Human Beauty Raised on High
Mark Hargreaves, OSB*
Mary's Assumption into Heaven and the theology of the Body
The contemporary cult of the "body beautiful" and our being bombarded without cease by advertisers' seductive imagery portraying well-sculpted male abs and feline femininity risks making us blind to — or just bored with — any possible theological interpretation of the same. The insistence on physicality and sexual experience at all costs has closed the door to the appreciation of beauty of quite another kind, a beauty less alluring at a superficial level, but with far more potential depth and durability.
Even my expressing the problem in those terms, however, risks emphasizing the very duality I want to avoid. There is something in us, perhaps a relic of original sin, which makes us feel uncomfortable with the physical or enjoyable. We want it. At times, we grab at it. But we feel guilty, even about appropriate forms of expression. At a deeper level, this "something" precludes any kind of connection between bodily enjoyment and spirituality.
This situation has arisen, according to some, through a simple increase in wickedness. We are in the last times, they say, and these are the signs thereof. Certainly, there have been enough scandals to lend credit to such a view. Sin is always sin.
In my view, however, the villain of the piece has been a kind of ascetic overkill, a more or less conscious vituperation of physicality, at least at the unofficial level, rather than pursuit of a connection between the physicality and spiritual beauty; condemnation, rather than dialogue After all, there is nothing, per se, wrong with human sexuality or with images of the human body. Indeed, it would be heretical to say that there was. All depends on what we do with them. Blessed Pope John Paul II, in almost 150 allocutions, spoke, among other things, of the spousal nature of the human body". What is lacking is perhaps the dialogue that Pope Francis is trying to inculcate in all believers: a willingness to "go to the outskirts", to engage in conversation with a culture that seems at first sight to be hostile. We must "leave the one" and "go in search of the ninety-nine".
To this end, we need to rediscover the veneration given by early Christians to virginity, a term that, in my pastoral experience, elicits guffaws of sheer unbelief in classrooms of young people. Today, virginity is what you dispose of as soon as possible, not something you cultivate. A 13-yearold daughter of Catholic friends horrified her parents by telling them she was the only "virgin" among her classmates — and this was in a Catholic school! We have lost a generation and not yet found a role. We have insisted on morality without first presenting beauty in its sacred context.
For the early Christians, however, the virgin was the expression of the fullness of the life of the church, because she (or he) was the most Christ-like of all the faithful, especially if, as was often the case, her life ended in martyrdom preceded by some kind of physical violation. The virgin exemplified the life of the kingdom of heaven where "there is no marrying nor giving in marriage" (Mt 22: 30) for we shall be "like the angels . It comes then, as something of a shock, even to devout Catholics, that the life of heaven is essentially virginal (paradoxically, because the virgin, like the church itself, is essentially spousal, given over completely to Christ). More surprising still is the idea that all fecundity in the Church proceeds from a virginal source — that is, Christ, in the first instance. It is only when I renounce "me" and embrace the life-through-death of the Cross that I am in fact capable of receiving the Holy Spirit of inspiration and of accomplishing any real and lasting good which derives, after all, not from me but from the grace of God. This is the "virginal" road, the grace of saying "no".
The classic virgin of earlier times devoted her day to the praise of God. Like Christ, she became poor by occupying herself with the needs of the poor. She was chaste and obedient to the will of the Father. People often forget that our Lord Jesus Christ saved us, not because he suffered greatly, but because in and through every circumstance of his life he was completely surrendered to the Father's will (which led to his suffering so much). This was obedience of a far superior kind to that of the soldier — "I command, you obey". It was, as the very root of the word suggests, a listening to the voice of the Beloved so fine-tuned that he could not help himself, he simply had to carry out what was asked of him, because it was a delight. This was beauty enacted.
It needs little intelligence to see that, if the virgin is a clear example of the perfect following of Christ, Mary, Mother of God, must be so par excellence. Preserved, as she was, from every taint of sin from the first moment of her Conception (as Blessed Pope Pius IX put it in his proclamation of the Dogma, 8 December 1854) in her there was no kind of restriction or barrier that might prevent the word of God from reaching its full extent. The Gospel passage that sometimes affronts the devout, in which Jesus seems to be praising his immediate audience rather than his Mother who is standing outside is, on reflection, a confirmation of the fact that Mary is the completely open "hearer" of the Word. She is fecund with the Word in every sense, even to the point of bringing him forth from her womb.
She was to accompany Jesus by her loving attention right up to the moment of his death on the Cross. Faithful though she was, she experienced the kind of desolation that, perhaps, a Syrian mother whose sons have been tortured and killed might be experiencing at this moment. This makes her close to us.
She is also the example of prayer and intercession. When her children are in difficulties, she says, to him, "They have no wine" (be concerned for human need) and, to us, "Do whatever he tells you" (learn to listen). The natural intimacy of mother and son reaches new heights in Mary, the spouse mother, beautifully, portrayed in the apse mosaics at the church of S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome, which depict Christ embracing his mother, symbol of the Church in all its fecundity. Mary is present in the Upper Room with the disciples, now and always, awaiting the coming of the Spirit.
The rub, of course, will be to find a way of making this accessible. How can we help people see its beauty? Only the insight that comes from faith sees beauty in the destruction of martyrdom, or in the renunciation of desires that so often beg to be satisfied instantly. We are "hard-wired" for bodily satisfaction and the consumer world is only too willing to provide it. We seem to be up against unbelievable odds. Even more fundamentally and urgently, how can we bridge the gap between the beauty of desire lived out in its proper context and God, and thus snatch the victory from the secular and secularizing world that sees nothing but impulse and gratification?
But, let us be attentive! There is a risk that one might call "Restoration-ism". In this view, all that is needed is to reassert the past, to presume that what went well then will go well now, whether it be imagery, or forms, or structures, or words. But the Church can never be an archaeological society, a mutual-interest clan bent on preserving various forms of "monument". Tradition is not that I do "now" what they did "then". Tradition — the "handing on" or even "handing over" — means that I learn to live, as something wholly new, what has been transmitted to me at such a cost. And this is beauty — but it is also creativity and satisfaction.
I venture to say that the key might be the very feast we are about to celebrate, The Assumption of Mary into heaven, which is the logical consequence of her being the Mother of God. If you are without sin, there is in you such an impulse, such an inflamed desire to be with the Beloved whom you have always served, that nothing and no one — not even death itself and the corruption of the grave — can separate you from Him.
The Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary mirrors the Ascension of the Lord, perhaps an early form of inclusivism. We see in Mary what we are meant to be and what we shall indeed be, if we persevere on the road of faith. Let us pray for a renewal of desire and that all those, who we too easily see as hostile and alienated from the church, whose lives seem to be one long pursuit of physical pleasure, may at last discover, in and through the very experience, the loving hand of God.
*Monk of Prinknash Abbey; Currently, Procurator General of the Subiaco Cassinese Benedictine Congregation, Rome
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7-14 August 2013, page 16
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