Benedictines of the Most Holy Sacrament renew the abbatial election of the Mother of God, and entrust themselves to her every year on August 15th or 22nd.
Abbess and Queen of the Holy Mountain
Is this devotion peculiar to the feminine sensibility? Hardly. The monks of Mount Athos, where no woman ever sets foot, practice the same devotion as their Western brethren, but to an even higher degree. The all-holy Mother of God is acknowledged, venerated, and praised as the Abbess of the Holy Mountain. She is the only woman allowed on Mount Athos because it is her garden, and her domain.
Prophecy of the Mother of God
Saint Gregory Palamas, in his Life of Saint Peter the Athonite (+681) relates that, while living virtually alone on the Holy Mountain as a hermit, he had a vision of the Mother of God telling Saint Nicholas of her love for the place:
“The time will come,” said the Mother of God,” when, from every direction, it will be filled with a multitude of monks…. If those monks shall labor for God with all their hearts and faithfully keep His commandments, I will vouchsafe them great gifts on the great day of my Son. And, while even here on earth, they will receive great aid from me. I shall lighten their afflictions and labors. I will be for the monks an invincible ally, invisibly guiding and guarding them, a healer, a source nourishing them, and make it possible for them, with but scant means, to have sufficiency for life.”
Abbess of the Holy Mountain
For over a thousand years, the monks of Mount Athos have experienced the truth of these words. Not merely in name only, but in reality and in the life of each monk, the all-holy Mother of God is honoured as Abbess and Sovereign Lady of the Holy Mountain. The monks of Mount Athos invoke the Holy Mother of God by a whole litany of titles. Our Lady is the archetype of monasticism. She is the paradigm of Christian holiness; the Abbess of the Holy Mountain; and the monk’s sure guide to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Mother of God is everywhere present on Mount Athos, principally by means of the holy icons through which she reveals herself as a most solicitous Abbess and communicates with her monks. It should be noted that, until the 12th century, a Latin Rite Benedictine abbey, founded by monks from Amalfi, flourished on Mount Athos, taking a full part in the government of the Holy Mountain and enjoying imperial patronage.
And at Silverstream Priory
Lest we, the least of Our Lady’s sons, be found lacking in the same kind of filial devotion to her, our own little monastery, like so many others in past times and places, will renew our election of the Blessed Virgin Mary Abbess of Silverstream on August 17th, the Sunday within the Octave of the Assumption. Here, for your meditation, is the text of the prayer. It is modeled after the act that Mother Mectilde de Bar pronounced in Paris on 22 August 1654.
Act of Renewal of the Election of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Sovereign Lady and Abbess of the Monastery
Most august Queen of heaven and of earth, Sovereign of Angels and of men, Daughter of the Eternal Father, Mother of the Son, Spouse of the Holy Ghost, Temple of the adorable Trinity, prostrate before thy heavenly throne, and in the name of the community such as it is at this time, and such as it shall be in time to come, we renew today and for always thine election as our sovereign Lady and glorious Abbess. This is our irrevocable, binding, and unanimous desire.
We beseech thee, in thy most tender pity, to take this monastery under thy singular care and special protection. Make us worthy of entering into the victimhood of the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world, and present in the divine Sacrament of the Altar, where, with His glory veiled, He is hidden in a mystery of utter humility, of poverty, and of silence.
Receive us, then, all-holy and merciful Mother of Jesus Christ, as thy servants, and as sons of thine own household. Make thou full use of thy rights and of thy power over us and over the temporal and spiritual affairs of this monastery. Take upon thyself, O holy Mother of God, the office to which we elect thee again today. Rule over us, protect us, and, out of the limitless resources that are in thy giving, provide for all our needs of soul and body.
Quicken in us, O Full of Grace, the spirit of thine own holiness, that we may more worthily adore Thy Son Jesus Christ and so make reparation for the offenses wrought against Him in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Virgin most pure, thou who art in truth our Mother, we shall depend upon thee and look to thee for all things. Knowing that whatsoever is entrusted to thee is kept safe within thy maternal Heart, we renew in thy hands the vows of our Baptism and monastic profession, promising a wholehearted and ready obedience to every command of thine.
We further offer to thy maternal Heart, O immaculate Virgin Mary, our Oblates, and all who have assisted this monastery by their labour, their prayers, and their material support, asking thee to extend the veil of thy holy protection over them and over their families, their loved ones, their homes, and their places of work and business. Deign also to extend to those who witness this solemn act today a real participation in our devotion to thee and an abundant share in thy choicest blessings. Amen.