purity, compassion and wisdom: the immaculate heart of mary

(fr. Cyprian)

Even though our official name is New Camaldoli, the Hermitage was concentrated under the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Our titular solemnity was June 28th.

I have to admit I have had a hard time with this feast because I have no love for the art that is usually associated with this devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. But I had to get past my aesthetical snobbery and look at the iconography of it from a kind of cultural anthropology point of view. The most common image of the Immaculate Heart is of Mary’s heart being pierced with a sword, which of course is the scriptural image from Simeon in the Gospel of Luke; then the heart is surrounded by roses, often seven of them for the Seven Sorrows, that thorny branch out of which a beautiful flower blooms. Then there is a flame shooting out the top, the flame of pure love that has become pure prayer. And finally often she is holding a lily, a symbol of the resurrection that causes just the hint of a smile on her face. That’s a pretty intense complicated image, and when I was meditating on it, it drew me to my own heart, I could feel the piercing of sorrow, but I also got a sensation of the warmth, the heat, and even hint of the tranquility of hope.

What does this feast mean for the monk? It’s helpful to go back to the patristic era, in a sense before the devotion to Mary grew as a kind of parallel to liturgical spirituality. Fr. Deiss, for instance, of whom I speak so often, had a great love for Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but wanted to re-root the devotion in Scripture, in the liturgy and in the patristics. Whereas in devotional spirituality Mary tends to be praised, I think in liturgical, scriptural and patristic spirituality Mary is more to be imitated. Pope Saint Leo, for instance, wrote of Mary conceiving Jesus spiritually even before receiving him into her womb; and Augustine taught that it was more important that Mary was a disciple of Jesus than his mother, that Mary was more blessed in having borne Christ in her heart than in having conceived him in the flesh. Hence that second reading from Ephesians, chosen for this feast, brings it back to us. This feast is all about us too being chosen to be holy and blameless, and us being destined for adoption. And the reading for this day from the Roman Office from Saint Lawrence Justinian says, “Imitate her, O faithful soul! Enter into the deep recesses of your heart,” he says, and imitate her! So let’s make that journey.

Scripture and most of the ascetical texts of the Eastern Christian tradition actually refer to three hearts, you might say, or at least they refer to the heart in three different ways: the heart of the body, the heart of the soul, and the heart of the spirit. Not that they are three different hearts, obviously, but three deeper aspects of what the heart symbolizes, and I think we have to hold all three of them together when we hear about the heart of Mary––the physical heart, the heart of the soul, and then the heart of hearts, the spirit. And when the Orthodox texts on prayer speak of the heart they actually do mean the physical organ, the muscle itself as well. And so often mention is made of a burning sensation in the heat of prayer. Hence that image of a flame bursting from Mary’s own heart. Then the heart is also connected in a special way with our psychic composition, with our psyche––that is, with our soul, the seat of emotions, intuition and intellect. But most important of all, especially when we are dealing with prayer and meditation, the heart refers to that deepest aspect of our being, the spirit, to our spirit. Theophan the Recluse writes that this is the innermost person, where real self-awareness and the conscience have their seat.[1] What I want to tie into those three aspects of the heart are three attributes that are often associated with Mary and her Immaculate Heart that I think are salient for the monk, and for contemplative spirituality in general: purity, compassion and wisdom. And let’s say for the sake of argument that purity goes with the heart of the body (the physical heart), compassion goes with the soul, and Wisdom goes with the spirit, the heart of hearts.

As for purity, I don’t want to leave out Mary’s body in this whole economy. Of course that’s the part that’s the most embarrassing for us historical critical post-moderns, but that is the best part of the story, the iconography, and the myth. I’ve been speaking in chapter conferences recently about a new vocabulary for asceticism, and two phrases are particularly beloved to me. The first, from Fr. Bede, is that the body has to “sacrifice its autonomy”; the body needs to recognize that it is part of deeper realms of our existence, our souls and our spirits, not to mention being an integral part of the web of all created reality, and give up its false idea of independence. And then, secondly, that formula of St. Paul for that, in the letter to the Romans: offer your bodies as a spiritual sacrifice, holy and acceptable. And I think Mary is a perfect image of this. I keep asking the question, what would happen if we were really in right relationship with the indwelling Holy Spirit, with that deepest aspect of our being, with our heart of hearts? Well, what might happen is what happened in Mary: that even our physical beings would respond to it. In Mary’s case, she took the Word so deeply into her being that it became something in her; it became flesh in her; it became a baby. And I have grown to love the image of Mary’s Assumption body and soul into heaven, too. The great Indian yogi and philosopher Aurobindo referred to the Assumption as a “human person being assumed into the Divine Life.” Ah, that’s it! That’s what comes from an immaculate heart, from a virginal heart, purity of heart, from a heart receptive to the implanting of the Word: our whole being, even our flesh in some way, shares in the transformation.

Then, the heart of Mary is also always associated with compassion. There is a great lesson there for us, too, monks and all other spiritual practitioners. This whole business of purifying our hearts is not just about us! The proof that purity of heart has happened is that we are compassionate; and the way to purity of heart is also compassion. We can feel the sufferings of others because, like Mary, we have known our own sorrows. The Immaculate Heart of Mary, especially when it is associated with the Seven Sorrows is much beloved in cultures where simple people have endured great suffering; she is the patroness of abused women and victims of domestic violence. This compassion for others who suffer is a very monastic theme, too, and for my taste one that can never be mentioned enough. We’re back once more to Evagrius who told us that the proof of apatheia–“passionlessness” is agape, selfless love ––and isn’t “immaculate heart” just another image for apatheia?

Finally there is Wisdom, and here the heart means the “inner person,” and that is really the main theme of this feast. The Immaculate Heart is really the devotional name used to refer to Mary’s interior life. Remember that beautiful passage in 1 Peter[2] that speaks of the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit… (That word for spirit of course is pneuma.) Theophan calls this aspect of the heart “the God-like spirit” that was breathed into Adam in Genesis, that “remains with us continuously, even after that Fall.”[3] This is the genius of the Hindu tradition that speaks of brahman­­-the ground of being in the guha-the cave of the heart. This is the use of the term “heart” that mystics such Meister Eckhart and Ruysbroek referred to as the grunt, “ground of the soul.” This is the intuition of the Hindu tradition that speaks of Brahman–the ground of being in the guha–in the cave of the heart. Thomas Merton on the other hand preferred the French term the point vierge, and isn’t that a great image for Mary––the “virgin point,” that point in us where we come face to face with God. Imagine what might happen to our minds, our souls, to our whole interior life if we were to have an experience of being face to face with God in the depths of our being, in our heart of hearts?

And that’s where prayer comes in, and one of my favorite images spoken of so often in the Eastern Christian tradition. Here we are at the specifically monastic-contemplative theme for this feast. Theophan the Recluse says that prayer is “standing before God with the mind in the heart.” (One volume of the Philokalia is given over to nothing but “Writings on the Prayer of the Heart.”) The ultimate goal as articulated by this tradition is to “put your mind in your heart.” As long as we pray with our mind in our head, as long as we depend solely on our intellectual resources, even our emotional resources, we are never going to be able to have an immediate, personal encounter with God. So the soul, too, has to surrender its autonomy. All of our intellectual capacities and rationality, even our imagination and emotions, like the body, have to sacrifice their autonomy too, to something deeper––to the spirit, to the deepest aspect of our interiority, to the heart of hearts from which real Wisdom flows. We can know all kinds of things about God, but we won’t necessarily know God until we make this journey to the deep recesses of the heart. That’s real Wisdom, that’s real theology. Imagine what might happen to our minds, our souls, our whole interior life if we were to have an experience of the Word in the depth of our being, in our heart of hearts? Like Mary…

This is Saint Lawrence Justinian: And so…

Imitate her, O faithful soul. Enter into the deep recesses of your heart so that you may be purified spiritually. Whether we give ourselves to God in the work of contemplation or we serve the needs of our neighbor by good works, the acceptable offering of the spiritual purification is accomplished not in temples made by human hands, but in the recesses of the heart where the Lord Jesus freely enters.

Imitate her, O faithful soul! Enter into the deep recesses of your heart through purity, compassion and wisdom, and imitate her!


[1] The Art of Prayer, 190.

[2] 1 Pt 3:4.

[3]Art of Prayer, 191.

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