Mary: Who She Is and Why She Matters

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Part 3: Mary, Most Pure

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 30, 2016)
The following is part 3 of a special series on the role Mary plays in the life of the Church.

Let's begin our journey through the Gospel virtues of Mary where the Chaplet of the 10 Evangelical Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary begins: her most hidden virtue, one she kept in the secret sanctuary of her own Heart. By her "purity" we mean Mary's complete, self-donation, body and soul, in faith and love to God alone.

Mary must have vowed to remain a virgin consecrated to the love of God from a time when she was very young, otherwise her response to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation makes no sense. The angel had told her that she was soon to conceive a child. According to a straightforward, literal translation of original Greek of St. Luke's Gospel, Mary replied: "How can this be, since I do not know man?" If Mary had not already dedicated herself to a virginal life, then Gabriel might well have responded to her: "You know very well how this shall be, since you are already engaged to be married. You are soon to be united to your husband in conjugal love, and the fruit of your union will be the conception of a child."

Early Christian tradition, reflected in the second century apocryphal gospel called "The Proto-Evangelium of James," only makes explicit what is already implicit in the New Testament: As a youth, Mary had resolved to follow a divine calling to consecrated virginity, as a complete self-donation to God (tradition has it that St. Joseph, too, resolved to join her in the virginal life), and that is why she asked the angel to explain "how" she would bring forth a son without turning her back on her vocation.

Of course, just taking a vow of celibacy, all by itself, does not make someone pure in heart: Celibates can break their vows, and even without breaking their vows, they can succumb to impure thoughts and inordinate desires for all kinds of earthly things. So how do we know that Mary remained pure in heart throughout her life? First of all because the angel Gabriel called her "full of grace," and one hardly can be completely "full" of divine grace if one's heart is even partially filled with disordered desires. Second, there is no sign at all in any Gospel story that Mary ever let anything take the place of her first love, which was God Himself: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Her consecrated virginity was merely the means that she embraced for preserving her virtue of purity of heart.

Impurity of any kind, on the other hand, results in a "divided heart," and strong impediments to the soul's true, first love. As we shall see, there are many forms of impurity (sexual impurity is just one of them). Mary's purity was her hidden virtue, in a sense, because it was manifested as much in what she did not do, according to the Gospels, as in what she did do. There is simply no sign in her life story that any worldly attachment ever dethroned, even temporarily, her first love for her Son and Savior. Father Federico Suarez once wrote: "Only a heart as pure and detached as our Lady's could be so completely receptive to the [angel's] message." Gabriel had asked her for the total dedication of her life — she was not just to be a consecrated virgin, but the virgin mother of the Messiah! As there was nothing in her heart to impede her self-gift and her consent, she gave it freely: "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word" (Lk 1:38).

The true purity of heart that we see in Mary, therefore, did not primarily consist in her virginity. If it did, then most Catholics — all those who are not called to the consecrated, celibate life — would be unable to follow her in attaining this virtue. Rather, true purity of heart, as the Danish sage Soren Kierkegaard once said, is "to will one thing." In other words, the essence of purity is singleness of heart, a heart completely given to only one first love and one supreme loyalty in all things: the One for whom we were made, and by whom we were redeemed, Jesus Christ our Lord (see Col 1:15-20). Saint Paul refers to this when he exhorts the early Christians: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (I Cor 10:31). Or, to put it another way, as the Director of St. Therese Institute of Faith and Mission, Jim Anderson, likes to say: "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." That is what purity of heart is in a nutshell — and for any Christian, Jesus Christ is supposed to be the main thing!

By contrast, the impure heart is a divided heart, with more than one thing vying for first place as the soul's supreme loyalty. For example, someone who goes to Mass every Sunday, but who remains a spendthrift, a glutton or a workaholic throughout the rest of the week, has certainly not attained unity of life and purity of heart, for the soul's first love is still "up for grabs"! The 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal once defined the human heart as "a civil war in a cave," — indeed, a divided heart is constantly at war with itself, and knows little peace.

Why, then, is purity of heart usually mentioned with reference to sexual purity, as if purity of heart means the same thing as "chastity" or even "virginity"? Because there is nothing that more easily divides the human heart from its true first love, Jesus Christ, then the passions of romance — turning a simple attraction for someone of the opposite sex into an idolatrous obsession — or even just the inordinate demands that spouses and family members often place upon each other. According to St. Paul in I Corinthians 7, virginity is a state in life that is specially blessed as a means of attaining purity of heart, but not because it shuns sex (after all, the conjugal act in the context of a loving marriage, is certainly not something evil or unclean — it is one of the things that God made "very good" from the beginning, according to Genesis 1:31 and 2:24). Rather, St. Paul exalts virginity because of the many great distractions from the love of Jesus Christ from which a man or woman in a celibate vocation is often preserved:

The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or virgin is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (I Cor 7:32-35)

Of course, St. Paul exalts the goodness of marriage, too, when he says in Ephesians 5 that it can be an image of, and participation in, Christ's love for his bride, the Church. So, a married life is not necessarily one that produces a divided heart. But a celibate life, for those who are called to it, is a special help toward attaining purity of heart: an undivided heart in love for Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, many people find few things more difficult than to control and direct than their sexual desires. They are light years away from living in such a way that their whole body and soul glorifies Jesus Christ, and reflects His loving respect for the dignity of each person. That is why the bookstores are full of cheap novels about people succumbing to their passions, and often falling in love with the wrong person at the wrong time. Poorly written as many of these novels may be, they are also true to life. Saint Augustine warns us: "Of all the combat in which we are engaged, the most severe is that of chastity; its battles are a daily occurrence, but victory is rare" (Sermon 293).

Next Time: Jesus Christ is a Jealous Lover

Access the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Mary - Who She Is and Why She Matters (Marian Press).

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LM - Dec 4, 2016

Thank you for these teaching reflections on the virtues. They offer important life lessons for us. I look forward to reading the next one!