Thursday, December 11, 2008

Immaculate Conception - Fr Robert Farmer

At the start of the Advent Retreat, Fr Robert Farmer preached at the Sung Mass of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. The theme of the Retreat was the French School of spirituality and so his homily, which is reproduced here, draws on the Fathers of the French School and their devotion to the our Blessed Lady.

You have to feel sorry for poor old Bishop Knox of Manchester. A convinced evangelical and a renowned persecutor of Anglo-Catholic priests and parishes at the beginning of the last century, he also found time to father four sons. One became an atheist, another an agnostic. Wilfred Knox was a faithful Anglo-Catholic priest till the end of his life and a member of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd. Ronald Knox, of course, after an Anglo-Catholic period became a Roman Catholic priest, a well-known writer, and controversialist. But the bishop had no understanding or sympathy for any of these alternative trajectories, the Catholic variants least of all. His grand-daughter, the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, records him saying to Mrs Knox:
Between ourselves Winnie, I can’t understand what it is that the dear boys see in the Blessed Virgin Mary.

What is it that we ‘see’ in the Blessed Virgin Mary and what brings us together this evening to celebrate her Immaculate Conception? Well, Catholic Christians have seen a good deal in the Mother of Jesus and have proclaimed the fruits of that sustained, contemplative gaze in dogma, liturgy, devotion, music, art and poetry over many centuries. As we prepare to enter into our Advent Retreat and to meet some of the central figures in the French School of spirituality, this evening let’s glance at what some of them saw in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Perhaps we can make their ‘seeing’ our own.

Jean-Jacques Olier was the founder of the Community of St Sulpice, a fraternity of priests dedicated to the formation of candidates for holy orders which continues to staff seminaries around the world to this day. It isn’t surprising then that Olier spoke frequently of Our Lady as the Queen of priests, Mother of priests, Advocate and model of the clergy and so on. Baroque sentimentality gone mad you might think, but Olier’s devotional language was rooted in his perception that Mary’s mission was to bring Jesus to a waiting world. That Marian mission is ours too and just as Mary fulfilled her mission through her motherhood so priests, in their preaching, sacramental ministry and pastoral care, also make Christ present. So powerful was this perception that Olier chose the feast of Mary’s Presentation, the 21st of November, as the day on which all the members of his seminary-community were to consecrate themselves to the service of Christ and his Church in their respective vocations, just as Mary’s life had been consecrated in the Temple. As he wrote:
She surrendered herself wholly to God with a marvellous confidence... and teaches us to live in the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, given up to the will and the care of God the Father.
Another important figure (more or less contemporary with Monsieur Olier) was St John Eudes, who was also the founder of several communities, both of men and women. Some of these communities were responsible for priestly formation, but others were primarily engaged with front-line mission activity throughout France and especially in Normandy. Once again, St John Eudes’ baroque vocabulary is rich, extravagant and can be misinterpreted. You will remember the novel in which a caricature of this House begins with a contretemps about images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Well, this is a devotion rooted in the writings of St John Eudes, but it is not a devotion that easily commends itself to many of us today and it can have an irritant effect upon Protestant hackles. Suffice to say that a ‘return to the sources’ is almost always a good thing and I think that actually reading Eudes will calm jangled evangelical sensibilities, at least to some extent. What does Eudes say about Mary whose ‘heart’ is, for him, the symbol of her human depth, capacity for love and God-given vocation? He tells us that Jesus is ‘the spirit of her spirit, the soul of her soul and the heart of her heart.’ For St John Eudes, it is the Son who chooses, graces and empowers his Mother.

But lying behind Olier, Eudes and all the other figures who are part of the French School is the remarkable Cardinal Berulle – the theological engine who drives the movement. Berulle offers us some very clear words on this feast of the Immaculate Conception, words that remind us of that one source in which all that Mary is and does is rooted:
[Jesus] happily preserved her from all offence. He adorns her with all grace. He makes her worthy of carrying him and receiving him into the world. Her comes into her as his tabernacle. Her rests for nine months in her as on a throne. He comes to us through her.
These are words which might have allayed Bishop Knox’s fears a little, though I doubt it. Yet here we have the clearest statement that Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception is all the work of Jesus and is part of the preparation for his Incarnation - not a grace bestowed randomly upon an individual, but rather an essential part of the drama of salvation. Elsewhere Berulle writes:
Conceived without sin, sanctified from the first moment of her existence she was born with little attention or clamour... If earth did not think of her, the most tender gaze of God upon the earth was reserved for this humble, unknown, unrecognized virgin.
We see something characteristic of Berulle here, and of his circle: a concern to balance grand theological statements about the Mother of God with insistent reminders that she is also the biblical, historical ‘lowly virgin of Nazareth’. It is this same woman in whom Berulle finds the model of Christian silence, prayer and contemplation. He says:
And the Virgin is silent. This is her state, her way, her life. Her life is one of silent adoration of the Eternal Word. Seeing this same Word, the substantial Word of the Father, before her eyes, on her breast and in her arms, being unable to speak and reduced to silence by the state of his infancy, she enters a new silence where she is transformed by the example of the Incarnate Word who is her Son, her God, and her only Love. And thus her life goes from silence to silence, from the silence of adoration to the silence of transformation.
I find this account of Mary’s interior life profoundly convincing and profoundly moving. The immaculate and ever-virgin Mary responds in adoration to the Word within. She is the true model of all Christian contemplative experience, in which our adoration is called forth in response to God’s Word spoken deep within us. Like her, we are to become sounding-boards and echo-chambers in which the Word can be spoken, as Dom Cyprian Smith once wrote. This is both our challenge and our invitation this evening as we prepare for two days of retreat together – days which will go from silence to silence; days in which we offer our adoration in the hope that God may speak his Word in us as he spoke it in Our Lady; days in which his transforming love may touch us once more. So we pray in Monsieur Olier’s words:

O Jesus, living in Mary,
come and live in us your servants,
in the spirit of your holiness,
in the fullness of your power,
in the perfection of your ways,
in the communication of your mysteries;
and conquer all the powers that work against us
to the glory of God the Father.