At the beginning of the Second Week of the Exercises Ignatius presents us with the Contemplation on the Incarnation. This has two main elements, he asks to us imagine the Trinity looking down on the world, seeing and hearing all that is happening, births, deaths, wars, peace etc… The decision to intervene by seconding the second person of the Trinity (the Son) is made. Then in the contemplation, we zoom in, Google Earth style, to Mary’s house in Nazareth and the Angel visiting her. Mary’s ‘Fiat’ – her Yes – is one word that history turns on. We know how courageous this ‘yes’ is for young women in a culture that has brutal punishments for those unmarried women who bring shame no their families.
Mary’s fiat - ‘ Let it be done unto me’ – is central in the Catholic understanding of the Incarnation – she gives her assent to cooperate with Divine Grace. I remember being invited to watch a preview of the BBC produced ‘Nativity‘ in Soho in 2010 – it is an excellent production that was shown in four parts. After the preview some of the producers bounded up to me – seeing that I had been visibly moved and wanted to know my reaction. I said I thought it had been brilliant but that they had made one mistake. The wide grins started to fade and with furrowed brows they asked me what mistake – I replied ‘ Well in this version Mary said no to the angel’ …. the brows became more furrowed and the smiles vanished, moving on to the next person, they said indignantly ‘there’s no right or wrong’.
A wonderful poem on Mary’s fiat is by Bishop Robert F Morneau ….. and yes I know this doesn’t take into account the Immaculate Conception (before you write in) …. but even if theologically not quite correct it opens a new vista onto Mary’s fiat…
Were others asked?
A lassie from an isle in a distant sea?
A maiden in North Africa
or a slave girl from the Congo?
How many times were angels sent
and returned, unheard, unheeded?
Was Mary tenth on salvation’s list.
Or the hundredth?
And you, my soul.
was fiat spoken
when the angel came?
Today is the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, where Catholics believe Mary was taken body & soul into heaven. It is also the day that St. Ignatius chose as a historic day for the Jesuits. Ignatius and his first six companions, Faber, Xavier, Laynez, Rodriguez, Salmeron, Bobadilla took first simple vows at Mass celebrated by Faber. As James Brodrick wrote in his excellent book, – The companions repaired together at dawn to a little unused chapel half-way up the slopes of Montmarte, and there, unobserved except by God, burned their boats behind them during a Mass celebrated by Favre. It was the quietest ceremony, that laying of the foundation stone of the society of Jesus, so quiet that even the seven themselves had no inkling of what they had started.
Traditionally it became the day when many Jesuits took their vows – Why did these founding Jesuits choose to take their vows on this feast day? It is day I and many other Jesuits privately renew our vows…. Why did Ignatius choose the feast of the Assumption?
It is clear that his devotion to Our Lady was intense even in an age when Marian devotion was becoming increasingly polemical due to the newly established Protestant sects. In Ignatius life as in the life of the Church it had acquired considerable popular force. At Key moments in Ignatius’s mystical life Mary was very close, his vigils at Aranzazu and Monsteratt, his petition at La Storta that he may be placed ‘with the son’ . William Meissner, a Jesuit Psychologist, describes this as a balance to an image of God that was being progressively masculinised. Mary could bring a mothers love and understanding to the inadequacies and anxieties of her children and plead their case before divine judgement. She has become for many Catholics the idealised image of maternal concern. So for Ignatius, this feast which emphasises Marys special place in heaven in the church is supplemented by their offering and making these simple and perpetual vows. As Broderick says – they really have burnt their boats here – and they do so confidently under the mantle of the Assumption.
When Pope declared the doctrine of the Assumption as infallible in 1950, Protestants were angry because it wasn’t in Scripture. The recently deceased John Edwards SJ pointed out with delicious irony that the (Anglican) Archbishop of York, standing beneath his cathedral’s 600 year old Assumption roof-boss, deplored it as an innovation. The position of the Orthodox was more nuanced: they believed it, of course, but were furious that the Pope had defined it. Whatever the controversy – devotion to Our Lady is as strong as ever in world-wide Catholicism, and this day is celebrated with great joy as it was in the ancient church before we all started feuding. It is in the spirit of this joy and wonder that some of us Jesuits renew our vows, that we can offer our own ‘little-lives’ in imitation of Mary’s incredible openness and generosity with God.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997); at a pro-life meeting in 1986 in Bonn, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am helping the Missionaries of Charity, popular known as Mother Teresa‘s nuns, with a triduum at the moment. A triduum is three days of prayer or retreat, often before a particular feast or special day. Here in Edinburgh, as with many of their communities, the Sisters do very important work with homeless and the poor. Their life is also very impressive, in its simplicity and its commitment. They don’t even have the privacy of their own room – I’m sure if you asked Jesuits to share rooms they would have a heart attack! The Superior identified three themes for the triduum – a) Loving Trust, b) Total Surrender and c) Cheerfulness. She has also loaned me a copy of their constitutions to look at the passages on these themes. Part III of the Constitutions, begins with a section called ‘Our Spirit’ which covers these three themes. So some of the things we have been sharing and praying about –
Trust – Is a key ‘disposition’ for those who aspire to hear the voice of God in the world. Erik Erikson developed a theory of Psychological Development where he claims that all humans confront a set of ‘crises’ in their life. Our personalities are formed depending on how we resolve these crises. The earliest crisis is one of basic trust or basic mistrust in the world. According to Erikson’s model (it’s just a model!) – this crisis often takes place at the first year of our life. Trust opens us out to the world – mistrust makes us suspicious and cynical. Radical Trust in God is embodied in people like Abraham, which is why he is so important to Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the ‘Abrahamic Faith‘. And trust is two-way – the forgiving trust that Jesus shows Peter, who is reinstated as the leader of the apostles, even after his multiple denial of Jesus, is an important touchstone for all of us who are honestly struggling with our weaknesses.
Surrender – The paradox of surrender is that the total surrender to infinite love is one of the most empowering things that we can do with our life. Crises and tragedies in our life can become moments of transforming grace because God speaks clearly to the broken-hearted. For Catholics the unconditional ‘fiat’ of Mary at the Annunciation is one of the turning points of human history. The emptying of self involved, on reflection, is awe-inspiring. In our culture which prizes the individual and a celebrity subculture that inflates the ego – to empty one self in loving service is truly counter-cultural and hugely difficult in a time of unparalleled self-promotion. It is interesting how the desert becomes a place of encounter for God in the Bible – because in the desert we are stripped of luxuries and distractions. The desert becomes a special place of purification and preparation – and in Jesus’ case temptation. His 40 days in the desert are portrayed in a fascinating way in Jim Crace‘s novel Quarantine.
Joy … tomorrow!