The Incarnation and Mary

The following is excerpted with slight adaptations from my essay “Ancilla Domini et Ancilla Theologiae: Mary and Philosophy,” a translator’s essay in Fr. Hugon’s Mary, Full of Grace (235–78; here 235–46). It proposes that Mary is, as it were, the imagination of God in which the Word first comes to be Incarnately; she is like the organ, or instrument, in virtue of whose operation the eternal Word is brought into time and space, contracted to a scandalous particularity so that He might dwell among us.

Boticelli, Virgin and Child

To conclude the encyclical Fides et Ratio on the great harmony between faith and reason, Pope St. John Paul II ponders the relationship between Mary and philosophy. Here is the first of two principal analogies he proposes:

Between the vocation of the Blessed Virgin and the vocation of true philosophy there is a deep harmony. Just as the Virgin was called to offer herself entirely as human being and as woman that God’s Word might take flesh and come among us, so too philosophy is called to offer its rational and critical resources that theology, as the understanding of faith, may be fruitful and creative.

[Etenim inter vocationem Beatae Virginis et verae philosophiae strictam consonantiam prospicere licet. Quemadmodum namque ad suam humanitatem et femininam naturam tradendam ipsa vocata est, unde Dei Verbum carnem sumere posset fieretque unus ex nobis, sic ad operam sustinendam, rationalem videlicet et criticam, vocatur philosophia, ut theologia, veluti fidei intellectio, fecunda sit et efficax.]

Fides et Ratio, n. 108

Our first task, of course, is to understand the analogy itself. The first part of the analogy concerns the relationship between Mary and the Incarnation; the second part concerns the relationship between philosophy and theology. It is the relationship between the two elements of the first part of the analogy that is supposed to illuminate the relationship between the two elements of the second part of the analogy. The properly theological character of the analogy should therefore be clear. We are supposed to learn something about philosophy in its relationship to theology based upon the relation between Mary and the Incarnate Word.

The first part of the first analogy is this: “The Virgin was called to offer herself entirely as human being and as woman that God’s Word might take flesh and [become one of us].” [Translation slightly modified] Note that he highlights how Mary offered herself both in her human and feminine nature. (See the Latin text, quoted above.) He also notes a twofold effect: that God’s Word might both take flesh and also become one of us—“The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The second part of the analogy is this: “Philosophy is called to offer its rational and critical resources that theology, as the understanding of faith, may be fruitful and creative.” If we carefully align the elements of the two parts, we obtain: Mary is likened to philosophy, her human and feminine nature is likened to the resources of philosophy, God’s Word is likened to theology, and Christ’s incarnation and dwelling among us is likened to the understanding of the faith being fruitful and creative—or perhaps, “fruitful and efficacious [fecunda… et efficax].”

Note that the Pope does not draw our attention to the graces which Mary required so that she might become the Mother of God. Rather, what belongs to her naturally is the key to the analogy: her humanity and femininity. That is, her natural “resources” are elevated to serve the Word who was to become incarnate. So too, philosophy is a natural mode of knowledge, elevated to serve the understanding of faith. Mary is human by nature, and feminine in her person; philosophy of its nature is rational, and in its character critical. How to understand this? Indeed, if the comparison is meant to align Mary’s human nature with the rational nature of philosophy, then how is Mary’s femininity helpfully paired with a “critical” philosophy?

We must not understand the “critical” character of philosophy in the sense modernity imbues both the word “critique” and the spirit of the philosopher who carries it out. By contrast, the better meaning of this “critical” character of a true philosophic spirit is explained by Giussani:

The word crisis (from the Greek krino, “to test or sift”) is ordinarily and unfortunately interpreted, in today’s mindset, as being doubtful and negative, as though crisis and critique necessarily implied denial. Thus, in practice, critique is raised only for the purpose of scandalizing, always on the lookout for something to impugn, something to object to. This is clearly a short-sighted (or petty!) concept of crisis and critique. On the contrary, critique is, first of all, the expression of the human genius that is in all of us—a genius that strains to discover being, to discover values…. All of us used not to exist. Therefore, each of us is formulated from antecedents, from a package of things that constitute us, that shape us. The word problem refers to this phenomenon, which is crucial for true novelty in an individual life and in the life of the human cosmos. Tradition, the endowment with which life enriches us at birth and during our early development, must be lifted before our eyes so that the individual, to the extent that he or she is alive, intelligent, may sift and test (krinei). Tradition must “become crisis.” Tradition must become a problem. Thus, crisis means becoming aware of the reality from which we feel we were made.

Luigi Giussani, The Risk of Education, trans. M. Sullivan (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), pp. 69–70.

That is, the true problematizing of a tradition is our becoming aware of the meaning of our being placed and made here in the world, at this time, and for a purpose. It is our own being critically received. That is, “critique” is a discerning and judgment based fundamentally upon philosophical receptivity of the truth. Now, as Alice von Hildebrand points out:

Clearly passivity is inferior to activity, for one is only being “acted upon.” But this is not true of receptivity which involves an alert, awakened, joyful readiness to be fecundated by another person or by a beautiful object. All created persons are essentially receptive because “there is nothing that we have not received.” Women feel at home in this receptivity and move in it with ease and grace.

Alice von Hildebrand, The Privilege of Being a Woman (Ann Arbor: Sapientia Press, 2002), p. 63.

Indeed, as John Paul II himself noted: “A woman’s dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity.” (Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 30) In this, then, the pairing of Mary’s femininity with the critical spirit of philosophy is seen to be more apt, and indeed, a very close analogy. A true philosophical critique of reality is not opposed to but is rather characterized by the full receptivity to the truth about being. This notion of critique corresponds more closely to the ancient understanding of theory as it arises from an eros for the truth. Modern theory is, by contrast, thumetic, arising from a desire for the conquest and mastery of nature: “Mary exemplifies philosophy’s initial task to receive reality and not manipulate it. Unlike some Baconian mastery or Cartesian orchestration of the world, Mary symbolizes the awe of standing before a reality wholly independent of the human mind.” (Meconi, cited in Allen, “Mary and the Vocation of Philosophers,” 54)

To more deeply understand this first analogy in Fides et Ratio, let us develop an analogy from St. Thomas and St. Augustine. I have highlighted how Mary was called to offer herself in service to God’s Word, and philosophy is called to offer itself to theology. Note, however, that the analogy considers the Word to be incarnated, and qualifies theology with the phrase, “as the understanding of faith.” That is, theology is understood here as “disembodied,” as it were, or as it is contained in the intellect, that is, “veluti fidei intellectio.” So too, the Word in the Godhead, prior to the Incarnation, had not yet taken flesh.

In his first lecture in his Commentary on The Letter to the Hebrews, St. Thomas is explaining the following verses:

God, who, in many ways and in diverse manners, speaking in times past to the fathers in the prophets, last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world.

Hebrews 1:1–2

What does St. Thomas make of the idea that “God…hath spoken to us by his Son”? To interpret this text, the Angelic Doctor notes three aspects of human speech: the conception of a thought, its expression in the spoken word, and the manifestation of the thing spoken about. That is, there is the word of the human heart, of the human voice, and what is understood through what is heard. Based upon this comparison, and in relation to Hebrews 1:1–2, St. Thomas first explains that God’s conception is an eternal conception, and “this eternal conception is the engendering of the Son of God.” (n. 15)

In the succeeding passage, St. Thomas makes a claim which reads: “Et ideo dicit Augustinus, quod hoc modo se habet Verbum incarnatum ad Verbum increatum, sicut verbum vocis ad verbum cordis.” There is no reference to St. Augustine in the text, but the closest point of comparison seems to be De Trinitate, Book XV, where St. Thomas is succinctly summarizing what St. Augustine explains at greater length:

Accordingly, the word that sounds outwardly is the sign of the word that gives light inwardly; which latter has the greater claim to be called a word. For that which is uttered with the mouth of the flesh, is the articulate sound of a word; and is itself also called a word, on account of that to make which outwardly apparent it is itself assumed. For our word is so made in some way into an articulate sound of the body, by assuming that articulate sound by which it may be manifested to men’s senses, as the Word of God was made flesh, by assuming that flesh in which itself also might be manifested to men’s senses. And as our word becomes an articulate sound, yet is not changed into one; so the Word of God became flesh, but far be it from us to say He was changed into flesh. For both that word of ours became an articulate sound, and that other Word became flesh, by assuming it, not by consuming itself so as to be changed into it. And therefore whoever desires to arrive at any likeness, be it of what sort it may, of the Word of God, however in many respects unlike, must not regard the word of ours that sounds in the ears, either when it is uttered in an articulate sound or when it is silently thought. For the words of all tongues that are uttered in sound are also silently thought, and the mind runs over verses while the bodily mouth is silent.” Second, see Chapter 14, n. 24: “And that word, then, of ours which has neither sound nor thought of sound, but is of that thing in seeing which we speak inwardly, and which therefore belongs to no tongue; and hence is in some sort like, in this enigma, to that Word of God which is also God; since this too is born of our knowledge, in such manner as that also is born of the knowledge of the Father: such a word, I say, of ours, which we find to be in some way like that Word, let us not be slow to consider how unlike also it is, as it may be in our power to utter it.

St. Augustine, De Trinitate, Book XV, ch. 11, n. 20

Let us now return to the full passage from St. Thomas, who considers the expression of God’s Word is considered as follows:

[God] expressed his concept in three ways: first, in the production of creatures, namely, when the conceived Word, existing as the likeness of the Father, is also the likeness according to which all creatures were made: God said: be light made. And light was made (Genesis 1:3). Second, through certain notions; for example, in the minds of the angels, in whom the forms of all things, which were concealed in the Word, were infused, and in the minds of holy men: and this by sensible or intellectual or imaginary revelations. Hence, every such manifestation proceeding from the eternal Word is called a speaking: the word of the Lord which came to him (Jeremiah 1:2). Third, by assuming flesh, concerning which it says: and the Word was made flesh (John 1:14). Hence, Augustine says that the incarnated Word is related to the uncreated Word as the voice’s word is related to the heart’s word.

Sup. Heb., ch. 1, lect. 1, n. 15

It is the final, third mode of expression which concerns us here. Just as the word of the human heart is to the word in human speech, so too is the uncreated Word proceeding within the Godhead to the Word Incarnate. Indeed, this analogy of St. Augustine and St. Thomas can help us understand where Mary falls in God’s “expression” of his eternal Word. This will help us to deepen our appreciation of the analogy between the ancilla Domini and the ancilla theologiae.

However, we need one further element of St. Thomas’s doctrine about the nature of human speech. (We note in passing that the most extensive and beautiful consideration of human speech as a philosophical basis to illuminate, as a basis of comparison and contrast, the nature of the Divine Word is found in St. Thomas’s lecture on John 1:1–2.) Following the Aristotelian analysis of the human soul, St. Thomas notes that we can properly use the noun “word” (verbum) in three ways when it comes to human speech. The first is to name the elements of human speech itself, that is, physically spoken words. In another way, what we conceive in our minds, or that in which we think and judge reality, can be called a word; this is the interior word or verbum cordis, the word of the heart. Finally, however, there is the word in our imagination. This middle locus of the human word is necessary because the word of the heart is without language. It cannot but be the case that this word is without language because such “words of the heart” are those in which we contemplate the truth of things, which power is common to all human beings regardless of language. (See Aristotle, On Interpretation, I.1. Did this interior “word” or “affection of the soul” (in Aristotle’s terms) not exist, translation between human languages would be impossible in the strict sense.) This interior word is also a spiritual word, for the mind is a spiritual power. Therefore, some medium or mediating cause is necessary between the fully spiritual human word in thought and the fully physical human word in speech. This cause is the power of the imagination, which, although seated in a physical organ, possesses an operation that exceeds purely physical activity, even as its activity emerges hylomorphically from a physical organ. Thus, Aquinas summarizes:

Therefore it follows that, first and chiefly, the interior concept of the mind is called a word; secondarily, the vocal sound itself, signifying the interior concept, is so called; and third, the imagination of the vocal sound is called a word.

ST I, q. 34, a. 1, c.

What is important for us to realize is this: The power of the imagin tion, in conjunction with our faculty and habits of speaking a language, particularizes the verbum cordis into a certain human tongue, with all its attendant habits of expression. Those universal ideas of truths conceived, dimly seen, or fully grasped in the innermost recesses of the heart are contracted to more earthly terms so that they might be spoken and manifested at a given place and time to human hearers.

Let us now apply this threefold meaning of “word” to the case of Our Lady. To do so, we must recall what St. Augustine teaches about Mary’s conception of Christ. St. Thomas recalls his words when considering the reasonability of the Annunciation:

It was reasonable that it should be announced to the Blessed Virgin that she was to conceive Christ. First, in order to maintain a becoming order in the union of the Son of God with the Virgin—namely, that she should be informed in mind concerning Him, before conceiving Him in the flesh. Thus Augustine says (De Sancta Virgin. III): “Mary is more blessed in receiving the faith of Christ, than in conceiving the flesh of Christ; and further on he adds: Her nearness as a Mother would have been of no profit to Mary, had she not borne Christ in her heart after a more blessed manner than in her flesh.”

ST III, q. 30, a. 1, c.

That is, Mary gives true consent to the Lord’s incarnation because of the knowledge she receives from the angel. Fr. Hugon also comments on this theme: “Mary was happier to conceive God by faith that in the flesh, and to carry him in her heart by grace than in her womb by motherhood.” (Mary, Full of Grace, p. 64) St. Augustine also says that, upon hearing the words of the angel, Mary, full of faith, responded with her Fiat, conceiving Christ “first in her mind and then in her womb.” (Sermon 215, n. 4, PL 38:1074: “Quae cum dixisset Angelus, illa fide plena, et Christum prius mente quam ventre concipiens, Ecce, inquit, ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.”)

This being the case, we might expand upon the analogy that St. Augustine makes between our mental word and our spoken word, on the one hand, and between God’s eternal, uncreated Word and the Incarnate Word, on the other hand. That is, as the human word of the heart (verbum cordis) is to the word of the imagination (verbum imaginationis) and thence to the spoken word (verbum vocis), so too the uncreated Word is to the Word conceived in Mary’s faithful soul to the Word Incarnate conceived in her womb. Mary is, as it were, the imagination of God in which the Word first comes to be Incarnately; she is like the organ, or instrument, in virtue of whose operation the eternal Word is brought into time and space, contracted to a scandalous particularity so that He might dwell among us—for indeed, in these days God hath spoken to us by his Son. Of course, the human imagination is a necessary mediating cause given the specific form of human nature. Of course, strictly speaking, God was not limited in the means available to him to bring about our salvation, but is only limited via the hypothetical necessity of the means chosen for that end. Nonetheless, to follow the Augustinian analogy with the help of St. Thomas, as the imagination mediates the human spiritual logos so that it might be manifested in physical words, so Mary is the mediating cause of God’s Logos that the Son might become incarnate.

Note that this analogy focuses upon Mary’s whole person. She did believe what the angel told her. Full of faith, she conceived Christ first in her mind and then in her womb. She is, as it were, God’s imagination in which He forms by a particular intention the Word Incarnate. That is, Mary accomplishes this role by the grace of divine maternity; she cannot be the Mother of God solely in virtue of her human nature. Yet Mary must offer her humanity and femininity to be elevated by the grace of the divine maternity so that the Word might become flesh. Without this natural basis, she cannot truly be the mother of a God-Man. (This notwithstanding, Mary is Mother of God in virtue of her person, implying both her human nature and the grace of divine maternity.) So, in the extended Augustinian analogy, Mary is considered under the aspects of both nature and grace.

However, in that first analogy quoted from Fides et Ratio, Mary was considered only as to nature (she is named as “Virgin”), and thus compared to philosophy. Thus, we might be justified in proposing the following comparison in order to grasp the deeper implications of Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching: Mary in her nature (her humanity and femininity) is perfected by the grace of the divine maternity as the basis for her being the “imagination of God,” so as to conceive the Word, which she does first in her mind and then in her womb, that He might be made flesh and dwell among us; so also, one employing the resources of philosophy (with its rational and critical character) is perfected by the grace of faith as the basis for being a believer, indeed, a theologian, so as to fully conceive theology, the understanding of the faith, in order that it may be fruitful and efficacious. The theologian imitates Mary’s contemplation; in this, philosophy or natural reason is handmaiden of theology as Mary in her virginal, human nature is the Lord’s. Mary’s humanity is required to mediate the conception of the Word, enclosing the eternal Truth within matter, space, and time; philosophy is required to mediate the conceptions of theology, aiding our minds to grasp reality in the participated light of the science of God and the blessed. The Word both takes flesh of Mary and through her is able to become one of us; without a basis of natural reason, theology is unable to bear efficacious fruit. Theology needs philosophy, as the Word needed the humanity of his mother.

Mary is, in her very person, both object and cause of our contemplation, in a secondary way, yet still in likeness to Christ. Jacques Maritain, in a letter, comments on this twofold aspect. We ought both to contemplate Mary in her contemplation and realize to what degree she is exemplar and aid of our own contemplation.

Let us think of young Mary brought up in the Temple, of this immaculate daughter of the Hebrews, and of her total, absolute eagerness for divine truth—for that divine Truth which was to take flesh in her. Let us think of her during the Passion of Christ, and later on, after Pentecost. The entire life of the Blessed Virgin was steeped in contemplative wisdom. She also had, in an infused and superior way, and through connaturality with her Son, theological wisdom and philosophical wisdom. It is impossible to imagine to what degree the Mother of the Incarnate Word cherishes the integrity of truth and abhors any stain on intelligence. In the tympanum of a portal of the cathedral of Chartres, she is represented surrounded by the seven liberal arts. She is interested in our work, poor philosophers that we are. She looks at, and loves, the least spark of truth in any effort of ours. She hates lying and sophistry …. In any case a lasting war is going on between the Woman and the Serpent. In the face of intellectual delusions and betrayals, I believe that in our times, when the main struggles of the mind are taking place at the level of philosophy, Mary has especially at heart the fate of Christian philosophy.

Jacques Maritain, “Letter to Fr. Lynch,” October 31, 1954

Indeed, the concrete way of life that is Christian philosophy, and its vitality, finds an exemplar in Our Lady, and indeed the supreme heroine to follow into the intellectual battles of our times. For these, of their nature, are intimately spiritual actions.

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