Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Henry Adams on the Blessed Virgin Mary

"[T]he Virgin still remained and remains the most intensely and the most widely and the most personally felt, of all characters, divine or human or imaginary, that ever existed among men."

So wrote America's greatest man of letters, born in 1838 "with Heaven knew how many Puritans and Patriots behind him," the grandson and great-grandson of presidents whose religion was heretical Unitarianism, in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres by Henry Adams. Mr. Adams had much more to say of the piety of the Age of Faith:
    Men were, after all, not wholly inconsequent; their attachment to Mary rested on an instinct of self-preservation. They knew their own peril. If there was to be a future life, Mary was their only hope. She alone represented Love. The Trinity were, or was, One, and could, by the nature of its essence, administer justice alone. Only childlike illusion could expect a personal favour from Christ. Turn the dogma as one would, to this it must logically come. Call the three Godheads by what names one liked, still they must remain One; must administer one justice; must admit only one law. In that law, no human weakness or error could exist; by its essence it was infinite, eternal, immutable. There was no crack and no cranny in the system, through which human frailty could hope for escape. One was forced from corner to corner by a remorseless logic until one fell helpless at Mary's feet.

    Without Mary, man had no hope except in atheism, and for atheism the world was not ready. Hemmed back on that side, men rushed like sheep to escape the butcher, and were driven to Mary; only too happy in finding protection and hope in a being who could understand the language they talked, and the excuses they had to offer.
One can imagine the Protestant convert devotee of this or that apologetics guru being scandalized by the above passage, but the non-Catholic self-described "conservative Christian anarchist" was writing psychology, not theology. For those of us well aware of our own peril, and interested more in saving our own souls than in theology, the passage makes perfect sense.

Mr. Adams quotes Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: "After the Trinity, you are our ONLY hope... you are placed there as our advocate; all of us who fear the wrath of the Judge, fly to the Judge's mother, who is logically compelled to sue for us, and stands in the place of a mother to the guilty." The author describes "Mary as the ONLY court in equity capable of overruling strict law."

Mr. Adams goes on to rebuke one Gaston Paris, a cheerless contemporary, who whines about "the infantile piety of the Middle Ages," expressions of which "have revolted the most rational piety, as well as the philosophy of modern times." Our American hero dismisses "the professor's elementary morality" with these words:
    Clearly, M. Paris, the highest academic authority in the world, thought that the Virgin could hardly, in his time, say the year 1900, be received into good society in the Latin Quarter. Our own English ancestors, known as Puritans, held the same opinion, and excluded her from their society some four hundred years earlier, for the same reasons which affected M. Gaston Paris. These reasons were just, and showed the respectability of the citizens who held them. In no well-regulated community, under a proper system of police, could the Virgin feel at home, and the same thing may be said of most other saints as well as sinners.
"In no well-regulated community, under a proper system of police, could the Virgin feel at home, and the same thing may be said of most other saints as well as sinners."

Amen! Amen! Amen!

Of the Virgin, Mr. Adams says, "She was imposed unanimously by all classes, because what man wanted most in the Middle Ages was not merely law or equity, but also and particularly favour." He gives us many examples of miracles in which the "general rule of favour, apart from law, or the reverse of law, was the mark of Mary's activity in human affairs." He even explains "an entire class of her miracles, applying to the discipline of the Church!" He conlcudes, "The people loved Mary because she trampled on conventions; not merely because she could do it, but because she liked to do what shocked every well-regulated authority."

Mr. Adams details her scandalous advocacy on behalf of "an ignorant and corrupt priest" who "had taken the precaution to make himself Mary's MAN" and a "good-for-nothing clerk, vicious, proud, vain, rude, and altogether worthless, but devoted to the Virgin." Says the author, "Mary would not have been a true queen unless she had protected her own. The whole morality of the Middle Ages stood in the obligation of every master to protect his dependent." In both cases, "her order was instantly obeyed." However, we are reminded, "She was a queen, and never for an instant forgot it, but she took little thought about her divine rights."

Mr. Adams says, "Mary filled heaven with a sort of persons little to the taste of any respectable middle-class society, which has trouble enough in making this world decent and pay its bills, without having to continue the effort in another." Of the tradition of his forebears, which lead either to Unitarianism or, perhaps uniquely with Orestes Brownson, and almost with Mr. Adams himself, back to Catholicism, the author writes:
    Mary's treatment of respectable and law-abiding people who had no favours to ask, and were reasonably confident of getting to heaven by the regular judgment, without expense, rankled so deeply that three hundred years later the Puritan reformers were not satisfied with abolishing her, but sought to abolish the woman altogether as the cause of all evil in heaven and on earth. The Puritans abandoned the New Testament and the Virgin in order to go back to the beginning, and renew the quarrel with Eve.
[Edited version of a two-year-old post — The Blessed Virgin Mary, Anarcho-Monarchist]

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Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.