Meditation Before the Closed Door of Mercy

Dr. Patrick Ryan Cooper

Locked Inside and Out

The doors of mercy are shut closed at this hour, locked from the inside, only to be soon opened on the Feast of the Immaculata.

How ridiculous, pathetic even at first, a man is, who vainly tries to open a closed door that is bolted shut. He is invariably lost and confused. ‘How on earth can I ever get inside?’ he stammers. While farce and whim are generously given to the onlookers close by.

The liturgical sealing of the door─as it was celebrated here on the hill at the Benedictine Archabbey of Saint Meinrad─in this season of Advent, and in view of the jubilee of mercy, is a sober, penitential symbol. For it is we who bolt the door close, from the inside, fearfully refusing the pleas of others; obsessing instead over our own security and autonomy. While the ridiculous man, swearing at the door now deepens in its sad humor when he comes to learn─not unlike those locked from the inside─that it was he, the poor guy, who locked himself out in the first place.

We are continuously reminded of these intolerable truths in the arrival of migrants and refugees along our countless western borders at this very moment, herded before locked doors without any threshold. How quickly the story of their plight has changed in tone over the past few months. And yet, even upon entering, an impenetrable door needs no seal, nor hinge. For it cannot be opened, nor even remotely ajar, for again, the door lacks a threshold; the barrier that lacks crossing, is accursedly abysmal.

For the Christian, this abyss undoubtedly remains, though this abyss is not singular, nor is it the only door that remains closed. As Francis has indicated, this extraordinary jubilee year of mercy begins with the feast of the Immaculata herself, the Mother of Mercy, who Newman pointedly frames[1] as the Janua Coeli [Gate of heaven] as both conduit and its full participant in the commericum of Redemption, uniquely fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophetic words (Ez 44, 1-3) that “The gate shall be closed, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it, since the Lord God of Israel has entered through it─and it shall be closed for the Prince, the Prince Himself shall sit in it.”

Recovering the Depths of Mercy

Francis’ Bull of Interdiction, Misericordiae Vultus, has called for a rediscovery of the richness of mercy, continuously contemplated in the face of Jesus Christ, who uniquely shows the Trinitarian mystery of the Father’s mercy as asymmetric and distinct, yet inseparable from the “fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.”[2] We need to indeed rediscover both the heights and depths of this inseparability, for there is nothing “condescending” about mercy.

One, who can teach us a great deal about the concretissimum of this inseparability is the mid-20th Century French Catholic Madeline Delbrêl (1904–1964), who founded in 1933 a small équipe, a lay contemplative community that sought to live unabashedly among the poor and working class in Ivry-sur-Seine, then the center of French Communism. Delbrêl writes that in the daily face of sharing genuine brotherly love amid an ideological milieu of totalized immanence,


Everything that is alive, everything that is loved, loses its foundation in being and thus crumbles from within. Everything is swallowed up in nothingness and meaninglessness. But when the life of faith comes into contact with this disaster, it reacts. The Christian examines his Christian life. He asks himself about God, about God’s importance, about God’s place, about how he seeks God’s protection. He then begins to realize how easy it is to lose God in Christian life or to lose him in Christ; and then how easy it is to lose Christ in Christianity; how easy it is for Christianity to continue on at first without God and then without Christ. Finally, he has the vertiginous realization how easily such breakdowns can occur.[3]

Delbrêl’s posthumous writings, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Nous autres, gens des rues, 1966) have lost none of its vigor nor relevance over the past decades, for she writes from a fecund, concrete between of inseparability between love of God and neighbor, one that at any moment could, but does not flinch at such vertiginous, dizzying heights, what von Balthasar rightly discerns as her “perfect love of her Communist brother (including common work in all human issues) and a decisive rejection of his ideological program.”[4] It is only in traversing this perilous between that the “Christian receives the gift of the concretissimum of obedience in the following of Christ,”[5], for there is nothing abstract about the superabundance of this between, about the Church in her mystery and its vulnerable extension as the Mystical Body of Christ. Rather,

this passion for God will reveal to us that our Christian life is a pathway between two abysses. One is the measurable abyss of the world’s rejection of God. The other is the unfathomable abyss of the mysteries of God. We will come to see that we are walking along the adjoining line where these two abysses intersect. And we will thus understand how we are mediators and why we are mediators…. We will cease being perpetually distracted: distracted from the world by God, and distracted from God by the world…. But it is on behalf of the world, it is on behalf of each person, of every human being that we will be personally faithful to God, that we will personally place ourselves in the service of his glory─and we will do so, not because of the world, not because of people, but because of the God who loved the world and who loved all people with a first and gratuitous love.[6]

Whether in or out, the door remains locked at this present moment, and in resignation, we are tempted to utter those profound words of Bernanos’ Curé from The Diary of a Country Priest, "Qu'est que cela fait ? Tout est grâce." Yet the difference does indeed remain, if only since there is no crossing the threshold, no commericum, and by Madeline’s example during this upcoming Jubilee Year, we may even learn how to walk this perilous line.

[1] See generally John Henry Cardinal Newman, Meditations and Devotions (Templegate; Springfield, Il 1964) 125-6.

[2] Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n. 2.

[3] Madeline Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, trans. David Louis Schindler Jr., Charles Mann (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000) 194.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Preface to the German Edition of Nous autres, gens des rues”, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK., 2000)xv.

[5] ibid, xvi.

[6] Delbrêl, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, 195.

When Mother became Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.

Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.





The Immaculate Conception as a School of Devotion

By Patrick Ryan Cooper


During the Church's penitential season of Advent, an appropriate image that emphasizes this time of preparation and waiting is that of an expectant mother. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, the increased signs of apocalyptic tumultuousness are likened to the birth pangs of a women beginning in labor—where the difference between birth and death become terrifyingly intimate.(Mt 24, 8) And appropriately so, as the sign of birth pangs, in both pre-labor and the beginnings of active labor indeed confirms the coming of that which is both imminently anticipated, while nevertheless preserving a sense of irruption and adventious uncertainty in the coming of new life. For my wife and I, the connection between birth pangs, upheaval and the eschatological promise of new life attested to in this text is a powerful reminder of the night when my wife's hour had come as she entered into active labor to receive the birth of our first child. This hour similarly coincided with this very same Gospel text from St. Matthew as the daily reading. Fortunately, however, its dim warnings of anguish and woe for pregnant women and nursing mothers (Mt 24, 19) would eventually give way to a more ecstatic release, for while the anguish, tumult and confusion was great, these things were so quickly forgotten (Jn 16, 21) as the mother's sufferings were unburdened by her gratitude in peacefully turning towards the son; and the son, still weary and limpid, turned towards and beheld his mother in loving astonishment for having remained with him until the end.


His astonishment recalls that we are peculiarly gifted with a unique, receptive capacity for life, one which is widened and made spacious, giving a sense of depth and joyous wonder that comes upon the heels of suffering—a receptivity, which singularly recalls this initial exchange of gazes—when beholding our mother.

To gaze so, with astonished perplexity, I would argue, is singularly adequate when contemplating the person of Mary, who the Church recognizes in this season of Advent to be found immaculate, "without spot or blemish before him, at peace". (2Pt 3, 13-14) For the paradox of her sufferings is nearly as ungraspable as the mystery that she herself is. And in view of the Cross, in which her faithfulness continuously endures and our redemption radiates, this salvific fulfillment stretches us back to the very beginnings of what the Church celebrates on this Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Namely, that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin—having been the public faith of the Church since the promulgation of the papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus by Pius IX in 1854.

Fundamentally, the Immaculate Conception can be said to signal the excessive wonder of creation itself and the integral integrity by which it radiates. In Mary, the Church professes the restoration and sanctification of our human nature, undimmed by sin and towards an original creaturely goodness and suffused with grace by way of her receptive fiat—"Be it done to me according to your Word." With and in Mary, Mother of "The One whom the heavens cannot contain, yet you held in your womb"[1]—we learn of the original width and depth of our human dignity, untainted by sin and division, and our relational autonomy seen specifically in terms of an active receptivity: that becoming more uniquely particular rightly hinges upon our creaturely receptivity in terms of capax dei, which simultaneously unfolds how we are to ask the question of being as a welcoming of life. In the two Annunciation narratives in the Lucan Gospel for example, it was Zachariah, who elevated himself as the primary reference by asking the Angel the epistemological question, "How can I know this for sure?" (Lk 1, 18-20) and was thus silenced. While in Mary, as a school of devotion, in whom we cross the porous borders of philosophy and theology, we increasingly learn how to ask and dialogue over the question of being and its relationality—"How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" (Lk 1, 34)—in a wholly authentic, creaturely manner, and thereby actively to respond to the fecundity of grace and its abundant givenness. Just as "spirituality is rooted in ontology" the late Stratford Caldecott writes, so too the "secret design of all creaturely being, revealed in Jesus through Mary, is love."[2] While analogically and in view of the Immaculate Conception, the creaturliness of being is most clearly seen in Mary's receptive fecundity, whereby:

Mary appeared pure in her origin not only by the influence of the divine principle, but also by that of the human. She appeared pure, down to the foundations of her being, and even down to the matter from which she was formed; in other words, down to the root, yes to the very seed, from which she sprang.[3]

However, I suspect that the reticence that various people continue to hold towards Mary—especially her being "immaculate"—is largely grounded upon a rather specious Mariology that would regard the 'purity' of her mediating relationship as somehow lifting her up as distant and impossibly unapproachable—as an artificial, reified "between" Christ and humanity so as to keep them at a distance. Herein, the "supreme principle of Mariology" and in a similar fashion, that of "Christianity and Christology" is that the "mother of God defines the Incarnation, for the part of men."[4] Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother".[5] A doceticism, which distinctly opens onto a fundamental loss of solidarity within the economic order, leaving unanswered the call, ""Who are My mother and My brothers?" (Mk. 3, 33) Rather, since the God-man is fully human through His mother, Mary is likewise a mother with regard to all humanity in their deified lives. For Mary teaches us how to receive and respond to being's excessive giftedness, precisely by way of not further magnifying herself, yet is magnified by the one in whose hospitality she gives Him himself as man. "[W]ithout the Blessed Virgin, the God-man would not encircle men in themselves; they would not be made, in Him, full sharers in the divine nature, in grace, in divinization."[6]

[1] Antiphon from the Christmas Octave, Solemnity of the Mother of God

[2] Cf. 'Stratford Caldecott, Mariology" in (eds.) Nicholas J. Healy Jr. and D.C. Schindler Being Holy in the World: Theology and Culture in the Thought of David L. Schindler (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011) 292.

[3] Cf. Matthias Scheeben, Mariology, vol. II, (trans) T.L.M.J. Geukers (London: Herder Book Co., 1947) 81.

[4]  Cf. Emile Mersch, Theology of the Mystical Body (trans.) Cyril Vollert (London: Herder Book Co. 1951) 172.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.