The Personalist Project

Today's meditation in Magnificat is a good example of the sort of piety that may have been perfectly fitting for the Middle Ages, but that, in my view at least, is no longer quite right for now. Today we celebrate the solemnity of the Annunciation and so the meditation is about Mary, and about why she was so well suited to become the Mother of God:

Mary was rapt into God ... she was all moved and guided by him, being absorbed in his blessed will, intensely devoted to his honor—moved and guided by him as a tool in the hand of a workman. ... She was self-annihilated, will-less, passive, and without any longing except for God. And it was by reason of this state of her soul that God found an entrance to her in soul and body. She was clean of spirit; for she did not cleave to any gifts of God, nor did she use them for her joy. She was clean of soul: she felt no attraction to any created thing, but her soul was adorned with all virtues. (My italics)

The words and phrases I italicized would make me cringe if I didn't know they were written in the 14th century. They express a pre-modern view of our relationship with God and creation that is not yet fully alive to the demands of personal selfhood. Distinctions with which everyone is now familiar—i.e. between selflessness and self-annihilation, between receptivity and passivity, or between being united and being absorbed—were clearly not yet in play. To modern ears the meditation makes it seem as if our unique selfhood, our own deepest concerns and desires, count for nothing; as if holiness requires a total self-abnegation.

But that is to fall prey to false humility and distorted selflessness. A human person, says Wojtyla in Love and Responsibility, must strive "to assert himself, his 'I'," in all his relationships. "The nature of his being demands it". It is the only way to remain intact as person. Von Hildebrand makes the same point in a religious context:

So long as we are a mere channel for the flow of God's will, so long as we are nothing but an impersonal tool in the hands of God, as we have no desire other than to discharge a certain function in the universe according to the plan of God, we cannot be transformed in Christ. The attainment of our proper supernatural aim supposes an entirely different attitude on our part. It requires that we surrended ourselves to Christ by an act of love which is nothing is not eminently personal.

God, then, found entrance to Mary's soul and body not because she was will-less, passive, and indifferent to created things, but because she was wholly willing and supremely receptive, and because all her desires were transformed by and properly ordered in her love of God.

Comments (6)

Patrick Dunn

#1, Mar 26, 2012 1:22pm

There is a meditation offered over at, based on the writings of Adrienne von Spyer, that seem to resonate with your point.

A portion:

Mary’s assent to the Lord binds the whole of her life such that “From this assent her life receives its meaning and form and unfolds toward past and future”. This assent, the great “Yes” to the will of God is the moment.

“This single, all-encompassing act accompanies her at every moment of her existence, illuminates every turning point of her life, bestows upon every situation its own particular meaning and in all situations gives Mary herself the grace of renewed understanding. Her assent gives full meaning to every breath, every movement, every prayer of the Mother of God.”

Everything that we understand Mary to be, do, and say finds her assent at its source. But, the assent must be understood as one of freedom...

Her assent binds her to the Lord, yet it frees her to express herself dramatically much like the sheaf is bound by the cord around its middle but the sheaf bursts freely outward from the binding cord

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Mar 26, 2012 1:28pm

Our children once attended a Catholic grammar school that began each day with Mass, followed by a prayer of consecration to Our Lady.  It included the line, "Treat me as your property and possession."  The personalist in me objected strenously.  

Joan Drennen

#3, Mar 26, 2012 2:22pm

Thank you for making that distinction, Jules. Father Tauler's words, "so long as we are an impersonal tool in the hand of God," frighten me.

Earlier today I flipped open my copy of the Magnificat today (Thanks, Katie!) and was led to read Heather King's piece on The Annunciation (p. 368) King stresses how the heavens and earth held their breath waiting for Mary's answer. In my own life, I feel as if God waits for my answer. I can't answer the invitation to suffer quickly. I must ponder what it means. At times, I can barely say yes, but as I yield just a part of myself, in faith, I find that everything changes within me. As von Spyer writes, Mary's yes gives her "the grace of renewed understanding" at that moment and forward. Her fiat, our fiat seems to be a yes not to " a life free of suffering,...but a life in which suffering is freely accepted as part of an ongoing creation. (King)

I love those lines.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, Mar 26, 2012 2:59pm

Thanks for those other references Joan and Patrick. Here I was bracing myself for all sorts of objections and rebukes, only to find more insights along similar lines!

(I should perhaps have added in my post that I don't fault Magnificat for including such reflections. Such thoughts and prayers are all part of a great and venerable tradition, from which we are continuously nourished. No need to censure it.)

richard sherlock

#5, Mar 29, 2012 10:28pm

There are still too many atheists I know who think that coming truly to God requires you renounce yourself and give up your reason. They have never tried so they do not know that Jesus was profoundly right when he said that those who lose their "ordinary" life for me will find it again deeply enriched. I certainly can understand how these insights were missed in a 14th century text (though a close reading of the Confessions shows them directly) but Katie's example of a modern prayer is sad because it seems to say that my unbelieving friends were right all along

Gregory Borse

#6, Apr 6, 2012 12:42am

No tools, please! No human being is or ever was a "tool" for God. It's the wrong description. Let's lose it. Mary's participation in the procreative and the redemptive act is a perfect analogy for what is possible for the human being who is called by God's grace to answer to his/her own calling. Yes—she resides outside of the fallen history that the the rest of us occupy—but, she's wholly human just like Eve—who occupies another space outside that history and makes a different choice. I understand that she was born without the stain of original sin—but so was Eve. So, it's a corollary. She is not equal to Christ—but she answers the "second" request (compliment and fruition of the New Covenant) which is idendical to the first request. But where Eve said "No" (as did Adam), Mary said "Yes." Of her own free will.

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?