THE CATHOLIC VIEW OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN AS AN IDEAL OF ALL CHRISTIAN PERFECTION.
As Mary's dignity, on account of her Divine Maternity, is revealed to us as transcendently sublime, reaching to a height and grandeur beyond all that created intelligence could of itself conceive, so in like manner has the Holy Church, which is ever animated and guided by the Spirit of Truth, uniformly contemplated Mary's grace and sanctity ; the one only measure of these being the sublimity of her dignity as Mother of God.
In the same way, too, the spiritual instinct of the faithful ever prompts them to regard the Blessed Virgin, next after the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ, as the most perfect work of God's creation ; the master-piece of His hands ; the ideal type of all that is most excellent, pure, lovely, beautiful, gracious, virtuous, holy and well-pleasing to God ; and as being through the fulness of grace bestowed upon her, and her own faithful co-operation, most like in thought, word, and work to Jesus Christ, her Son, the Divine Exemplar and Architype of all His elect.
Thus regarded, Mary is the norma and type, so to say, of all God's dealings with mankind in the supernatural order; the peculiar choice of all His elections and predestinations; preeminently the object of His most gracious Providence, and of the bestowal of His richest gifts and favours, so that she is, in a manner, the very impersonation of divine grace.
That she might be Mother of God with becoming worthiness, in her was perfectly fulfilled that Sovereign Canon of the Divine Spirit, which is expressed in the words of S. Bernardine of Sienna :
"For all singular graces communicated to any reasonable creature, the general rule is, that when ever the Divine favour has elected any one for some singular grace, or some sublime state, it bestows all those gifts of grace that are necessary for the person thus elected, and for his office, and which will plentifully adorn him." [erm. de S. Joseph. Tom. iv. p. 231. See S. Thomas, 3 P. qu. xxvii. art. 5, ad 1 ; art. 4, concL ; art. 5, ad 2.]
In the case of other Saints we must first know their lives and actions in order to form some judgment of their virtue and goodness, and we measure them according to a standard of which we seem to have a definitely formed idea already in our mind, whereas, in the case of Mary, we should rather first attain to some knowledge of what consummate virtue and perfection is, in order to know something of what she is; since we feel antecedently assured, that all we can conceive of sanctity, and of what is best and highest may be predicated of her, and still will fall short of the reality.
In other words, relatively to us, and so far as our thoughts can reach to the utmost bounds of excellence in one who is but creature and finite, Mary is her own standard. For, just as the dignity to which God has been pleased to exalt her, by making her His own Mother, surpasses the limits of our comprehension, so does the perfection wherewith He has graced her, that she might be—adequately, that is, to her condition as a human creature—a Mother worthy of the Incarnate Word, exceed all our knowledge and conception. (1)
It was therefore unnecessary that much should be left on record regarding our Lady, and that we should have many and minute details of her life and conduct, or that all her virtues should be particularly described, and her praises of set purpose declared in Holy Writ. It was enough for us to know that she was the Virgin Mother, '' of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ," to be well assured that God has endowed her with every grace and perfection proportioned to the sublime dignity to which He had chosen her.
" In fine," says S. Bernardine, " the greatness and dignity of this Blessed Virgin are such that God alone does and can comprehend it." "In this reflection we have more than sufficient," remarks S. Thomas of Villanova, " to take away the surprise which might be caused on seeing that the Sacred Evangelists, who have so fully recorded the praises of a John the Baptist, and of a Magdalene, say so little of the precious gifts of Mary. It was sufficient to say of her : Of whom was born Jesus. What more could you wish the Evangelists to have said of the greatness of this Blessed Virgin?" continues the Saint. "Is it not enough that they declare that she was the Mother of God ? In these few words they recorded the greatest, the whole, of her precious gifts : and since the whole was therein contained, it was unnecessary to enter into details. [See S. Alphonsus, Glories of Mary, p. 329.]
Hence it is that the Holy Church in her Liturgy applies to Mary so many passages from the Sapiential Books, which in their primary and highest sense are to be interpreted of the Divine uncreated Wisdom, because Mary above all other creatures is Its perfect mirror and type.
Hence, again, are bestowed on our Lady so many titles setting her before us as the created ideal of all virtue and sanctity, such as Speculum justitia, Sedes sapientiae, Vas honorablie, Vas insigne devotionis, etc. Hence, too, the Church is so lavish of reiterated epithets, wherewith to praise her — styling her at once Sancta Dei Genitrix, Mater Christi, Mater Creatoris, and Mater Salvatoris ; and then again, Sancta Virgo virginum, Mater purissima, Mater castissima, Mater inviolata, Mater intemerata, and Regina virginum —as though each single title, however adequate in itself, were powerless to express, the full significance and meaning of Mary's Divine Maternity and Virginal purity, and as though the Holy Church would, by accumulated repetition, force human language to rise to something like a worthy utterance of her sublime dignity and perfection.
Harmonising with this view, it would seem that the holy Fathers and Saints in their praises of Mary, and when extolling the excellence of her virtues and sanctity, had not so much before their minds any particular recorded actions or incidents of her life and conduct, as virtue and sanctity in perfection, of which she was to them the ideal type, and to which everything that was most excellent might be with truth referred. In speaking of the Blessed Virgin, it is, as though they made application to her of the Apostle's words : " For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise of discipline, think of these things :" [Philip, iv. 8.] and think of them in Mary, for in her you will find them all.
Accordingly Catholic writers and the faithful generally are wont to predicate of Mary in surpassing measure and excellence whatever of virtue and perfection shines forth in the lives of all other Saints, and whatever privileges or special gifts of grace and holiness any of these received, as belonging "by right to her who is the Mother of our Lord, arid the Queen of all Saints. [See infra the quotation from Morales, S. J., in the Comments on Coloss. ii. 19.] It is in this way, we incline to think, S. Ambrose has drawn his beautiful portrait of our Lady with a description of her virtues, which is contained in the Lections for so many of her Feasts.
It is worthy of notice, what at first sight might seem strange, that but little desire or curiosity is evinced generally by the faithful to know more details of Mary's history, and that comparatively few attempts have been made to write her life. It is as though Catholics are content with what is revealed concerning her in the Sacred Scriptures, and has been handed down in those few traditions upon which the Holy Church has set her seal; and as though there was felt a consciousness, that any more explicit record of her actions and virtues by human hand must needs be disappointing, and fall below that ideal standard, which is impressed on the minds and hearts of the faithful as belonging to the Mother of God.
If the Evangelists do not enter into many details about the Blessed Virgin, still in the little they do record of her, much is said. This is indeed, so much, and so pregnant, as to comprise all those sublime prerogatives and privileges which the Catholic Church ascribes to her, and to serve as the foundation of all that is believed of faith, or piously held concerning her by common consent of the faithful.
But even though in the divine revelation of the Word Incarnate, nothing had been explicitly told us regarding His Mother, still we may rest assured that she would, from the very nature of things, and from the necessary conviction we have of the essential harmony of truth, hold the place which she actually possesses in the minds and hearts of the faithful who believe fully and sincerely in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The position of the Virgin Mother of the Incarnate Word is in all creation so unique, without parallel, beyond compare, her dignity so transcendent, her relations with the Divinity so intimate and personal, her office and functions so sublime, that, unless all our reason is at fault, or our faith irrational, and all our knowledge of God and man whether natural or supernatural to be ignored as of no account, we could not reasonably conceive that any who really believed, in all its fulness, the Incarnation of the Divine Word, should have other thoughts, than those of the Catholic Faith, concerning Mary, His own true Mother.
Hence, we say, if nothing had been known about Mary from the inspired Scriptures, or from tradition, and even her very name were left unrecorded, still the faithful would have found a name for the Mother of Jesus their Divine Redeemer, which would be enshrined with loving devotion in their hearts ; and still would she be regarded as the first of all God's creatures, full of grace, the ideal type of whatever is most pure, holy and best in a creature; still would they hold her, because Mother of God, to be Queen of heaven, their Queen and Mother also, the Advocate of sinners with her Son, a channel of grace to all, and a worthy object of Christian hope, veneration, and love.
(1) " The Blessed Virgin is full of grace, not with the fulness of grace itself; for she had not grace in the highest degree of excellence in which it can be had, nor had she it as to all its effects; but she was said to be full of grace as to herself, because she had sufficient grace for that state to which she was chosen by God, that is, to be Mother of His Only-begotten Son." (S. Thorn., I.e. art. 10, ad 1.)
" Hence it is we know that so great grace was conferred upon the Virgin; because she merited to conceive and give birth to God." (S. August., De Nat. et Grot. c. 36.)
" It was becoming that the Virgin should be entrusted with such gifts, that she might be full of grace, who gave to heaven glory, and God to earth." (S. Sophronius, Scrm. de Assump.)