When studying theology it is very easy to fall into the trap of turning it into a superficial exercise: it becomes academic, a “study” of God as if such a thing were possible. It is easy to get caught up in the wonder and beauty, and at the same time not let it penetrate your heart, your life, your religious practice. All theology is apophatic. The deeper one delves into the mysteries of God the more one becomes aware of their position of not knowing. Ultimately, the Mystery is incomprehensible and inexpressible. When St. Thomas Aquinas experienced this truth at the core of his being, he declared that all he had written seemed to him as straw and he never wrote again. (To clarify, Thomas did not say this because he thought God couldn’t be known – He can be! No, he said this after receiving a vision which impressed upon him the ultimate inexpressibility of the mysteries of God). Paradoxically, the nearer one approaches the Lord, the more intimately one enters into relationship with Him, the more they become aware of their not knowing. Easy to say, but not so easy to live. What does this truth, this mystery mean for my life? How do I allow myself to be penetrated by it, rather than just “know” it intellectually? How will my life change should this happen?
There was none on Earth nearer to God than His mother. By the above, therefore, it stands to reason that there was no one who was more acutely aware of not knowing Him than His mother. In The Lord, Romano Guardini says, “Everything that affected Jesus affected his mother, yet no intimate understanding existed between them.” It would be an understatement to say that I was shocked reading these words. Faith planted in my heart experienced a small quake. There are still tremors. I do not want to accept these words; and, yet, I can’t help but sense an audacity in Guardini that follows in the tradition of St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Paul, and our Blessed Lord, Jesus Christ, God.
I would like to look at one episode to see this lack of understanding. Mary obviously knows that her Son is not conceived of man. He is different from all others. When he had disappeared though, she looked for three days before finally finding Him in the Temple. We are told that when Mary and Joseph found Him they were astonished, they did not understand Him when he replied to His mother’s question, and having returned home Mary pondered these things in her heart. Why did she not look there first when she knows that he is conceived of the Holy Spirit? It seems obvious to us that Jesus must be about His Father’s business. But we have 2,000 years of Christian tradition behind us. Mary was a Jew, a pre-Christianity Jew, and a strict monotheist in accordance with Jewish understanding and religion. If this was your life context, as it was for Mary, your child being conceived of the Holy Spirit and being the Messiah would not necessarily immediately translate into your child literally being the Son of God.
There are a couple things this lack of understanding points us to. First, Mary’s heroic perseverance in the virtue of faith is second to absolutely no one. Her’s was a faith greater than that of Abraham. This faith was manifested through her constant trust, but it was also manifested in another way. This second way in which her faith was manifested goes beyond simply trusting and following: she pondered. She took into her heart that which she did not understand despite her lack of understanding and she pondered. She let the mysteries take root in her and form her. By faith, not understanding, “she accompanied the incomprehensible figure of her son every step of his journey, however dark. Perseverance in faith even on Calvary – this was Mary’s inimitable greatness.”
My soul magnifies the Lord… This mystery of Mary’s faith leads to a mystery of her Son, a mystery that I think is probably little thought about: “the unspeakable remoteness in which He lived.” What must it have been like to live as Christ lived among men? (Don’t even attempt to answer this. Like Mary, let the mystery take root in your heart). No one understood Him. The Sons of Thunder did not understand what it meant to sit at His right and His left. Peter, after confessing Him as being the Son of the living God, protests when his Lord says that He must die. There has never been anyone like Him and there will never be another like Him again. He is wholly unique, the God-man. Yes, He fully partook of our humanity, but no one had partaken of divinity. He was alone; that remoteness, that disconnect was with Him His whole life and reached its pinnacle on Calvary. He ceased to be alone when He poured out His Spirit on Pentecost.