The Barbarian and the Virgin Mary

Let me assure you at the outset: I love Mary. I believe everything the Church teaches about her, and the rosary and other Marian devotions are a regular and significant part of my life. Even so, I have to admit, on my first few visits to old Catholic Europe, I was unprepared for the scope of her presence, just in the art alone. For me, the question arose that must also arise for so many moderns upon encountering old-world Catholicism or Orthodoxy: how is it possible that the cult of the Virgin grew so astonishingly large over the centuries, and this in a religion putatively centered on the worship of God? How is it that scenes from her life, biblical or traditional, and most of all the ubiquitous Madonna and Child, came to be painted by every great artist for centuries, not to speak of the tens of thousands of anonymous monks, copyists, and two-bit hacks? Why did so many of the churches, not to mention all of the Cistercian abbeys, need to be dedicated to her? A stumbling block to Protestants and foolishness to skeptics, this bizarre phenomenon cries for explanation: what can be the reason for it?

Of course, we need not (and will not) find one reason, and it is true that many good ones have already been offered. With a richer conception of the Communion of Saints, a participatory notion of the Body of Christ, a pre-modern sense of the hierarchies of being, a distinction between doulia and latria, a Christological retelling of the Theotokos disputes, etc., the Marian cultus may begin to seem more intelligible. But these and many other accounts don not quite get me, not to mention a Protestant or post-Protestant Westerner over the hump: the profound strangeness of the phenomenon as it strikes my American senses is just difficult to overcome. On the other hand (against my inclination), I suppose we might turn to the Protestant or Enlightenment explanation, calling the cult of Mary so much idolatry, and connecting it to the ancient Near Eastern cults of the “queen of heaven” (e.g. Jer. 7:18), the global presence of virginal feminine deities in cultures throughout history, and so forth. On this reading, there would be some abiding human temptation to elevate the feminine into an object of sacrilegious worship—a desire that needs careful chastening. And yet that sort of response leaves me distinctly cool, even aside from my dogmatic objections. First, because I and so many others have experienced the manifest good of Marian piety: why could not an even stronger form of it accomplish more? And second, because it seems more philosophical to affirm first, and deny afterward, avoiding a hermeneutic of suspicion. The better path must be to look for the good I do not yet have eyes for. What have the faithful seen in Mary that so outstrips the contemporary imagination?

Now, in pursuit of this object, I want to propose a different explanation, one that might help clarify the role of the Marian cultus in the broader human drama. By placing it within the context of the ages-long struggle with barbarism, we can begin to see some of the human reasons for traditional Marian devotion. To show what I mean by the “struggle with barbarism,” I shall refer to the model set out by the French philosopher Rémi Brague in his book Eccentric Culture, then transpose it into a Marian key, before finally applying the model to some of our stereotypical late-modern problems, both social and personal.[1] Overall, my claim is that the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary has (by the grace of God) provided a kind of corrective pedagogy for fallen human beings, presenting us with a fitting human path beyond the limits of our woundedness, and into a life of creative freedom. Hers is a path still open, and necessary for us today.

To begin, Brague’s cultural theory will help us set up the problem, and get some sense of what the solution must be. Eccentric Culture’s theme is “the appropriation of the foreign”: how a civilization relates to the goods available outside itself, historically, geographically, culturally. According to Brague, there are two primary orientations toward these foreign goods. There is the mode of “digestion,” and the mode of “inclusion.” In the former, a culture takes what it likes from another time, people, or place, and swallows it whole, making use of it in its own way, with scant acknowledgement of the source: “the object is assimilated to such a point that it loses its independence” (107). Brague’s key examples are the Marcionite movement of the 2nd century, which wanted to digest what it found good in the Hebrew scriptures, and throw out the rest, moving forward with its version of the New Testament alone (55-59).

In the contrary mode of inclusion, a culture honors what it finds outside itself, even though it may not fully accept it: in Brague’s words, “the foreign body is maintained in its otherness and surrounded by the process of an appropriation whose very presence brings out its otherness” (107). The paradigmatic examples of this are the Christian Bible’s preservation within itself (contra Marcion) of the complete scriptures of the Jews, in all their historic, linguistic peculiarity (62-64); and the medieval monastic tradition of copying classical texts, even the atheistic Lucretius and the lascivious Ovid, word for scandalous word (93-94). According to this mode, one includes the other in all its difference, in spite of disagreement, discomfort, or even tedium, on account of the other’s dignity and intrinsic interest. It means, in a sense, making the other primary and oneself secondary, in service of the other. For Brague, it is this mode of “cultural secondarity” that has made the Christian cultures of the West great: they have continuously been capable of prizing sources outside themselves, just as the Romans once prized the intellectual culture of the Greeks, and the barbarian tribes prized the civilization of the Romans. Indeed, secondarity requires a palpable awareness that one is in some sense, at some level, a barbarian oneself, and in need of the resources of the other. Here, Brague recalls the famous image of Charlemagne, in the 9th century, sleeping with

Tablets and a stylus under his pillow to slog away at writing when he couldn’t sleep. The father of Europe was illiterate, but he was learning to write. He who, from our images at Epinal, was the father of schools was in fact himself a schoolboy, and the sort who took night classes. Such was the making of Europe: taking after its ‘father,’ it is an illiterate continent that learned to read—not Gaulish or German, etc.—but Latin and Greek (130).

This ability to realize one’s own barbarism, and thus to go outside oneself in humble pursuit of what the other has to offer—to appreciate it as not one’s own, but something to be attained—this is the stuff of renaissance, and it has been the mark of every great flourishing Western century.

Now, we encounter a paradox: to become civilized, one must admit one’s barbarism. To be culturally re-born (re-nascence), it is crucial to allow that one’s first birth was to an inferior station. Making myself secondary to my source, the other, actually elevates me. The Roman aqueducts (in a memorable image of Brague’s) had to be higher at the source, and lower at the destination—Rome itself—and yet these inventions were a mark of Rome’s greatness, and the success of its civilization (40). As Christ revealed in the fullness of time, the last shall be first. On the other hand, not to lower oneself is to remain low: the first shall be last. To remain a barbarian, one needs simply to deny the need for the fonts of culture, to deny the unique importance of the other. The barbarian is the one who follows the path of “digestion,” denying his or her fundamental barbarism. The choice is at once disarmingly simple and unusually hard to carry out well, for it seems that the habit of cultural digestion comes as naturally to us as pride. How could a person, a people, manage to succeed against this barbarism for any extended amount of time? To admit one’s secondarity, and to stay with that admission over the course of a life: this requires a heroic struggle, and arguably, the work of grace.

For centuries, the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary has provided a kind of pedagogy in exactly this struggle. It has been a special task of hers, by God’s design, to lead many souls out of the barbarous pride of their sin, and into the fuller humanity to which they have been called. She has done so, first, by modelling in her life the way of inclusion. Or perhaps, in her context, “reception” is a better word. At the Annunciation, on hearing that the Lord is with her, and that she will conceive the Son of God, Mary’s response first affirms her secondarity: “behold the handmaid of the Lord.” From such a lowly place, she can utter the tender words of her reception: “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38). She recognizes the otherness of God’s Word, and makes a place for it within herself. As the earliest Christians understood in meditating upon these passages, our Lady’s radical receptivity at the outset of Christ’s life marks out the best (or second-best) example of Jesus’s own principle: “whoever wishes to be greatest among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:43). In this peasant girl from the hinterlands of Palestine, the shocking, and disarmingly lovely, truth of God’s approach to humankind becomes clear. As she herself avers in the Magnificat shortly thereafter, God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones / and lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:52). Here is the path out of the barbarism of sin, a path that shines forth in Mary’s life with a bracing clarity.[2]

When the Christians of subsequent centuries have prayed to Mary, they have taken up her precious words and spoken them as their own. The Angelus, for example, has us repeat the Vulgate’s version of her response to Gabriel: ecce ancilla Domini; fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. And the Magnificat’s praise of the God of the lowly comes near the close of every traditional evening prayer. To pray these words is to include Mary in our inner lives, just as she included the angel’s Word of God. As we include, as we receive, we are included and received by him whom we are all striving to approach. As we read, we are read into her story—his story—and our humility becomes our exaltation. How is it that the Virgin’s cult swelled to such an astonishing size in the Christian centuries? For countless men and women, Mary’s school of secondarity provided a liberating education in how to receive the Gift for which we were created, the Other for whom we are always and everywhere searching. She opened up a way out of the spiritual poverty of the barbarian’s pride, a way that ran down the slender path of her words. We cannot exaggerate the relief one finds on discovering this path, a relief painted out upon the walls of a hundred thousand chapels. As Brague suggests, the cultural secondarity of the great Western centuries could never have held for as long as it did without the deeper anchor of religious secondarity (111). By learning, with Mary, to receive God properly, we learned also to receive our cultural others.

But why, in the religion of Christ, is a Marian way fitting? Does not Christ himself model the kind of humble receptivity we are marking out? “Not as I will, but as thou wilt,” he tells the Father in Gethsemane (Mt 26:39). Certainly, but there is also Christ himself to be received, and that is archetypally the role of Mary. Her fiat is to his presence within her, and it is she who accepts and ponders in her heart both the glory and the suffering foretold at the Presentation, as well as the truth that “my Father’s business” is more important than any plans their human family has otherwise made (Lk. 2: 29-35, 49-51). Her deep habit of reception places her in the long, biblical train of receptive women, from Hannah and Ruth down to the Lady Sophia of the Wisdom literature, and of course, it opens the way for the feminine receptivity of the Church herself, the apocalyptic Bride of Christ (Rev 21:2). Indeed, the scriptures dramatize both masculine and feminine roles, both gift and reception, throughout, from the flawed first Adam and Eve, down to the “last Adam” in Christ, and the second Eve in Mary (1 Cor 15:45; see also: Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 3.22.4). In this context, the cult of Mary takes on the importance it does, in part because the task of reception is in some ways harder for us than that of gift. We are all called both to receive and to give, but our native barbarism resists the former more aggressively than the latter. We are, and have always been, in need of loving re-education. This is the pedagogy of the Virgin.

Two final thoughts: first, modern culture has dramatically undercut the virtue of receptivity into which the West was schooled during the (more) Christian centuries. The shift is clear enough in the self-consciously “masculinist” model of power in Francis Bacon. “I am come,” he wrote in The Masculine Birth of Time, “in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave. “By art and the hand of man,” he added later, in The Great Instauration, “she is forced out of her natural state, and squeezed and moulded” to the human will. Indeed, as many of our genealogists of Modernity have painstakingly argued, the Baconian framework has structured our scientific and technological culture over the past few centuries, fostering a neo-barbarian pattern of digestion, rather than inclusion. As Rémi Brague himself has argued in the recently translated Kingdom of Man, radical modernity has conceived of itself as “a new beginning,” one which requires “the forgetting of everything that preceded”; more Marcionite than Christian, it has tended to generate widespread patterns of taking more than of receiving—what Pope Francis calls the “throwaway culture” of our time (Laudato Si §16). Power is having one’s way, defining the terms oneself, carrying out one’s projects without reference to the other. Of course, Christianity is still with us, and the Romantic counter-stress on what Wordsworth called “wise passiveness” has helped keep the way of reception alive. And yet it is not surprising that we find ourselves ill-prepared to comprehend the historic pedagogy of Mary, with all its manifold cultural artifacts. We find ourselves caught between contradictory impulses, desiring both to continue the comfortable process of digestion into which we have been mindlessly habituated, and somehow to follow the ideal of inclusion.

Here is where we need once again this month to discover the way of Mary. Abstract “inclusivity” will never be enough—no more than a figleaf to cover the nakedness of our libido dominandi. It is a person we need—a personal path—the path of the poor young girl at the Annunciation, whose fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum set out, and still sets out, the meaning of true power. Hers is the power we desire, whether we realize it or not: the power not of the barbarian, but of the humble participant in the Divine Life. In saying yes to God, she joined her fiat to the fiat of the world’s beginning, and opened the way to the renewal of that creation. Her gift is rooted in her reception, both masculinity and femininity flourishing in relation, within one and the same soul. By making herself secondary to his love, she rose to the highest place of created glory. By including within our weak selves her lovely secondarity, we may enter once again into the fecund creativity to which we have always already been called. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” as Irenaeus long ago said (Against the Heresies, 4.20.7). The path to that life, to that glory, still runs through the same humble words: “behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”


[1] Rémi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s, 2002).

[2] In the interests of time and space, I am skipping over much of the history of Marian devotion. For a historical-developmental narrative, see Denis Farkasfalvy’s work in The Marian Mystery: Outline of a Mariology (New York: St. Paul’s, 2014). His account of the 2nd-4th c. developments, in particular, makes clear that the early Christians venerated her precisely on account of the glorious receptivity: for Athanasius, e.g., she is the new Ark of the Covenant, “containing the true manna, that is the flesh in which the divinity resides” (113-114).


Featured Image: Mantegna, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1485; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Dwight A. Lindley III

Dwight Lindley, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Hillsdale College. He teaches courses in the Great Books core program, as well as nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature.

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