Question: Mary is one of the requirements for a successful PH. In St. Teresa’s writings Mary is not mentioned. I am not sure how to approach this. I know the qualities of Mary’s humility, receptivity etc. is what we need to practise the PH. Can you please clarify this for me?
Answer: According to the analysis given in the Course, Mary is not only “one of the requirements” of a successful PH, She is the one that encapsulates all the requirements/conditions. She is The Real Facilitator, The Catalyst of the PH. Let us see how this factor can be addressed.
1- A Christian Truth
Mary summarises and embodies all the elements of our “yes” to God, of our gift of ourselves to God, She is its “frame” and “ship” (vehicle). The Virgin Mary “cooperated through free faith and obedience in human salvation” (LG 56). She uttered her “yes” “in the name of all human nature” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 30, 1). By her obedience She became the new Eve, mother of the living.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 511)
It is very important to understand that the basis of this “affirmation” that Mary is the vehicle of the gift of ourselves to God is part of the Revelation itself. We find it in various parts of the Bible:
1- The parable of the Sower, “fundamental/royal parable” and the parable of the New Skin and the New wine.
2- The parallelism that Saint Luke makes in the beginning of his Gospel between Zachariah and Mary.
3- The choice made by Saint John in his Gospel to place Mary at the source/root of the faith of the Apostles (John 2,11) “Mary’s faith, according to the Church’s apostolic witness, in some way continues to become the faith of the pilgrim People of God” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater 28)
There is a difference between the implicit contents of our faith and the explicit, expressed and conscious parts of Revelation. It is true that very few saints clearly expressed that Mary is essential, but some did. Saint Louis Marie Grignon de Montfort, for example, does it (see “True devotion”), and Saint Therese of the Child Jesus (in her Act of Oblation), and as well Saint Theresa of Avila (even though it requires a deep knowledge of her writings to “see” it).
It is very important to understand, penetrate and live on this contemplative Truth: Mary said “Yes” for me! Therefore in order to be able to say “yes” to Jesus (to live the Ephphatha (Mark 7:34), in order to give myself (which is the deepest aspect of the “yes”) I need to see my “yes” in her “Yes”, and to receive it from her, I need to be rooted in her!
God says in Ezekiel: “I will take the heart of stone and put a heart of flesh, the heart of Mary. Then, you will be filled by my Holy Spirit “(see Ezekiel 36). Mary is part of Jesus, She is flesh of his flesh (Genesis 2), She issues from his heart on the Cross: She is perfect disciple, and image of the perfect disciple for us, mother of the perfect disciple, the perfect model for us to imitate.. Therefore, all Christians are invited to ask God to transform their hearts in the image of the Heart of Mary: docile, capable of listening, capable of corresponding to the Grace of the Holy Spirit. One of the Main Gifts of Jesus on the Cross – the gift of Salvation – is to give us the “Mother” of our “Yes”, the Mould of our “yes”: Mary (John 19). He did indeed give Her to us on the Cross as the mother of our capacity to give ourselves to Him. Therefore “all generations” will have to consider Her “blessed” (Luke 2) because we owe Her this. She is the personal mother of my “Yes”, of “my capacity to access Jesus”, “to enter in Jesus” and “Dwell in Him”.
This contemplative Truth is transparently clear as is stated in the Gospel, in Revelation. I do agree, we can easily notice that sadly it is not always seen, understood and practised amongst Christians! And we lose a lot by not following the Logic of God. If He adopted this way/means to reach us, why are we trying to go the moon on a bicycle? A human being cannot fly, cannot reach God by his own volition! And wanting to deal directly with Jesus simply doesn’t fit in with the Gospel. Let me give you one final example: when Peter said to Jesus, on the very eve of His Passion: “I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus replied clearly: no Peter you can’t! Jesus didn’t give an explanation, but still we can find it if we seek the inner meaning of Jesus’ words. Jesus was adamant, He said: “no” to Peter, “you can’t follow me now, you will follow me later!” Why? If we read the Gospel carefully, we will notice that nobody – except Mary – believed in the Resurrection! In fact nobody can cross the abyss that separates us from God! Jesus did it as the achiever of our Salvation, and since He gave first birth to Mary on the Cross, She was able to believe in Him, and be present to receive Him, Risen. I would even say: She certainly played an important role in “attracting” Him, bringing/enticing Him out of the Earth.
She is the one who kept the promise of the Resurrection alive, the Flame of that Promise alive. So it is through her flame that we light our Pascal Candle! We need to have enough humility to see that. This is what Saint John in his gospel tried to convey with the First Sign of Jesus: the intervention of Mary in Cana. The apostle lit their candle (their faith) from her Fire, from her lamp! What a mystery, a small candle can enflame the whole world. All generations, truly call you: Blessed, because you believe before Peter, before everybody, in the Resurrection, because you shared with us the Living Flame that you kept alive for three days, while Jesus was buried in the Earth.
The liturgy in many different Rites expresses very well the place and Role of Mary in our faith, whereas the Icons of Mary express these contemplative Truths. Pope John Paul II expressed it in many Documents, especially his Encyclical letter, and he certainly was extremely influential in putting gems about Mary into the Catechism.
2- In Saint Theresa of Avila
Now, if we want to see how Saint Theresa of Avila expressed truths about Mary, let us first examine this beautiful and deep text in the first draft she made of her book “The Way of Perfection” (Escorial Manuscript):
“I hope you do not think I have written too much about this already; for I have only been placing the board [like for playing chess], as they say. You have asked me to tell you about the first steps in prayer; although God did not lead me by them, my daughters I know no others, and even now I can hardly have acquired these elementary virtues. But you may be sure that anyone who cannot set out the pieces in a game of chess will never be able to play well, and, if he does not know how to give check, he will not be able to bring about a checkmate. […] How legitimate it will be for us to play it in this way, and, if we play it frequently, how quickly we shall give checkmate to this Divine King! He will not be able to move out of our check nor will He desire to do so.”
It is of utmost importance to read this key-text closely. She mentions the game of Chess, and uses it in order to illustrate a very important issue in mental prayer: the relationship between what we have to do (what depends on us, the “general help of the grace of God”), and God’s answer. To use her language, it is in fact the relationship between the “prayer of recollection” and the supernatural action of God, the “prayer of quiet”. In other words, she is in a way trying to give us a “secret”, how to “trigger” the supernatural action of God, the Grace of God! Per se, it is impossible, because it a “grace”, a free gift from God, that depends on His freedom! But still, she will reveal a secret.
First and foremost let us understand how the game of Chess works, since some might not know it. There are two players, and each of them has a set of sixteen pieces, amongst them two important ones: the King and the Queen! Each piece has the capacity to move in certain directions only, and through these moves to “take” pieces of the opponent, in order to get closer to his kind and “kill” him. This is the very goal of the game is to “kill” the King of the opponent: it is called “to give checkmate”. The Queen is the most powerful piece in the game, this is why one doesn’t want to loose it. Theresa who played chess before entering in the monastery, does use the main idea of the game to illustrate the delicate issue of the relationship between us and obtaining infused contemplation, the supernatural one, or the Prayer of Quiet. She usually says that one needs to wait humbly for the time and the way in which God will give His Grace (see her Autobiography which is further endorsed by the general opinion of the majority of authors). But here, she is not saying the same thing, but is revealing the Secret by focusing her attention on the Queen. In the Chess game, as we have said, the Queen is the most powerful piece because she is capable of making all types of moves. Therefore she is the most suitable piece to “kill” the king, to “get him”. Saint Theresa will mention the Queen, and in her example she applies it to two things:
1- humility (which was her usual option as we said, as she wrote it in her “Autobiography”, written before the “Way of Perfection”)
2- Our Lady, or, to be more precise: the humility of Our Lady. “he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” (Luke 1,48 )
The key here is to notice and make an important mental note about the power over God of the “humility of Our Lady”! In fact, her humility attracted God to dwell within Her! This is fundamental! Saint Bernard points out that nobody in human history was capable of attracting, seducing, alluring God and bringing Him into the human realm! Only Mary was able to do it. The Angel confirms Mary’s capacity to attract God saying: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” (Luke 1,30). And Mary confirms this “power” she has by saying: “For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1,48 ) Let us read Saint Theresa again:
“It is the Queen which gives the king most trouble in this game and all the other pieces support her. There is no Queen who can beat this King as well as humility can; for humility brought Him down from Heaven into the Virgin’s womb and with humility we can draw Him into our souls by a single hair [quoting Canticle of Canticles]. Be sure that He will give most humility to him who has most already and least to him who has least. I cannot understand how humility exists, or can exist, without love, or love without humility, and it is impossible for these two virtues to exist save where there is great detachment from all created things.”
Note that she is already coupling love (charity) with humility. Let us remember that humility and love and detachment are the three virtues that for her summarise the whole Gospel.
As we said in the Course, we cannot separate mental prayer from the work of the virtues. This is why we laid stress on the fact that Lectio and the Prayer of the Heart go together, for Lectio helps us, through a daily listening to Jesus, to work on the virtues and allow them to grow, under the direct Guidance of Jesus. Furthermore, we cannot separate all the virtues from humility. This is why, Saint Theresa brings to the fore here, as a general condition to bring about a checkmate, the work on the virtues! But let us be more precise: working on the virtues in a total, pure and heroic way as she describes it in the first part of the Way of Perfection, is one of the greatest catalysts of a true and pure gift of ourselves to God. Therefore, when we give ourselves totally to God, during the day, through listening to Him and putting Him in first place in our daily acts, we bring about a checkmate as well. Let us examine this:
“You will ask, my daughters, why I am talking to you about virtues when you have more than enough books to teach you about them and when you want me to tell you only about contemplation. My reply is that, if you had asked me about mental prayer, I could have talked to you about it, and advised you all to practise it, even if you do not possess the virtues. For this is the first step to be taken towards the acquisition of the virtues and the very life of all Christians depends upon their beginning it. No one, however lost a soul he may be, should neglect so great a blessing if God inspires him to make use of it. All this I have already written elsewhere, and so have many others who know what they are writing about, which I certainly do not: God knows that.
But contemplation, daughters, is another matter. This is an error which we all make: if a person gets so far as to spend a short time each day in thinking about his sins, as he is bound to do if he is a Christian in anything more than name, people at once call him a great contemplative; and then they expect him to have the rare virtues which a great contemplative is bound to possess; he may even think he has them himself, but he will be quite wrong. In his early stages he did not even know how to set out the chess-board [working on the virtues], and thought that, in order to give checkmate, it would be enough to be able to recognize the pieces. But that is impossible, for this King does not allow Himself to be taken except by one who surrenders wholly to Him.” (Way of Perfection ch.16 (in fact it is a copy from Chapter 25 of the Manuscript of Escorial)
So, summing it up, we can say that Saint Theresa, in this text is not saying it with absolute clarity, but still, she does mention humility, and the humility of Mary. Of course we would like her to say it clearly, but it is there, the allusion to Mary is there. Nonetheless isn’t it enough that she said that it is Mary’s humility that brought God down from heaven?
Another aspect of the gift of ourselves is that it is deposited in the hands of Mary and that she presents it to God. This is expressed in Saint Theresa at least twice. At 1572, while Saint Theresa was at her original Monastery, the Incarnation, she received on 19th of January this grace:
“On the eve of Saint Sebastian, during the first year in which I was Prioress at the Incarnation/ at the beginning of the Salve, I saw the Mother of God, with a great multitude of angels, descend to the Prioress’s stall, where Our Lady is enthroned, and seat herself there. I do not believe I saw the image then but only this Lady. She looked to me rather like the picture which the Countess gave me, though the vision passed too quickly for me to decide this because immediately my faculties became completely suspended. There seemed to be angels above the misericords and on the kneeling rests of the stalls, though I did not see them in bodily form, because this was an intellectual vision. Our Lady remained there during the whole of the Salve and said to me: “Thou hast done well to place me here; I will be here when praises are offered to my Son and will present them to Him.” After that I remained in the state of prayer which I experience when my soul is in the company of the Most Holy Trinity; and I thought that the Person of the Father drew me to Himself and spoke words that were most comfortable. Among them were these, which showed me the love He had for me: “I gave thee My Son and the Holy Spirit and this Virgin. What canst thou give Me?” (Spiritual Relations, XXV, Incarnation, 19 January 1572)
What we see here is a first understanding of a very important Catholic Truth: Mary presents our prayers and petitions to Jesus-God. At first we might think that this Truth is simply and only a devotion (and therefore not a theological truth), and/or that it is specific to the Carmelites (and therefore not a universal truth). In fact, Theresa is praying in the choir and Mary descends and stands in the Prioress’ stall during the last prayer, the Salve Regina Hymn/Antiphon to Mary! To take this place shows that Mary explains that she is leading the prayer of the nuns. But, on top of just leading, we can say that God, through this vision, is renewing in Saint Theresa a common Carmelite belief that the Order is Mary’s Order, and that Mary is presenting all the prayers that are made in any Carmelite monastery, to God. Before seeing the catholic/universal dimension of this truth let us see another grace Saint Theresa received three and a half years later:
“I am specially happy on the day of the Nativity of Our Lady. I have thought it well, whenever this day comes round, to renew my vows; and once, when. I was about to do this, the Virgin Our Lady was represented to me in an illuminative vision. I seemed to be renewing my vows to her and she was pleased at this. This vision remained with me for some days, and Our Lady stayed near me, on my left hand.” (Spiritual Relations, XLVIII, Seville 8 sept 1575)
The vows are the gift of oneself to God. It is not, per se, unusual for her as a Carmelite to make/place her vows in the hands of Mary. Before Council Vatican II the text of the Profession of a Carmelite did state that the vows were made to Mary (and “to God” of course). Although it should be “common” as a concept in the Carmelite Order in the time of Saint Theresa – the Order “of Our Lady” as it was known – it is important to acknowledge the real dimension and value of this grace: a Marian grace given to her, and as well as a common element of the revealed datum to all Christians. Both De Monfort mentions it, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church as well.
In fact the Catechism says:
– “Mary is the perfect Orans (pray-er), a figure of the Church. When we pray to Her, we are adhering with Her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus’ Mother into our homes, (Jn 19:27) for she has become the Mother of all the living. We can pray with and to Her. The prayer of the Church is sustained (carried) by the prayer of Mary and united with it in hope.(LG 68-69)” (CCC 2679)
– “The Virgin Mary “cooperated through free faith and obedience in human salvation” (LG 56). She uttered her yes “in the name of all human nature” (St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 30, 1). By her obedience She became the new Eve, mother of the living.” (CCC 511)
See as well: 148, 149, 273, (967: she is the “exemplary realization” (typus) of the Church.). Therefore it is not a personal grace given to Saint Theresa only, it is a Catholic Truth that Mary conveys all our prayers and petitions and presents them to Jesus! Her intercession is much more powerful than the intercession of the entire faithful. She is the Mother of the Church.
To continue to confirm that it is a universal theological truth, let us see what De Monfort says in the “True Devotion to Mary”:
“Since by this devotion we give to our Lord, through the hands of his holy Mother, all our good works, she purifies them, making them beautiful and acceptable to her Son.
(1) She purifies them of every taint of self-love and of that unconscious attachment to creatures which slips unnoticed into our best actions. Her hands have never been known to be idle or uncreative. They purify everything they touch. As soon as the Blessed Virgin receives our good works, she removes any blemish or imperfection she may find in them.
(2) She enriches our good works by adorning them with her own merits and virtues. It is as if a poor peasant, wishing to win the friendship and favour of the king, were to go to the queen and give her an apple – his only possession – for her to offer it to the king. The queen, accepting the peasant’s humble gift, puts it on a beautiful golden dish and presents it to the king on behalf of the peasant. The apple in itself would not be a gift worthy of a king, but presented by the queen in person on a dish of gold, it becomes fit for any king.
(3) Mary presents our good works to Jesus. She does not keep anything we offer for herself, as if she were our last end, but unfailingly gives everything to Jesus. So by the very fact we give anything to her, we are giving it to Jesus. Whenever we praise and glorify her, she sings today as she did on the day Elizabeth praised her; “My soul glorifies the Lord.”
At Mary’s request, Jesus accepts the gift of our good works, no matter how poor and insignificant they may be for one who is the King of Kings, the Holiest of the Holy. When we present anything to Jesus by ourselves, relying on our own dispositions and efforts, He examines our gift and often rejects it because it is stained with self-love, just as He once rejected the sacrifices of the Jews because they were imbued with selfish motives.
But when we present something to Him by the pure, virginal hands of his beloved Mother, we take/capture/challenge Him on his weak side, in a manner of speaking. He does not consider so much the present itself as the person who offers it. Thus Mary, who is never slighted by her Son but is always well received, prevails upon Him to accept with pleasure everything She offers him, regardless of its value. Mary has only to present the gift for Jesus graciously to accept it. This is what St. Bernard strongly recommended to all those he was guiding along the pathway to perfection. “When you want to offer something to God, to be welcomed by him, be sure to offer it through the worthy Mother of God, if you do not wish to see it rejected.”” (True Devotion 146-149)
Let us just remember that Montfort calls these truths about Our Lady and her role in our spiritual life: Secret! A Secret that God revealed to him! It is not a “new revelation”, or a “private revelation”, but it is a secret within the wide concept of Revelation, like the Bible says: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” (Pr 25,2)
3- Mary sums up (embodies) the conditions
According to many masters of spiritual life, the requirements for a successful movement of the Prayer of the Heart (i.e. offering of oneself to God) as we have presented them are the following:
- the movement should be done freely. “Lord I give you my heart in total freedom”
- we should make ourselves like little children
- we should put all our worries and concerns into the Hands of God
- we should give ourselves totally (and not in part) – “Here Lord is my heart, entirely” -, and by doing that, we are, interiorly “moving”, coming out of ourselves, as if we are dispossessing ourselves, giving God total access to our heart.
- we shouldn’t put any restrictions or conditions on this offering.
- we should be doing it with real humility. “Lord, I await in humility”
- we should have total trust in God. “I have complete confidence in your action and I leave myself in your hands”
- we should abandon ourselves totally into His hands, to let Him act and work in us.
- we should cast all thoughts from our mind.
- we should wait humbly, even years if needed ,until God decides to give us his infused Grace.
- we should work on the different virtues and grow in them.
If one of these conditions is lacking, the movement cannot normally occur because God never allows Himself to act in us, until we give Him, clearly, freely and truly access to us. Our heart (that we give Him) is the deepest and dearest part of ourselves, the most intimate part of our being. God has the utmost respect for it, therefore, He doesn’t touch it.
In this light, then, how on earth, is it possible for a human being to put together all these difficult conditions? It looks very difficult, if not impossible to attain any supernatural mental prayer.
But thank God, having received the Secret from God, we know now how to do it. To sum up all these conditions neatly we can say:
Being in the presence of Mary, and counting on her action, we offer ourselves (like little children) in her hands, abandoning ourselves to her action, with total trust, throwing ourselves into her arms, putting our head on her chest and closing our eyes, repeating gently: “pray for us sinners”. The result is immediate: She introduces us into Jesus forthwith.
In Mary we have a spacious vessel ready to come and take our heart and put it into the heart of the Lord. An enormous distance which only the Virgin can cross.
But, first of all, we ask: why the Virgin Mary? Because this is the Logic of God, can be the only answer. When He wanted to give Himself to us humans He took the road of the Virgin Mary. The Father entrusted his Son to Mary. In Her, God met human nature. She is the holy place were God and human nature meet, each one of us meets, and where He unites Himself to us. “For, by his Incarnation, He, the son of God, in a certain way united Himself with each man.” (John Paul II Redemptor hominis, 8)
Therefore when any human being would like to meet God and give himself to Him, it is logical to take the same road as the logic of God himself took: Mary. “A servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him” (John 13,16). Why would we then dare take another route than His? If the Lord established that in order to come to us he needed Mary’s “Yes”, why would He change this logic for us to come to Him? We still need Mary’s “Yes” to go to Him. Her “YES” and her action are necessary; it is the logic of the Incarnation.
If this movement of offering is, in fact ,to throw ourselves into the arms of Mary, trusting that She will take our heart and put it into the heart of the Lord, it is done, all the necessary ingredients for a successful immersion in God being present. Why? Because to give oneself to the Virgin Mary is easy and simple. When one gives oneself to the Virgin Mary this implies some degree of humility, because we put ourselves like a little child into her arms. We cannot deal frequently with the Virgin Mary and remain proud. She said: “he has regarded the humility of His servant” (Luke 1,48) – “humility” not “beauty” nor “virtue”. When we give ourselves to the Virgin Mary, we give ourselves in the same way that a little child gives himself to his mother, and the Lord has said: “unless you become like little children you cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven”. Unless I trust in Her action, the spacious vessel will not be able to be effective.
Recourse to the Virgin Mary is fundamental and, more than this, “SHE ALWAYS COMES”. She never says “no” to us, and God never says “no” to her. Her action (intercession), capacity to elevate/introduce us into God is all-powerful, because all her being is burning with the Fire of the Holy Spirit and all her acts are moved by the Holy Spirit (Saint John of the Cross)
“[…] as I have said, God alone moves the faculties of these souls to do those works which are meet, according to the will and ordinance of God, and they cannot be moved to do others; and thus the works and prayers of these souls are always effectual. Such were those of the most glorious Virgin Our Lady, who, being raised to this high estate from the beginning, had never the form of any creature imprinted in her soul, neither was moved by such, but was invariably guided by the Holy Spirit.” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, III,2,10)
The Virgin Mary is present, She acts, She wants to act but it is necessary to have recourse to Her. If we do so, She comes and acts every time. Her presence acts as a catalyst to ensure that all the right conditions are there. And so when we practice the prayer of the heart this way, we are putting together all the ingredients without fulfilling them separately one after the other: She brings them all together. Only from time to time, if we feel that something is not working, we may check that all the ingredients are present: if the gift of ourselves to the Virgin Mary is truly total, if we have total trust in her action and abandon ourselves into her hands like a little child. The presence of the Virgin Mary is of the utmost importance.
The Virgin Mary always comes. This is a certainty with which we must live. She is the key to the world of grace; it is She who lifted the embargo to gain access to the Tree of Life (Jesus), imposed after the fall. She it is who said “yes” to God and who repeated it for us, on condition that we have recourse to her, that we recognise that God has given Her to us, like a door, or a key, as a way of gaining access, as a loving and effective presence, one which acts in a maternal way. She always comes.