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Mary could not have humbled Herself more;
God could not have exalted Her more.
By St. Alphonsus de Liguori
Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted (Mt. 23:12). These are the Lord's words and they cannot be untrue. Therefore, when God determined to become man in order to redeem lost mankind and reveal His infinite goodness to the world in this way, and when it was necessary for Him to choose a Mother on earth, He looked for the woman who was the holiest and most humble of all. And among all the women in the world, there was only one on whom His eyes rested, namely the sweet Virgin Mary. She was already perfect in every virtue, but She considered Herself as simple and lowly as a dove. There are young maidens without number: one is my dove, my perfect one (Cant. 6:7-8). So God said: This one shall be My Mother. Let us now see how great Mary's humility was, and to what heights God exalted Her.
Mary could not have humbled Herself more than She did in the Incarnation of the Word. This will be the first point. God could not have exalted Mary more than He did. This will be the second point.
Speaking of this humble Virgin's humility in the Canticles, the Holy Spirit says: While the king was at his repose, my spikenard sent forth the odor thereof (Cant. 1:11). Commenting on this passage, St. Antoninus says that because the spikenard is so small and lowly a plant, it was a figure of Mary's humility. Her fragrance rose to Heaven and, so to speak, awakened the Divine Word reposing in the bosom of His Father, and drew Him into Her virginal womb. The Lord, attracted by the fragrance of this humble Virgin, chose Her for His Mother when He wished to come and save the world.
Nevertheless, in order to give greater honor and merit to His future Mother, God did not wish to become Her Son without previously obtaining Her consent. The Abbot William says: "He would not take flesh from Her unless She gave Her consent."1 So while this humble Virgin was in Her poor little cottage as was revealed to St. Elizabeth of Hungary praying and fervently beseeching God to send the Redeemer, behold, the Archangel Gabriel came as God's ambassador and brought Her the tremendous message. He entered and greeted Her with the sublime words: Hail, full of grace; the Lord is with Thee; blessed art Thou among women (Lk. 1:28).
Hail, Virgin, full of grace, for You had always been richer in grace than all the other saints. The Lord is with You, because You are so humble. Blessed are You among women, because all other women have fallen under the curse of sin. But because You are the Mother of the Blessed One, You have been and always will be blessed and free from every stain.
But what does Mary in Her humility answer to this greeting so full of praise? She makes no reply at all. Reflecting on the angel's words, She is disturbed by them: When She had heard him, She was troubled at his word, and kept pondering what kind of greeting this might be (Lk. 1:29). Why was She disturbed? Was She perhaps afraid of an illusion? Or was She disturbed at the sight of a man, for according to some the angel appeared to Her in the form of a man? No, the text is clear: She was troubled at his word. "Not at his appearance, but at his words," observes Eusebius of Emesa. It was precisely because She was so humble that She was disturbed, because his praise was so far above Her own opinion of Herself. The more the angel praised Her, the more She humbled Herself. In this connection St. Bernardine remarks that if the angel had said that She was the greatest sinner in the world, Mary would not have been so surprised. But when She heard such high praise from him, She became quite disturbed. She was disturbed because, being thoroughly humble, She hated flattery and desired only that Her Creator, the Giver of all good gifts, should be praised and blessed. Mary revealed this to St. Bridget:
"I did not wish to hear Myself praised, but only to have My Creator, the giver of everything, praised."
The Blessed Virgin was already well aware from the Sacred Scriptures that the time for the coming of the Messias, as foretold by the Prophets, had arrived; that the weeks of Daniel were completed; that the scepter of Juda had already passed into the hands of a strange king Herod as predicted by Jacob; and that a virgin was to be the Mother of the Messias. And now She hears the angel praising Her in terms that seemed appropriate only for the Mother of God. The thought perhaps occurred to Her: could I be this chosen Mother of God? But no, Her humility would not have allowed such a thought to linger in Her mind. The angel's praises only caused Her to be afraid. "So much afraid," remarks St. Peter Chrysologus, "that She had to be reassured by an angel in the same way that Christ was pleased to be comforted by one." Seeing Mary completely bewildered by his greeting, Gabriel was obliged to comfort Her, saying: Do not be afraid, Mary; for Thou hast found grace with God (Lk. 1:30). Do not be afraid, Mary, and do not be surprised by my greeting. For although You are small and lowly in Your own eyes, God Who exalts the humble has given You the grace that man has lost; He has preserved You from the stain common to the children of Adam. From the moment of Your conception, He has honored You with a greater grace than that of all the saints. And He is now exalting You to the dignity of being His Mother. Behold, Thou shalt conceive in Thy womb, and shalt bring forth a Son: and Thou shalt call His name Jesus (Lk. 1:31).
Mary hesitates. Why? "The angel waits for Her reply," observes St. Bernard, "and we too, O Mary, wait for Your reply, for that word of mercy for miserable creatures on whom the sentence of condemnation weighs so heavily. Behold, the price of our salvation is being offered to You. We shall be freed at once if You will only consent." O Mother of us all, the price of our salvation is now being presented to You, namely that the Divine Word should become man in You. The moment You accept Him for Your Son, we shall be delivered from death. "For with as much desire as the Lord desired Your beauty, He now desires Your consent so that He may save the world" (St. Bernard).
"Give Your answer quickly, O sacred Virgin!" says St. Augustine. "How can You delay giving life to the world?"
And Mary at last gives Her answer. She says to the angel: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to Me according to thy word (Lk. 1:38). What more beautiful, more humble, or more prudent answer could men and angels together have devised in all their wisdom if they had thought about the matter for a million years? It was the answer that made all Heaven rejoice and brought an immense sea of graces and blessings into the world! Scarcely had it fallen from Her lips when the only-begotten Son of God was drawn from the bosom of the Eternal Father to become man in Her most pure womb! Yes, Mary had no sooner uttered these words: Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to Me according to thy word, when instantly the Word was made flesh (Jn. 1:14). The Son of God became the Son of Mary. "O powerful Fiat!" exclaims St. Thomas of Villanova; "O efficacious Fiat! O Fiat to be venerated above all other Fiats! For with a Fiat God created light, heaven, earth; but with Mary's Fiat, God became man, like us."
But let us not wander from the point. Let us see the great humility of Mary in this answer. She was fully enlightened as to the greatness of the dignity of the Mother of God. She had already been assured by the angel that She was this Mother chosen by the Lord. Nevertheless, in spite of this, She does not rise in Her own estimation, She does not stop to rejoice in Her exaltation. Aware of Her own nothingness on the one hand, and of the infinite majesty of God who chose Her to be His Mother on the other, She acknowledges Herself to be unworthy of such a great honor; yet She has not the slightest wish to oppose His will. So, when She is asked for Her consent, what does She do? What does She say? Wholly annihilated within Herself, and yet at the same time inflamed by the desire to unite Herself still more closely to God, abandoning Herself completely to the divine will, She says: Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Behold the slave of the Lord, obliged to do whatever the Lord commands. It is as if She intended to say: Since God chooses for His Mother one who has nothing of Her own, and since all that I have I have received from Him, who could ever think that He has chosen Me because of My merits? Behold the handmaid of the Lord. How could a slave ever possibly merit to become the Mother of Her Lord? Behold the handmaid of the Lord. May the goodness of the Lord alone be praised, and not His slave, since it is due to His goodness alone that He has cast His eyes on a creature as lowly as I am with a view to making her so great.
"Such humility!" exclaims the Abbot Guerric. "Amounting to nothing in Her own eyes, yet great in the sight of the Godhead. Insufficient as far as She Herself is concerned, yet sufficient for Him whom the world cannot contain!"
O great humility of Mary, which makes Her little to Herself, but great before God! Unworthy in Her own eyes, but worthy in the eyes of that immense Lord whom the world cannot contain!
But the exclamation of St. Bernard in this regard in his fourth sermon on the Assumption of Mary is even more beautiful. Admiring Her humility he says: "And how, O Mary, could You unite in Your heart such a humble opinion of Yourself with such great purity, such innocence, and such a fullness of grace as You possess? And how, O Blessed Virgin," continues the saint, "did this humility, this great humility, ever take such deep root in Your heart, when You saw Yourself so honored and exalted by God?"
When Lucifer saw himself endowed with such great beauty, he desired to exalt his throne above the stars and make himself like God: I will exalt my throne above the stars of God ... I will be like the Most High (Isa. 14:13-14). What would that proud spirit have said and what would he have aspired to, if he had found himself adorned with the gifts of Mary! But Mary had no aspirations to glory. The higher She saw Herself raised, the more She humbled Herself. O Mary, concludes St. Bernard, because of Your beautiful humility You made Yourself worthy to have God look upon You with the most unusual love; worthy to captivate Your King by Your beauty; worthy to draw by the sweet odor of Your humility the Eternal Son from His repose, from the bosom of God, into Your most pure womb.
Bernardine de Bustis was right in saying: "Mary merited more by Her humble reply, Behold the handmaid of the Lord, than all pure creatures could merit by all their good works." And St. Bernard says that while this innocent Virgin made Herself dear to God by Her virginity, it was by Her humility that She made Herself worthy as far as a creature can be worthy of becoming the Mother of Her Creator.
"Although She pleased by Her virginity, She conceived by Her humility."
St. Jerome confirms this, saying that "God chose Her for His Mother more on account of Her humility than because of all Her other sublime virtues." Mary Herself, in fact, assured St. Bridget of this when She said: "How was it that I merited the great grace of becoming the Mother of My Lord except that I was aware of My nothingness and that I possessed nothing, and so humbled myself?" She had already declared this in Her humble canticle, the Magnificat, when She said: Because He hath regarded the humility of His handmaid ... He that is mighty hath done great things to Me (Lk. 1:48,49). With regard to these words St. Lawrence Giustiniani observes that the Blessed Virgin "did not say that He had regarded Her virginity, or Her innocence, but only Her humility." St. Francis de Sales notes that, by mentioning humility, the Blessed Virgin did not intend to praise the virtue of Her own humility, but to declare that God had looked with favor upon Her nothingness "for humility means nothingness" and that because of His pure goodness He had been pleased to exalt Her as He did.
St. Augustine's comment is that Mary's humility was the ladder by which Our Lord was pleased to come down from Heaven to earth in order to become man. St. Antoninus confirms this when he says that the humility of Mary was Her most perfect virtue, and the one that immediately prepared Her to become the Mother of the Savior. "The ultimate grace of perfection is preparation for the conception of the Son of God, a preparation brought about by profound humility." This is the meaning of the prophecy of Isaias: And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root (Isa. 11:1).
St. Albert the Great, reflecting on these words, declares that the flower, the only-begotten Son of God, was to be born not from the summit and not from the trunk of the tree of Jesse, but from the root, to denote the humility of His Mother: "By the root is understood humility of heart." The Abbot of Celles is even more explicit when he says: "Notice that the flower rises not from the summit but from the root." It is for this reason that God said to His beloved daughter: Turn away Thy eyes from Me, for they have made Me flee away (Cant. 6:4). St. Augustine asks: "Where have they made me flee from, unless it is from the bosom of the Eternal Father into the womb of the Virgin Mother?"2
Along the same lines the learned scriptural commentator Fernandez says that the humble eyes of Mary which She kept always fixed on the divine greatness had such a powerful effect on God Himself that they drew Him into Her womb: "Her humble eyes kept God captive in such a way that the Blessed Virgin drew the Word Himself of God the Father into Her womb by a kind of sweet violence." This explains, says the Abbot Franco, why the Holy Spirit praised His Spouse so greatly for having the eyes of a dove: How beautiful art Thou, my love! How beautiful art Thou! Thine eyes are dove's eyes (Cant. 4: 1). For Mary, looking at God with the eyes of a simple and humble dove, so attracted Him by Her beauty that She made Him a prisoner in Her chaste womb by bonds of love. The Abbot goes on to say: "Where in the whole world could so beautiful a virgin be found who could capture the King of Heaven by Her eyes, and lead Him captive by a kind of holy violence, bound by chains of love?"
To conclude this point, let us repeat what we said at the beginning: Mary could not have humbled Herself more than She did in the Incarnation of the Word. Let us now see how God, by making Her His Mother, could not have exalted Her more than He did.
One cannot understand the greatness to which Mary was exalted without first understanding the sublimity and greatness of God. It is sufficient, then, to say simply that God made this Blessed Virgin His Mother to understand that God could not have exalted Her more than He did.
Arnold of Chartres was right in asserting that, by becoming Her Son, "God raised Mary to a height above all the saints and angels." As St. Ephrem puts it: "Her glory is incomparably greater than that of all the heavenly spirits." This is confirmed by St. Andrew of Crete who says: "She is higher than everyone but God." St. Anselm says: "No one is equal to You, O Mary, for all others are either above You or beneath You: God alone is above You, and everyone that is not God is inferior to You."3 In short, says St. Bernardine: "The greatness and dignity of this Blessed Virgin are so great that God alone does, and can, understand it."
This consideration is sufficient to remove the perplexity, remarks St. Thomas of Villanova, which anyone may feel when he realizes that the four Evangelists have so much to say in praise of John the Baptist and Mary Magdalen, but have so very little to say about the gifts of Mary: "It was sufficient to say of Her: Of whom was born Jesus. What more could we wish the Evangelists to have said about the greatness of Mary?" continues the saint. "Is it not enough that they declare that She was the Mother of God? In these few words they described the greatest and most precious of Her gifts. It was not necessary for them to enter into details." And why? St. Anselm replies, "When we speak of Mary as the Mother of God, we affirm that Her greatness transcends everyone and everything that can be mentioned or thought of after God." On the same subject Peter of Celles adds: "Address Her as Queen of Heaven, Mistress of angels, or any other title of honor you may please, you can never honor Her as much as by calling Her the Mother of God."
The reason for this is obvious. As the Angelic Doctor teaches, the nearer a thing approaches its maker or source, the greater the perfection it receives from that source. Therefore Mary, as the creature nearest to God, partakes of His grace, perfection, and greatness more than all other creatures. "The Blessed Virgin Mary was as close to Christ as it was possible to be, for it was from Her that He received His human nature. And therefore She must have obtained from Him a greater fullness of grace than all other creatures did."
Father Suarez deduces from this the reason why "the dignity of the Mother of God is above every other created dignity."
He says: "It belongs in a certain way to the order of hypostatic union; it pertains to it intrinsically, and has a necessary connection with it." Denis the Carthusian maintains that "with the exception of the hypostatic union, no union is more intimate than that of the Mother of God with Her Son." According to the teaching of St. Thomas, this is the highest type of union that a creature can have with God: "It is a quasi-supreme union with an infinite Person." St. Albert the Great also asserts that "to be the Mother of God is the highest dignity after that of being God." And he adds: "Mary could not have been more closely united to God than She was without becoming God."
St. Bernardine says that for Mary to become the Mother of God, it was necessary for Her to be raised to a kind of equality with the Divine Persons by an almost infinite amount of grace. And as children are, morally speaking, regarded as one with their parents so that children and parents share the same prestige and privileges, it follows, says St. Peter Damian, that God Who dwells in creatures in different ways dwelt in Mary in a very special way. He was in fact in a unique way identified with Her, making Himself one and the same being with Her. "The fourth manner in which God is in a creature," he says, "is by identification, and this is the way He is in the Blessed Virgin." Then he utters those daring words: "Therefore let every creature be silent and tremble, and scarcely dare glance at the immensity of this great dignity. God dwells in the Blessed Virgin and has become, as far as His human nature is concerned, one with Her."
That is why St. Thomas asserts that when Mary became the Mother of God, by virtue of Her very close union with an infinite good She received a certain infinite dignity, which Father Suarez calls "infinite in its own way." The dignity of being the Mother of God is the greatest dignity that can be given to any mere creature. The Angelic Doctor explains it this way. First of all, he says: "The humanity of Christ could have received even greater habitual grace from God since grace is a created gift and therefore finite in its essence. All creatures have a determined measure of capacity; therefore, it is in God's power to make another creature whose determined capacity is greater." However, inasmuch as Christ's humanity was destined for union with a Divine Person, it could not have received anything greater. He sums up this thought in another place by saying: "Though the divine power could create something greater and better than the habitual grace of Christ, nevertheless, it could not destine it to anything greater than personal union with the only-begotten Son of the Father." By the same token, he goes on, the Blessed Virgin could not have been raised to any dignity greater than that of Mother of God. "The Blessed Virgin, by reason of the fact that She is the Mother of God, has a certain infinite dignity drawn from the infinite Goodness which is God. In this respect, then, She could not have been made greater." St. Thomas of Villanova says the same thing:
"There is something infinite in being the Mother of Him Who is infinite."
St. Bernardine also says that "the state to which God exalted Mary in making Her the Mother of God was the highest that could be conferred on a creature; He could not have exalted Her more." And this opinion is confirmed by St. Albert the Great who says: "In making Mary the Mother of God, He conferred upon Her the greatest gift of which a pure creature is capable."
Hence the celebrated saying of St. Bonaventure that "to be the Mother of God is the greatest grace that can be conferred on a creature. It is so great, in fact, that God cannot create a greater. He could make a greater world, a greater Heaven, but He cannot exalt a creature more than by making Her His Mother." But no one has so well expressed the greatness of this dignity than Mary Herself when She said: He that is mighty hath done great things to Me. (Lk. 1:49). Now why did the Blessed Virgin not make known the wonderful things that God had conferred on Her? St. Thomas of Villanova replies that Mary did not explain what they were because they could not be expressed: "She did not explain them, because they were unexplainable."
For this reason St. Bernard was right in declaring that God created the whole world for the Blessed Virgin Who was destined to be His Mother. And St. Bonaventure was right in saying that its existence depends on Her will: "The world, O most holy Virgin, which You with God formed from the beginning, continues to exist at Your will." This thought is suggested to the saint by the words of Proverbs which the Church applies to Mary: I was with Him forming all things (Prov. 8:30). St. Bernardine of Siena adds that it was because of love for Mary that God did not destroy man after Adam's sin: "He preserved man on account of His unique love for the Blessed Virgin."
Holy Church with reason sings of Mary: She has chosen the best part. She not only chose the best things, but the best part of them. As St. Albert the Great says: "The Blessed Virgin was full of grace because God endowed Her in the highest degree with all the general and special graces which other creatures have."
Thus Mary was a child, but of the state of childhood She possessed only the innocence and not the incapacity, for from the first moment of Her existence She always had the perfect use of reason. She was a virgin, but without the reproach of sterility. She was a mother, but at the same time was gifted with the precious treasure of virginity. She was beautiful, most beautiful, as Richard of St. Victor, St. George of Nicomedia, and St. Denis the Areopagite assert the latter of whom, it is believed, was once fortunate enough to behold Her beauty in a vision and declared that if faith had not taught him that She was only a creature, he would have adored Her as God.
Our Lord revealed to St. Bridget that the beauty of Mary is more beautiful than that of all men and angels. Permitting the saint to hear Him addressing Mary, He said:
"Your beauty is greater than that of all the angels and all created things."
In other words, She was superlatively beautiful. But Her beauty was not a harmful beauty. It did not arouse impure thoughts, but on the contrary inspired pure ones, as St. Ambrose asserts: "Her grace was so great that it not only preserved Her virginity but conferred the admirable gift of purity on those who saw Her." St. Thomas confirms this when he says: "Sanctifying grace not only repressed every unlawful suggestion in the Blessed Virgin Herself, but was also efficacious in doing the same for others; so that in spite of the greatness of Her beauty She was never carnally desired by others."
That is why She was called myrrh, which prevents corruption, in the words of Ecclesiasticus which are applied to Her by the Church: I yielded a sweet odor like the best myrrh (Ecclus. 24:20). Her union with God was not interrupted by Her daily activity. She was wrapped up in Him in contemplation, but not so much as to cause Her to neglect Her material duties or the charity due Her neighbor. She was destined to die, but Her death was not accompanied by the usual sorrow, nor was it followed by the usual corruption of the body.
In conclusion, then, we repeat that the Blessed Mother is infinitely inferior to God, but immensely superior to all other creatures.
And just as it is impossible to find a Son more wonderful than Jesus, so it is impossible to find a Mother more wonderful than Mary.
This reflection should cause us not only to rejoice in Her greatness, but also to increase our confidence in Her most powerful intercession. Father Suarez says: "As Mother of God, She has a certain peculiar right to the gifts of Her Son," and can procure them for those for whom She prays. St. Germanus goes further and says that God cannot help granting the petitions of this Mother, because He cannot help acknowledging Her as His true and immaculate Mother. This is the way the saint addresses the Blessed Virgin: "By virtue of Your maternal authority, You have great power with God and You can obtain the grace of reconciliation even for those who have sinned very much. It is impossible for You not to be heard graciously; for God acts towards You and recognizes You in all things as His true and immaculate Mother."
Therefore, O Mother of God and Mother of us all, You do not lack the power to help us. "Neither the power nor the will is lacking to Her," says St. Bernard. And I will say, using the words of the Abbot of Celles, that "You are well aware God did not create You for Himself alone, but that He gave You to the angels as their restorer, to men as their repairer, and to the devils as their vanquisher. It is through You that we recover divine grace, and by You that the enemy is conquered and crushed."
If we really want to please Our Blessed Lady, let us greet Her often with the words of the Hail Mary. She once appeared to St. Mechtilde and assured her that no one could honor Her more than by repeating that prayer. If we do this we shall certainly obtain very special graces from the Mother of mercy, as the following example shows.
The event recorded by Father Paul Segneri in his Christian Instructed is well known. There was a young man in Rome who was burdened with sins of impurity and was a victim of vicious habits. He went to Father Nicholas Zucchi to confession. The confessor received him kindly and assured him that devotion to Mary could deliver him from the miserable habits to which he was addicted. He therefore imposed this penance on him: to say a Hail Mary to the Blessed Virgin every morning on rising and every evening on going to bed until his next confession. While doing that he was to offer Mary his eyes, his hands, and his whole body, begging Her to preserve them as something belonging to Herself; and he must kiss the ground three times. The young man performed the penance, but at first there was only a slight improvement. The confessor continued to impose the same penance, and encouraged him to increase his confidence in the intercession of Mary.
In the course of time the penitent left Rome with some companions and toured the world for several years. On his return he again sought out his confessor who, to his great joy and admiration, found that the young man was entirely changed and free from his former evil habits. "My son," he said, "how did God bring about this wonderful change in you?" The youth replied: "Father, Our Blessed Mother obtained this great grace for me because of that little devotion you taught me."
But that is not all. With the penitent's permission, the same confessor told the story in one of his sermons. A captain who for many years had carried on an improper relationship with a certain woman heard it. He resolved to practice the same devotion in the hope that he would be delivered from the horrible chains which bound him a slave to the devil. He too gave up his wicked ways and changed his life.
But there is still more. After six months, foolishly relying too much on his own strength, the captain went to pay a visit to the woman to see if she also had been converted. But when he came up to the door, where he was in obvious danger of relapsing into sin, an invisible power drove him back and he found himself a whole block away from the house in fact, in front of his own door. He then clearly understood that Mary had delivered him from danger. This example shows us how solicitous our good Mother is, not only to draw us away from a state of sin if we appeal to Her with this good purpose in mind, but also to deliver us from the danger of falling back into sin.
(1) St. William’s context: “The Son of God, about to become man, sent His messenger to obtain Mary’s consent. He did not wish to work this miracle in Her without Her consent; He would not take flesh from Her without Her consent. And so it can be said that God became man not only from Mary but also by Mary’s consent.”
(2) This quotation seems in reality to be from St. Thomas of Villanova.
(3) The words are not found in St. Anselm, but the thought is his, expressed in somewhat different terms: “Nothing is equal to Mary; nothing greater than Mary, except God.”