The early Celtic Christians, like people of every creed in medieval Europe, were a patriarchal society. The struggles of women were real and we can see many places in the Celtic texts where sexism and misogyny were standard practice. However, there were voices who spoke out for equality as well, who took to heart the Apostle’s teaching that in Christ there is no male or female. Pelagius, a fourth century British monk and theologian, was one such person. He described Mary as manifesting completely everything which resided in Jesus. It was, of course, through Mary that Jesus was made manifest, so this isn’t a difficult connection to make.
In the quote from his treatise On Virginity below, Pelagius is referring to Mary in regards to a life of chastity specifically. While we may not place the same importance on virginity today as they did back then, the insight is helpful nonetheless. For Pelagius, the reverence of Mary was an important reminder that the image of God is not reserved for men alone but can be found, in its completeness, in women also. When speaking of Jesus, Pelagius said,
“He showed an example of virginity for men in himself and for women in his mother, so that it might be demonstrated that the blessed and perfect fullness of divinity was worthy to reside in either sex, since whatever resided in the Son was also completely manifested in the Mother.”
The Evernew Tongue talks about how the entire cosmos resided within Jesus’ sacred humanity. It was through Mary that the incarnation took place and Jesus received his sacred humanity from her. Since in Christ all are saved, and it was in Mary that Christ took on our nature, Mary is an active participant in the work of redemption. We must pick up our cross and follow Christ if we wish to seek the depths of the contemplative life, but we must also open our spiritual wombs to the presence of God so that we may give birth to what is sacred.
To express the symbolism of Mary as an exemplar of the spiritual life, I have arranged the following chant. It is included in my upcoming book Psalter of the Birds where you can also find instructions on how to chant texts like this. It is taken from the teachings of Maximus the Confessor, a student of Dionysius and an inspiration for Eriugena. The text is found in his Epistles.
Like the Apostle Philip in The Evernew Tongue, Maximus had his tongue cut out to prevent him from preaching. Maximus also taught a very similar understanding of salvation as the one found in The Evernew Tongue, with the microcosm of the human being as the central means by which the incarnation of Christ was able to resurrect the cosmos. Eriugena also taught this and you can read more about it HERE.
In this teaching about Mary, Maximus describes the spiritual path as one which begins in faith. Christ creates the faith which is found in the human heart. This faith is created in every person. All of the virtues are eternally within us. God contains and gives life to every goodness. Since our hearts are the image of God, all goodness is contained within them as well. There is an infinite well of virtue inside of us from which we may draw the waters of faith. This faith is the light of our hearts which can be seen once our eyes have been opened.
Just as Christ created his mother and then chose to be born into the world through her, Christ creates faith in our hearts and then climbs inside that faith, as if it were a spiritual womb. The seeds of Christ are planted within us but they need to be nourished before they can be born. The child grows within the mother and is completely dependent upon her.
The infant Jesus is born into the world through our acts of virtue. Our compassion and generosity are the embodiment of Christ Jesus. The way we are to nourish the baby Jesus, once he has been born, is symbolically shown through Mary’s two breasts. One breast is the path of action and the other is the path of contemplation. Mary is herself made into Christ as she feeds him from her own essence. She is deified by the one who created her, even as she nourishes him and gives him life.
The sacred theologians hand down to us This truth about the Mother Mary How she is the exemplar of faith And of the spiritual wombs in our hearts The mother of the Word Is the true and pure faith Just as the Word who, as God Is by nature the creator of his mother Who gave birth to him in the flesh He made her his mother Out of love for humankind And accepted to be born from her as a man So too the Word first creates faith within us And then becomes the son of that faith From which he is embodied Through the practice of the virtues Therefore blessed is the one Who through divine wisdom Has actively made God in themself And who has brought to fullness The inception of this mystery And who passively experiences Becoming God by grace For their contemplation will never end By your generous dispositions Which were born from your heart You nourish the Word in accordance With right practice and contemplation As if from these two breasts You nurse the Word along To growth in abundance of holy ideas And the way you live your life So that, paradoxical as it sounds His own growth becomes The deification of the mind Which is itself nourishing him
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