immaculate heart: at a loss for words

This is our titular feast day since New Camaldoli was dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. We celebrate it as a liturgical solemnity. There is a beautiful line in the opening prayer: “… that we may be a worthy temple of his glory.” That is a beautiful prayer for a monk, for a monastery, but really for any believer––that we may be worthy temples of God’s glory. Yet that is what we are! That is what we need to realize, that we are already temples of God’s glory.

On this feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary we might want to focus primarily on Mary’s purity, though this is more in keeping with the feast of the Immaculate Conception and the mysterious concept of prevenient grace. We might be tempted to focus on Mary’s heart being a fertile garden for the Word to be planted, so that the Word has made a home in her heart, so deeply rooted that it breaks into bloom as the boy-child Jesus, the Word-Made-Flesh. That might be more in keeping with the Feast of the Annunciation. We might also be drawn to reflect on Mary’s pierced heart, the image that is so popular in devotional renderings––as Simeon tells her, “Sorrow will pierce your soul, too”––but that is more the theme of Our Lady of Sorrows. Instead, the Church offers us this interesting reading, the story of the finding in the Temple from the infancy narratives in the Gospel of Luke, which points us to something different altogether.

This is not intuitively the first gospel reading that comes to mind when we think of Mary, especially when we think of her “Immaculate Heart” (though her heart does get mentioned right at the end of this narrative: And Mary treasured all these things in her heart…). None of the characters in this story come off looking particularly good. Jesus seems a little naughty (as Michael Fish would say) and has run off; and Mary and Joseph seem a little negligent having lost track of their twelve-year old and are worried. When they do all find each other their main form of dialogue seems to be questions to each other, questions that are rather sharp and pointed. It’s similar to the exchange at the wedding feast at Cana when Jesus says to Mary, ‘Woman, what business is that of mine?’ Here instead Jesus says to the two of them, ‘Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?’ You have to wonder how Joseph must have felt about that, cast off to the side again. And then there is Mary, looking at this son of hers who, already at twelve years old, is breaking away from her grip. Someday this boy is going to say, “Who is my mother?” and “You must renounce father and mother!” When the questioning is over, one could imagine a kind of stunned silence; nobody has gotten a satisfying answer and everybody is at a loss for words.

But it’s that loss for words that I am the most interested in, even oddly enough its connection to the immaculate heart. Notice how Mary and Jesus react to the situation: they pose questions to each other but they don’t wait for an answer or necessarily demand any response. Perhaps they knew that that just would have gotten them into an impossible discussion. It’s as if they simply presented each one’s mystery to the other.

Instead of responding, each of them goes beyond their self. Jesus goes beyond his own will by choosing to obey his parents, as the Gospel tells us next. Mary goes beyond her self by accepting her son’s strange sense of his call and by treasuring all these things in her heart. Neither of them tries to prove the validity of their world-view. Instead they choose to show love in the form of respect, even at the cost of personal sacrifice.

But they both don’t just go beyond themselves––they also go within themselves. We can only assume this about Jesus and his Sacred Heart, but I think that’s a safe assumption. But the gospel tells us clearly that this is what Mary did: she treasured all these things in her heart. She took it all into the inner chamber, to the deepest well of her being.

This is something that the mystical tradition has taught me: that some things just cannot be explained, or resolved, except by resting in the cave of the heart. I used to get annoyed when I would hear people say, about certain things within Catholic doctrine or dogma, “It’s a mystery.” Maybe it was a way of avoiding the discussion, but really––some things simply cannot be explained by words. This may be why Thomas Aquinas, after his mystical experience toward the end of his life, was at a loss for words, and thought that everything he had written could be burned like straw. There’s the saying of Ignatius of Antioch: “It is better to be silent and to be, rather than speak and not to be. One who truly possesses Christ’s words can also hear his silence…” Maybe that’s why people turn to poetry and art and music and dance instead, aesthetical expressions that come much more from the heart.

There are some relationships too that are never going to make sense in this life. On the negative side, there are some relationships that are just poisonous for us, or like oil and water that simply don’t mix, at least this side of heaven, and we just have to grieve it and move on. (The first time I heard that I felt equal parts relief and grief. But that grief was okay too. That becomes our prayer in sighs too deep for words.)But that doesn’t just apply to bad or unhealthy relationships. Even in good, close relationships there is this moment when you suddenly realize that the other is really an Other, a fathomless mysterious abyss of personhood who is “Not Me,”when suddenly, as if scales fall off our eyes, we wake up and realize that the people we love are total strangers to us, at least that they are wholly other than us––not who we think they are, not who we project them to be, not who we hoped they would be. They have a whole past that we are not a part of and they may have a whole future they we won’t be a part of.This can be a chilling experience, when parents see this in their children––or when children see this in their parents!––, when friends and lovers see it in each other; or it can be an exhilarating one, a great mystery beyond words.

I read somewhere once that most suffering in relationships is due to the fact that we often like to exercise ownership rights over other people and this inevitably, eventually, causes tension. We tend to describe people by their relation to us: “My brother, my friend, my wife.” The other at some point may want to say, “No, I’m not your anything––I am me. I am a subject in my own right!” Even though we may think we wish for their happiness, we often find ourselves upset at the thought that they may find this happiness outside of us, in a different way than we would, or even in spite of us. This has got to be part of the mystery that Mary carries in her heart in relation to Jesus, her own flesh and blood.

Another part of that mystery is that there are some wounds that are never going to heal, maybe that are never meant to heal up completely––like the sword that pierces Mary’s soul, like the lance that pierces Jesus’ heart. But the good news is that out of those wounds flows life-giving water, our own life and energy poured out for the sake of the world that becomes part of the life-giving stream that makes glad the City of God.

In the same way, there are some questions that are never going to be answered adequately––maybe even things like “Why is there evil” and “Why do we suffer?”––outside of palliatives and pat answers that take away the pain without offering a healing. Instead of trying to come up with erudite systematic but ultimately unsatisfying answers, instead of trying to resolve the tension and answer all the questions, maybe we’re just supposed to treasure these things in our heart, like Mary did. This is some of the lament one hears about the monastic, sapiential way of knowing being eclipsed by scholasticism and intellectual formulas. The sapiential way was the unitive way, the way of the heart, when theologians were mystics rather than logicians. I have always loved the aphorism of Theophane the Recluse concerning prayer: “Put your mind in your heart.” Maybe that applies to everything in the spiritual life, that we need to treasure it in the heart, and not try to resolve the tension.

But we are asked not only to take the unsolved mystery to the heart, not merely to hold the tensions there––but actually treasure them there, too! When I was heavily involved in the Charismatic movement we used to remind each other to rejoice and give thanks at all times, even, maybe especially, when something bad happened. Caught in traffic: “Thank you, Jesus!” Run out of money: “I just praise you, Lord!” I still try to do it, just a little more quietly now––take it into my heart, assuming that I can’t see the whole picture but trusting that there is benevolence behind the universe, hoping that for those who love God all things will work out for the good––even if it’s a mystery now, and an understanding that some arguments simply cannot be won or resolved with words––only with acceptance and love, acceptance in love.

What this may have to do with our image of Mary and her immaculate heart is this: Could it be that only a pure heart, only the heart of a mystic, only the heart of one who has truly experienced the mysterious union with God, only an immaculate heart like Mary’s that is able to handle this tension of unresolved mystery––in faith, in hope, and of course in love, and rest in it, treasure it, until it becomes flesh in us.

O Lord, give us a heart like Mary, so that we may bring everything to our hearts, and treasure it there, believing that your promises will be fulfilled.

cyprian, 9 june 18

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