The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 11:59:55

The Selfhood of Mary

Jules van Schaijik, Mar 26, 2012

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.