A Reflection on Mary
By Fr John Nepil
As alpenglow fades, the glowing hearth illuminates the hut from within. It has done this, every evening, for nearly twelve millennia. Since the dawn of the Neolithic age, the hearth has been the centre of the human home and the source of human life. From it, life’s necessities are drawn: water, food, and most importantly, heat. With these necessities, humanity gains its greatest potential: interpersonal communion. The hearth creates the possibility not just of human life, but of human community. Is there a more natural place for us to be drawn together than at the hearth? How tragic then to live in a time when the hearth has been displaced as a household ornament, fabricated by electricity and gasoline. In the hut, where life is always simpler, we are drawn together in search of restored communion and in honour of the Mother of God. That night, as the vigil mass begins, the theological significance of hearth is kindled in our minds. But we are most certainly not the first.
On Christmas Eve of 1893, a young lapsed Catholic by the name of Paul Claudel found himself at Vespers in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. As he heard the singing of the Magnificat, “the whole faith of the Church burst in upon him.” For the first time in his life, “he watched the Church living, and through that sight… he understood all.” That young man, later to become one of the great Catholic poets and dramatists of the 20th century, rediscovered the truth of the faith by perceiving the maternal unity of Mary and the Church. Four decades later in his L’Épée et le miroir, Claudel would describe this unique motherhood as the one “who brings together in silence in her heart and reunites in one single hearth all the lines of contradiction.” For Claudel, this mother is un seul foyer, a single hearth. But she is likewise a twofold mother, a twofold hearth. From his intuition, we can reflect on the mystery as a whole: Mary is the hearth of the Church, and the Church is the hearth of the world.*
At the Incarnation, Mary became the hearth of the Church. “And the angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’” (Luke 1:35). As the Mother of God, she was to become the instrument for containing the Holy Spirit, the fire of God’s love. In archetypal fashion, she was the Church before the Church and the first temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this most intimate relationship to the Holy Spirit, she was to be placed at the heart of the Church—as the hearth of the Church. She contains within her the fire of God’s love, without which the Church herself would be inevitably consumed.
At Pentecost, the Church became the hearth of the world. “And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:3-4). In a mysterious way, the Church is a mother, whose very life and being are constituted by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is this fire that provides the invisible and vital principle of her every action. As St Augustine said, “What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church.”** She exists entirely from and completely for this divine fire, to communicate its warmth to the world.
Mary, in a personal manner, and the Church, in a collective manner, are the hearth for the Holy Spirit. This is constituted by their shared motherhood and fashioned uniquely by their feminine posture. By this, God reveals a profound aspect of the mystery of woman—she is to become, like Mary and the Church, the hearth of divine love. Hans Urs von Balthasar noted this anthropological insight while advancing an argument on the reservation of the priesthood to men. He says that because woman is “a sheltering hearth”, she carries a greater dignity and mission, all the while rooted in her complementarity with man.
Restoring the harmony of nature would bring to light—within the equality of both sexes in essence and value—the profound difference which assigns to the woman, not representation, but being; and to the man the task to represent, making him more, and at the same time less, than himself.
— “How Weighty is the Argument from ‘Uninterrupted Tradition’ to Justify the Male Priesthood?” by Hans Urs von Balthasar***
The image of woman as hearth expresses her inner reality—not representation, but being. She need not chop the wood, for she contains the fire. Not by representation but by Being does her uniquely maternal capacity manifest its hearth-like character. The call is uniquely hers: to allow her heart to become the hearth of human love, the place where like fire, life can nourish and grow. The loss of the feminine always entails a loss of the natural. And in our day, we have forgotten the fact that life grows naturally; all that is needed for organic growth is the right conditions. In the receptivity of the mother, we find the requisite environment for the spiritual life, whereby all things are drawn into unity. One hopes that what Claudel wrote of Mary and the Church can be applied to all women: in the hearth of their hearts, the lines of contradiction, so obscured in fallen humanity, can be drawn into maternal harmony.
In one of the great novels of the last century, Sigrid Undset drew upon the image of the hearth to describe the defeated and desolate mother, Kristin Lavransdatter:
Now, whenever she took the old path home past the site of the smithy—and by now it was almost overgrown, with tufts of yellow bedstraw, bluebells, and sweet peas spilling over the borders of the lush meadow—it seemed almost as if she were looking at a picture of her own life: the weather-beaten, soot-covered old hearth that would never again be lit by a fire.
In the old hearth, Kristin contemplates her life. And in her heart, she encounters a question shared by every woman: Am I fruitful? If the fire of the hearth and the cultivation of life are the purpose of maternity, what if I feel weather-beaten, soot-covered, and never again to be lit by fire? The question of meaning in the life of a woman is intimately bound to the question of fruitfulness; it is the question of the hearth. In the end, God alone apportions the fire of his love and alone permits us to feel its warmth. If Mary, though filled with the Holy Spirit, stood at the foot of the cross as an extinguished hearth, how then could all women not expect the same? The Church could not have become the hearth of the world unless Mary made her stand at Calvary, allowing God to expropriate her every experience of her inner divine fire. Herein lies the mystery of all fruitfulness; one must choose love amid lifeless cold in order for the true life of God’s fire be cast upon the world.
The warmth of grace always emanates from the hearth of a mother who has chosen thus. Within this hearth, the Holy Spirit abides at the centre of the Church and the heart of the world. Whether in a mountain hut or the Cathedral of Notre Dame, we must continually search for that hearth; for only there can we discover the God who is himself “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
* “… qui confère tout silencieusement dans son cœur et réunit en un seul foyer toutes les lignes de la contradiction.”
** St Augustine, Sermo 267, 4: PL 38,1231D
***From The Church and Women: A Compendium edited by H. Moll, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1988, 159. We prefer the translation in M. Hauke, Women in the Priesthood, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1988, 327
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