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Monday, 15 August 2016

AUGUST 15th: THE ASSUMPTION OF OUR LADY


NEWMAN AND DEVOTION TO OUR LADY

by Fr Thomas McGovern
my source: Christendon Awake!


It is not surprising that the recent advance in the cause of beatification John Henry Newman has generated interest in the spirituality of the great English cardinal.[1] While Newman's biographers have studied in detail many aspects of his personality and intellectual qualities, only limited attention would seem to have been given to his reputation for holiness and to the devotional aspects of his works.

The Holy Father has emphasised Newman's great love for the Church. [2] One could also refer to his devotion to the Passion of Christ, to his love for the martyrs of the nascent Church, for the Fathers and the saints, and to his devotion to the guardian angels. In this article I will draw attention to some aspects of his devotion to Our Lady, as witnessed primarily by his own writings on this topic.


Beginnings

In 1826 John Henry Newman was appointed a tutor at Oriel College, Oxford. About the same time Hurrell Froude, a High Church Anglican with Roman Catholic sympathies, was elected a Fellow of the same college. The two became close friends, and it was from Froude that Newman first learned to have devotion to the Blessed Virgin. [3] That this devotion progressed rapidly, and was based on a solid doctrinal foundation, is clear from a sermon he gave on the Feast of the Annunciation, 1832. The following extract from that sermon shows how much Newman the Anglican honoured the Mother of God:

'In her the destinies of the world were to be reversed, and the serpent's head bruised. On her was bestowed the greatest honour ever put upon any individual of our fallen race... But further, she is doubtless to be accounted blessed and favoured in herself, as well as in the benefits she has done us. Who can estimate the holiness and perfection of her, who was chosen to be the Mother of Christ? What must have been her gifts, who was chosen to be the only near earthly relative of the Son of God, the only one whom he was bound by nature to revere and look up to; the one appointed to train and educate him, to instruct him day by day, as he grew in wisdom and in stature?' [4]

After Froude's death in 1836, Newman was given his Roman Breviary. He began to recite it daily, but omitted the prayers directly invoking Our Lady, as this practice was against the teaching of the Church of England. [5] Although he had often been accused of 'teaching popery' during the Oxford Movement in the 1830's, Newman's perception of the Catholic Church at that time was still a very defective one. In Tract 15 he wrote of Catholicism: 'their communion is infected with heresy; we are bound to flee it as a pestilence'. He complained of her 'lying wonders', including statues of Our Lady. [6]

Professor C. W. Russell of Maynooth, who took a keen interest in Newman's progress towards the faith, wrote him in 1841, after the publication of Tract 90 on the Thirty Nine Articles, explaining that his interpretation of Catholic doctrine on Transubstantiation was deficient. Newman replied graciously, saying he effectively accepted this doctrine but that 'the extreme honours' paid to our Lady was still a big stumbling block to his acceptance of Catholic doctrine. Russell assured Newman that if he had a fuller knowledge of Church teaching on the Blessed Virgin, his fears and reservations would disappear, pointing out to him how the Rosary was but 'a series of meditations on the Incarnation, Passion and Glory of our Redeemer', [8] and in no way derogated from the worship due to God alone. To assure him that there was no ground for the opinion which accused Rome of excessive devotion to Mary, in October 1842 Russell sent Newman a copy of St Alphonsus Liguori's book of homilies on Our Lady. The Maynooth professor commented that, although he could hardly think of anyone who spoke more strongly about the prerogatives of the Mother of God, he hoped Newman would see from a reading of these homilies how he had been misled by appearances into thinking that the Catholic Church gave too much honour to the Blessed Virgin at the expense of the Holy Trinity. [9]

It is interesting to note that when Newman came to write his celebrated Apologia pro Vita Sua, almost twenty years later, he recalled with gratitude the very significant part played by Dr Russell in his reception into the Church: 'He had, perhaps, more to do with my conversion than anyone else'. [10]One of the most important factors in Russell's contribution to Newman's conversion was his clarification of the Catholic position in relation to devotion to the Blessed Virgin. [11]


Essay on Development of Doctrine

As Newman drew closer to Rome, he felt the need to justify rationally to himself the differences, as he saw it, between the doctrine of the primitive Church and that professed by the Catholic Church of his time. This was the origin of one of Newman's greatest theological works, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. He finished it in September 1845, and was received into the Church a few days later, on October 8. [12]

The sixth of Newman's seven criteria, outlined in the Essay, for assessing the authenticity of a doctrinal development, reads as follows:


'A true development may be described as one which is conservative of the course of antecedent developments, being really those antecedents and something besides them: it is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds'. [13]

This is the context in which Newman reflects on the nature and scope of Marian devotion shortly before he took the final step to enter the Church. He poses the question whether the honours paid to Our Lady, which have grown out of devotion to her Son, do not in fact tend to weaken that devotion to Christ. A related question also presented itself: was it possible so to exalt a creature without withdrawing one's heart from the Creator?[14]

Newman replied that the issue was to a large extent answered by the Fathers of Ephesus when they declared Our Lady to be the Theotokos, or Mother of God, 'in order to protect the doctrine of the Incarnation, and to preserve the faith of Catholics from a specious humanitarianism'. [15] And he goes on to make the telling point that a survey of religious practice in Europe confirmed


 'that it is not those religious Communions which are characterised by devotion to the Blessed Virgin that have ceased to adore her Eternal Son, but those very bodies which have renounced devotion to her'. [16]

In the Apologia Newman explains how in the process of conversion he had gradually come to see how 'the Catholic Church allows no image of any sort, material or immaterial, no dogmatic symbol, no rite, no sacrament, no saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, to come between the soul and its Creator'. [17] And so in coming to the Church, he was able to state with full conviction: 

'I had a true devotion to the Blessed Virgin, in whose College I lived, whose Altar I served, and whose Immaculate Purity I had in one of my earliest sermons made much of'. [18]


Catholic Sermons

A few years after his conversion, Newman published his Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations. [19] This volume contains two homilies on Our Lady of great theological richness. In the first of these he deals with (i) the doctrine of Mary as Mother of God and her role as chief witness to the Incarnation, and (ii) her intercessory power. [20] The second homily focuses on the Assumption. [21] We will now examine each of these doctrines in turn as seen from Newman's point of view.

For Newman, confessing that Mary is Deipara, or Bearer of God, is a doctrine which copper fastens St John's affirmation that 'the Word became flesh' (Jn 1:14), and protects it from any evasiveness or any possible misinterpretation:


'The Church and Satan agreed together in this, that Son and Mother went together; and the experience of three centuries has confirmed their testimony, for Catholics who have honoured the Mother, still worship the Son, while Protestants, who now have ceased to confess the Son, began then by scoffing at the Mother'. [22]

While Newman's mariology emphasises the particular privileges of the Mother of God, at the same time it is always firmly anchored in her role as chief witness to the Incarnation. The Incarnation had brought about the possibility of a new, more intimate relationship with God; 'as soon as it was understood that the incarnate God had a mother', a new focus of devotion was opened up to mankind. 'To her belongs, as being a creature', Newman tells us,

'a natural claim on our sympathy and familiarity, in that she is nothing else than our fellow. She is our pride - in the poet's words, "our tainted nature's solitary boast". We look at her without any fear, any remorse, any consciousness that she is able to read us, judge us, punish us. Our heart yearns towards that pure Virgin, that gentle Mother, and our congratulations follow her, as she rises from Nazareth and Ephesus, through the choir of angels, to the throne on high, so weak, yet so strong; so delicate, yet so glorious; so modest, yet so mighty. She has sketched for us her own portrait in the Magnificat'. [23]

Professor Leo Scheffczyk, the German theologian, takes up the point Newman raised about Mary as witness to the Incarnation. 'One cannot be surprised', he says, 'that the specifically Catholic faith regresses and atrophies precisely where the understanding of Mary as the highest witness to the Incarnation of God dwindles'. [24] It is because of this latter perception that she holds a special place in salvation history.


Our Lady's Intercession

When Newman speaks about Our Lady's intercessory role, he is conscious that he is dealing with a sensitive issue from the point of view of his Anglican friends. To put this prerogative of the Blessed Virgin into perspective, he shows, by means of an analysis relating to Abraham, Job and Moses in the Old Testament, and to Philip and Andrew in the New, how personal intercession was part of the economy of salvation sanctioned by God. If this is so, he asks, how could there be anything strange about the Mother having influence with the Son:

'If we have faith to admit the Incarnation itself, we must admit it in its fullness; why then should we start at the gracious appointments which arise out of it, or are necessary to it, or are included in it? If the Creator comes on earth in the form of a servant and a creature, why may not His Mother, on the other hand, rise to be the Queen of Heaven, and be clothed with the sun, and have the moon under her feet?'. [25]

Newman finds support for the doctrine of the intercessory power of Mary in two other truths of the faith: firstly that, as the Council of Trent affirms, it is good and useful to invoke the saints and to have recourse to their prayers; and secondly that the Blessed Virgin is singularly loved by her son Jesus Christ.

It is not that Newman is trying to provide intellectual proof of this and other marian doctrines for those who might be reluctant to accept them; ultimately we have to assent to them on the authority of the Church. Rather his purpose is to show the harmony of what the Church teaches, which is no more than 'what the Apostles committed to her in every time and place'. [26] In saying this Newman is here anticipating one of the ideas articulated by Vatican II in the constitution on Divine Revelation, namely, that the Church is not above Revelation, but is its servant; that it can teach no more than what it has already received through apostolic tradition. [27]


The Assumption

One of the aspects of divine revelation which impressed itself on Newman's mind was its consistency, the fact that all of its truths hang together. By means of the principle of the analogy of faith, what is taught now fits into what has already been received, a principle which, he affirms, is exemplified in many different ways in the structure and the history of doctrine.

This principle he applies particularly to marian doctrines, especially to the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven. [28] It is a truth which he says is received on the belief of ages, but even from a rational point of view the very fittingness of it recommends it strongly. Mary's assumption into heaven is, for Newman, in perfect harmony with the other truths of Revelation. It is also perfectly fitting that she, who had provided God with the elements of his human body, should not know death and decay. 'Who can conceive', he asks, 'that that virginal frame, which never sinned, was to undergo the death of a sinner? Why should she share the curse of Adam, who had no share in his fall?' [29] It is in harmony with the substance of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and without it, Newman avers, Catholic doctrine would in some way be incomplete.


Defence of Mary

In 1865 Newman's former colleague at Oxford, E.B. Pusey, published An Eirenicon, [31] in which he affirmed that exaggerated Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin was one of the chief obstacles to church unity. Newman considered Pusey's case unfair and, in 1866, he published a reply: Letter to Pusey on the occasion of his Eirenicon. His purpose in this letter is to demonstrate that the patristic doctrine on Our Lady is essentially the same as that held by Catholics of his day. He points out to Pusey that he cannot condemn the Catholic doctrine on Our Lady without condemning also the doctrine of the Early Fathers. 'The line cannot logically be drawn', he says, 'between the teaching of the Fathers concerning the Blessed Virgin and our own'. [32] He is categoric about the authority he grants to the Fathers:

'I am not ashamed still to take my stand upon the Fathers, and do not mean to budge... The Fathers made me a Catholic... Though I hold, as you know, a process of development in Apostolic truth as time goes on, such development does not supercede the Fathers, but explains and completes them. And, in particular, as regards our teaching concerning the Blessed Virgin, with the Fathers I am content'. [33]

Newman's objective is to show that Catholic devotion to Our Lady is a logical consequence of Catholic marian teaching. He builds his case around a consideration of the following doctrines: Mary as the Second Eve, and the consequences this has for her dignity; and Our Lady as the Theotokos.

He begins by distinguishing clearly between belief and devotion; belief about Our Lady, and devotion to her. What people have believed about Our Lady has been in substance one and the same since the beginning; marian devotion, however, has increased with the years and has varied from one place to another. [34]


Mary as the Second Eve

In his exposition of the Catholic doctrine about Mary in the letter to Pusey, Newman's point of departure is the Fathers' teaching on Our Lady as the Second Eve. Eve, who was 'mother of all the living', played an important role in the fall of the human race. She was an 'active cause' of it and, in the sentence pronounced on her, is recognised 'as a real agent in the temptation and its issue'. The text of Genesis, 'I will put enmity between thee and the woman and between thy seed and her seed' (3:15) has always been interpreted as the promise of a future Redeemer. The seed of the woman is the Word Incarnate and the Woman whose seed or son He is, is the Virgin Mary. Newman goes on to demonstrate how this was the interpretation of the Fathers, who draw out from it the parallel between Mary and Eve. [35]

He draws on the witness of three of the early Fathers - St. Justin, St Irenaeus and Tertullian - to illustrate this doctrine, and makes the significant point that these writers do not speak of the Blessed Virgin merely as the physical instrument of Our Lord's incarnation, 'but as an intelligent and responsible cause of it'. [36]As a consequence of faith and obedience Mary became the Mother of the Redeemer; Eve by her failure in these two virtues brought about the fall of the human race. As Eve was a cause of ruin for all, so Mary was a cause of salvation for all; just as Eve freely co-operated in bringing about a great evil, Mary co-operated with grace in achieving a much greater good. Newman makes a very convincing case to show that this was the received doctrine of these second century Fathers in both the East and the West, and that its origin is the johannine tradition about Our Lady. [37]


Our Lady's Dignity

From this patristic teaching on the role of the Blessed Virgin in salvation history, Newman draws a particular inference. Mary's dignity, he affirms, arises from her association with the mysteries of the Redemption and her present state of blessedness in heaven. She anticipated that veneration which future generations would show her when, in response to Elizabeth's greeting, she exclaimed in her hymn of thanksgiving to God, 'all generations shall call me blessed'.

Newman finds the scriptural basis for the dignity of the Blessed Virgin in the vision of the Woman and Child in the twelfth chapter of the Apocalypse:


'And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars' (12:1-2).

In support of his position, he points out that the Virgin with the Child is not just a modern idea; it is a representation which occurs again and again in the catacombs: 'Mary is there drawn with the Divine Infant in her lap, and she with hands extended in prayer, He with His hand in the attitude of blessing. No representation', Newman adds, 'can more forcibly convey the doctrine of the high dignity of the Mother, and, I will add, of her influence with the Son'. [38]

It is only natural that we should go to the author of the Apocalypse to teach us about Mary, the Beloved Disciple to whose care she was committed by our Lord on the Cross, and with whom, tradition tells us, she lived at Ephesus until the end of her earthly sojourn.


Our Lady as Theotokos

Our Lady's divine maternity is for Newman the highest of all her prerogatives:

'The Blessed Virgin is Theotokos, Deipara, or Mother of God; and this word, when thus used, carries with it no admixture of rhetoric, no taint of extravagant affection - it has nothing else but a well-weighed, grave, dogmatic sense, which corresponds and is adequate to its sound. It intends to express that God is her Son, as truly as any one of us is the son of his own mother'. [39]

Newman reminds us that we first come across this title of Theotokos in the writings of Origen (185-254 AD), who witnesses that it was in use before his time. The idea, if not the term, is explicit in writers of the apostolic and sub-apostolic age. Thus Ignatius of Antioch who was martyred in 106 AD: 'Our God was carried in the womb of Mary'. It was not long before the doctrine was transmitted into devotion. Each successive insult offered her by individual heretics drew out more fully the deep individual affection with which Mary was regarded by the Christian faithful.


Devotion to Mary

Since for Newman Catholic doctrine on Mary is substantially that of the Fathers, he does not see how the high Anglicans, who also claim to draw their marian doctrine from patristic sources, can have any basis for criticising Roman Catholic teaching on Our Lady. However, he does allow that some Catholic expressions of devotion to Our Lady could be misinterpreted.

In a delightful passage, in which he analyses with great sensitivity the affective aspect of religious belief, he makes the following point:

'What mother, what husband or wife, what youth or maiden in love, but says a thousand foolish things, in the way of endearment, which the speaker would be sorry for strangers to hear; yet they are not on that account unwelcome to the parties to whom they are addressed. Sometimes by bad luck they are written down, sometimes they get into the newspapers; and what might be even graceful, when it was fresh from the heart, and interpreted by the voice and the countenance, presents but a melancholy exhibition when served up cold for the public eye. So it is with devotional feelings. Burning thoughts and words are as open to criticism as they are beyond it. What is abstractedly extravagant, may in particular persons be becoming and beautiful, and only fall under blame when it is found in others who imitate them. When it is formalised into meditations and exercises, it is as repulsive as love-letters in a police report'. [40]

Logic is a blunt instrument when applied to devotion; it can abuse it and manhandle it. And thus Newman is very reluctant to get involved in public debate about something which is so personal and intimate as devotion to the Mother of God. He only ventures to do so because he feels called on to defend it. Thus he can affirm that:


'when once we have mastered the idea, that Mary bore, suckled, and handled the Eternal in the form of a child, what limit is conceivable to the rush and flood of thoughts which such a doctrine involves? What awe and surprise must attend upon the knowledge, that a creature has been brought so close to the Divine Essence'. [41]

While he recognises that there may be a basis for some of Pusey's comments, Newman is not slow to point out to him that his approach to Our Lady in the Eirenicon is seriously deficient:

'Have you not been touching us on a very tender point in a very rude way? Is it not the effect of what you have said to expose her to scorn and obloquy, who is dearer to us than any other creature? Have you even hinted that our love for her is anything else than an abuse? Have you thrown her one kind word yourself all through your book? I trust so, but I have not lighted upon one'. [42]

However, Newman finishes off his reposte to Pusey on a kindly note:


'May that bright and gentle Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, overcome you with her sweetness, and revenge herself on her foes by interceding effectually for their conversion!'. [43]


Marian Advocations

Newman's writing on the dogmatic truths about our Lady such as her divine maternity, her assumption and her role as intercessor, give us a perspective on the deep theological foundations of his marian doctrine. This teaching, as we have seen, was grounded on the faith of the early Fathers, to which he added his own not inconsiderable insights.

However, to get a broader perspective on his personal love for the Blessed Virgin we need to take a closer look at some of his devotional writings about the Mother of God. In 1894, four years after his death, Newman's Meditations and Devotions was published. This volume contains some moving commentaries on several of our Lady's titles from the Litany of Loreto. They are a testimony to his devotion to Mary, which is at once tender and profound, though without any trace of sentimentality.

The central decoration in the dome of the apse of Newman's University Church in Dublin is a painting of Mary as Sedes Sapientiae. Obviously he considered that this was a very appropriate advocation under which to draw the students at his newly founded university to a deeper Marian devotion. He explains that Mary had this title because the Son of God, who in Scripture is called the Word of the Wisdom of God,


'once dwelt in her, and then after his birth of her, was carried in her arms and seated in her lap in his first years. Thus, being, as it were, the human throne of him who reigns in heaven, she is called the Seat of Wisdom'.

But he goes on to explain that Mary was not just the physical throne of the Wisdom of God. Because of her unique sanctity and the clarity of her intellect, her intercourse with Jesus during those thirty years of hidden life was so profound that as a consequence her knowledge of creation, the world, and the things of God must have excelled that of the greatest philosophers and theologians. [44]

Why, he asks, is May traditionally the month of special devotion to our Lady? He offers several reasons why this should be so. Apart from the fact that climatically it is the month of promise and hope, from the perspective of the liturgy it is the most festive and joyous part of the year. The whole of May commonly falls within the Easter season and normally boasts of the feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost. It is a time then when there are frequent alleluias because of the resurrection of Christ. Because Mary is the first of God's creatures, the most acceptable child of God, it is fitting, Newman reasons, that his month should be hers in which we especially rejoice 'in our redemption and sanctification in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit'. [45]


Rosary

Due to failing sight, in the last years of his life Newman was unable to read the Breviary and substituted it with the Rosary. He had always been deeply attached to saying the daily Office, even as an Anglican, so we can imagine how much the Rosary came to mean for him when he could say that it more than made up for the Breviary. Indeed, the ageing Cardinal used to comment that the Rosary was the most beautiful of all devotions, and that it contained all in itself.

His understanding of the significance of the Rosary in Christian piety is best explained by himself:


'And so in his mercy he has given us a revelation of himself by coming amongst us, to be one of ourselves, with all the relations and qualities of humanity, to gain us over. He came down from heaven and dwelt amongst us, and died for us. All these things are in the Creed, which contains the chief things that he has revealed to us about himself. Now the great power of the Rosary lies in this, that it makes the Creed into a prayer; of course the Creed is in some sense a prayer and a great act of homage to God; but the Rosary gives us the great truths of his life and death to meditate upon, and brings them nearer to our hearts. And so we contemplate all the great mysteries of his life and his birth in the manger; and so too the mysteries of his suffering and his glorified life. But even Christians, with all their knowledge of God, have usually more awe than love of him, and the special virtue of the Rosary lies in the special way in which it looks at these mysteries; for with all our thoughts of him are mingled thoughts of his Mother, and in the relations between Mother and Son we have set before us the Holy Family, the home in which God lived. Now the family is, evenly humanly considered, a sacred thing; how much more the family bound together by supernatural ties, and, above all, that in which God dwelt with his Blessed Mother. This is what I should most wish you to remember in future years'. [46]

When he was not engaged in writing or reading, he is remembered as most frequently having the Rosary in his hands. [47]


Conclusion

From what we have seen of Newman's writing on Our Lady, it is clear that in terms of doctrine he owes much to the Fathers of the Church. He knew their writings intimately, and it is perhaps because of this that his commentaries on the scriptural passages relating to the role of the Blessed Virgin in God's plan of salvation always have a certain originality. We also notice that his doctrine on Mary is very much in tune with the teaching of Vatican II as developed in Chapter VIII of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. [48]

He showed courage and magnanimity in overcoming his initial prejudices about devotion to Mary, and then made a considerable effort to help his former Anglican friends get over theirs.

Newman's deep devotion and veneration for the Mother of God stand out clearly in all that he writes about her, even while still an Anglican. There is nothing cerebral or merely intellectual in his approach. On the contrary, he writes about her with a warmth of feeling which is unusual for a man of his background and culture. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that this should be so in somebody who has been declared by the Church to have practised the Christian virtues to an heroic degree.


FOOTNOTES

1. Decree of Holy See (22 January 1991) on heroic virtues of John Henry Newman; cf. L'Osservatore Romano, 28 January 1991.

2. Address, 27 April 1990.

3. Dessain, C. S; John Henry Newman, London 1971, p. 9.

4. Newman, J. H., Parochial and Plain sermons, Vol II, London 1836, pp 143, 147-148, 151-152.

5. Cf. Dessain, ibid., p. 37.

6. Cf. ibid., p. 38.

7. Letter Newman to Russell, 13 April 1841, in Correspondence of John Henry Newman with John Keeble and Others 1839-1845, Edited at the Birmingham Oratory, London 1917, pp. 122-123.

8. Cf. Macauley, A., Dr. Russell of Maynooth, London 1983, pp 83-84.

9. Cf. ibid., p. 90.

10. Newman, J. H., Apologia pro Vita Sua, London 1886, p. 194.

11. Cf. Macauley, ibid., p. 96.

12. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, London 1920.

13. Ibid., p. 200.

14. Cf. ibid., p. 425.

15. Ibid., p. 426. The title Theotokos, or Mother of God, was familiar to Christians from primitive times and had been used by several of the early Fathers such as Origen, St Athanasius, St Ambrose, and St Gregory of Nyssa.

16. Ibid.

17. Apologia, p. 195.

18. Cf. ibid., p. 165.

19. Newman, J. H., Discourses addressed to Mixed Congregations, London 1886.

20. Discourse no. XVII, entitled The Glories of Mary for the sake of her Son, pp 342-359.

21. Discourse no. XVIII, entitled On the Fitness of the Glories of Mary, pp 360-376.

22. Ibid., p 348.

23. Letter to Pusey, in Difficulties of Anglicans, vol II, p.85.

24. Cf. Scheffczyk's essay, Mary as a Model of Catholic Faith, in 'The Church and Women: A Compendium', ed. Helmut Moll, San Francisco 1988, p. 87.

25. Discourses, ibid., p.355.

26. Discourses, ibid., p.357.

27. Cf. Flannery, A., (ed), Vatican II: The conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Dublin 1981, p. 756 (Dei Verbum, no.10).

28. Cf. Discourses, ibid., pp 360-376.

29. Ibid., pp. 371-372.

30. The full title of this work was: The Church of England a Portion of Christ's One Holy Catholic Church, and a Means of restoring Visible Unity. An Eirenicon.

31. This was published in Difficulties of Anglicans, Vol II..

32. Difficulties, p.78.

33. Ibid., p.24.

34. Cf. ibid., pp. 26-28.

35. Cf. ibid., pp. 31-33. Newman is particularly taken by the following affirmation of Irenaeus: 'As Eve, ... becoming disobedient, became the cause of death to herself and to all mankind, so Mary too, having conceived the predestined Man, and yet a Virgin, being obedient, became cause of salvation both to herself and to all mankind' (Essay, p.417).

36. Ibid., p. 35.

37. Cf. ibid., pp 37-38.

38. Ibid., p. 55.

39. Ibid., p. 62.

40. Ibid., p. 80.

41. Ibid., pp 82-83.

42. Ibid., p.116.

43. Ibid., p.118.

44. Cf. Meditations and Devotions, London 1894, ibid., p. 48.

45. Cf. ibid., pp 6-7.

46. Sayings of Cardinal Newman, London 1890, pp 44-45.

47. Cf. Ward, W., Life of Cardinal Newman, Vol II, London 1912, p. 553.

48. Cf. Flannery, ibid., pp 413-423.

First published in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, May 1997, pp 8-18


Section Contents Copyright ©;Fr Thomas McGovern 1997-2000


This version: 17th January 2003






The Holy Tradition and the Veneration of Mary and other Saints in the Orthodox Church

by Very Reverend John Morris

One of the first things that one notices when visiting an Orthodox Church or the home of an Orthodox Christian is the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Everywhere that one looks, one sees icons of the Blessed Virgin. Her icons are on the iconostasis, ceiling and walls of the Church and in the homes of the faithful. Orthodox Christians frequently mention her name in hymns and prayers and request her intercession at every important moment of their lives. The Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos is not merely a matter of popular piety. It is also an expression of the central teaching of the Orthodox Church, the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ.

Significantly, the Orthodox Church has transmitted its teaching concerning Mary through devotional and liturgical texts rather than through theological essays or dogmatic declarations. This shows how Eastern Orthodox Christians preserve and transmit their deepest-held beliefs. Fr. John Meyendorff wrote:

Through the liturgy, a Byzantine recognized and experienced his membership in the Body of Christ. While a Western Christian generally checked his faith against eternal authority (the magisterium or the Bible), the Byzantine Christian considered the liturgy both a source and an expression of his theology … The liturgy maintained the Church’s identity and continuity in the midst of a changing world.

Although Eastern Orthodox Christians hold the Holy Scriptures in very high regard and consider them divinely inspired, they look beyond the sacred texts to the totality of the life of the Church as expressed in the Holy Tradition of the Church. The words used during prayer and worship are a very important and also very personal manifestation of this Holy Tradition. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “In early times the Church knew full well that the lex credendi (rule of faith) and the lex orandi (rule of prayer) were inseparable and that they mutually substantiated each other — that, in the words of St. Irenaeus, ‘our teaching is in harmony with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching.’” Orthodox theologians do not draw a sharp distinction between Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition or between written and unwritten Tradition. Instead, they consider the teachings of the Holy Scriptures and those expressed by the prayers of the Church, the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, and the consensus of ancient and modern theologians as manifestations of the same Holy Tradition. Orthodox Christians believe that, throughout the centuries, the Holy Spirit has led the Church to preserve the teachings of Christ and His Apostles through the life of the Church. St. Basil the Great wrote:

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching, others we have received delivered to us ‘in a mystery’ by the traditions of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.

The role of liturgy in transmitting teachings concerning Mary illustrates a very important aspect of the Orthodox understanding of the Church. Orthodox Christians believe that the Church is first and foremost a Eucharistic or worshipping assembly. Alexander Schmemann wrote, “The Eucharist, we repeat, is not ‘one of the sacraments’ or one of the services, but the very manifestation and fulfillment of the Church in all her power, sanctity and fullness.” Thus, from an Orthodox point of view, liturgy and worship are not just one expression of the life of the Church to Orthodox. They are the very essence of the Church. To Orthodox Christians, everything flows from the Eucharist and the worship of the Church. Even charitable and social works are a means to manifest to the world the presence of Christ that the faithful experience during the Divine Liturgy.

The place of liturgical texts in expressing the teachings of the Church concerning the Theotokos, illustrates the Eastern Orthodox approach to theology. Liturgical texts referring to the Theotokos are poetic manifestations of devotion to Mary, rather than rational treatises on the Blessed Virgin. They are an expression of the heart rather than the mind, because Orthodox Christians believe that human reason cannot comprehend or understand the mysteries of God. Indeed, Orthodox Christians believe that all true theology must come from the mystical experience of God through prayer and worship, rather than through the intellectual contemplation of God with the mind.

The first and fundamental meaning of Mary for the Church is the relationship between veneration of the Theotokos and Orthodox doctrine. For Orthodox Christians, there can be no Church without Orthodox doctrine. In 1672, the Synod of Jerusalem decreed, “We believe to be members of the Catholic Church all the Faithful, and only the Faithful, who, forsooth, having received the blameless Faith of the Saviour Christ from Christ Himself, and the Apostles, and the Holy Ecumenical Synods, adhere to the same without wavering …” The Church is not a society of thinkers and philosophers, but is the Body of Christ dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel to the world. The Church is not dedicated to finding new knowledge about God, but instead is dedicated to preserving and transmitting the knowledge of God given to us by Christ and the Apostles. St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, “For where the Church is, there is the spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth.”

The veneration of Mary plays a major role in the preservation of Orthodox doctrine, because the honor paid to her is an expression of the Christology or doctrine concerning Christ of the Church. Mary’s most important title is “Theotokos,” which means “God Bearer,” or “Birthgiver of God.” This term, endorsed by the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus in 431, expresses the belief that the son of the Virgin was God from the very moment of his conception. This eliminates such false teachings as Adoptionism, which held that Christ was a good man adopted by God to be his son, and Nestorianism, which came close to teaching that Christ was only an inspired man. As St. John of Damascus wrote, “ … she is truly Mother of God who gave birth to the true God who took flesh from her … For the holy Virgin did not give birth to a mere man, but to true God and, not to God simply, but to God made flesh.”

Of all doctrines, the Incarnation is central for Orthodox Christians. As Vladimir Lossky has written, “Eastern theology never thinks of the Church apart from Christ and from the Holy Spirit.” As the Holy Scriptures teach, “Christ is the head of the Church.” The Church is the Body of Christ. Thus, in order to understand what the Church is, one must understand who Christ is. Related to the doctrine of the incarnation is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, which is not merely belief in the power of God to work wonders. The Orthodox Church believes in the sovereignty of God over creation. Thus, God is not bound by human understandings of the workings of creation, but, “Whensoever God willeth, the order of nature is overcome …” However, the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ has a much deeper meaning as a proclamation that “ … the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” Jesus Christ is really the Son of God, not a divinely inspired man accepted by God because of his own righteousness. Through the virgin birth, God really became human, not just metaphorically or symbolically, but actually. In Christ, God became physical, as humans are physical. This is important because Orthodox believe, as St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “that which is not assumed is not healed.” From Mary, God assumed all that is human, to perfect that which is human and to unite humanity to Himself. On the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, September 8, Orthodox Christians proclaim that, through the incarnation, “ … the creation of us earthly beings was renewed, and we ourselves were renewed from corruption to life immortal.” In another hymn sung during Saturday evening Vespers in Tone Six, Orthodox Christians honor Mary with the words, “For the only Son rising timelessly from the Father, himself did come incarnate from thee in an inexplicable way. He, who while God by nature, became for our sakes Man by nature, not divided into two persons, but known by two natures without mixture or confusions.” Another hymn to Mary proclaims, “Thou art the preaching of the Prophets, O virgin Theotokos, the glory of the Apostles and pride of the Martyrs, the renewal of the whole race of earthly ones. For through thee we are reconciled to God.”

The Orthodox Church celebrates the two natures of Christ, the human nature received from the Blessed Virgin and the divine nature begotten by the Father, as expressed by the Church in the Council of Chalcedon through many of its hymns to the Blessed Virgin. For example, a hymn from Saturday evening Vespers in Tone Eight contains a very articulate expression of the teaching of Chalcedon and the fathers on the incarnation and the two natures of Christ:

Verily, the King of heaven, for his love to mankind did appear on earth; and with men did he deal; for he took unto himself a body from the pure Virgin. And from her did he issue in the adopted body, he being one Son, dual in Nature, not dual in Person. Wherefore, do we confess, preaching the truth that Christ our God is perfect God and perfect Man. Therefore, O Mother who hast no groom, beseech thou him to have mercy upon our souls.”

The doctrine of the two natures of Christ is relative to a discussion of the Church because, like Christ, the Church has two natures, the human and the divine. Thus, the Church, which is a divine institution, is also made up of sinful men and women. For this reason, Orthodox Christians believe that the Church itself is perfect and without sin, although some of its members are still in the process of being healed of sin. Thus, although the Church cannot sin, the people in the Church, including its leaders, can fall into sin.

The doctrine of the Incarnation, which is expressed in Orthodox devotion to the Theotokos, is also relevant to Sacramental theology. The Church teaches that God became flesh to save those who are flesh and to sanctify the material universe. Thus God uses physical things such as water, bread and wine, and oil to convey His divine grace through the Mysteries of the Church. At the same time, by becoming physical, Christ has sanctified the physical world. Thus, at the Feast of Epiphany, Orthodox proclaim, “Today the whole creation is lighted from on high.” This means that a true Christian must care for God’s creation and seek to protect it from being destroyed by human pollution.

When the Archangel Gabriel spoke to her, the Blessed Virgin could have refused God’s request to bear His Son. Her positive response to the Archangel Gabriel plays an important part in salvation. As St. Irenaeus of Lyon wrote, Mary is the second Eve, whose obedience liberates humanity from the consequences of the disobedience of the first Eve. For this reason, on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, Orthodox Christians sing, “ … the Mother of Life, who is the renewal of the creation of Adam and the recall of Eve, the fountain of incorruption, the liberation from corruption, through whom we have been deified and delivered from death, is born of the seed of David, dispersing darkness.” Mary could have refused to bear Christ, but she chose to obey God.

Mary’s obedience is an example of synergy, or cooperation, with God. For that reason Orthodox Christians sin, “For through her hath salvation come to the whole human race.” The concept of synergy is essential to the Orthodox understanding of salvation. As understood by Orthodox Christians, synergy is the exercise of our free will to accept God’s gift of grace. It is not the idea that human merit is required or applicable for salvation. The Orthodox doctrine of synergy is also a manifestation of the two natures of Christ, human and divine. God has accomplished salvation through Christ, reflecting the divine aspect of salvation, but the individual believer must respond positively to God’s offer of the gift of salvation, showing the human aspect of salvation. Orthodox believe that St. Paul expressed this concept of human and divine cooperation for salvation with the words, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Thus, Orthodox believe that, despite the curse of sin, humans still possess a free will and can respond positively to God’s invitation to receive His divine grace. Orthodox believe as St. John Cassian wrote:

These two things — that is, the grace of God and free will — certainly seem mutually opposed to one another, but both are in accord, and we understand that we must accept both in like manner by reason of our religion, lest by removing one of them from the human being we seem to contravene the rule of the Church’s faith. For when God sees us turning in order to will what is good, he comes to us, directs us, and strengthens us, for as soon as he hears the voice of our cry, he will respond to you.

The Orthodox Church calls Mary “immaculate,” and “all pure,” as a manifestation of the Orthodox understanding of salvation as deification. Orthodox Christians believe that through the grace of God Mary has been deified or made by grace what God is by nature or, as St. Paul wrote, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another …” Vladimir Lossky wrote, “ … the very heart of the Church, one of her most secret mysteries, her mystical center, her perfection already realized in a human person fully united to God, finding herself beyond the resurrection and the judgment. This person is Mary, the Mother of God.” Thus salvation for Orthodox theology is more than the forgiveness of sins or justification, but is also the transformation of the believer by the grace of God to become a partaker of the Divine Nature. Orthodox Christians see the realization of salvation in the deification of Mary.

However, Orthodox Christians do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. On the contrary, Orthodox believe that the Blessed Virgin was born in ancestral sin just like any other person. This is important because if Mary had not been born in ancestral sin, God could not have assumed sinful human nature from her. As St. Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” If God had not assumed sinful human nature from the Blessed Virgin, He could not have saved sinful human nature through the Incarnation of Christ. Indeed, a prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary from the service of Compline contains the beautiful words, “thy glorious birth-giving has united God the Word to man and joined the fallen nature of our race to heavenly things.”

Although Orthodox theologians do not dogmatize the Assumption of the Virgin, the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of her falling asleep and translation to Heaven on August 15. Once again, this is a reflection of the Gospel by telling the faithful that they, li ke Mary, may share in the victory of Christ over death. Thus, through Christ, the Blessed Virgin has become“more honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim,” for she has been deified and has inherited a place in the Kingdom of God.

Finally, the devotion of Mary is an The Word 9 expression of meaning of the word “Church.” In the original Greek, the word “Church,” or “ecclesia,” literally means a gathering or assembly. Alexander Schmemann wrote that properly an Orthodox Church building (temple) “is experienced perceived as sobor, as the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ — which constitutes the essence and purpose of the Church itself.” To Orthodox Christians, the Church is not just an assembly of humans, but is a participation in the worship of the Saints and angels before the throne of God. That is why there are so many references to the angelic hosts during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Again, Alexander Schmemann wrote, “The Eucharist is always a going out from ‘this world’ and an ascent to heaven …” Thus, Orthodox Christians believe that through the Liturgy, the faithful mystically ascend to heaven and join the company of the faithful departed before God. This assembly of the entire company of heaven before the throne of God through the Eucharist creates a relationship between the living and the departed in Christ. This is manifested by the prayers of the living for intercession of Mary and the Saints, who are mystically present in the lives of the faithful through the mystery of the Church. This mystery transcends the boundaries between heaven and earth and unites those on earth with those in heaven.

Therefore, Orthodox devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary is not merely an expression of popular piety. It is much more. Orthodox veneration of Mary is a manifestation of the most essential doctrines of the Orthodox Faith. The prominent place played by Mary in Orthodoxy also shows the importance of worship as the essence of the Church and the chief means whereby the Church transmits and preserves the Gospel for future generations. The deification of Mary shows that the promises of Christ are real, for, through Christ, those who follow Him will share the experience of God’s deifying grace that is manifested by the Blessed Virgin Mary. Finally, the familiar way in which Orthodox Christians ask Mary and the other Saints for their intercessions, illustrates the very meaning of “Church,” which is an assembly of the faithful, those on earth and those in heaven, with the angels before the throne of God.

Courtesy of the

June 2007 issue of The Word magazine.

Assumption 2016   

First Profession of Br. Giles Hibbs
by Abbot Paul of Belmont Abbey (UK)

            Dear Br Giles, you have just asked for God’s merciful love and to share in the monastic way of life in our community. A sign of his merciful love is that you have been accepted by the Belmont Chapter to make your First Profession on this Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, a wonderful feast on which to proclaim publicly your love for God and your desire to live by the traditional Benedictine vows of stability, conversatio morum and obedience. What better example for a monk than Our Lady herself, who exemplified in every moment of her life the vows we try to observe through God’s grace.

            By the vow of stability you promise to live as a monk of Belmont, being anchored to your choir stall and to your cell, devoting yourself principally to a life of prayer, both liturgical and personal. Benedictines are called to a life of contemplation, to be focussed on God and him alone. This you do in silence and humility, as you search for his presence in your heart and in the community to which you belong. Stability implies fidelity to the Gospel and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, founded by Christ himself. Without stability it would be impossible to keep the other vows. Just as Our Lady lived for God from the very moment of her Immaculate Conception to her Assumption and Coronation as Queen of Heaven and was always united to her Divine Son as mother and disciple, so you must never be separated from Christ, your Lord and Saviour. Stability will enable you to become totally integrated in our monastic community, which is part of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. Your love of the brethren will be the proof and touchstone of this union between Christ and yourself.

            Conversatio morum is best translated by living the monastic life to the full. I emphasise “to the full” as we all have the tendency to pick and chose, but there is no choice other than to knuckle under and get on with it. Did Our Lady at any time say “No” to what the Lord was asking her to do? At the Annunciation, did she say, “Yes, but only if….?” Not at all; she said to the Angel, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done unto me according to thy word.” In the cave of Bethlehem, as she gazed on the Child in the manger, as a refugee on the desert track to Egypt, at the wedding feast of Cana, at the foot of the Cross or in the Cenacle at Pentecost, was there ever the slightest hesitation in her acceptance of God’s will? Throughout her life she continued to sing, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit exults in God my Saviour.” That will be your song, dear Br Giles, morning, noon and night, if you go about your monastic duties of prayer, lectio, study, work and fraternal living, in a spirit of unfeigned charity, genuine austerity and perfect chastity. It will not be easy, but with God’s grace and Our Lady’s prayers, nothing will be impossible.

            Obedience is, of course, one of the key words in the Bible. “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death, death on a cross.” (Ph 2: 8) we read in the Letter to the Philippians, while in Hebrews we are told that, “though he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Hb 5: 8) There is no other way for a Christian and a monk than the Way of the Cross, the Way of Jesus, to which he has called us, “Whoever wants to be my disciple, let him take up his cross every day and follow me.” (Lk 9: 23) Dear Br Giles, there can be no shirking from obedience in the monastic life. In fact, you will be vowed to obedience, and in obeying the abbot and community without murmuring, and St Benedict insists that obedience should be immediate and without complaining, you will be obeying Christ himself, for our superiors have legitimate authority in his Church. But in order to obey, we have to dispose our hearts and minds to listen carefully to what is being asked of us. St Benedict invites us to listen always with the ears of the heart, with respect and humility. At times, you will be asked to do what appears impossible, so you must learn to live by faith, like all the saints, and in your monastic patron St Giles, you have a magnificent example. Nevertheless, it is Christ himself who is the supreme model of obedience, followed by his blessed Mother, whose obedience was such that God became Man in her virginal womb. Hence she could sing, “The Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name, and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.” (Lk 1: 49-50) Obedience is the only proof of love: “If you love me, keep my commandments.” (Jn 14: 15)


            Dear Br Giles, do not be put off by my words, but learn to keep your vows as a joyful response to God’s love and mercy towards you. What a privilege to have been called to the monastic life and how wonderful to make your first vows today under the protection of Our Lady. May she, the Mother of monks, help you grow to perfection in the monastic life and may God’s merciful love be with you always. Amen




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