A chapter from The World’s First Love by our beloved Fulton Sheen.
Pleasure is the bait God uses to make creatures recognize their destiny, whether it be that of eating for the sake of the individual health, or mating for the sake of society. God also puts a limit on pleasure; one of these is a “fed-up-ness,” which comes from nature, the other is that of the woman, who is most reasonable when man is most irrational. In this domain of the flesh, man is liberty, woman, the law.
If, then, a woman is not taught carnal pleasure by the man, two effects will follow: first, her restraining power will create continency and purity. Since pleasure is outgoing, she will become more inward and self-possessed, as if hugging a great secret to her heart. Desire is anticipation, pleasure is participation, but purity is emancipation.
The second effect is just the opposite, namely, sorrow. She who lives without pleasure not only gives up something, she receives something it may be the hatred of those who see in her the enemy of the flesh, whether they be man or woman. Such is the story of virgins like Agatha, Cecilia, Susanna and, in our day, Maria Goretti. As the sun hardens mud, so purity provokes those who are already sinners to hardness of heart, persecution, and violence.
The day Mary declared: “I know not man” she not only affirmed that she was untaught by pleasures, but she also brought her soul to such a focused inwardness for God’s sake that she became a Virgin not only through the absence of man, but also through the presence of God. The secret that she kept was no other than the Word! Bereft of the pleasures of the body but not of all joys, she could sing to her cousin, Elizabeth: “My soul doth rejoice in the Lord.”
On the other hand, Mary was also a Woman of Sorrow. To love God immediately and uniquely makes a woman hated. The day she brought her Babe, her Divine Love, to the Temple, the old priest Simeon told her that a sword her soul would pierce. The hour the Roman sergeant ran the spear into the Heart of Christ, he pierced two hearts with one blow the heart of the God-man for Whom Mary gave up the knowledge of pleasure, and the heart of Mary, who gave her beauty to God and not to man.
No one in the world can carry God in his heart without an inner joy, and an outer sorrow; without singing a Magnificat to those who share the secret, and without feeling the thrust of a sword from those who want freedom of the flesh without the law. Love and sorrow often go together. In carnal love, the body swallows the soul; in spiritual love, the soul envelopes the body. The sorrow of the first is never to be satisfied; one who wants to drink the ocean of love is unhappy if limited to a mere cup with which to drink. The sorrow of the second love is never being able to do enough for the beloved.
In the human love of marriage, the joys of love are a prepayment for its duties, responsibilities, and, sometimes, its sorrows. Because the crosses lie ahead in human love, there is the Transfiguration beforehand, when the face of love seems to shine as the sun, and the garments are as white as snow.
There are those who, like Peter, would wish to capitalize the joys and to make a permanent tabernacle of love on the mountaintops of ecstasy. But there is always the Lord, speaking through the conscience and saying that to capture love in a permanent form one must pass through a Calvary. The early transports of love are an advance, an anticipation, of the real transports that are to come when one has mounted to a higher degree of love through the bearing of a Cross.
What most human love forgets is that love implies responsibility; one may not fool with the levers of the heart in the vain hope of escaping duties, fidelity, and sacrifice for the beloved. So-called birth control, which assists in neither birth nor control, is based on the philosophy that love is without obligations. The real problem is how to make humans realize the sacredness of love how to induce mothers to see a Messiahship in the begetting of children.
The best way to achieve this would surely be to bring forward the example of a woman who would accept the responsibilities of love without the prepayment of pleasure one who would say: “I will do it all for nothing! I will accept the bearing of a child, the responsibility of his education, a share in His world mission,” without even asking for the ecstasies of the flesh.
Such is the role of the Blessed Mother. She undertook marriage, birth, a share in the Agony, all for the love of God, not asking the initial joys to prepare her for those trials. The best way to convince mankind that it must take the medicine which cures is to take it oneself and without the sugar coating, yet never wince because of its bitterness. The Sisters of Charity in the poor sections of our cities, the missionaries caring for the victims of leprosy these give inspiration to all social workers. The former do their work for nothing except the love of God, and thus they keep before the world the ideal of a disinterested affection for the hungry and the sick.
In the Annunciation, God told Mary, through an angel, that she would conceive without the benefit of human affection and its joys that is, with no payment of pleasure to herself. She thus dissociated carnal joys and social responsibilities. Her sacrifice was a rebuke to those who would snare the music by breaking the lute, pick up the violins of life and never produce a tune, lift a chisel to marble and yet never bring forth a statue.
But it also gave courage to those whose burdens are heavier than their pleasures to those who have children destined for death when they are hardly launched on the sea of life, to those who find their love’s surrender betrayed and even despised. If Our Lord allowed Mary to suffer the trials that even the most grieved mother could suffer such as to have her Son pursued by the totalitarian soldiers at two years of age, to be a refugee in a foreign country, to point to a Father’s business which would end in death, to be arrested falsely, to be condemned by His own people, and to suffer the taking-off in the prime of life it was in order to convince mothers with sorrows that trials without pleasures can be overcome, and that the final issues of life are not solved here below.
If the Father gave His Son a Cross and the Mother a sword, then somehow sorrow does fit into the Divine Plan of life. If Divine Innocence and His Mother, who was a sinless creature, both underwent agonies, it cannot be that life is a snare and a mockery, but rather it is made clear that love and sorrow often go together in this life, and that only in the next life is sorrow left behind.
Christians are the only people in history who know that the story of the Universe has a happy ending. The Apostles did not discover this until after the Resurrection, and then they went through the ancient world shouting and screaming the excitement of the good news. Mary knew it for a long time, and in the Magnificat sang about it, even before Our Lord was born.
Great is the sorrow of a woman when her husband abandons his responsibility to her, and seeks what he calls “freedom” from what is his own flesh and blood. What the woman feels in such abandonment is akin to what the Church feels in heresy. Whenever, through history, those who are the members of her Mystical Body isolate themselves from her flesh and blood, not only do they suffer in their isolation, but the Church suffers still more.
The irresponsibility of love is the source of life’s greatest tragedies, and as the Church suffers more than the heretic, so the woman probably suffers more than the erring man. She stands as the “other half of that man, a constant reminder to him and to society that what God joined together has, by a perverse will, been rent asunder. The husband may have left his spouse to teach another woman pleasure; but the wife remains as the unfinished symphony, clamoring for spiritual understanding.
A civilization which no longer stands before God in reverence and responsibility has also renounced and denounced the dignity of woman, and the woman who submits and shares in such a divorce of responsibility from love stands in such a civilization either as a mirage or a pillar of salt.
The world is not shocked at seeing love and sorrow linked arm in arm, when love is not perfect; but it is less prepared to see immaculate love and sorrow in the same company. The true Christians should not be scandalized at this, since Our Lord is described as the Man of Sorrows. He Who came to this earth to bear a Cross might conceivably drag it through His Mother’s heart.
Scripture suggests that He schooled and disciplined her in sorrow. There is an expression used today, always in a bad sense, but which, if used in the right sense, could apply to the relations between Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, and that is “alienation of affections.” He begins detaching Himself from His Mother, seemingly alienating His affections with growing unconcern only to reveal at the very end that what He was doing was introducing her through sorrow to a new and deeper dimension of love.
There are two great periods in the relations of Jesus and Mary, the first extending from the Crib to Cana, and the second, from Cana to the Cross. In the first, she is the Mother of Jesus; in the second, she begins to be the Mother of all whom Jesus would redeem in other words to become the Mother of men.
From Bethlehem to Cana, Mary has Jesus as a mother has a son; she even calls Him familiarly, at the age of twelve, “Son,” as if that were her usual mode of address. He is with her during those thirty years, fleeing in her arms to Egypt, living at Nazareth, and being subject to her. He is hers, and she is His, and even at the very moment when they walk into the wedding feast, her name is mentioned first: “Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was there.”
But from Cana on, there is a growing detachment, which Mary helps to bring on herself. She induced her Son to work His first miracle, as He changed her name from Mother to Woman, the significance of which will not become clear until the Cross. Readers of Genesis will recall how God promised that Satan would be crushed through the power of a woman. When Our Lord tells Mary that they are both in[127 volved in the manifestation of His Divinity, she practically sends Him to the Cross by asking for the first of the miracles and, by implication, His Death. A year or more later, as a devoted Mother, she follows Him in His preaching.
It is announced to Our Lord that His Mother is seeking Him. Our Lord with seeming unconcern, turns to the crowd and asks: “Who is my Mother?” (Matthew 12:48) Then, revealing the great Christian mystery that relationship is not dependent on flesh and blood but on union with Divine Nature through grace, He adds: “If anyone does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)
The ties that bind us to one another are less of race than of obedience to the Will of God. From that text originated the titles of “Father” “Mother,” “Brother,” and “Sister,” as used throughout the Church to imply that our relations are in Christ rather than in human generation. He Who called His Mother, “Woman,” is now telling us and her that we can enter a new family with her, as He has already taught us to enter into new bonds with His Own Heavenly Father. If we can call God “Our Father,” then we can call her “Our Mother,” if we do the Will of the Father.
The mystery comes to an end at Calvary when, from the Cross, Our Lord now hearkens back to Cana and again uses the word “Woman,” the title of universal motherhood. Speaking to her of all of us who will be redeemed by His Precious Blood, He says: “Behold thy Son.” Finally, to John who, unnamed, stood for us, He said: “Behold thy Mother.” She becomes our Mother the moment she loses Her Divine Son.
The mystery is now solved. What seemed an alienation of affection was in reality a deepening of affection. No love ever mounts to a higher level without death to a lower one. Mary dies to the love of Jesus at Cana, and recovers Jesus again at Calvary with His Mystical Body whom He redeemed. It was, for the moment, a poor exchange, giving up her Divine Son to win us; but in reality, she did not win us apart from Him. On that day when she came to Him preaching, He began to merge the Divine Maternity into the new motherhood of all men; at Calvary He caused her to love men as He loved them.
It was a new love, or perhaps the same love expanded over the wider area of humanity. But it was not without its sorrow. It cost Mary something to have us as sons. She could beget Jesus in joy in a stable, but she could beget us only on Calvary, only in labors great enough to make her Queen of Martyrs. The Fiat she pronounced when she became the Mother of God now becomes another Fiat, like unto Creation in the immensity of what she brought forth. It was also a Fiat which so enlarged her affections as to increase her pains.
The bitterness of Eve’s curse that she would bring forth her children in sorrow is now fulfilled, and not by the opening of a womb, but by the piercing of a heart, as Simeon had foretold. It was the greatest of all honors to be the Mother of Christ; but it was also a great honor to be the Mother of Christians. There was no room in the inn for that first birth; but Mary had the whole world for her second.
Here, at last, is the answer to the query, “Did Mary have other children besides Jesus ?” She certainly did. Millions and millions of them! But not according to the flesh. He alone was born of her flesh; the rest of us were born of her spirit. As the Annunciation tied her up with Divinity before the coming of Her Divine Son, so this word from the Cross tied her up with all humanity until His Second Coming. She was a child of that chosen section of humanity called “the seed of Abraham,” the scion of that long line of royalty and kings who hand on to her Divine Son the “throne of His Father David.”
But, as the new Eve, she hands on to her Son the heritage of the whole human race, from the day of Adam until now; and through her Son she breaks the boundaries of that limited blessing to the seed of Abraham, and pours it out upon every nation, race, and peoples. Her moment in history was the “fullness of time”; this phrase meant that the human race had at last produced a representative worthy of becoming the chosen vessel of the Son of God. “One who comes into his property while he is still a child has no more liberty than one of the servants, though all the estate is his.” (Galatians 4:1)
Our Lord is not immersed in history, but Mary is. He comes to earth from outside time; she is within time. He is the suprahistorical; she, the historical. He is the Eternal in time, she is the House of the Eternal in time. She is the final meeting place of all humanity and all history. Or, as Coventry Patmore says:
Knot of the cord Which binds together all and all unto their Lord.
At the end of the story of love and sorrow, we see that love needs a constant purification, and this happens only through sorrow. Love that is not nourished on sacrifice becomes trite, banal, and commonplace. It takes the other for granted, makes no more professions of love because it has sounded no new depths. Our Lord would not have His Mother’s love on one plane of ecstasy while on this earth; He would universalize it, expand it, make it Catholic. But to do this, He had to send Her Seven swords of sorrow which enlarged her love from the Son of Man to the sons of men.
Without this deepening, love falls into one of two dangers: contempt or pity contempt because the other no longer pleases the ego, pity because the other is worthy of some consideration without love. Had Our Divine Lord not called Mary into the fellowship of His suffering, had she been dispensed from Calvary because of her Majesty as His Mother, she would have had contempt for those who took the life of her only Son, and only pity for us who had no such blessing.
But because He first identified Himself with our human nature at Bethlehem, later with our daily tasks at Nazareth and with our misunderstandings at Galilee and Jerusalem, and finally with our tears and blood and agonies at Calvary, He gave to us His Mother and, to all of us, the lesson that love must embrace mankind or suffocate in the narrowness of its ego. Summoned by Him, to share His daily Cross, her love expanded with His own and reached such, a peak of universal identification that His Ascension was paralleled by her Assumption. He, Who inspired her to stand at the foot of the Cross as an active participant in its redemption, would not be remiss in crowning such love with union with Him where love would be without sorrow, or where sorrow would be swallowed up in joy.
Love never becomes a cult without a death. How often does even human love come into the full consciousness of the other’s devotedness, until the death of the partner? History becomes legend after death, and love becomes adoration. One no longer keeps any memory of the other’s faults, or what was left undone; all is surrounded in an aureole of praise. The ennui of life fades away; the quarrels that hurt evaporate, or else they are transformed into souvenirs of affection. The dead are always more beautiful than the living.
In the case of Mary, we have no memories of her imperfections fading away, for she was “blessed among women”; but we do have such a deepening of love as to produce a cult. He, Who sacrificed Himself for us, thought so much of His Death that He left a Memorial of it and ordered its re-enactment in what is today known as the Mass. His love, that died, became adoration in the Eucharist.
Why, then, should not she who gave Him that Body with which He could die, and that Blood which He could pour forth, be remembered, not in adoration, but in veneration, and as long as time endures? But if , along with the God Who is the Man of Sorrows and who entered into His Glory, there is a creature, a Woman of Sorrows who accompanied Him into that glory, then we all have an inspiration to love through a cross and with it, that we, too, may reign with Christ.