Friday, March 25, 2011

Saying "yes" to God's will

As I mentioned in the post below this one, today is the great Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her that she would be the mother of Our Savior. Mary's "Yes!" to God has been the subject of many reflections and wise meditations; alas, it has also sometimes been something more like a hammer used as a weapon against each other.

Mary, of course, was the one merely human being who was, from the moment of her Immaculate Conception, perfectly attuned to God's will. When the angel voiced his great message, Mary's one question, "How can this be since I do not know man?" must be understood in that context: she, who already perfectly understood God's will of pledged and perpetual virginity for her, was asking how this new aspect of God's plan would accord with what she had already perfectly discerned. I sometimes think this point gets missed, a little; unconsciously, we think of Mary as like ourselves, saying, perhaps, "Oh, wait--I thought God wanted me to live a life of virginity. Okay, so He has something else in mind?" That's not it at all: Mary knew as we with our clouded intellects and imperfectly attuned wills can't possibly know what God had already revealed about His plan for her--and as that part which she knew about was perpetual virginity, she was asking the angel, "How will this new part of God's plan for me include the part I already know about?" She asked the question trusting that the angel's answer would make sense of it all--as it did; reassured as to God's plan of virginity being part of this new plan, Mary's "Fiat!" was swift and joyful.

We, unfortunately, as I said, having intellects darkened by original sin, emotions and passions not perfectly subordinated to our wills, and wills themselves that are inclined toward weak vacillations, do not always perceive God's will in our lives as clearly and distinctly as Our Lady did. Sometimes we are completely, peacefully convinced that He has told us exactly what He wants, and we begin to act, only to discover that we are muddling disastrously though something that we ourselves wanted strongly enough to convince ourselves that He was calling us, when in fact we were only hearing the echoes of our own desires. The opposite can be true, too--we can take action hesitantly, uncertainly, doubting ourselves and what we are doing, only to find that we are indeed doing His will, and are being abundantly blessed for it.

Since it is so difficult, so fraught with peril, for us to determine God's will in our own lives, is it not the height of hubris to think we can tell God's will for someone else? I speak here not of the general duty every Christian has to follow God's laws, to listen to His Church, and to form our consciences in accordance with His teachings and commands; I am speaking here of specific and individual calls to--well, to specific individuals--which we can't really determine from the outside. Yet we are so good at pretending, even to ourselves, that we know with no doubt whatsoever what God wants someone else to do, even if we insist that we don't know what He wants us to do.

Are people who use NFP doing God's will? Are providentialists and quiverfulls? Are homeschoolers doing God's will? Catholic schoolers? Public schoolers? Are stay-at-home moms doing God's will? Moms who work outside the home? Men who are self-employed? Men who work for huge corporations? Men who travel on business, or men who never do?

Are bloggers doing God's will? Non-blogging Facebook posters? Twitterers? Authors of deeply scholarly theological books that everyone pretends to have read but almost no one actually has? Authors of popular theology books of the sort that are displayed like coffee-table credentials in some Catholic homes?

Are Extraordinary Form Mass attendees doing God's will? Are Novus Ordo Mass attendees doing God's will? Are male altar servers doing God's will--and are female ones? Are lay Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion doing God's will? Are permanent deacons who are married and who don't think they're excused from paying the marriage debt to their wives by virtue of ordination doing God's will?

Are we, when we rile each other up about these and dozens of other things, doing God's will?

If we are very devout, very much in pursuit of holiness, very humble and very wise, we may sometimes have a tiny fraction of Mary's certainty that we might just maybe be doing God's will in our own lives. It is impossible for us to know with even that tiny fraction of certainty if anyone else is. And using that phrase, "But you're just not saying "yes!" to God!" as we try to convince others to do what we do or join some cause or apostolate or get involved with some political party or take upon ourselves some extra work or duty outside of our vocation's requirements is trying to use Mary's "Fiat!" as a hammer, to beat other people into submission not to God's will, but to our own.

13 comments:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Since it is so difficult, so fraught with peril, for us to determine God's will in our own lives, is it not the height of hubris to think we can tell God's will for someone else?

I couldn't agree more. Therefore, isn't it the height of hubris for the official hierarchy of any religious organization, of any school of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or other origin, to think they can tell God's will for any one of us?

I also have no idea what basis there is to think the Mary knew, before the angel appeared, that God had planned a life of perpetual virginity for her. As a good Jewish girl, she would have been taking very seriously the command to be fruitful and multiply. The question "how can this be since I have known no man?" has a more commonplace meaning, well known to every virgin, and every unmarried pregnant woman, throughout history.

Red Cardigan said...

Well, no, Siarlys--not if the religion in question is true, and is really the Church founded by Christ as the ordinary means of salvation for all of humanity. But you knew I'd say that. ;)

But I have to disagree with your interpretation of Mary's question. If an angel had appeared to a woman *not* pledged to virginity, she would simply have assumed that the bit about being a mother was a future prophecy of the angel, not a present message signifying a present reality.

And there were Jewish people throughout Jewish history pledged to virginity--several such groups were in existence at the time of Christ's birth, if I recall correctly.

Hector said...

Siarlys,

We've been over all this before, on H. M. Stuart's blog. It's a very old tradition (especially among the Eastern Christians, but also apparently among Roman Catholics and some Anglicans) that Mary was a consecreated virgin, who entered the Temple as a child. The story is found in the Protevangelium of James, which dates from the first century, probably is based on first-hand reminiscences, and is generally considered one of the oldest and most reliable noncanonical writings.

I disagree with Erin a lot, but she's correct here.

Mary said...

If Mary were pledged to virginity, or if she knew that it was God's will for her, then why was she planning to marry Joseph? Did consecrated virgins marry?

Hector_St_Clare said...

Re: If Mary were pledged to virginity, or if she knew that it was God's will for her, then why was she planning to marry Joseph?

For protection, and nonsexual companionship. I don't know what consecrated virgins generally did, or how common it was, but I believe it happened in this case.

In general, I think it's an unreliable hermeneutic to try to look at the life of Jesus and those close to him by asking, 'How did ancient Palestinian Jews normally do things?" The First Century in Judaea was not a normal time, and Jesus, Mary and the rest of them were not normal people.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Google just lost my entire response while logging me in -- in happens about one third of the time on any Google site. Hopefully my reconstruction will live up to the first draft.

Hector, my dear brother in Christ, the notion that Joseph married Mary "for protection and nonsexual companionship" is the kind of ex post facto rationalization often resorted to by those trying to pin together the contradictions of Christian doctrinal mythology. I didn't say Christianity is a myth, I said there is a lot of mythology in the endless web of doctrine. This is why I am a moderate iconoclast.

By moderate, I mean that I am not aware that God has authorized, much less incited, me to break anyone's icons. I simply don't embrace them, and, of course, I enjoy sparring verbally over such things. Its a harmless form of recreation and exploration.

Celibacy is extremely RARE in Jewish tradition, and was, during the reign of the first three or four Caesars, certainly not part of official Temple rites and rituals. It may have been practiced by obscure sects that were about as respected then as the average hippie commune today. Instead of asking a Christian theologian who is desperate to rationalize some Greek or Roman overlay, try asking a Talmudic scholar who knows the subject.

The reason that ha-Giladi (aka Jeptha) mourned his rash vow about "the first thing that comes out of my house" was precisely the fact that her life would be dedicated to celibate service to God, a great tragedy. Even in the mistranslated European texts, which substituted a Greek word for burnt offering in place of the Hebrew eloha, meaning to elevate, it is obvious that the girl is mourning her virginity, not her imminent death.

Moses had to remain celibate, a requirement for direct communication with the deity, which uniquely in human history, he had to be available for all the time. He took flak from Miriam and Aaron for neglecting his wife. In that instance, God pointedly told them to cut it out, but it was a natural concern for them. (Again, the European texts are confused, suggesting that they objected to his Ethiopian wife, rather than to his neglect of his beautiful wife. He only had one wife, Zipporah.)

So there was no Jewish nunnery for Mary to be dedicated to. Joseph fully expected that he was marrying a wife. When she became visibly pregnant before the marriage had been consummated, he responded in the traditional manner. An angel had to explicitly tell him, not that his wife was dedicated to a life of celibacy, but that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife, because what was in her was of the Holy Ghost.

I'm not in the least convinced that they didn't have a normal married life, once the divine child was delivered. I'm not convinced that Jesus didn't have a normal human childhood either -- the hoary myths packaged up in the Anne Rice novel, if accurate, would certainly have rendered impossible such questions (recorded in the gospels) as "Isn't this the carpenter's son?"

Hector said...

Re: Celibacy is extremely RARE in Jewish tradition, and was, during the reign of the first three or four Caesars, certainly not part of official Temple rites and rituals

Look at my response again: "First Century was not a normal time, and Jesus and Co. were not normal people". Virgin births, resurrections and healing blind people are extremely rare, too, but it happened nonetheless. Eastern tradition from a very ancient date has held that Mary was a consecrated virgin at the temple. That we have no other examples of this doesn't mean it didn't happen this once.

Re: In that instance, God pointedly told them to cut it out, but it was a natural concern for them.

As I'm sure you're aware, the Jewish understanding of God evolved over time, and the one presented in the Pentateuch is a fairly primitive understanding. We use the Gospel and church tradition to understand Deuteronomy, not the other way around. In any case, a general approval of sex doesn't mean a disapproval of virginity.

Re: An angel had to explicitly tell him, not that his wife was dedicated to a life of celibacy, but that he should not be afraid to take her as his wife, because what was in her was of the Holy Ghost.

No, the concern was about public appearances- Joseoph and Mary had no intention of consummating the marriage.

Re: I'm not in the least convinced that they didn't have a normal married life, once the divine child was delivered.

Most Christians since the beginning, and today, hold that she was ever-virgin, and the sixth (I think?) ecumenical council explicitly states that she was perpetually virgin.

Re: I'm not convinced that Jesus didn't have a normal human childhood either -- the hoary myths packaged up in the Anne Rice novel, if accurate, would certainly have rendered impossible such questions (recorded in the gospels) as "Isn't this the carpenter's son?"

I don't take any position on whether the story about Jesus bringing life to clay sparrows, etc. really happened (though normally I do have a fairly high regard for some of the apocrypha) but that's a poor argument. It was evident from the birth of Jesus there was something special about him- he was worshipped by the Magi after all- so if that didn't convince the skeptical, why would the episode with the clay sparrows have convinced them? Anyway, most of those childhood events are said to have happened in Egypt, aren't they? Why would the Nazareth crowd know about them?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Hector, I would love to cross-post this at Alexandria -- I think the (Jewish) Wired Sisters would have some interesting perspective, as would (pagan) Franklin Evans. I could even invoke Robert Graves, but here I will not. As you know, I remain accused, tried, and convicted of lese majeste, so it won't be happening.

I have no doubt that you sincerely believe everything you just said. However, I know of NO evidence for the truth of what you sincerely believe. The traditions you reference are, at best, a game of telephone among believers, not Gospel Truth.

Please remember that "Eastern tradition" was developed by non-Jewish gentile converts, who, by the time such traditions were formally recorded, had turned on and rejected their Jewish elder brothers as "Ebionites" and treated the Jewish roots of their faith with considerable disdain. You are talking about Greek distortions of the Jewish context of Jesus's ministry, the confused speculations of people who rather naturally overlaid their own culture on the strange new teaching.

As I've said before, there is some significance to the fact that veneration of Mary as Perpetual Virgin and Queen of Heaven began in Ephesus, and to the fact that the Romans had always had sacred virgins in THEIR temples. The rather singular notion that such a practice was invented for Mary is a self-serving absurdity.

Not only has Jewish understanding of God evolved over time (although orthodox rabbis deny that), so has Christian understanding of God evolved over time. I examine the Council of Nicea in light of the excavation of the Qumran scrolls, scholarship on who really wrote the Gospel according to Matthew, and all kinds of other sources.

But if you believe there is one God, eternal, omniscient, and omnipresent, then that God was the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. So don't be too rash about patronizing Deuteronomy as a primitive cult that we sophisticated, enlightened moderns can uniquely put in its modern context.

"Joseph and Mary had no intention of consummating the marriage." Biblical source please? There is none. This is speculation, rationalization, and wishful thinking. It MAY be true, but there is no authority for it.

The question you raise about what people knew about the extraordinary events of the Nativity, during Jesus's first 32 years, is a very salient one. If he were widely known from birth to be extraordinary, then it should have been no surprise to anyone when he started preaching and performing miracles. But people WERE surprised.

To keep this in context, Matthew is the ONLY source for the flight into Egypt, while Luke has the family routinely travelling to Jerusalem, then home to Nazareth with the baby boy. Matthew also suggests that on return to Egypt, they went to Nazareth so that a prophecy might be fulfilled, NOT because that was their home. And only Luke mentions the census and tax registration.

I don't say that to reject the stories out of hand. I've been known to argue "Don't mess with the stories." They each have a purpose. But that purpose is not to give us a clear historical picture, much less the highly speculative picture that you, various self-appointed and self-annointed church councils, and all kinds of rural peasant traditions, have overlaid on the rather simply, fundamental truth that God so loved the world...

(Erin, that brings me back to your original response. I did know that you would say something of the sort. But the fundamental point is, I have only the church's word for it that it IS really the church founded by Christ as the ordinary means of salvation... I don't have that from the Gospels, nor direct from God. I am sufficiently humble and wise not to deny that it MAY be. But I would appreciate it if said church would be more forthcoming that at times it has, and today the bishops may guilty of this again, used Mary's "Fiat!" as a hammer, to beat other people into submission, not to God's will, but to its own.

Hector said...

Re: As I've said before, there is some significance to the fact that veneration of Mary as Perpetual Virgin and Queen of Heaven began in Ephesus

Well, yes. That's because Mary and St. John lived there. Why is it impossible that God explicitly told Mary to go live in Ephesus, precisely because He saw (with his infinite wisdom) that it would be fitting and appropriate for the city that had venerated Diana to become the center of devotion to Mary?

Re: Biblical source please? There is none

Er, the Bible ITSELF acknowledges it is not an exhaustive source on the life of Jesus. "And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen." John 21.25. Why then would we not look elsewhere for supplementary and very necessary information?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Hector, you can look anywhere you like for supplementary information, but all you have found is speculation, hagiography, legends, superstitions, and ex post facto filling in the blanks. If it is a helpful aesthetic aid to your own worship and relationship with God, go for it. All I said is, it is not The Truth, or even a good authoritative approximation of The Truth. It is some interesting and colorful stories.

I don't really think it is "necesary" information, let alone "very necessary." As C.S. Lewis wisely remarked, backhandedly, through the words of Screwtape, materials for a truly accurate biography have been deliberately withheld from men.

An accurate biography is simply not the point. Jesus said that "all the law and the prophets" hangs on two commandments, and failing to live up to those two is more than enough for any human lifetime. (The failure does, of course, inspire an appreciation for Grace).

Mary and St. John lived in Ephesus... well, yes, there is a story to that effect. There is also a story that St. James's bones were buried in the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, where he could be conveniently dug up and named "Matamoros," albeit he died at the other end of the Mediterranean. I suspect the Holy Family really fled to Transylvania, which is why Anne Rice was chosen to write about them.

Stories are stories. Don't try to make too much of them. Maybe the silver smiths of Ephesus came up with the Mary and John story, the way a committee of New York businessmen invented Santa Claus, to get the local economy moving in a manner that would not offend the New Regime.

Hector_St_Clare said...

Re: but all you have found is speculation, hagiography, legends, superstitions, and ex post facto filling in the blanks

What evidence do you have, that would convince a skeptic, that the Gospels are anything more than speculation/legends/superstitions? Any arguments you make in favour of the historicity of the Gospels (whether arguments from tradition, internal literary analysis, early dating, or personal conviction) can equally be applied to the Protevangelium Jacobi. I say that it makes more sense to either reject both (as the atheists do) or to accept both (albeit giving more authority to the Gospels and only secondary place to the Protevangelium, as the ancient churches do) than to accept one while totally jettisoning the other.


Re: albeit he died at the other end of the Mediterranean

Are you sure you're not confusing James the Greater and James the Less? There were two.

Re: Stories are stories. Don't try to make too much of them.

Yes, but if a story has the authority of long church tradition behind it, that certainly counts in its favour- it's one piece of evidence in favour of the proposition, in a Bayesian sense. Certainly I wouldn't say it's proven that Mary and John lived in Ephesus, nor would I say you ought to believe it, but I'd say it's more likely than not.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Hector, the logic of your argument is impeccable. Logically, and intellectually, I suppose I should be an atheist, or a pagan, and I've dabbled rather lightly with both. After all, there is as much reason to believe the Baghavad Gita as the Sefer Tanach, as far as evidence goes.

Let's start with the proposition that there is one God, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent, who made all that is, seen and unseen. The alternatives are, there are no gods, or, there are many gods, capricious, jealous, and a pain to propitiate, unless they are all gentle flower children.

There is, in fact, more "evidence" for the Torah than for the Gospels. For example, how did Moses know that the entire universe came into being through an unimaginably huge infusion of electromagnetic radiation? The rest of us didn't figure it out until the reign of Pope Leo XIII, who promptly endorsed the now-accepted scientific theory as entirely consistent with Scripture.

I do have some doubts about some of what appears in the Gospels, particularly where they conflict. And I don't find the "Trinity" particularly helpful in coming to terms with God, although that's not in the Gospels either. But I still have a sense that there is a divine purpose somewhere in there. I don't have that with the apocryphal tales.

If we keep it simple, and stick to a few basic truths, we may, applying Occam's razor, be within the ballpark of Truth. Beyond that, it is all Baroque ornamentation, sometimes esthetically pleasing, perhaps inspiring, but not particularly edifying.

Bathilda said...

Siarlys. you are awesome.