Our Lady's Growth in Holiness
by noted Theologian Father William G. Most
WHEN the fullness of time had come, God
sent His archangel Gabriel
to greet the humble, young girl, Mary, as
"full of grace." Actually, Mary had been full
of grace from the first moment of her
Pope Pius IX, speaking of that moment, tells us that her sanctity
was even then so great that "none greater under God can be
thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it."
From these facts a problem
arises. Since Mary was
full of grace from the very
beginning of her existence, was it not
impossible that her grace
could grow further? That which is already full,
cannot receive more.
The objection is drawn from an implied comparison with material things.
An eight-ounce glass is full when it has
received eight ounces, and no more can be
added to it. But in the spiritual order, things are much different,
for grace does not grow
in the soul in a quantitative
way; it is not a matter of adding a certain bulk measure, as it
were, to the bulk already present. Growth in holiness
is essentially growth in the intensity of one's
love of God and neighbor. In practice, love and holiness
are interchangeable terms. This intensity is always capable
of increase, because, on the one hand, the power of
God to increase it is infinite, and on the other hand,
the capacity of the creature can increase indefinitely.
Saint Thomas tells us that we can speak of fullness of
grace in three
ways. The first two forms of
fullness refer to the grace
itself; it can be full
either in its intrinsic excellence and intensity
(intensive fullness); or it
can be full in the range of effects to which it
extends (extensive fullness). The last "fullness"
is relative to the person who receives it;
he is "full of grace"
when he has all the grace proper to his assigned
condition and role.
Only Christ Himself was/is full of
grace in the absolute sense,
incapable of receiving further increase. Our Lady
was full of grace in the third way; she
had all the grace that was proper to her surpassing
dignity as Mother
of God and associate
of the divine Redeemer.
And she had it,
not merely in a barely sufficient measure, but in a superabundant way.
Now it is evident that since this third form
of fullness of grace is a relative
fullness, growth was possible to Mary,
for her capacity for more intense love of God could and did
To gain some slight appreciation of Our Lady's
growth in holiness, let us examine the chief
principles that regulate spiritual growth.
Afterwards we shall see how they apply to the principal stages in
Principles of Spiritual Growth
grow in their intensity of love of God chiefly in three ways:
through reception of the sacraments.
To be able to merit, it is evident that a person
must live in this present life as a wayfarer,
for in the future life no one, not even the Blessed
Mother or our Lord Himself,
can merit. It is likewise obvious
that to merit
an increase in love of God, a
person must have the love of
God; he must be in the state of
grace. Similarly, the act by which he merits
must be a free act, a morally good act,
and an act that is supernatural by virtue of
his intention, as well as by his possession of sanctifying
grace. Such are the basic requirements for merit.
Merit can increase in various ways. First, the greater the dignity
and grace of the person who merits, the greater the merit.
Thus any work of our Lord had
infinite worth, because of the infinity
of His Person. Similarly, the greater the intrinsic goodness of his work, the greater the merit tends to be. However, as Saint Paul
warns us (1Corinthians 13:3), a person might perform works of great
inherent worth yet, even if he should give all
his goods to feed the poor, without love it
is of no profit to him. Hence we need to add
another condition which can elevate even little works to tremendous means of spiritual growth; a more intense love of
God and neighbor.
This intensity of love is
important, not only as regulating one's degree of merit,
but also as determining whether or not a person will actually grow
by his good work. For it is entirely possible that a person may merit
an increase in holiness, and yet not
actually receive it at the time he merits
it. This is due, of course, not to any holding back on the part of God,
something unthinkable for God's infinite generosity,
but to man's own deficiencies. The person
who merits may not be capable, here
and now, of receiving the increase. For there is a difference between the conditions for merit, and the conditions for actual, immediate
growth in holiness.
Growth in holiness is not a quantitative
thing. Yet we can use numbers in a loose
comparison to illustrate a principle. Suppose that the habitual
love which a given person has, is a love
of five (5) degrees. If he subsequently acts with an intensity
of only three (3) degrees,
we call his action remiss. He will of
course merit an increase in holiness, since his action is good. But he will not receive the increase at
that time, since his action was remiss,
performed at an intensity of three (3) degrees, and so not disposing him to receive still
greater love; but rather inclining or
disposing him to a decrease. Of course, no gradual
decrease in sanctifying
grace is possible. Sanctifying grace
is either lost altogether by mortal sin, or it remains in the same degree, even
though its possessor not only performs remiss actions, but even commits venial sins.
Similarly, if a soul having five (5) degrees of love
acts precisely at the level of five (5) degrees, he will merit
an increase, but will not receive it at once. For an act of five (5) degrees
done by a person with a habitual love of
five (5) degrees disposes him simply to
remain at that level, not to increase or to decrease.
But, if a soul
acts with a fervor of love
that is even a little above his habitual level, to that extent he is
disposed to receive an increase at the very time of acting. He therefore receives whatever
increase his new capacity can contain.
We see then how it is possible for a soul
to advance in one sense, and not advance in another. For although it is true that we must
either progress or fall back, the advance may be only in merit,
not in actual holiness.
This explains the phenomenon, noted by experienced spiritual
directors, that souls tend to run
for long periods on a plateau, making no perceptible progress, but yet not falling back.
This may take place even with daily reception of Holy Communion.
Theologians are not agreed on the way in which the sacraments
fit into these principles of growth. Some think that growth through the sacraments confers only a title
to an increase, without giving the actual growth at once, in persons whose dispositions
are not greater than their habitual level of love. Others think the sacraments
always produce at least some small growth. Perhaps the truth
may be that the sacraments give a growth
greater than what we merit, but not greater
than what we are capable of receiving at the time.
Growth through prayer follows similar principles. In fact, prayer itself is meritorious. However, by prayer we can, and do,
obtain more than we merit - even things such
as final perseverance that are not subject to merit
at all. Yet, obviously, we cannot hope to receive at the time of prayer, more than we are
capable of receiving.
Spiritual Growth in Our Lady
In ordinary souls both merit and growth are usually
small, because of deficiencies in factors
regulating the extent of growth. But when we return to our Blessed
Mother, what a beautiful contrast meets our eyes!
The great Saint
Teresa of Avila said of God that
"He would rejoice to do nothing but give, could He find
souls capable of receiving." In Mary
He found no holding
back, no resistance, no
deficiency in generosity. "Gladly,"
therefore, as Pope Pius IX declared, "He
so wonderfully filled her, more than all angelic spirits and all the saints, with an
abundance of all heavenly gifts taken from the treasure of the divinity, that she, always
free from absolutely every stain of sin, and completely beautiful and perfect, presented
such a fullness of innocence and holiness that none greater under God can be thought of,
and no one, except God, can comprehend it."
Of course, these words were written with special reference to the Immaculate
Conception, that magnificent grace
given in advance of any possible disposition on the part of the holy
Virgin. But they do apply with equal force
to her whole life, in which her perfect openness and generosity
conditioned her staggering merit and growth.
Our Lady's Merit
as we have seen, increases with the greatness of the work that is done. In Mary we find works far greater than those of any
other mere creature. Merit increases with
the dignity and degree of
grace, of the one who merits.
In Mary we find both fullness
of grace and, as Pope Pius XI wrote, "a dignity second only to God," which is, as the same pope
adds, quoting Saint Thomas, "a sort of
infinite dignity, from the infinite good that God is." But we saw, too,
that no works, howsoever great, would profit the doer without love.
We ordinary souls often are deficient in
this respect, so that even when we merit, we
often do not actually grow. Mary, however,
always acted with an unreserved maximum of love.
As a result, even small works of hers,
sweeping the house, would be more pleasing to God
than the painful death of a martyr.
It is not mere difficulty, as such, that
increases the merit of
a good work. The difficulty,
however, often provides a gauge of merit, serving as a kind of foil to evoke love. Only great love can rise above great difficulties, though great love
can rise even where there are no difficulties.
Our Lady, by her merits,
grew then, to the maximum degree intended by God.
She also grew through her
exalted prayers and through the sacraments,
as we shall see later.
We can gain a better notion of her dazzling
growth if we examine some of the principal stages in her
life in the light of these basic principles.
Virgin Annunciated - by
ANTONELLO da Messina -
from Museo Nazionale, Palermo . . . . Mary's prior
knowledge of the Messiah is symbolized by the Holy Book containing the words
of the inspired writers of Genesis and Isaiah, of which she had intimate
The day of her
found Mary perfectly disposed for tremendous
growth. She had long grown by her prayers and merits in a life that appeared ordinary in the
eyes of those around her, though in the
sight of God, her
whole life had been far from ordinary. But on this day the archangel
addressed to her the most extraordinary
proposal ever to reach a creature's ears. She
was asked to consent, in the name
of the whole human race, to become the Mother
of the Redeemer.
According to the traditional view, she
understood from the angel's words that her Son
would be divine. She
understood likewise, from the Old Testament prophecies,
at least something of His future suffering. She
knew that God is One, yet she
was asked to believe the angel when he spoke of a Second Person in God. All good Jews feared to
pronounce God's sacred name, even in the
course of prayer or in the reading of Scripture,
but she was asked to receive Him within her,
to become His mother.
She probably knew, at least in an obscure
way from the prophecies, that this would involve great suffering for herself
as the Mother of a
She could not fathom what might be the
limits this suffering would reach. Yet
without hesitation she spoke her fiat,
which remade the world.
A soul grows in proportion to the
greatness of his work, in proportion to his degree of grace, in proportion to his love.
The greatness of Mary's work, a consent in the name of all mankind to
become the Mother of
the Redeemer, surpassed immeasurably any
work that all creation had ever seen; her dignity was that of the one
chosen to be the Mother of
God; her own habitual grace had already been so great at the
time of the Immaculate Conception that
"no one but God can comprehend it" and yet
had grown constantly since that moment; and now in her
fiat there is the most
absolute adherence to the will of God,
an echo of the ecce venio (behold
I come) of Christ Himself, made with unreservedly intense love.
Mary's Sacramental Growth
But still another factor must be added to complete the picture. Sacraments
produce grace even
beyond the merit of the recipient, as divinely ordained causal instruments uniting us to
Christ. Rightly do theologians add that the chief mysteries of the life of Christ must have produced in Mary
also, a sort of sacramental effect. For what sacrament
unites a soul to
the Author of Grace in the way in which she was united in becoming
Even before the Annunciation,
was literally beyond the comprehension of any existing creature. What must it have become under the combined impact of all
these factors of growth on that day! And what of the nine
months continuation of that day. If the fifteen-minute presence of
the sacred humanity in the Eucharist,
in an ordinary communicant, produces growth
even beyond his merit, though not beyond his
power to receive, what must have been the growth worked during the nine
months before Bethlehem, in her
whose capacity knew no restraint?
In the same period her holiness must have grown especially from her humility
in not telling anyone about the privilege she had received. To ordinary souls, it would have seemed only reasonable to
report the great apparition, at least to Joseph. Proper concern for her
own reputation would seem to demand it. Yet we know that she
did not speak a word in her own behalf,
evidence of the most absolute docility to the gifts of
the Holy Spirit, Who often leads
souls in marvelous paths, not contrary to,
but beyond, what reason would suggest. And
yet precisely because the motion given is superior
to reason, the
reasons for the decision are not made clear to the recipient. The soul
is simply shown that the course proposed is the will of
God, and so is good; that is
enough for the perfectly docile soul. It
amply sufficed for Mary, whom we rightly call the spouse
of the Holy Spirit.
May not this explain most easily how she
would make a vow or resolve of virginity
even in marriage to Joseph?
On the night of the Nativity,
heaven did indeed show its
wonders. In all other respects the Child
seemed an ordinary infant - not manifesting His infinite
personality. Nor was He
willing to save Himself
from Herod by
His own power. The status of a common
fugitive seeking shelter in Egypt would be the remedy. Here was a heavy
demand on the faith of
Mary and an occasion for great
But before that flight, there came the Presentation
in the Temple. With what unreserved love
did Mary offer her Son.
And yet at what cost, for the joy of the day was darkly
clouded by the mysterious
but piercing prophecy of the seven swords.
During the sojourn in Egypt, and in the long years of the hidden life
that followed, there were no miracles,
nothing at all that would permit one to know that the growing Boy
was more than human. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. Priests
or sacristans, who often handle sacred
things, are in constant danger
of developing hardness or callousness; only a lively, constantly active faith can prevent it.
Here again was a long trial of
the faith of Mary.
On the other hand, like any other mother, the Virgin
would be powerfully drawn by nature to love
In this case, the strong love of nature
fused into and stimulated, her already
tremendous supernatural love of
God; for both had one and the same object
Then there were the mysterious trials in which so beloved a Son
seemed to show aloofness: "Did you not know that I must be
about My Father's business?" (Luke 2:49). And: "What is that to Me and to thee?" (John
2:4.) Although Mary's soul
had received superlative graces of light,
so that she did know His
divinity and the great lines of the divine plan for His
future mission and suffering,
yet she was asked to endure
darkness in some details, so that she
did not understand what Simeon meant in the Temple,
though her subsequent actions at Cana indicate at least partial
But far greater darkness lay ahead. For when the apostles
- all but John had fled in dismay and seeming loss
of faith, Mary walked bravely from the shadows
of retirement, in which she
had modestly kept herself during the glories of His
public life, to take her place in the
unrelieved blackness that hung
over Calvary. There, as Pope
Benedict XV wrote, "With her suffering and dying
Son, Mary endured suffering and almost death. She gave up her mother's right over her Son
to procure the salvation of mankind, and to appease the divine justice she, as much as
pertained to her, immolated her Son, so that one can correctly say that together with
Christ she has redeemed the human race."
Let us recall the criteria of merit; it
increases with the intrinsic goodness
of the work, with the dignity and grace of the person, and with the love with which it
is done. Pope Pius XII wrote that it is the highest dignity
of the ordinary Christian to
share in the Mass,
the representation of Calvary.
What was the intrinsic goodness
and dignity of Mary's work of sharing in the tremendous original sacrifice from which all the power of the Mass flows! She did it so fully that "one can correctly say that together with Christ she
has redeemed the human race." She
did it, having a dignity which is, as Pope
Pius XI said, "second only to God,"
a quasi-infinite dignity, from the infinite good
that God is. She
did it with a holiness and grace that had grown constantly at an unthinkable
rate from a start already so great that "no one except God
can comprehend it."
But more especially, how powerful is the love
with which she acted. As we have seen, difficulty as such does not constitute the goodness of a work,
but it can serve as a sort of occasion to
call forth love, and it eventuates in a certain measure of love inasmuch as only great
love can surmount great difficulty.
What was the difficulty of this offering? As
Pope Benedict XV said, she gave
up her mother's rights over her Son.
An ordinary mother would have cried out: It is too much, it is
so wrong. But Mary, with perfect
conformity to the will
of the Father,
which was the will of
willingly, though not easily, surrendered
her rights and instead of protecting,
joined wholeheartedly in the offering.
The grief of any mother forced to stand helpless at the deathbed of her son is
proportioned chiefly to two things:
to the greatness of his suffering
and to the extent of her love.
His suffering was all that human malice could contrive
to inflict on a body most sensitive to suffering,
on a person most fully deserving of all good, whose
heart was torn by His
very love for
those who tormented Him. It is simply beyond our ability to describe or
understand. Our Lady, however, with a mother's penetrating heart,
did understand, insofar as any creature could comprehend the suffering
of God. But her pain,
arising from the atrocity of His torture,
was multiplied by the extent of her love for Him. What was that love?
Love of God and holiness are, as we have seen, interchangeable
terms. Her love for her
Son and God
had been, even from the start, such that "no one except God
can comprehend it." It had
grown from this incomprehensible state to a point doubly beyond our understanding - and
yet this unthinkable love was the factor
multiplying in her heart
the pain that was already indescribable on
the score of the inexpressible horror of
In all sober, literal truth we have to say
that her pain
was beyond the understanding of any other creature. And yet her
love surmounted it, her love for her Son
and God, and also her
love for us. For love
of God and neighbor,
though unequal, inevitably grow in proportion to one another. Her
love for us, her
spiritual children, then,
was proportioned to a literally incomprehensible love.
Therefore we cannot hope to fathom it.
We can also try to comprehend some measure
of her merit
from its effects, by recalling that Mary's cooperation in the Passion
of her Son was so great that, as Pope Pius XII
taught, "our salvation flowed from the love and sufferings
of Jesus Christ, intimately
joined with the love and sorrows of His mother." The number of theologians is growing who think
this means that she merited
our salvation even de
condigno - in justice -
though, of course, in a lesser way than did our Lord Himself.
On the feast of the Seven Sorrows, the Church
sings: "May so many tears of the Mother of God bring
salvation to us, tears with which you are able to wash away the sins of the whole world."
And yet, there is still another factor of growth to be added to this already tremendous
picture; the quasi-sacramental effect of her association with Christ.
For that association, by joining her to the
very source of all grace, in the very act of
earning all grace, must have had the power
to effect in her a growth even beyond that
which her incomprehensible merits would call for; a growth bounded only by her ability to receive it, which, as Pope
Pius IX reminded us, is greater than any created mind can picture.
After the glorious Resurrection and the mixed joy of parting
at the Ascension, Our
Lady was persevering in prayer with the apostles,
until the day on which the descending Holy Spirit, operating in a
manner resembling that of the sacraments,
but even surpassing them, transformed
the apostles in an instant from timid, cringing men to fearless
heralds who counted it all happiness
to be allowed to suffer for
their Divine Master. If such was the effect
of Pentecost on these lesser souls, what must it have been on Mary herself! Again, we are forced to admit
complete inability to picture it.
But Our Lady did receive the sacraments themselves
as well. She did not need the cleansing
effect of baptism, of course; yet it is
likely that she who always, insofar as
possible, shared Jesus' lot, underwent baptism in the same spirit as did her divine Son.
But especially, we can be confident that she
received the Eucharist daily,
at the hands of Saint John, during whatever years remained to her between the day of Pentecost
and the time of her own Assumption.
It is commonplace to say that the power of
the Eucharist to effect spiritual growth is unlimited in itself, being restricted only by our small
capacity to receive that growth. In Mary,
however, this capacity was far greater. Each reception of the
Holy Eucharist would produce a wonderful
increase in holiness, and the next day would bring a still greater growth, being
proportioned, among other things, to the already higher degree of her
grace from the previous day. Saint
Thomas, although he did not know precisely the law of the acceleration of freely
falling bodies, yet was able to say of spiritual
growth, "Someone may ask: Why must we make progress in the
faith? Because a natural motion, the closer it comes to its goal, the more intense it
becomes." Taking a hint from this, many theologians propose a comparison
with a geometric series of numbers, in which at each step the number
is multiplied by itself: 2 x 2 equals 4; 4 x 4 equals 16; 16 x 16 equals 256 - and so on,
until our dazzled mind is left helpless in wonder. Now it is true
that spiritual growth is not really
quantitative; yet the comparison is not too strong to illustrate the progress of her, who
at the very beginning, had a holiness so
great that only God can comprehend it.
Mary's Growth in Prayer
Mary grew, too, by her
prayers, both vocal and mental. Some
few souls, at the peak of their spiritual development, reach the exalted realms of
the unitive way of mystical contemplation. Mary
began where other souls leave off, and,
fulfilling more perfectly than any other soul
the Pauline injunction to pray without ceasing, took her flight into completely untraced paths.
We are not entirely certain that she ever
died, though the great majority of
theologians think that she did so,
especially because of the constant parallelism of her
life, with that of her divine Son. But we may at least say this: If she really did die,
then her death
must have come about from no other cause than love.
Even in ordinary humans, death from
powerful emotions is not unknown. In the greater saints, the love
of God acts like a
powerful, pulling force, comparable to magnetic attraction.
When that force attains sufficient strength, the body is no longer able
to hold the soul from taking flight to that
center; Where your treasure is, there is your heart also. In
Mary's case, her
treasure had always been in her divine Son.
He had ascended to the Father;
it was inevitable that the sheer force of
love for Him should eventually break
the web of this life, and take her to Him.
We can speak of fullness of grace either in reference to grace
in itself, or in
reference to the recipient of grace. Grace in itself can be said to be full either in its essence and internal
excellence, or in regard to the effects to which it
extends. Fullness of grace,
relative to the recipient signifies that the recipient has all the grace
required for his/her condition and role.
Mary . . . Virgin of Light (Luz) - by Fernando
Our Blessed Mother was full of grace only in this last
sense. Taking grace in all senses
together, only Christ Himself
would be full of grace,
for only He had grace
capable of meriting our salvation in full
justice by His own power;
only He had the right, of His own power, to institute sacraments,
and so on. Yet, insofar as any mere creature could approach Christ's
fullness, Mary has done so. For the
excellence of her grace
is so great that only God can comprehend it,
and the effects of her grace
reach to all mankind, according to the words of Pope Pius XII: "Her kingdom is as vast as that of her Son and God, since nothing is
excluded from her dominion." And just as He
is always making intercession for us, so too, no grace
whatever is given to man without passing through her (Mediatrix
of all Grace). And even when the last of the blessed
shall have reached God, she will continue this inseparable association
with her Son,
being a secondary, but indescribably wonderful, source of the very bliss
of heaven. Pope
Pius XII has said: "Surely, in the fact of His own
mother, God has gathered together all the splendors of His divine artistry .... You know,
beloved sons and daughters, how easily human beauty enraptures and exalts a kind heart.
What would it ever do before the beauty of Mary .... That is why Alighieri saw in
Paradise, in the midst of more than a million rejoicing angels ... a beauty smiling - what
joy it was in the eyes of all the other saints - Mary."
It is not surprising, then, that the same saintly pope also taught that her "most holy
soul, more than all other creatures of God combined, was filled with divine spirit
of Jesus Christ."
When any soul enters
grace blossoms, as
it were, into the light of glory.
If the glory of the least soul there, is so great that Saint Paul
could rightly say of it that, eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart
of man what things God has prepared for those who love Him. What must be
the light of
glory and the incomprehensible love
of our heavenly Queen
and Mother. In that light
she sees and cares for all our needs, not
just in some vague, general way, but with the personal care of the best
of mothers. For although we are many, our number is not infinite; and so
it is well within the competence of a soul
whose light of glory
is proportioned to a literally incomprehensible
degree of grace.
Mary's unthinkable holiness
is, then, not only for herself, but also for
us. Eternal thanks then to the infinite generosity of Him Who is love, to our Father, Who
has given us such a Mother.