This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

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6.5. The Virgin Mary

General remarks

Contemporary Protestantism is marked by the absence of a priesthood, and therefore of the liturgy and the sacramental life in general, and this much is acknowledged when it is lamented what a great injustice it is to these ‘separated brethren’ that they are deprived in this way of the riches of the traditional doctrine; but it is often forgotten that another great absence in Protestant ‘anti-doctrine’ is the Virgin Mary, not that she is not acknowledged as real, but that she is only acknowledged as one Biblical actor much like all the other actors, which is to say she is divested of her entire mystical, metaphysical, and even historic significance, which includes of course all of the devotional and methodological instruments that are associated with her.

Even within Catholicism, although she is held in high esteem, we can sense that from the point of view of official doctrine she is not understood in the fullness of her significance. It is our purpose here to offer to the reader and outline of the Marian doctrine in such a way as to integrate it into the Christian mystical way and into the doctrinal summary that is this manual.

The Marian mystery

As with Christ, we must speak here not of Mary as a person but of the Marian Mystery, or Mary as a sacred reality manifesting itself in human history. It is our hope that what has been said above regarding mystery in its true sense will help the reader now. What we are concerned with is not a thing we cannot understand, but rather, to quote Augustine, a thing that ‘aided by Divine Grace, one has never finished understanding.’ In other words, mystery signals here as elsewhere that we are not dealing with a kind of absence of knowledge or an alternative to it, but rather an opening that leads to a kind of knowledge that is inexhaustible and therefore impossible to concretize in formal, systematic language: an object for contemplation more than systematization.

We know that when it comes to the mysteries of the faith, the church teaches and occasionally dogmatizes, but she never claims that either her teachings or her dogmas are comprehensive in the sense of having said everything that there is to say about the matter.

To put it another way, Catholic doctrine is not ‘conservative,’ as we might tend to think, but ‘additive,’ or we might even say ‘elaborative,’ in the sense that, because we are dealing with the enunciation in history of an infinite Truth, there will be no end to the development of Catholic doctrine. It is ‘whole,’ in the sense that a child is ‘whole’ and not lacking anything in order to be what it needs to be, but in the same sense neither is it ‘complete,’ nor will it ever be until Christ, the keystone,[1] completes the edifice at the end of time.

Therefore, while we must always be careful that we do not contradict what has been taught by the Church, there is nothing heretical, in itself, in offering certain elaborations on what it has taught in order to arrive at conclusions that are reasonably implied but not stated explicitly.

[1] The keystone is the stone placed at the center of an arch, which completes and stabilizes it, and would obviously be of a unique shape inappropriate to fit anywhere else. This is why it has been suggested that ‘keystone’ is a more accurate translation for the familiar Gospel texts about Christ being the ‘cornerstone,’ since the imagery of the arch is more illuminating and, from a logical standpoint, makes more sense. Peter is, after all, the Rock on which the Church is built, and it is left to Christ to ‘become the keystone’ that brings the structure to perfection.

What sources may we use to formulate the doctrine?

We have four sources that we will draw from here: 1) Scripture, 2) Theology, in the speculative sense of what is accepted and taught by the Church, 3) the writings of the Saints, and 4) accepted Liturgical epicleses, hymns, prayers, etc.

Reliance on the first three sources named in this list is common and should not surprise anyone, nor would anyone question such an approach. The fourth item, on the other hand, may seem less familiar but to us is equally valid. We recall here the maxim lex orandi lex credendi, ‘the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.’

This saying, although well-known, is not always well-acknowledged in the West, especially since the ‘rationalization’ of Catholic doctrine since Aquinas. What it implies is obvious: that these hymns and procedural prayers, and especially the epicleses, carry a certain validity on the grounds that the Church has seen fit to incorporate them into the liturgy itself—no small thing considering the fact that the liturgy is the center of Church life and is basically Catholic theology in act. To ignore what the Church says while at prayer as if that is something different than what it says in its treatises is to create a division that is as unnecessary as it is dangerous.

Thus, we ask with Prosper of Aquitaine (5th century AD) that ‘the law of praying might establish the law of believing,’ or, as it is stated in the Catechism, section 1124: “The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition.” We intend nothing other than to acknowledge the liturgy as a legitimate mode of spiritual teaching.

The weakness of the Western theological approach in the face of the mysteries

The Marian Mystery provides an illuminating example of the impotence of an overly rationalized theology when it comes into contact with a supra-rational reality. It is not that Catholic theology does not know what and who Mary really was—it is that Catholic theology, in its present Thomistic form, cannot say what and who Mary really was. In other words, the Aristotelian vocabulary is not well-suited to this kind of exposition, which seems to elude it for the most part.

This is the explanation for the ambiguous way Catholicism deals with the status of Mary. She is the ‘Mother of God,’ but is at the same time human and nothing more than human, and in its dogmatic declarations the Church further acknowledges aspects of her reality such as her Immaculate Conception, but by and large this is all left to work itself out in the world of prayer, a world in which the Aristotelian approach is not at home.

In other words, if in the West we see that the mystical and the theological have become two separate categories (as opposed to the Mystical Theology of Pseudo-Dionysius), we can see the results of this separation first and foremost in the inability of Catholic theology to develop in clear terms the full depth of the Marian Mystery.

Again, we should stress that this theological failure does not translate to a total failure, since we have already said that the Catholic Church has carried Marian devotion, through instruments as beautiful as the Rosary, to a high degree of refinement. All we are pointing out at this time is that if one limits oneself the theological and even dogmatic statements about Mary, it will be very difficult to plumb the depths of the mysterion she represents.

The intrinsic limits of the Thomistic method will, of themselves, force the Thomist to ‘hesitate’ in the face of this sacred reality, as in the face of others, sensing as it must that it has exhausted its reach. The problem is of course in assuming that just because Thomism thus exhausts itself that all theologizing must stop at the same point, which is not true.

Theotokos—Mother of God

Mary has been ‘Mother of God,’ Theotokos, since 431 AD, at the Council of Ephesus. The official explanation for this title is simple: Mary was the mother of Christ, who was God, and so Mary is called the Mother of God. Yet this explanation is purely logical, which is to say it does not satisfy us in the least, nor has it ever proven satisfactory to bulk of the faithful who, by and large, proceed by intuition to elaborate upon this purely logical explanation in order to plumb what seems to be an inexhaustible treasury of mystical meaning.

Again, this is why we must adopt a liturgical approach to the investigation of this mystery, rather than a speculative one, since only the former has demonstrated the kind of intuitive sensitivity that is needed in order to gain access to the order of knowledge we have in mind—the order of gnosis.

Symbolic overlap

It will be noted in what follows, particularly in the various names or titles (epicleses) by which the Virgin is liturgically invoked, that the symbolic imagery that is connected in this context to Mary might in some other context be connected to Christ or to some other aspect of the sacred. This is in the nature of the symbolic language, for which symbols are never ‘closed’ in their meaning but are rather so many letters of a sacred alphabet, and envisioned in this way, the combination and the context must always be taken into account.

In other words, if we come to a liturgical epiclesis for the Virgin that is elsewhere applied to Christ, it should not be seen as a contradiction and does not diminish either meaning, but implies that the interpretation is being carried out from a slightly different point of view.

For example, we will discover that the Virgin is identified as Jacob’s Ladder, even though in other contexts it is Christ who is Jacob’s Ladder. What the ladder signifies is in both cases an exchange between the celestial and the earthly planes, or a point of union between heaven and earth, and this naturally involves two directions or points of view: a divine descent or an earthly ascent. In the case of descent, and especially when emphasis is being placed on the receptivity of nature to the spirit, we can legitimately identify the ladder symbol with Mary, who for reasons we will explain below forms a part of this ladder and permits commerce across it; if on the other hand it is a question of that by which men are enabled to ascend toward God and become deified, then we are dealing with a symbolism of the Logos.

To put it another way, and taking the two points of contact on the ladder as its two aspects: the lower union of the ladder with the earth is Marian, and the higher union of the ladder with heaven is Christic, each playing perfectly the role depicted.

We can recall also that this applies to many traditional symbols, in particular the serpent which in some cases is Satan and in others is Christ, corresponding to the malefic and beneficent meaning attached to the symbol (such as when Christians are advised to be wise as serpents).

Mary as matron of vegetable life

All vegetable life falls within the domain of Mary, who is assimilated to the fertile and humid earth. For this reason the month of May is consecrated to Mary:

“Oh Christ, Word of the Father, you fell like rain on the field of the Virgin, and, as a perfect grain of wheat, appeared there where no seed had been sown and became food for the world.”

In this context we occasionally run across another example of the dual symbolism already mentioned, this time that of the ‘True Vine,’ which Christ assimilates to himself in the Gospels but which is also assimilated to Mary, and rightly so:

“Oh Mother of God, you are the true vine bearing the fruit of life,” and further, “Vine that has offered the cluster of blessings to those that drink of it,” “Vine that has produced the wine that rejoices souls.”

The references to bountiful production are endless and one seems immediately the intuitive identifications that are brought to light through titles such as: “Our Lady of the Fields, “Our Lady of the Wheat, Our Lady of the Harvest, Our Lady of the Seeds.”

Mary as virgin earth

We glorify Thee, Creator of the world and Ruler of the universe, blessed root that has sprouted and taken its increase from Mary, the thirsting earth, and all creation has been filled with the perfume of its glorious sweetness. (Syrian liturgy)

“Hail, unplowed field that produced the divine Ear of Wheat accepted by the whole world” (Akathist Hymn)

Mary the “untilled earth, which brings forth fruit” (hymn of Adam of St. Victor)

Mary as the marriage of heaven and earth

O Lady, Bride of God, spotless, blameless, pure and immaculate Virgin, thou who without corruption, by thy glorious birth-giving, has united God the Word to man and joined the fallen nature of our race to heavenly things. (Prayer of Paul the Cenobite to the Most Holy Theotokos)

Compare to this ancient anticipation:

Sacred Heaven longs to penetrate the Earth, to delight in this union: like a kiss from the Heavenly Spouse, rain descends upon her, and behold her now who, for mortals, gives birth to the grazing flocks and gifts of Demeter, while the spring flowers bloom under the sparkling dew. (Aeschylus, fragment from The Danaids)

Mary as the Garden of Eden

One finds in art as well as in ancient sermons an assimilation of Mary to the Garden of Eden, again referring to what we’ve already said about virgin earth and fertility and all of the previous imagery. Thus, we find in a 9th century sermon that is today incorporated as a liturgical lesson:

“One sings of her in the Song of Songs (4:12): Closed Garden, Sealed Fountain, what issues forth from you is Paradise. Yes, indeed, a garden of delights; every kind of flower and all the perfumes of the virtues are there gathered.”

Again, in the Byzantine liturgy it is proclaimed that, “You are the mystical garden that without cultivation has brought forth Christ.”

“The Eden of God is Mary…from her the Tree of Life issues, enabling exiles to return to Heaven.”

Thus Mary becomes the Garden of Paradise in which the Tree of Life takes root. “Spiritual Paradise having at its center the Tree of Life,” and elsewhere as the tree itself: “Tree of tasty fruits that nourishes the faithful,” “Blessed Tree that has produced the fruit (Christ) giving joy to those who eat of it.”

Mary as the tree and the tree of life itself

Wisdom, already identified with Mary, assimilates herself to the tree of life, and the following passage is read during offices of the Virgin: “I am the Cedar of Lebanon, the Cypress on Mount Zion, the Palm of Cades and the Plane-tree beside the waters.”

Mary as the Burning Bush

One representation of Mary’s virginity in the eastern church is the Burning Bush through which God appeared to Moses, and so we find her epiclesis: ‘Hail, burning bush, unconsumed.’ Just as God’s presence in the bush coincided with a flame that did not destroy the integrity of the object, so also the presence of the Logos in the womb of Mary did not compromise it but left it intact.

Mary as the door of paradise

We should also pause on the symbolism that involves Mary as the door of heaven (Janua coeli) or heaven’s gate (Porta coeli), which we find in many places but notably in St. Peter Damien’s hymn:

“The Virgin pregnant with the Word,

Becomes the door of Paradise:

She has brought our God to earth

And opened Heaven’s gate to us.”

This is closely connected to the scene in St. John’s Apocalypse where we find Mary, “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”

In order to fully understand this symbolism we would need to delve into ancient cosmology or, more appropriately, astrology, but we can summarize the meaning as follows:

The ancient cosmology included seven ‘heavens’ or planetary spheres. We find this arrangement in Islam, Judaism, Christianity (for example, in Iraneus), and in Hinduism (although here they are elaborated in a dual aspect, totaling fourteen in all).

These seven spheres are depicted in ascending order, often as concentric circles with earth as the center, and is the symbolic basis for the geocentric model of the solar system, legitimate in this respect.

In this system, the first point of division is the moon, and what is below is therefore called the ‘sublunary’ world. The sublunary world is subject to the conditions of becoming, namely time and change, in contrast to the higher spheres (of the other celestial bodies and the sun), which are share in a heavenly permanence. In this system, the moon was called Juana coeli, or the doorway to heaven, denoted its station as the point of transition from the terrestrial plane to the eternal.

Thus, we can see that in the imagery above, Mary enables the connection between the sublunary (‘the moon under her feet’) and the celestial worlds.

This is closely connected with other of her epicleses, such as the “Morning Star” and the “Star of the sea,” these referencing the pole star and signifying her position as stationary (unchanging), central (around which all other things revolve), and superior (transfigured substance).

The four Marian dogmas

The four dogmas concerning Mary are: 1) that she is properly called the Mother of God, 2) her Immaculate Conception, 3) her Assumption, and 4) her perpetual virginity.

She was not subject to physical death, which is a thing that could only be said of uncorrupted matter, or universal substance that can be re-integrated into the Divine without loss of any kind, remain in its primordial state of innocence, and in this sense having never departed from the Garden of Eden, never fallen. All of the consequences of this must be understood in the cosmic and the microcosmic sense, with former inseparable from the latter.

Monotheism and polytheism as two doctrinal languages

In light of everything that has been said so far concerning the person of Mary, we must insist that these titles, which are so many symbols and assimilations, are not mere empty analogies but in fact state a true identity of the symbol with sacred the reality symbolized. In other words, it should be abundantly clear that Mary is not Theotokos because she was just an average woman who happened to be chosen as the surrogate for the birth of Jesus, but that she is much more than that. These symbols must be seen as indicating something in her nature.

This brings us back to the difficulty mentioned earlier, which is that monotheistic religion necessarily struggles, due to the constraints of its vocabulary, to enunciate certain sacred realities that do not easily fit to one side or the other of the God-man dualism. This is clear enough in the many heresies that have appeared regarding the nature(s) of Christ Himself. That is to say, the man-God distinction will suffice up to a certain point, but it is ultimately insufficient: Mariology, much like Christology, is precisely one such point at which a strictly binary view breaks down.

With that said, perhaps it will not appear too unjustified if we make an unusual suggestion: that without abandoning monotheism as a legitimate religious perspective, we pause to ask ourselves how Mary would be understood in the context of polytheism. For example, we could ask how she would be (and in fact is) understood within the context of Hinduism.

We suggest this because polytheism properly understood is not the same thing as paganism, as condemned in the Bible, and rightly so. The paganism practiced by the Greeks was a kind of decadent polytheism that had succumbed in many cases to naturalism and in others to idolatry plain and simple, lacking the one thing that could have redeemed it and probably did sustain it at one time: a doctrine. Lacking a coherent doctrine to give meaning to the pantheon, it became nothing more than its images. With this sort of ‘polytheism’ we cannot, of course, have anything to do.

In Hinduism, on the other hand, we come to a polytheism that is something drastically different. Here there are not multiple absolutes, multiple Gods (all with a capital ‘G’), but what we find is in fact one God and many gods, each of whom is admitted to be but an aspect or an attribute of the one Absolute. This explanation, overly simplistic to be sure, is the explanation for the entire Hindu pantheon, which is really but a symbolic tapestry indicating so many precise components of a comprehensive doctrine, all revolving around a single Absolute Reality to which all else is subordinate.

Here we can also point out that a multiplicity of “gods” is not in itself foreign to Christianity, and St. Paul himself, who said that there are “many gods,” (1 Cor. 8:5) should be assumed to have meant what he said, even if in the end these gods are called by various names, whether angels of one or another hierarchy, or demons, as the case may be.

Thus, we suggest that polytheism and monotheism are two languages used in the traditional world to describe the sacred, and that both are valid insofar as they describe it accurately, for there is nothing inaccurate about describing and angel as an angel but using the term ‘god’ in place of the former term, provided the sacred reality in question is understood exactly as it should be and kept in its proper place in the hierarchy.

Now, if we consider these two languages, admitting the validity of both, we can also say that we should be able to “translate” any legitimate concept from one to the other. This is not always necessary or even recommended, since each revelation is self-sufficient, but at the same time we can admit that just as with our human languages, some excel in expressing certain truths, and are distinguished thereby. In these cases, translation and the adoption of terms can be mutually enriching, provided we are not talking about mere ‘syncretism’ which amounts to an agglomeration of more or less incoherent and even contradictory ideas.

Mary as fulfillment of the Great Mother goddesses

Christianity announces the universality of Christ by saying that he is the recapitulation of all sacrifices. In this same way, we can announce the universality of the Marian Mystery by saying that she is the recapitulation of all paganism worship of fertility goddesses, and in particular the cults of the Great Mother, the Magna Mater, that universal figure in the traditional world. By framing things in this way we do not ‘paganize’ Christianity: we simply acknowledge that whatever ray of light these worshippers sensed is shown forth without blemish or flaw in the final manifestation of the Virgin.

By saying this we do not mean to assimilate every doctrine or belief of this kind that previously existed, but rather to say that in the person of Mary all that is salvageable from this category of worship is salvaged, and in her transfigured in its full cosmic significance.

Hyperdulia and the difficulty of a Marian vocabulary

It has already been said that theology as it stands is somewhat hard-pressed to adequately describe the sacred reality that is the Virgin, and that it would require a different vocabulary in order to say what needs to be said about her. This may seem like a bizarre or presumptuous thing to say, but as a matter of fact the Church has already taken precisely this sort of step before.

We are thinking here of the fact that the Church, while not elevating Mary above the status of human, has created a specific kind of worship for her which is beyond the human but below that which is permitted for God alone: hyperdulia, is the Greek term for it. The Greek dulia is the mode or level of worship authorized for human saints, and is called ‘veneration,’ while latria or ‘adoration’ is for God alone. For Mary, and Mary alone, there is a kind of super-veneration (hyper-dulia).

All we intend to say is that this same kind of terminological addition could be useful in further elaborating in theological mode the Marian doctrine. As for hyperdulia itself, it has pleased the theologians, but it has never proven satisfactory to the faithful or even the Church itself insofar as its liturgy is concerned. What we find again and again is that hyperdulia looks more like a devotion to an divine personality. Let us cite here St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church:

It is truly meet to bless Thee, O Theotokos, who are ever blessed and pure, and Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, who without stain didst bear God the Word, and art truly the Mother of God, Thee we magnify.

And we find further edification in St. Gregory Palamas, who teaches in his homily on the Annunciation that Mary ‘alone is the boundary between created and uncreated natures.’

What we can say, then, is not that we wish to transgress monotheistic doctrine by saying that in the context of Christian orthodoxy, Mary is a divinity alongside Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. Rather, we will simply insist that in the vocabulary of polytheism, she is most certainly a goddess, a divine personality, and most accurately described as an avatara of the divine substances, the archetype of all virginity, receptivity, fertility, femininity: and that, if we translate this back into monotheistic language, we have nothing very specific we can say on that matter beyond the four fundamental marian dogmas, and that almost as an admission of this, the teaching church welcomes the intuitive elaborations of the saints and all prayerful believers, who express intuitively the mystery that escapes a strictly monotheistic conceptual framework.

It was the famous French poet, Francois Villon, who wrote in his 15th century Ballad to Our Lady:

Within my parish-cloister I behold

A painted Heaven where harps and lutes adore,

And eke an Hell whose damned folk seethe full sore:

One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.

That joy, great Goddess, make thou mine to be,—

It was the great goddess he implored, and it does not seem that he was hesitant to use this terminology.

The importance of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception is, to our mind, crucial because it clarifies decisively that insofar as Mary is the Divine Mother (as she is called), she was divine from her conception, that is to say from the moment of her earliest existence, and not as a result of divine intervention at the moment the Holy Spirit descended upon her and she conceived the Logos. Everything that makes Mary what she is, and in fact what made it possible for her to receive God in her womb, is implied from her own conception, which is to say, was always true about her and did not become true of her at some other point.

Mary was never merely human, but was conceived as divine and as the Mother of God, and it is nonsense to frame it any other way.

Likewise, it is the Immaculate Conception that confirms the truth of the Assumption, which is to say the dogma that Mary was not subject to death. She was not subject to death because her nature what Immaculate, ever-virgin, identifiable with the Edenic state before death became man’s lot.

Of course, in theological terms all of this is justified on the basis of ‘the merits of Christ,’ but given the cosmic role of the Logos, this is obvious, and does not alter anything we’ve said about Mary. Who Mary was from her birth has nothing to do with her own ‘merits,’ since there is nothing moral about it. It seems that far too often Mary’s status is imagined as the result of her avoiding sin, as if she was chosen as Theotokos because of some behavioral qualification, or a lifetime of perfect piety. Mary was who she was because her nature was not fallen—the magnitude of this is difficult to perceive. Of course it is all due to the Logos, through whom all things were made, but if the merit is Christs, the divinity is still Mary’s. Obviously such a one is not subject to death.

The metaphysics of the Marian Mystery

We are now in a position to situation Mary properly within the context of metaphysics, which is to say we will acknowledge her in her most universal and cosmic significance. Nor will we be stepping away from Orthodoxy, but will in fact begin with two liturgical texts as our point of departure. Note that, as we’ve shown above, Mary is often assimilated to Lady Wisdom, and speaks as her own the words of scripture found in the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus).

First, for the Vespers of the common of the Virgin, she speaks her words from Sirach 24:4:

From the beginning was I created, and before all the worlds, and in the ages to come I shall not cease to be, and in the holy house I have exercised my ministry before him (the Lord).

Second, a reading from Proverbs used for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, in which she states:

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived. Neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out: The mountains with their huge bulk had not as yet been established: before the hills I was brought forth: He had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law and compass he enclosed the depths: When he established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters: When he compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters that they should not pass their limits: when be balanced the foundations of the earth; I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times; Playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men. (Proverbs 8:22-31)

What we are dealing with here is an ‘eternal birth’ of the Virgin in a similar (although not identical) manner to the eternal birth of Christ. In other words, we have stepped beyond the order of individual existences and are instead dealing with the principles involved in creation. Mary could not be any more explicit about this in the readings just cited.

How are we to understand this? It seems that the best way to summarize it is to say that after the Absolute (in whom there is no distinction) we come to a first polarity: we move from unity to duality. We can describe this duality as the universal masculine and the universal feminine, although it is obviously incorrect to associate these terms with any biological characteristics. Rather, these are the universal (metaphysical) principles of which human sexual polarization is but a distant reflection.

We can envision in God both of these principles, for St. Thomas Aquinas himself has said that God is both mother and father, in Himself. This gives additional meaning to what is spoken in Genesis 1:27:

So God created man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

In God, the masculine-feminine duality does not exist, but in the created order, where the divine attributes are expressed and distinguished from one another, they become the first polarity through which all creation can be brought into being.

To use a more common philosophical terminology, we can translate the universal masculine to universal essence, and the universal feminine to universal substance. In the Far East this is the pair yin-yang. One is pure act, the other pure potency. The former vivifies, the latter provides the material to be vivified. These are the two poles of being and are required for anything to be made, and whatever is must share to some degree in both.

Thus, Mary is co-redemptrix with Christ because she is also co-creatrix with Him. Such a statement is powerful but we should also be able to see why Mary is not situated at the same level with her son. Christ’s role, identified with the Logos and therefore with intelligence, is one that is personal and active. Mary’s role is passivity—cosmic passivity, demonstrated on the microcosmic level in her receptivity to the Holy Spirit.

What happened to Mary during her earthly life was the dramatic acting in history out of what has happened to her from the foundation of the world. She is the personification of the universal feminine, universal substance, and identifiable with the materia prima of scholastic metaphysics.

Mary as avatar of universal substance

Universal substance, containing in one of its aspects the scholastic materia prima, which is not ‘dead matter’ as we imagine it today but rather the cosmic Substrate out of which all things are made, is itself pure Receptivity. Universal substance is the cosmic womb, capable of receiving all forms that come to be planted in it as so many ‘divine seeds.’

Our conclusion, which seems obvious in light of everything else, is that the Virgin Mary is the real manifestation (which is also a personification) of universal substance: this statement implies all of the dogmas and all of the epicleses given to the Virgin in the Christian tradition.

Mary’s womb could contain the Logos because she was the ‘humble servant’ of the Divine Activity, there with him from the beginning as the eternal feminine, and entirely at the disposal of the Holy Spirit. The consequence of this receptivity is the springing forth of the created world in its original innocence, thus we see that to identify the Garden of Eden with the fertile marian womb is not poetic fancy but a real metaphysical truth. It was she who received the cosmic seed at the foundation of things, for only such a one could receive it again in human form.

Are we to conclude, then, that she is the Incarnation of a Goddess, on the level as Christ? We cannot, for this would not only contradict the doctrine of the Church, but it would be to confuse two different manifestations that are qualitatively distinct and not hierarchically equal.

Christ has always been considered an Incarnation of the Divine Person, with all that this implies. Mary, insofar as she is an incarnation, is that of a divine attribute, or rather a cosmic principle. What she manifests is no small thing, but it is not one of the divine persons, a personality that has ‘descended’ and become human; instead, she herself, as woman, personifies that cosmic principles and in a sense transfigures it by summarizing it in herself.

To draw again from the Hindu vocabulary, we can say that Mary is an avatar of universal substance, a manifestation in human form of a divine attribute—femininity—and this is enough to distinguish her from other men and women, justifying all of the lofty worship she has received and the role she has played in the cosmic drama, while at the same time distinguishing her from the Trinity, and in doing so we are enabled to plumb further the depths of this mysterion while keeping everything else in its proper place.

Lastly, if any of this seems to transgress orthodoxy, we would simply refer the reader again to Proverbs 8:22-31, and urge that it be contemplated patiently and the implications contained there acknowledged in their fullness.

Jesus and Mary, Purusha and Prakriti

Although any analogy will fall short, it might be helpful to view the relationship between Christ and Mary as what in the Hindu doctrine is called purusha and praktriti. In order to create, Ishvara (the personal God of Hinduism) permits himself to become polarized into a ‘creative essence,’ or purusha, and a necessary ‘otherness,’ primordial matter, or prakriti, from which things might be created. In other words, for anything to exist there must be the divine idea, which provides form, and the matter which acts as the receptacle for this form, with the union of form and matter being necessary for the existence a particular being.

This ‘necessary other,’ which acts as a fertile substrate in which the divine intellect plants its seeds, will present itself to God as the eternal feminine to his eternal masculine. On the cosmic level, this perfection of the feminine, this prikriti which in the creative process becomes primordial matter, is the spouse of the creator: the fertility to his virility, the receptivity to his activity.

Now if we take this doctrine to be true in its way (which we can, since it has its correspondences in the Christian tradition and in every other tradition), and if we translate it back into the Christian cosmogony, it is easy to see why one of Mary’s titles is ‘Queen of Heaven.’

We can also see why it has not been uncommon in Christian history to refer to Mary as ‘spouse of her son,’ Christ being the Logos and in this way playing the role of purusha to Mary’s prakriti.

Corrections are, of course, in order if we are to be exact in this analogy. What we’ve said suffices to paint an approximate picture for someone who has no intention of delving in detail into the Hindu doctrine, but we will point out that prakriti is itself not manifested, just as material prima or primordial matter is not manifested, but must be determined by the pole of essence, which is to say ‘quickened,’ at which point a creation takes place and that which is brought into being is neither prakriti nor material prima but Maya, the creation itself. In some ways it would be better to identify Mary with Maya, but that would take us too far abroad at this particular point in our study.

Parallelism in the names of the Virgin

Creator and co-creatrix; Mediator and mediatrix, Redeemer and co-redemptrix.

Clearly we have here a parallelism, but we should be careful not to interpret it as either ‘equality’ between the two terms or as an oppositional dualism.

Particularly in the name assigned to the Virgin, we can easily see that the emphasis is on receptivity. The Virgin is the matrix in which the divine work is reified. This is why Mary is the handmaid of God, his humble servant.

Taking this into account, and in particular the term ‘mediatrix,’ and also adding the frequent connection between Mary and ‘the waters,’ which is present in the structure of her name and in her identification with Universal Substance, we cannot help but connect her with the Matrona spoken of in the Hebrew Zohar:

All the messages sent here below by the supreme King pass through the intermediary of the Matrona, and all the messages sent to the supreme King from the world below first arrive at the Matrona who transmits them to the supreme King. As a result, the Matrona serves as intermediary to the world On-High in its communication with the world below, and vice versa. Thus she is the perfect mediatrix between Heaven and earth.[1]

This is also summarized by St. Bernard that it is “God’s will that we have everything through Mary,” and that she is the channel or “aqueduct whereby all the heavenly waters reach us.”

[1] Zohar, III, 50B.

Mary as the eternal feminine

As the compliment to the creative activity of the Logos, the Virgin is the personification of the eternal feminine. To borrow the words of Vladimir Solovyov, the eternal feminine is:

A living spiritual being, possessing the fullness of powers, a non-hypostatic being, but in search of hypostasis and aspiring to be indefinitely realized: the cosmic process is the realization of this Substance in a great number of forms and degree.

This is a neat summary of what we have already said, and is also an apt definition of the Hindu Maya.

Mary as Wisdom

We’ve said elsewhere that Mary is generally is frequently identified with Wisdom as in the Old Testaments literature of that category, and when Wisdom is personified and speaks, such as in Christian liturgical texts, she speaks the words of Lady Wisdom it is as if they were her own words.

Here we would point out that it is natural that Wisdom be attributed a feminine personification, since it is always a question, not of the Intellect Itself, which again would be God, but rather an emanated wisdom, the mind of God made present in creation, the idea clothed in form, the mind of God externalized and crystalized in the cosmic ‘otherness.’

Lady Wisdom is the ‘content’ of divine thought. She is not the Divine Intellect—that which knows—for this is obviously the Logos, or Christ, but is instead that through which God knows Himself in the other. After all, it is a traditional maxim that God knows Himself through his creation, and Mary—universal substance—is the Virgin womb from which all creatures spring. She is the substantial source of manifested things, the cradle in which the ideas of God are nurtured and made present.

Creation as divine play

When the creative Logos goes about it cosmic work, impressing its contents or its ‘seeds’ into the ‘womb’ of the world, what is produced is Wisdom, or from a point of view mentioned earlier, Maya, creation.

It is significant here to point out that Maya as Lila is understood as ‘divine play,’ since it is said in Hinduism (and in Christianity) that God creates not because he must but as a kind playful art. And since we have drawn parallels between Mary and Maya, and between Maya and Wisdom, we should recall that in Proverbs 8:30 the voice of Wisdom recalls how during the creation of the world she was ‘with him forming all things…playing before him at all times.”

The symbolism of the Black Virgin

We have thus far said that Mary is a kind of avatar of universal substance, the stuff of which all things are made and thereby the mother of all creatures, a perfect personification of the eternal feminine. In this sense her mystery is something primordial and ineffable, and in its own way dark and chaotic, as from the depths of things and beyond the depths of all things, and from that ineffable soil she received the Logos and the fruit of her womb is the Wisdom of God, and she is this Wisdom, its voice being her own voice. This is why Mary is often powerfully associated with the color black, and its symbolic meaning: hidden knowledge.

The most powerful and popular symbol of Mary as the manifestation of hidden knowledge is the famous Black Virgin, involving a depiction of mother and child, almost always in the posture and countenance, with the mother sitting and presenting the child on her knees, the mothers eyes forward in an eerily vacant expression, the child raising his arms as if conveying a blessing.

The meaning of all of this, but in particular the color black, is often not adequately developed. In fact this symbol serves to recapitulate all of the ‘Great Mother’ doctrines of the ancient world, in Greece and in particular Egypt, while transcending them and connecting them with Christ the Logos.

The color black itself can be seen as symbolizing apophasis, the unknowing knowledge of the Cloud of Unknowing, the only kind of knowledge of the Divine we may obtain, light unqualified and therefore beyond color, supra-rational and which obliterates even the memory of the experience, a light so ineffable that it was aptly described by Pseudo-Dionysius as ‘a ray of darkness.’

Obviously, then, we are not dealing with any kind of ethnic or racial questions in this context.

The gift of perfect blackness

In the Core Cosmu of Egyptian Hermeticism, Isis says:

Listen carefully…for here I tell you the secret doctrine that my grandfather Kamephis learnt from Hermes…and I from Kamephis, when he honored me with the gift of perfect Blackness.

Given Mary’s role as the reintegration and recapitulation of preceding doctrines regarding the eternal feminine, we can see that these words could easily be placed on her lips, especially when contemplated as the Black Virgin. It is notable that the statues of the Black Virgins, found in crypts, represent the base material, the virgin earth, which the Hermeticist takes as his point of departure for the alchemical work.

The subterranean divine

We learn more about the nature and significance of the Virgin by the locations in which she presents herself. The Marian apparition in Lourdes is typical, occurring in the cave of Massabielle. There is a clear connection between the subterranean nature of these apparitions and the chthonic aspect of the Virgin herself as identified with materia prima, or primordial substance. This recalls the many connections already made between the Virgin and the vegetable domain, or we could say the ‘organic’ in general.

The doctrinal significance of her name

Mary is the anglicized version of the Latin Maria, which is itself derived from the Hebrew Miryam or Mariam. It is to this last that we must direct our investigations in order to find the original significance of the name.

That names have significance at all aside from the caprice of the parents who bestowed it, is a notion very far from the modern way of thinking. If a modern person’s name is significant, it is usually only in a purely hereditary sense, being named after one’s father for example. We’ve recalled this elsewhere when talking about the traditional understanding of a true name as corresponding to the reality named, and this is why it was considered a great transgression to use the name of God in vain: to use it was to invoke his reality, a kind of direct contact with Him.

In modern language the connection between a word and its meaning is almost purely arbitrary—words are imagined as so many random sounds combined with a utilitarian view toward expressing thoughts, with no necessary correspondence between this word and this meaning. This situation makes it difficult to convey how important a name might be in the traditional world, and in particular when we come to Holy Scripture, in which nothing is arbitrary, nothing insignificant. Moreover, this makes investigations like ours here seem gratuitous: because our names are arbitrary, any attempt to ‘interpret’ a traditional name also sounds arbitrary, and therefore contrived and artificial.

Be that as it may, we must proceed: we insist that names in the scriptures carry with them a doctrinal significance all their own, a significance accessible via an objective hermeneutic, and therefore valid and demonstrable. Obviously the name we have in mind at this moment is that of Mary, but everything we are about to say applies as well to other Biblical names: Adam, Eve, and Jesus Christ.

Regarding the Hebrew language, we may follow E.A. Chauvet and before him Fabre d’Olivet, who together demonstrated that the written letters of the Hebrew tongue were originally hieroglyphs corresponding to cosmic realities. In other words, the Hebrew alphabet was a sacred and symbolic language capable of expressing metaphysical realities very effectively. In fact any given word, being a combination of these representations, was capable of becoming a kind of synthetic doctrinal statement. Such is precisely the case with the name Mariam.

Omitting the vowels, as is the custom in Hebrew, we are left with MRIM. The remaining ‘I’ is actually a semi-consonant, called yod. The first M, or mem, as a pictogram is much like our own M, representing the maternal breast, which, with additional segments added to the representation (as in its earlier Egyptian form), takes on the form of waves on the surface of water, and by articulating the vowel in this first component we actually obtain Mayim¸which means literally ‘the waters.’

The second component is the combined R (Resh) and I (Iod or Yod). The pictogram for Resh is that of the head, and corresponds to the Intellect but in its relation to creative activity. It could be summarized as ‘divine aspiration,’ that through which the Absolute expresses itself. Yod, found also in the Divine Name of Yahweh, is closely related to the Tree of Life and in a sense summarizes it. It is the smallest hierogram, almost a single point, and we can remark here that symbolically the point represents the principle of manifestation, particularly of space. All manifestation is the space between two points, themselves unmanifest but providing the conditions for manifestation.

Finally, the closing M, which complements the first and completes the representation, summarized as follows:

MRIM represents the eternal feminine in its creative role: virgin receptivity (Mayim) receives the Logos (Resh) which, impregnated with divine virility (Yod) becomes mother (Mayim), bringing forth divine fruit in the manifest world.

If we are correct in describing Mayim as ‘the waters’ and Resh as divine aspiration or breath, we are in a position to more fully understand the following:

In the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

This being a precise parallel to the Gospel:

The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. (Luke 1:35)

This provides the necessary background to understand something of the Christ-Mary mystery:

Christ is the ‘first-born’ of all creation, but His ‘eternal birth’ was through the Mother of God, just as much as His earthly birth, which in fact was only a temporal reflection in history of what had taken place from the beginning of all things. Hence the teaching of Meister Eckhart:

Our Lady, before becoming Mother of God in His humanity, was Mother of God in His divinity, and the birth she gave Him in His divinity is represented by the birth as man He took in her.[1]

Co-creatrix, co-redemptrix: in short, the Mother of God and man from the beginning until the end.

[1] Sermon 8.

Further citations on the Virgin

Additional remarks shall be placed here as time allows, with intent to add commentary later.

“Him who the heavens cannot contain, the womb of one woman bore. She ruled our ruler; she carried Him in whom we are; she gave milk to our bread.” – St. Augustine