Monday, December 12, 2011

"Who Partakes Thy Woe"

Pastor Joelle writes that a friend was hissed and booed recently for writing that the Blessed Virgin was "far from perfect." Joelle takes up her friend's cause admirably, and we scarcely need to say more on the subject.

But when has that ever stopped us?

By a freakish coincidence, it happens that this very afternoon, we were tutoring a young Hungarian seminarian in the finer points of theological English. He's a bright feller, so in the past few weeks we have exposed him to the grammatical and lexical intricacies of Robert Jenson, Marilynne Robinson and George Herbert. But today we hauled out the big guns -- which means, as regular readers can surely guess, John Donne.

Dipping into the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, our friend saw some choice examples of the subjunctive, neologism, and the run-on sentence. (To the last of these, he gasped "Just like Hebrew," which was really quite intuitive -- a master of Latin, Donne was nonetheless shaky on Greek, but a notably more capable Hebraist.)

Then, to relax a bit and enjoy the Christmas spirit, we read through one of our very favorite poems on the Nativity, this sonnet from La Corona:

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,

Now leaves his welbelov'd imprisonment,

There he hath made himself to his intent

Weak enough, now into our world to come;

But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th'Inne no roome?

Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,

Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent

Th'effect of Herod's jealous general doom;

Seest thou, my Soul, with thy faith's eyes, how he

Which fills all place, yet none holds him, doth lie?

Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,

That would have need to be pitied by thee?

Kiss him, and with him into Egypt goe,

With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

Yes, it's clever, and touching, and metaphysical in both the Jonsonian and Aristotelian senses. But we knew all that. What we had never really noticed until we read it aloud in the winter darkness with our young friend is that Donne (raised Papist, and the sort of Anglican who would declare himself "catholic" in one breath and "puritan" in another, so long as you let him define the terms his own way) stakes out a position on the delicate question of the BVM.

Speaking to his soul, he says, "into Egypt go, with [Christ's] kind mother, who partakes thy woe." That is to say, travel a while with Mary, whose soul shares in your own condition: sinful until redeemed by the immensity she once enclosed.

This doesn't really address the complex matter of the Immaculate Conception, although one of Donne's favorite medieval writers was Bernard of Clairvaux, who argued against the idea. It most certainly has nothing to do with the matter of Mary's virginity, which we would be shocked to discover Donne had ever doubted for a moment, any more than Luther did.

What this does address, however, is the occasional tendency toward misdirected piety. So captivated are we by Mary's heroic faith, that -- just as the passiones of martyrs are sometimes rewritten to make the saint's life more nearly mirror Christ's -- so we attribute to the Mother qualities properly pertaining only to the Son. Such, for example, as sinlessness.

And it is on that count that Donne gently sets us straight here, as well as in the next sonnet (which begins with the last line of this one). Yes, she is holy, heroic, highly-favored; but those things -- and especially the heroism -- derive precisely from her humanity. She is godly, but never God; whatever her sins may have been, they were sins like ours, and they rendered her as imperfect as we are. The perfection she enjoys now is the same perfection for which we long, and dare to hope, and may receive only as a gift of God.

Of course, in one sense, Mary wasn't far from perfect -- she carried Perfection in her body. Donne would have liked that idea. But in the ordinary, moral, spiritual sense, she was just as far as any of us -- and just as close.


Pastor Joelle said...

I'd swear we had the same brain except I'd never make my point with a medieval poet. But I like it. Partakes our woe indeed.

churchlady said...

Pastor Joelle shared your post with me and I so enjoyed learning from it. I had no intention of arguing with anyone over Mary's virginity or her sinlessness. In fact, I had really hoped to avoid that.

For me, though, focusing on those attributes misses the point. I don't think my considering Mary less than perfect takes anything away from the miracle of what God has done through her and can do through us. In fact, it makes it all the more amazing.