This excerpt from my book The Quest for the Creed is published today to honor the Blessed Virgin on her glorious feast day.
Last year I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The gallery consists of a classical style building where they display paintings, and a vast geometric sprawl of building which houses modern art. I decided to start off exploring the modern collection. Red leatherette drainpipes were stuck on the wall, a plastic box held fruit pies made out of plaster, enormous mobiles hung from the ceiling and the floor was littered with carved shapes like some gigantic baby had left his blocks lying around. The walls displayed huge canvases—all wonderfully colorful, anarchic and meaningless.
In fact it was rather tame. I was surprised not to find three tons of carved animal fat, a pile of trash or a squashed hat. Where was the dog turd collection? Where was the slattern’s unmade bed? Why couldn’t I see a desiccated sheep in a tank of formaldehyde, a two-headed monkey or Jack the Ripper’s undershirt? An authentic modern art gallery is supposed to be a cross between a porn shop, a freak show and an insane asylum isn’t it? In that sense the modern wing of the Washington gallery was a let down.
I decided to talk to the gallery guard instead. He was a young black guy with a suspicious eye and a smart grin. I asked him what gallery he liked best. He said he preferred the early Italian stuff. So I asked if he had a favorite painting. He smiled and suggested I find the Small Cowper Madonna. I took his suggestion and made my way to a room half full of paintings by Raphael. There in one corner hung an exquisite painting of the Madonna and Child. Raphael is famous for his Madonnas, but this one was smaller than most. It was more intimate and the beauty more immanent. The setting conveyed all the natural innocence and simplicity of a woman with her child; but somehow this one was different. Mary’s enigmatic expression and the luminosity of the colors hinted at the extraordinary mystery that was locked within that most ordinary scene. I was captivated. For a moment time was transposed into eternity and the mysterious theory that God at one point took human flesh was concrete and real in that mixture of pigment and paint on a piece of canvas.
It made me wonder later why we consider anything to be beautiful at all. Why should a we look at a landscape, a painting or another human being and feel that surge of delight, wonder and desire which we call “beauty”? Modern aesthetic theory follows the old wives and says, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But what if it is the other way around and beauty is actually in the thing we are beholding? Isn’t that what our experience tells us? We see a sunset, a Raphael Madonna or a beauty queen and we gasp and say, “That’s beautiful!” We don’t say, “As I regard that object my cultural and educational background has conditioned me to interpret my inner feelings as something called beauty.” Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, but in the essence of the beautiful object. That’s why we all feel that beauty takes us outside ourselves and puts us into contact with something greater, more mysterious and wonderful than we thought existed before.
In a way, that picture of the incarnation of God said also something about every painting and poem and piece of music that aspires to be beautiful. The object of art particularizes beauty. It makes beauty real and physical. That Raphael painting was full of grace and truth, and I beheld its glory, and that’s what Christians say about the relationship between Jesus and God. He incarnates the beauty, truth, grace and glory. In him all beauty, truth, grace and glory come alive.
As I gazed on that luminous Madonna I made contact not only with something beautiful, but with Beauty. It was also an astoundingly intimate experience of purity and power. For a moment I caught a glimpse of a kind of purity which was both as soft as moonlight and as hard as diamonds. I suddenly realized that purity, like all things beautiful and refined, is an acquired taste. Like the fragile beauty of a Mozart aria, or the calm, exquisite beauty of a Chinese vase, purity can only be fully sensed by those who pursue purity themselves, and this realization made my own sordid and tepid life seem small. While looking at the naked child and the Madonna’s subtle smile I also realized that purity is a hidden and subtle virtue—available only to those who have been given the eyes to see.
But as soon as I speak the word “purity” I am aware of a certain sang froid. Don’t you curl up a little at the word “purity”. I do. Like most people, I am embarrassed and confused by the concept. I find that the mere word conjures up images of the “pure” girls of my youth who were all long skirts, buckteeth and big Bibles. The Raphael Madonna stunned me with real purity, and I realized we are confused about purity because we have been blinded by false images of purity. We confuse purity with naivete. We are amused and embarrassed by a kind of “aw shucks” purity which consists of grinning boys with Brylcreamed hair, girls in bobby sox, bubble gum and “Let’s go out to the ballgame.” We are rightly embarrassed by a false vision of purity that is the product of black and white TV programs where the married couples sleep in twin beds. This is not purity in all its magnificent power. It is Pollyanna purity.
If we confuse purity with wholesome naiveté we also confuse it with grim puritanism. The word “purity” summons up the images of hatchet-faced nuns stalking the corridors of concentration camp convent schools. When we hear “purity” we think of a squeaky clean fundamentalist college with a sincere, but sinister agenda. The word “purity” gives us nightmares of the black and white world of the Puritans with their big black hats, big black books and big black witch-hunts. This kind of “purity” points an accusing claw at all those sordid “sins against purity” which haunt the adolescent conscience. So “purity” instead of being an image of shallow goodness, has been hi-jacked and twisted to become a tool of repression, guilt and sour religion.
We also confuse purity with celestial otherworldliness. We think of Botticelli angels and cultivate a vague notion of a lofty, unstained realm of existence where the saints and angels sit together in unimaginable and somewhat boring bliss on a pink cloud. If we’re really unlucky our false religion mixes all three false images so that the cruelty of puritanism has a gloss of grinning pollyanna along with the sentimentality of pink angels. It doesn’t take long to realize that the concept of purity has been so twisted in our modern minds that it almost doesn’t exist. And yet, when we say in the creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” we are saying that he came into the world through a stupendous kind of purity that makes all our shallow concepts of purity look puerile. When we say in the creed that Christ was “born of the Virgin Mary” we embrace the fact that in a Jewish girl in Nazareth two thousand years ago there existed a new matrix of purity and power the like of which had not been seen in the world since the dawn of time.
Mary the mother of Jesus is an icon of beauty and purity because she is a virgin. But I am aware that this term too, has been misunderstood and maligned. We think of a virgin simply as a person who has not had sexual intercourse. This is the shallowest of definitions. Defining a “virgin” as someone who has not had sexual intercourse is like defining a person from Iowa as someone who has never been to Paris. It may be true that most Iowans have not been to Paris, but to define an untravelled Iowan by that simple negative definition is too small. Even the most stay at home hayseed from Iowa is bigger than a negative definition.
When the early Christians venerated the Virgin Mary they were venerating far more than the biological fact that a girl was intact. For them the Virgin was not just an untouched maid. Her physical virginity was a sign of something far more. It was an indication of her whole character. In her they sensed a virginity that was a positive and powerful virtue, not simply a negative naiveté. Mary represented all that was real, whole, and simple. She stood for everything that was natural, that was infinite, that was “yes”. Mary was a virgin in the same way that we call a forest “virgin.” A virgin forest is fresh and natural, majestic and mysterious. Mary’s virginity was not simply the natural beauty and innocence of a teenage girl. It held the primeval purity of Eden and the awesome innocence of Eve.
This is precisely why the earliest theologians called the girl from Nazareth the second Eve. The myth of the innocent first Mother projects an image of Woman in all her primal power and radiant beauty. Eve was at once imperious and innocent, stupendous and simple. She was the Queen of Eden and the girl next door. If we were to meet Eve we would meet a woman who held in herself the monumental innocence of nature—as majestic as a mountain and as tender as a rose; as splendid and fragrant as the snows of the Himalayas and as joyful and free as a month old lamb.
When the theologians of the second century called the Virgin Mary the second Eve they were implying that by a special act of God she had been created without the usual tendency to choose evil. This freedom of choice gave humanity a second chance. In the primal myth the first innocent woman said “No” to God and “yes” to herself. The girl of Nazareth was a new chance for humanity to say “no” to itself and “yes” to God. Mary’s innocence and purity were of the same order as Eve’s. In her, virginity is not just a physical fact, but a metaphysical truth. In her, creation was fresh and new again, and because of this seed of innocence the opportunity was given for every morsel of creation to one day be born again.
You might imagine that such total innocence and goodness would make Mary a sort of Galilean wonderwoman. It’s true that her innocence was extraordinary, but it was also very ordinary. That is to say that while it was momentous it did not seem remarkable at the time. There is a curious twist to real innocence. It is summed up by the observation that what is natural is not unusual. If a person is innocent, then they are as they should be. There is nothing bizarre or eccentric about them. There is therefore nothing that calls attention to them. Innocent people are at home with themselves, and no one is out of place when they are at home. In the countryside Mother Nature is invisible. In the same way Mary was not noticed in Nazareth. Because she was totally natural she did not stand out. Mary fit in because she was simply and wholly who she was created to be. Because she was perfectly natural she was perfectly ordinary. Therefore she was both as marvelous and as unremarkable as a morning in May. Meeting Mary may have been like seeing that Raphael Madonna. On the surface it is a charming picture of a Mother and child. Look more closely and those who have eyes to see may just glimpse the magnitude and the mystery of God becoming man through the womb of a woman. Likewise meeting Mary may have been like meeting any other woman, and only those with the vision of a mystic would have sensed the extraordinary truth expressed in this ordinary girl. This secret lies at the heart of Mary’s purity, and it is this purity which makes her both invisible and invincible. Like a spy who “sleeps” in an enemy land, Mary fit in. This simple naturalness is the secret of her purity that proves such a powerful secret weapon against the pride of the world.
Locked in that small Cowper Madonna is the natural innocence of Mary, and this simple innocence enabled her to be submissive to God’s will. This is the little point of the fulcrum on which the world turns, and it is the point at which we can turn our world upside down. Can you see the revolutionary principle locked in this young woman’s decision to be submissive to God? In our day we howl at the mere idea that we ought to be submissive to anyone, and to suggest that a woman be submissive is to express a heresy that makes you ripe for burning. But let us stand that on its head. We assume that it is natural to be willful and to assert ourselves, but if there is a creator, then surely the natural thing is for all things to fit into their proper place in the natural order. To do this one must find one’s rightful place and be submissive to the natural order. Therefore, if Mary was as natural and innocent as a morning in May then she must have been submissive to God because submission to God is the natural, wholesome and ordinary state for a human being. It is pride and self-will which is strange and twisted—not submission.
Therefore, a person who is submissive to God’s will is natural; as natural as the sun which submits to rise and set each day or the water which submits to run downhill. Because she was pure and natural Mary was already where she should be. She didn’t need to assert herself. She didn’t need to establish her own identity. It was already established in who she was. When she said to God “let it be to me according to your word” she was saying something natural and ordinary because it is natural for a human being to submit to his maker. But on the other hand Mary was saying something extraordinary and un-natural because from the dawn of time human pride had come to seem natural, and rebellion against God had become the norm.
Thus Mary’s response was revolutionary; for in a world of rebels, the one who submits is subversive. Mary’s total acceptance of God’s will turns the world upside-down and points to a new way forward for humanity: a way in which purity replaces pride. This kind of purity is actually power because it aligns its own limited power in perfect harmony and co-operation with the One unlimited Power of the Universe. Mary’s pure submission to the Divine Will points to possibilities for us. If we align ourselves to the greatest power that exists we become agents of that power in the world in ways we could never expect. To say “Thy will be done” therefore, is an exercise both in weakness and ultimate power. In admitting our weakness we open the door to God’s power. When Mary heard the words, “With God nothing is impossible” she plunged into a concept with everlasting and portentous potential. She embraced the exciting and frightening reality that she lived in an open universe; a universe where it is possible to align oneself with a Will that is forever surprising and subversive; a Will that is itself a magnificent and mighty blend of purity and power.
C.S.Lewis observed that at the end there will only be two kinds of people—those who say, “Thy will be done” and those who say “my will be done.” With Eve we may say “My will be done” or with Mary we may say “Thy will be done.” As it was in Eden so it was in Nazareth, and as it was then, is now and ever shall be. We have a choice between our will or God’s will. We can choose all that is twisted and tiny and tainted or we can choose all that is natural, enormous and innocent. Like Eve and like Mary we have been given free will. We can choose freedom or we can use that free will to choose slavery. We can limit ourselves to our own ever-narrowing will and so choose a downward spiral of impurity and impotence; or we can align our will to the Divine Will and be caught up in an upward spiral of purity and power that has no boundaries and no natural end.
Go here to purchase The Quest for the Creed. This book is comprised of twenty short chapters on the Apostle’s Creed written in a Chestertonian style. Remember Donor Subscribers should use their code for their discount on all purchases.