There is a general tendency to attribute all of Mary’s greatness principally to her divine motherhood and the other privileges and excellencies with which God adorned her from the very first moment of her existence, disregarding or at least attributing little importance to her own personal merits, within which her own real greatness consists.
We say “her own Real greatness,” although it is to be understood that all is a gift from God, for the graces and privileges that a soul may receive are not so much the result of the soul’s personal merit as of the pure goodness of God. Yet, to make them its own, it is necessary that the soul in some way merit them through its cooperation with divine grace. It is not enough that God gives; we must receive and to some extent make our own that which He has given us.
A newly baptised child potentially has all the graces and gifts of a saint, but the child will become a saint and possess these gifts and graces in their plenitude only by means of personal cooperation throughout the course of its life. The child possesses the divine seed which must develop and grow until it attains the fullness of the life it contains within itself. In order to assimilate and make the divine gifts its own, therefore, a person must cooperate with the action of God; in other words, the person must be and remain faithful to grace and discard one’s impulse in order to be capable of enjoying the divine life in its abundance.
How would we accomplish this? Through self-denial and detachment from all that is not of God. A great spiritual master Johannes Tauler has told us: Perfection does not consist in doing great things, but in allowing God to be great within us. That is, it consists in making room for God, in giving Him the greatest possible space within our heart. This is actually achieved by espousing the action of grace without offering any resistance (for grace itself inclines and impels us to it), letting ourselves be led by this supernatural movement and cooperating with it as much as we can. The divine action in the soul always tends to this, as do also all the means of sanctification, especially the trials and sufferings endured by the soul for this purpose. Nothing so expands the heart and adds to its capacity to love God as does suffering.
It is not enough that a heart be stripped of all if that “all” is worth little or nothing, It must be a total and complete despoliation of all the goods which we esteem highly and whose surrender will wound us within the innermost depths of our soul and tear at the very roots of our heart. That is why in the purification of souls, God inspires profound and ardent affections and afterwards exacts their renunciation. What’s more, the more intensely and profoundly He wishes to purify a soul and the higher the degree of sanctity to which He wishes to elevate it, the more occasion does He give it for self-renunciation and suffering.
Thus, He first exacts the renunciation of the love of the base pleasures of this world, then the love of life and health, then the more elevated love of parents, relatives, friends, and perhaps even of country. Afterwards comes the renunciation of moral goods such as the love of renown and the desire to be respected and loved; then the spiritual values in their endless gradation. To this end God sends illness, degradations, anguish, allurements, desolations, fears, and, in short, a whole series of interior sufferings which St. John of the Cross calls the “dark night of the soul.” He does this in order to give the soul a realisation of the vanity of all temporal things and to inspire it to practice mortification and penance. However, it if not necessary that a soul undergo each of these sufferings in particular; all do net need the same purgation because all do not have to be purged of the same defects, vies, and attachments. But what is necessary for all, however innocent they may be, is the martyrdom of love. The Blessed Virgin herself, though pure and immaculate, had to suffer this martyrdom, and with a greater intensity than all of the saints put together.
Divine love is a celestial fire that begins as a mere spark and gradually increases until it becomes a blazing fire which consumes and reduces to ashes all other loves. It is this fire of divine love that effects the soul’s purification. So the most holy Virgin’s growth in sanctity can be explained. She was already holy from the very instant of her immaculate conception, but not with such intensity and profundity as after Calvary. Together with the growth of the great gifts she received, there was also brought to perfection in her the divine seed of the immense graces deposited in her at the moment of her immaculate conception. During the course of her holy life, her heart and soul were infinitely expanded through her correspondence with grace and the docility and love with which she embraced the innumerable sacrifices and martyrdoms which God asked of her. Wherefore, if we wish to measure to some extent the sanctity of Mary, we must appreciate as much as possible the intensity of her martyrdom, of her self-denial, and of her detachment. Let us consider the pure, holy, and divinely beautiful affections she had to sacrifice and the excellencies and supernatural privileges from which her heart was totally detached.
With regard to the first, that is, the sacrifice of her love, Calvary tells it to all who meditate attentively upon it. We shall call attention only to the fact that, if ever a creature had the right to surrender herself wholly and without restraint to the impulses and effusions of love, it was Mary, for hers was the most pure, the most holy, and the most divine love there could ever possibly be both in heaven or on earth, and its object was God Himself. Painful as it may be to renounce a love when we do not have a high esteem for its lawfulness and purity, it will never be even remotely as painful as the renunciation of a love, the purity, holiness, and beauty of which produce an infinite regard for the object loved. A sublime form of love is produced when the mind and heart agree on its excellence, but if that mind and heart are elevated by divine grace and elevated to the degree that Mary’s were, then, clearly, all possibility of calculation and appreciation is lost to us and the only thing left for us to do is to remain ecstatic in admiration.
Having said that, the martyrdom of the Blessed Virgin is not the most neglected or forgotten devotion of pious souls. They frequently make it the subject of their meditations and more or less feel and understand the terrible sufferings of the Mother of the Redeemer. If some do not feel them more keenly it may be due to their erroneous understanding of sanctity, for not a few imagine that sanctity kills or rejects human sentiments and makes the saint little less than absolutely impassive. They do not realise that in purifying the sensitivity of human feelings, sanctity also refines it. The saint is not insensible to love or contempt or any of the other lawful sentiments of our human nature, but neither is he a slave to them, Christ Himself, the model and exemplar of all perfection and sanctity, felt the ingratitude, the contempt, and, above all, the hatred of the Jews with all the poignancy of which human nature perfected by grace is capable. How could He possibly have done otherwise, He who was all love. Let us conclude, then, that His Blessed Mother, far from suffering less because of her incomparable sanctity, suffered far more because of the very perfection that her sanctity communicated to her immaculate nature. While her highly perfected nature made her apt for the greatest possible joy, it also made her capable of the greatest possible suffering.
However this is not the least known, least studied, or least meditated aspect of the interior life of Mary. There is another aspect which, although closely connected with and, in fact, reducible to the first one, presents itself to our minds as a quite distinct feature of her sacrifice, total immolation, and complete holocaust. This aspect, more profound and important than the first, consists in the Blessed Virgin’s complete interior detachment and renunciation of all the graces and privileges which she had received from God, including het divine maternity, a privilege she loved above all else because it made her the mother of such an amiable Son.
Here we must pause to observe that in saying that we must detach ourselves from everything in the supernatural order, even from the highest supernatural goods, God alone excepted, we do not mean that we should despise of ignore such gifts. On the contrary, no one appreciates or esteems them more highly than the holy soul. We are commanded to renounce them, as all the saints did, only so far as they can become objects of attachment or of human covetousness. For however excellent and lofty a thing may be, if sought without God, it loses all of its value. Wherefore, in order really to possess a thing, we must first renounce it whole-heartedly and maintain an habitual state of detachment in its regard, for in the supernatural order it is not possible to possess anything except through detachment. This truth is verified even in the natural order, for to possess a thing is to be its proprietor or master, and be alone is master of a thing and can truly enjoy it who is detached from it. If he is attached to it he is mot its master but its slave.
To return to our subject, we repeat –however strange and even scandalous it may seem to others– that the Blessed Virgin renounced her divine motherhood and by so doing she practiced renunciation in the most heroic degree that could ever be conceived by us, for the very reason that a greater good or a more exalted dignity is, for a mere creature utterly inconceivable. That Mary had renounced that sublime dignity before it had been conferred upon her is an indisputable fact. We all know that the condition she stipulated in becoming the Mother of the Messias was that her virginal purity should remain inviolate. As a matter of fact, she had already renounced that dignity at the very instant she vowed herself to perpetual virginity.
However, this renunciation proved much less costly than that which she was to make later, for she could not at that time experience the ineffable delights which would be hers as the Mother of the Saviour Jesus Christ; neither could she feel the close bonds of love which would merge her to her Son. This first renunciation, then, referred principally to the immense glory which that high dignity would hold for her, a glory for which through so many centuries every daughter of Israel had and still yearns for, and which was so deeply impressed upon their peoples and spirit that it could not but appear to them as the most glorious thing of all time. To be the Mother of the Messias, the Mother of the Saviour of Israel! What an immense glory for a daughter of Sion! And what sanctity Mary must have possessed to be able to renounce all that glory!
However, as we have said, this was not the most painful phase of that renunciation, nor was that phase possible until Mary’s heart had tasted all the delights of her Son’s love. How did Mary practice that renunciation? Let us begin by declaring that the first soul that Jesus sanctified was that of His own Mother. And, incidentally, when we speak of the purification or sanctification of Mary we do not regard these actions as a purification from sin, but as an ever increasing elevation and capacity for divine things. Jesus desired that just as His Mother was the co-redemptrix, she should also be the first and most perfect model of all sanctity. That is the way it ought to and must be. His love for His Mother was far greater than His love for all other creatures together. Hence it was fitting that He should raise her up to the highest possible sanctity, for within sanctity is the greatest good, the greatest perfection, and the greatest happiness of any creature. And because He loved her so much, He had to make her suffer, although it caused Him horrendous indefinable torment, for that is how true love is truly demonstrated. We may say, therefore, that Mary practiced this renunciation because Jesus required it of her. When we say that she practiced it, we wish it to be understood that it was only the interior act of detachment and not the external reality.
In order to give proper emphasis to this fact and to penetrate more deeply into the grandeur and sublimity of her renunciation, let us state it thus: the Mother of the Saviour in some way renounced her Son and the love He had for her. My hand is actually trembling as it writes this sentence, for it was an immense and terrible sacrifice on Mary’s part. But that is how it was and had to be. That is the sword of the Spirit of God which penetrates the most profound and mysterious depths of the spirit.
However, for our own consolation, we must remember that God does not kill save to give a new, more elevated, and more divine life. Wherefore, if Mary in some way renounced her natural motherhood, it was in order to be elevated to the spiritual motherhood of Jesus — that motherhood about which our Saviour spoke when He said: “Who is my mother? Who are my brethren?” … “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50) Moreover, by that renunciation she merited the title and reality of spiritual Mother of all men. So we see that Jesus Christ, in addressing her from the cross as “Woman” rather than “Mother” –therefore alluding to this mysterious renunciation–, proclaimed her at the same time Mother of all men in the person of the Beloved Disciple. Thus also was her spiritual fecundity for the children of men proclaimed and consecrated. For, in giving us Jesus and Mary as the models of the supernatural life, God manifested in them all of the mysteries of that life to its highest degree, and one of these mysteries is the union of souls.
When God unites two souls in the bonds of His love, He endows them with the gift of spiritual fecundity for the good of other souls, as is repeatedly seen throughout the history of christianity. But that gift is not fully bestowed upon them save in exchange for a spiritual renunciation whereby the love itself becomes far more intense, far purer, more profound, more beneficial, and more fruitful.
Accordingly, the Blessed Virgin practiced this renunciation and Jesus exercised her in it gradually, as He does all souls. This fact stands out clearly in the gospel story. At the age of twelve, Jesus already began to exercise His Mother in detachment and to show her the degree of perfection to which He intended to elevate her. Undoubtedly, up to that time she had innocently enjoyed all of the tender-hearted endearments and affection of her Son, the Child Jesus. That is why on finding Him in the temple, after three days of searching and untold agony, her heart could not suppress that most tender complaint: “Son, why have you done this to us?” (Luke 2:48) Jesus, however, instead of undoing Himself in fervent protestations of love, as we would expect Him to do in order to console His Mother, answers her with those seemingly stern but profoundly divine words: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) By these words He meant to tell her: “Mother dear, remember that l am more than a just a man, I am God, and to Me the bonds of flesh and blood mean nothing if they are not purified and sanctified by divine love. I came to sanctify the world and to sanctify you first, raising you to a degree of perfection which, although you have a faint glimmer of it, you do not as yet know it in all of its clarity and splendour.”
That is how Mary understood the words of Jesus, for they were accompanied by a most luminous and mysterious light which she, the most humble and docile of creatures, received directly into her heart with infinite gratitude, making them the subject of her profound meditations. Thus Jesus prepared Mary for the successively profound detachments which were yet to come and which she would have to practice to the end of her life. It should be noted that the few times the Blessed Virgin appears in the gospel after this passage, it was to teach us the lesson of true detachment.
Such was the case at the wedding of Cana where her divine Son, although He obeyed her and at her suggestion performed His first public miracle, manifesting that no one recognised the rights of His Mother as much as He, answered her in a manner that seems calculated to exercise her in detachment. The most pointed of these incidents, however, is related in the passage where Jesus was preaching the kingdom of God to the multitude and received the message that His Mother and relatives wished to speak to Him. He answered by saying that His mother and brothers were those who did the will of His Father, He did not intend to deny His Mother, but to convey the idea that His love for her was net founded so much on natural bonds, however close, but on spiritual ones. It was as if He had said that He lowed her more as a saint than simply as a mother.
Finally, Jesus gave His Mother an occasion to practice a detachment that was complete and definitive when on Calvary’s height He uttered the words: “Woman, behold, your son.” (John 19:26) Good Lord, what a horrendous ending! Not even during that final dreadful hour was Mary to be to be given the consolation of hearing a word of affection from her Son’s divine lips!
However, we must not believe that Jesus was attempting to be cruel to His Mother; that would be most disrespectful and sacrilegious. It is true to our human nature that divine love seems at times to be lovingly cruel and relentless, God never exempts the soul He loves from the suffering required for its sanctification. The soul may groan and it may weep, but nothing will extinguish the pain, yet God will console it by turning its suffering into the most rapturous delight.
This is what happened to Mary. She understood Jesus and she knew the purpose of His apparent severity. She knew that He lover her with a love that the world cannot even begin to understand and she suffered only because she saw that Jesus felt obliged to create her as such in order to complete His mission on Earth. Mary realised that love is in exile in this world and he on earth it will never find or experience complete fulfilment. On the other hand, if we consider the matter properly, we will see that by treating His Mother in such a way, Jesus was doing her the greatest possible honour. For He treats souls according to their need: the weak with consolations and raptures; the strong with sufferings and trials.
All this teaches us the necessity of detachment from all things both for our sanctity and for our happiness. That is the only way of possessing all things. “In order to arrive at possessing everything, desire to possess nothing,” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. 1, chap, 14) St. John of the Cross advises us. This is the “hundredfold” which Christ promised His followers even in this world. His kingdom begins here on earth for those who love Him. So, if we wish to be and remain as happy as possible in this life and to enjoy all things in God, we must first of all strive to renounce every single thing and we must detach ourselves from absolutely everything for the love of Him.