While we rightly think of St Bernard of Clairvaux as leading the way amongst the Cistercian Fathers in writing and teaching in praise of Mary, the other Cistercians know well how to reflect on Mary’s mystery for us. In particular Blessed Guerric of Igny, whose sermons take us through the Church year in its seasons and feasts, offers much which is beautiful. We give here a little selection of Guerric’s meditation on Mary, the Mother of God and of the Church, for your May reading.
“The pure way is surely chastity; the pleasing way along which the Lord of grace advances. Perfect was the chastity of the Virgin, by which he entered her womb, perfect must be the chastity of man by which he may enter his soul.”Blessed Guerric of Igny, 4th Sermon for Advent
Guerric speaks to us here about a prized virtue, but one not easily won – chastity. It’s a term which is much misunderstood, much reduced – we tend to think of it almost exclusively in terms of the sexual sphere – much derided as wimpish. But here, Guerric proposes that chastity is a prerequisite for Christ’s coming to birth in us. At its most fundamental, chastity is that purity of life which is constantly, quietly, determinedly discerning the way to open myself entirely to God’s will. It is, therefore, properly a virtue – an attitude, not just of mind or heart but which overlies the living of my life. In that sense, chastity becomes the context in which, for example, my sexual self is lived and realised in a way which is appropriate to my dignity and to the dignity of others, which is lived in a generous and selfless way, which esteems the graciousness of relationship and not simply physical and genital interaction. Chastity is therefore a context in which genitality and sexuality find a meaning and expression – as such it is the sign and practice which demonstrates exceptional strength of character and decision making but also great humility.
In Mary, then, this chastity, this purity, is purity of life and heart. Guerric notes that her example is one which disposes the heart entirely to God’s plan and will, the only way in which the Word can become conceived in her. If she had given herself to another that would not be possible. Chastity then concerns the totality of the gift of self.
“If I were allowed I would gladly be dumb and be brought low, and be silent even from good things, that I might be able the more attentively and diligently to apply my ear to the secret utterances and sacred meaning of this divine silence, learning in silence in the school of the Word if only for as long as the Word himself was silent under the instruction of his mother. In this visible and abbreviated Word we may learn the Wisdom of God which in its entirety has been made humility. In this virtue that all-embracing Virtue has for the time being found its expression: that supreme Wisdom has willed for the time being to know nothing else but that humility of which he willed afterwards to declare himself a teacher.
“He was wrapped in swaddling clothes that we might be content to have just enough to cover us. In everything he was content with his mother’s poverty and in everything he was subject to his mother. The whole pattern of a religious life seems already to have been born at his birth.“Blessed Guerric of Igny, 5th for Christmas
Guerric pictures Mary here as teacher, teaching the one, her son, who is the only one worthy to be called Teacher! This is typically Cistercian – to place us, with Mary and the young Christ, in the heart of a home, and to allow us to join the company, not just as witnesses, visiting, but as participants. Again we return to the wisdom of the Word, which Mary received. The Cistercian writers focus with a very definite concentration on the eternal Word, existing always with the Father, and spoken in time. This is the Word of creation, this is the Word which Mary receives and which is spoken to her inaugurating the new creation, and this is the Word in whose school we sit, from whom we learn, the only Word worth hearing, pondering and enacting. The school of the Word – a learning which goes beyond knowledge and brings us into the realm of Wisdom.
Guerric’s note about poverty is interesting. In order to really receive the gift of the Word we have to strip back and clear aside. Poverty is not shabbiness, being throughover, or having no regard for our well-being. In terms of a life lived in the context of religious belief it implies living with what is necessary and being content with receiving what is necessary for life. Poverty is a frugality, a discerned way of receiving and thanking God for what is freely given, a way of living which avoids wastefulness and value simplicity. And so with the Word and Mary – if I have filled my life with other things, and created little gods which receive my attention, I will have little space for the only thing that really matters.
“Where is the man so stubbornly and mistakenly presumptuous of his own sanctity as to refuse to undergo the cleansing action of the remedy of penance? Even if he really be holy he cannot surely be as holy as she, the most holy of all the holy, Mary, who gave birth to the Holy of Holies?
For she is the one-only Mother of Mercy All-High; so that in a wonderful way she is fruitful with the fruitfulness of divine mercy. O Full of Grace, you I congratulate and praise. You gave birth to the Loving-Kindness I received; you gave shape to the candle I accepted. You prepared the wax for the touch of the light, O Virgin of Virgins, when as the unblemished mother you clothed the unblemishable Word in unblemished flesh.”Blessed Guerric of Igny, First for Purification
Guerric accords a title to Mary with which we are all too familiar: Mother of Mercy. Each night, at the end of Compline, Cistercians in their monasteries honour the Mother of God, who gives birth to the divine mercy clothed in flesh, by singing the Salve Regina, a hymn which rightly places Mary as the one through whom Mercy descends into our Misery. For Guerric, Christ is the Art of the Father’s Mercy, and Mary its Mother.
Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy! Hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we come, poor banished children of Eve! To thee do we send up our sighs, mournings and weepings in this valley of tears.
Turn, then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
And again in this passage Guerric hints at the preparation God made for the Incarnation by keeping Mary ‘unblemished’, free from all stain of sin, so that her Son, like us in all things but sin, taking flesh from her flesh, would be the same.
“We see her, the most holy of holy women, although she had nothing to purify, consenting nonetheless to fulfil the commandment of legal purification. O immaculate Mother, O Mother untouched, are you not aware of your own purity, aware, that is, that neither conception nor childbirth violated your integrity but that they consecrated it? “It is right,” she says, “that we should so fulfil all justice, so that I who have been chosen as the mother of supreme Justice should be also a mirror and a pattern of all justice. I consider it necessary that the vices of our origin in antiquity should be offset from the very beginning by all the aspects of the new birth. The mother of prevarication sinned and stubbornly defended herself; the mother of redemption will not sin and will make humble satisfaction, so that the sons of men who derive the impulse to sin from the mother of all that is old may obtain humility at least from the mother of all that is new.Blessed Guerric of Igny
Guerric shows that the Cistercians were perfectly aware of the teaching that Mary was herself immaculately conceived so that she would become the perfect Temple for the Lord’s presence, and the Ark of the New Covenant which is her Son. The teaching on the immaculate conception had not been entirely fixed at this stage in the Church’s life but was certainly part of the developing doctrine growing from the truth about Mary and her place in God’s plan of salvation. And this is always the most important thing: Mary, being creature, is given a mission to fulfill and never becomes greater than that plan which is God’s alone and in which we, according to our place, cooperate. And she does this fully, living out the grace given her for this.
“And since the purification today of the purest and poorest of virgins has moved us to speak of our own purification, let us recognize that our purity consists first and foremost in this: that we renounce whatever we have that is superfluous. Thus not only by the holiness of chastity but also by the simplicity of poverty shall we emulate in some measure the poor Mother of the poor Christ.“Blessed Guerric of Igny, Fourth Sermon for the Purification
Again, Guerric loses no opportunity to ask us to consider – what is superfluous in my life if I want to live in accord with God’s will for me, and how can that discerned poverty of spirit and things allow for richness? For Cistercians, being poor with the poor Christ is not an option but a way of life – Christ, in becoming flesh and living with us, gives up everything, even going to the cross (Philippians 2:5-11). How can his poverty also be our programme of life, giving ourselves?
“For her own soul was pierced by a sword, so that the Mother of the supreme Virgin and Martyr might be herself too a virgin and martyr, white and ruddy just as her Beloved is white and ruddy.
So did Mary find before the Lord a grace all of her own, above that of all the elect, angels and men, the grace to conceive and bear God’s Son and to have a throne of glory carved from the ivory of her body by the power of the Most High without the labour of human hands.”Blessed Guerric of Igny, First Sermon for the Annunciation
Here Guerric joins two essential ways of imitating and following Christ – virginity and martyrdom. In the calendar of the commemoration of the saints, both are invitations to celebration – that a saint’s perfect virginity or their witness in death which is martyrdom make Christ present in the midst of the world and show the saint’s perfect conformity to Christ. This is a constant theme for Cistercians – conformity to Christ. That, in a sense, I become myself fully by having Christ born in me and by offering him to the world, making him present, allowing him to be the one who is seen, received, heard, but in and through me. Both virginity – which is specifically that consecration of the sexual self, in all its human, physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects – for the sake of the kingdom of God, as a sign of the kingdom’s presence and promise, of a person’s exclusive giving over to the work of that reign of God – and martyrdom – the death which a person offers in perfect witness to the faith or out of perfect love for Christ present in my brother or sister – are perfect imitations of Christ. So, also, with Mary – her virginity – total – and her being married to her Son’s own suffering – martyrdom – give us both example from which to learn and model to follow and emulate.
“Behold the unspeakable condescension of God and at the same time the power of the mystery which passes all understanding. He who created you is created in you, and as if it were too little that you should possess the Father, he wishes also that you should become a mother to himself.
Open to the Word of God an ear that will listen. This is the way to the womb of your heart for the Spirit who brings about conception.”Blessed Guerric of Igny, Second Sermon for the Annuncation
There are few richer images in Guerric – he plays on the importance in the Rule of St Benedict and in Cistercian life of that pivotal physical and spiritual sense – hearing properly and intently! That we should become a womb for the Word, to take flesh in us and come to birth!
“Where else did he so empty himself out, or when was he seen so completely eclipsed? In the womb he is as if he were not. Almighty power lies idle as if it could do nothing. The eternal Word constrains himself to silence.
But to you, brethren, to you that silence of the Word speaks, to you it cries out, to you to be sure it recommends the discipline of silence. As that Child in the womb advanced towards birth in a long, deep silence, so does the discipline of silence nourish, form and strengthen a man’s spirit.
That will be your occupation, if you are wise, which will keep you busy in your silence: to eat the bread of God’s Word before the Lord, preserving like Mary what is said of Christ and pondering it in your heart. Christ will take pleasure in eating this bread with you, and he who feeds you will himself be fed in you.”Blessed Guerric of Igny, Third Sermon for the Annunciation
Now we think about the fruitfulness of silence which springs from the capacity to listen – we cannot be still, be at rest, be by ourselves in solitude if we do not have this desire – to receive the Word addressed to us. Guerric is clear – the Word will not come to birth in us unless we decide that silence is the only context in which we will really learn. The paradox which Guerric uses is a powerful one – the eternal Word, through which God speaks all that he ever wants to speak and says all that he ever wants to say, addressing himself continually to us and to me, which brings everything into being, me with it, constrains himself to silence in the womb, of the Virgin and my listening heart!
“The seal of perpetual virginity in the mother, like the mystery of Catholic unity in the offspring, remains inviolate. She who is the only Virgin-Mother, she who glories in having borne the Only-begotten of the Father, embraces that same Only-begotten of hers in all his members and so can be truly called Mother of all in whom she recognises Christ to have been formed, or in whom she knows he is being formed.
As Eve was incapable of fulfilling the vocation of her title, Mary consummated the mystery. She herself, like the Church of which she is the type, is a mother of all who are reborn to life.
The blessed Fruit of your womb, O holy Mother, left you pregnant with inexhaustible tenderness. He was born of you once and for all, yet he remains in you always, making you ever fruitful. Within the locked garden of your chastity he makes the sealed well-spring of charity always abundant in its supply: that well-spring though sealed is yet channelled to the outer world and its waters are at our disposal in courtyard and street.
Then again, is it not true that her children seem to recognise her as their Mother by a kind of instinctive devotion which faith gives them as second nature, so that first and foremost in all their needs and dangers they run to call upon her name just as children run to their mother’s breast? Already we really dwell in the help of the Mother of the Most High; we do live in her protection, as if under the shadow of her wing.
Mary, I say, has been exalted above the choirs of angels. The Mother therefore can contemplate nothing above herself but her Son alone; the Queen can gaze in wonder at nothing above herself but her King; the Mediatrix can venerate nothing above herself but the Mediator. May she, by her prayers, represent, reconcile and commend us to her Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.“Blessed Guerric of Igny, First Sermon for the Assumption
Guerric’s praise of Mary reaches a high point with this Assumption sermon. In many ways, he foresees titles which will be applied to Mary much later, particularly that she is Mediatrix, after her Son the only Mediator, and because she bore her son, but also because she is acknowledged, and greeted, as the one who is herself “full of grace”. The other title is one which was implied at the Second Vatican Council, and which Pope St Paul VI used of Mary – Mother of the Church. This extraordinary title bears much reflection in itself, but Guerric does well to explore it, even briefly, in his sermon – it is a recognition both of Mary’s role in herself, her relationship to Christ and the christological dimension of her motherhood, and her relationship to the Church, Christ’s Body, his members, and the ecclesiological implications which go with that.
-Part of our ‘Mary Most Holy’ series-