THE IMMACULATE CONCONCEPTION
IN accordance with a principle to which we are guided by the use made by the saints and the Church of the great instrument of theological reasoning, we are accustomed to look, in the life of the Blessed Virgin, for all the various privileges and blessings which are found elsewhere in the lives of the saints of God, as far as such privileges and blessings could fitly find a place in her glorious course. It would perhaps be rather more accurate to say that we find in the lives of the saints the several glories and graces which are found in her, but that in her they are collected and in them they are dispersed, no one having them all as she has, nor in the same beauty and perfection as she. This is not, as we shall see, to attribute to Mary idle and useless honours and decorations, as if a great king were to lavish the honours of his state on a favourite child, before that child was able to wear them with fitting dignity or to use them for his service, to put arms or military commands into the hands of a baby or a girl, or to give to a blind boy books and beautiful pictures. There is nothing in all the range of the gifts which we find in Mary from the very first which is unbecoming her state or condition, or for which there is not a good reason, even to our poor powers of intelligence. Now let us apply the principle of which we speak in some particular instances.
It is a distinction on earth to be born of royal parents and to be the heir of a long and illustrious line, and this distinction naturally belonged to her who was to be the mother of the promised King of the house of David. But the parents of Mary were in no way conspicuous in position, the royal line having then, for many generations, fallen altogether into obscurity and even, as it seems, some degree of poverty. There is another and a greater distinction which is found in some of the saints of God, and is a great blessing wherever it is found. This consists in the sanctity and virtues of the parents who bring a child into the world. We find this in our Blessed Lady, and we find more than this. For she has that special blessing which attaches to the children, not simply of saints, but of saints who have had the discipline of affliction to prepare them for their office, in the designs of God, of being the parents of saints like themselves. This discipline of affliction we find in the holy pair, Anne and Joachim, and it is affliction, not of any common kind, but having particular reference to the Divine Providence which watched over them as to the fruitfulness of their marriage.
We have more than one instance in the history of the Old Testament of mothers who have been afflicted for a long time with the supposed disgrace of sterility, and who have then been made the parents of children who were to become great instruments or great servants of God. Such especially was the namesake of the mother of our Blessed Lady, the holy mother of the Prophet Samuel, to whom it is not unreasonable to think that that blessed mother had a deep devotion, which she may have handed on to her own child, and of which we see the traces in the Magnificat. The affliction of which we speak was in both cases the cause of much prayer, patience, resignation, humility, and other virtues which fitted the saints in question for the reception, in the good time appointed by Providence, of that fruitfulness as a boon of Heaven, which so many others receive as a natural right. Such affliction also prepares them to exercise greater purity of intention and a more perfect reverence and continency in the use of their marriage, and this brings down a blessing on themselves and on their children. We see this in the case of the other holy Anna, and her husband, the younger Tobias. These circumstances are all found in the parents of our Blessed Lady, whose conception was the fruit of prayer and the reward of much patient submission to the will of God, under trials and reproaches. For in those days sterility was a reproach, as we see also in the parents of the blessed Baptist, himself one of the greatest of saints and the child of prayer and affliction.
In this way the conception of the Blessed Mother of God was one which might bring down on her and her parents great blessings, and might have been expected to deserve a kind of special sanctification. We know that this honour and privilege was not wanting in her. But we know far more than this.
For she was to be the Mother of the Immaculate Lamb of God, and her entrance into existence was to take its chief honours and privileges, from her Child, rather than from her parents. We come here upon another rule which is found to obtain in the dealings of God with Mary. This rule is that she was to be, for the sake of her Son, as like Him in His Sacred Humanity as was possible, deriving from His inherent fullness of grace that fullness of the same grace of which she was capable, all her grace being received and imparted, while all His was His own by natural right and possession. He was full of grace and truth because He was the Incarnate Son, and it is to His glory, not only that all who receive any grace shall receive it from Him, but that all should receive from Him as much grace as possible, and that in this His Mother should be pre-eminent, who was to be, more than any other could be, His companion and the partaker of all His thoughts.
With regard to our Lord Himself, it was altogether impossible that He could be born in original sin, which was the doom of all who were generated from Adam by natural generation. He could not be in any sense morally averse from God, which is the lot of all so born. He could not have an intelligence clouded by ignorance, a will enfeebled, that interior disorder which ensues from the want of power and authority in the ruling faculties of man over the lower and the more sensuous. These and all other moral miseries of those born in original sin could not possibly have place in Him. They had not been in our first parents, being shut out by the gift of original justice, which gave order and peace and light and strength to their souls, so that they were not kingdoms divided against themselves. What our Lord could not be subject to in this respect, our Blessed Lady would have been subject to by the rule which applied to all the children of Adam generated in the ordinary way, except for the fact that she was to be His Mother and that, for His merits and on His account, she was not to be allowed to fall under that rule. Thus the ban of that original sin never came home to her, and as far as that alone is considered, she was conceived as Adam and Eve had been created, without the stain of that aversion from God which has been mentioned, with no darkness on her intelligence, in consequence, nor lack of power in her will, no disorder in the interior kingdom, no rebellion of the lower faculties against the rule of reason, and she was clothed also with a mantle of ineffable graces and spiritual endowments by far surpassing any that they had received before their fall.
It is clear that, with regard to these graces and endowments which may have been bestowed by God on any of His intelligent creatures, over and above the natural gifts which were required to make their rational service of Him possible, the freedom from the effects and contagion of original sin as above explained must be pre-supposed as the foundation of such gifts. Such freedom may be imparted in two ways, either by preservation from the stain altogether, or by the healing of the effects of the stain, as far as such healing is requisite for the purpose of God. It cannot be imagined that the gifts of the Holy Ghost, or the infused virtues, and the like, which are generally considered to accompany the regeneration of the soul, as in holy Baptism, could be imparted to a soul averse from God, in the sense in which such aversion is the fruit of original sin. To say this would be the same thing as to say that original justice and original sin could co-exist in the same soul, at the same time, light and darkness, heat and cold. Thus the gift of exemption from original sin, or of the removal of certain of its effects when it has been incurred, is the gift also of the necessary qualification of the soul for the spiritual gifts of grace of whatever order and degree. It cannot be doubted that our Blessed Lady received in the fullest possible abundance these gifts and graces which were to fit her for the great office of her Maternity, and to be the weapons of her most faithful service of God from the first moment of her life to the very last. It belonged to that fullness of grace which Mary could receive, that she should be thus enriched at the first by the marvellous bounty of God. Thus the Immaculate Conception paved the way for, and was immediately crowned by, this immense dowry of graces which it was fitting that the mother of God should receive.
In addition to this we find, in one at least of the great saints of God, what was probably extended to others also, another special favour which must have accompanied in Mary the bestowal of the graces on her of which we have spoken. For we find that the Blessed Precursor of our Lord, St. John Baptist, was not only sanctified in his mother's womb and so freed from original sin, but was also endowed then and there, as soon as the voice of the salutation of the Mother of God sounded in the ears of his own mother, St. Elizabeth, with the use of his reason, the power of full intelligence and will, so that from that moment he was enabled to begin serving God with the service of the interior acts of virtue which were possible in cases such as his. The Divine reason for this special grace in the case of St. John may have been manifold. This acceleration of the use of his reason and will may have been granted by God, in order that his consummate and most lofty sanctity might begin from the very first possible moment to expand and ripen and multiply itself, by his own cooperation with the gifts of grace, and that thus no time might be lost in the perfection of a soul which was to be so supremely dear to our Lord. But at the moment of the sanctification of St. John in the womb of St. Elizabeth, he was as yet thirty years off the time when his great work of preaching was to begin. At the time of the Conception of Mary in the womb of St. Anne, only about half that length of time was to pass before she was to be called on, in the plenitude of her sanctity, to give her consent to be made the Mother of God.
Thus Mary was to attain to a far higher degree of sanctity than was required for the office of St. John, and she was to acquire it in a far shorter time. It is not therefore wonderful if we find this gift of the acceleration of the use of full intelligence and power of volition, in her, as in the great Precursor, if indeed on other grounds it could be conceived that she could lack so essential a gift as this for her immense and most rapid sanctification. Thus with her mental faculties perfect from the first, her soul absolutely free from the disorder and feebleness which come on all who are born in original sin, her lower faculties perfectly obedient to reason and conscience, with the most perfect peace and calm serenity reigning in her soul, which had been turned with all its powers to God from the first dawn of its consciousness, with the source of concupiscence that is, all inordinate appetite, entirely destroyed or suppressed within her, with an immense treasure of grace and knowledge, as has been said, and with a body fitted to be the perfect companion and assistant of her glorious soul in all its service of God, interior or exterior, Mary from the first moment of her conception was the most beautiful thing in the eyes of God of all that He had made. The graces bestowed upon her in the way of sanctification were so high, that though it was not in the abstract or essentially impossible that she could fail in her perfect service of God, because her liberty was not yet fixed to that service by that incapacity of deviation which is the blessed lot of the saints in Heaven who see God, still there was in her that impossibility of any offence of Him which was involved in the intense plenitude of the grace which inundated her soul, and which left no room for a thought or a choice contrary to the highest perfection and faithfulness.
Thus was our Blessed Lady allowed the immense privilege of giving to God her Creator and Redeemer from the first moment of her existence, which was also the first moment of her conscious ness, a most perfect and intelligent service. It was so with her Blessed Son, Whose Sacred Humanity was never for a moment unconscious or inactive in the praise and worship of His Father. With Him there was that fullness of grace which precluded the possibility of increase, and He was the author and source of grace to her and to all others. Whereas the service of Mary, like that of the Blessed Baptist, who from the moment of his sanctification enjoyed the like privilege, was beautiful indeed at the first and pleasing to God above the beauty of the angels and archangels, but could nevertheless increase and grow in perfection by virtue of her own increase in grace and in intelligence. Not that it could ever reach the perfection of the worship and interior activity of her Son, but that it could become more and more like His. It would have been an immense loss, in our way of reckoning, if our Lord had not begun from the first moment to honour and adore His Father, a loss to the greater glory of God and to us for whom His prayers and affections were offered. It would have been a great loss if He had not made, at the very outset of His human existence, the perfect oblation of Himself as coming to do the will of God at so great a cost to Himself, if He had not, at the first dawn of His Life as Man, taken us all into His Sacred Heart for the love of His Father, Who had given Him to us as our brother. And in the same way, though not in the same degree, it would have been a loss to the honour of God and to the interests of mankind, if our Blessed Lady had been denied the privilege of which we are here speaking, as the corollary of her Immaculate Conception. After the homage of the Sacred Humanity itself, there was never homage paid to God so beautiful as that of the heart of Mary, and the giant progress of her daily advance in grace was all the greater for having begun so soon.
We thus see how all the graces which distinguish the Blessed Mother of God are founded on the Immaculate Conception, though under another aspect they all come from her selection by God to be the Mother of the Incarnate Word. The lofty ideas and language concerning her of which the ancient writers are so full, imply the clearness with which they held this fundamental doctrine. And we may expect to find that the certainty which we now possess that this doctrine was a part of the original deposit of revelation in the Church, may open the way to a more explicit and definite manifestation of other doctrines concerning her which are more or less involved in this, and thus herald in the coming of the time when her greatness in the Kingdom of her Son may become still more and more conspicuous and helpful to the Christian people.