Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Root Metaphor

February 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Pat Bearsley

The beginning of the Society of Mary lies in Mary’s compassion for a suffering world. The Society began as a result of her initiative. Its origin therefore is an act of compassion on the part of Mary, the Mother of Mercy, for a torn and broken world.

Our Constitution n.217, reminds us of this. “Jean-Claude Colin and his companions believed that, in God’s plan, the Society came into existence because Mary wanted it.”

For us, that wish of Mary is expressed in these words, “I supported the Church in its birth.” The French participle there, ‘naissante’ I’m told, is a present participle and it’s probably better translated, “I supported the Church as it was being born, (in the act of birth ) and I want to do so again at the end of time.” Lets concentrate a bit more on those words.

Through the researches of Fr. Coste, we are now well aware that during the central years of Fr. Colin’s life, the years when he was general of the Society, the image of Mary he used most often to encourage his followers, was that of Mary at Pentecost, Mary in the early church, Mary in the midst of the apostles.

This for him was the characteristic pose of Mary. For him, this was the situation in which Mary found herself that was the source of greatest inspiration for him. Coste calls it “our privileged mystery.” Gerry Arbuckle calls it “our root metaphor.” It’s our principle symbol and we are talking in language which is the language of poetry.

We can’t make it hard and fast, too concrete, but our inspiration comes from a contemplation of Mary in the early church. Mary at the heart of that community of Jesus’ disciples who have been missioned by him to continue his work and are given the power to do so through Christ’s Holy Spirit. So, it’s not just Mary who inspires us. It’s Mary in relationship to the church, it’s Mary with all those connections she has with the apostles, the disciples, with Jesus’ new family.

That is Mary who is most characteristic for Marists. Not the plaster statue, not the goddess, not so much even the Queen of Heaven, but Mary interrelating with the apostles, Mary at the heart of the church. So much at the heart of the church, that she as it were disappears into it.

For Colin, one of the most amazing things was that Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, in his understanding, the greatest of human beings, and also the most powerful member of the church, the one who did the most good, somehow or other, she seemed to disappear. She’s only briefly mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, one mention in chapter 1 and there she’s just tagged on to a list of the apostles after the Ascension, waiting for Pentecost. The only mention.

Of course, that’s sufficient. I think we are fortunate as a congregation that our privileged mystery, our root metaphor, does have its roots in scripture. We’re not devoted to Mary of the Tabernacle Door or Veronica of the Veil, or anything like that. It is Mary, and it is Mary rooted in scripture certainly, at the heart of the early Church, the Pentecost Church. For that we can be grateful.

For Colin, there she was the most powerful, the most effective member and yet no-one noticed. She as it were joined the church and disappeared into its midst. For him, that was a very powerful, evocative idea. That she could do greater good, more good than even Peter and Paul and all the other apostles, great good and yet no-one noticed, she disappears, she joins the Church.

Coste says that in his estimation, Colin’s great intuition about Mary was his ability to marry the two sides to her. From the tradition that he received, she certainly was the Queen of Heaven and Earth. All the glorious titles of Mary, he ardently believed in and he certainly encouraged. That is an image of Mary that is no longer so favoured today. One of the great achievements of the Vatican Council was indeed to change our appreciation of Mary. It is significant for us that the way they did that was not to have a special document on Mary, but to incorporate her into chapter eight of the Constitution on the Church. That in itself was a very symbolic action. But we Marists had been doing that for one hundred years before hand. Mary in the midst of the early Church.

That is what I invite us to contemplate today. What does that mean? We don’t actually have a great deal in the Scriptures to flesh out that image but that’s all right. We are talking at the level of metaphor, at the level of symbol, we are talking in terms of our imagination, not so much of our intellect. We’re not evoking so much the past, we’re not going back two thousand years to the first Pentecost so much, but we are imagining that again, so that we can understand how we are to relate to the Church today.

Fr. Colin did tell us a great deal more about Mary in the early Church. As far as he was concerned, she had the most influence, more than any of the apostles, she laid the foundations of the Church, she is the foundress of the Church in a sense. She formed it, sustained it, directed it, she had been its life, counsel and constellation. She was the Queen of the Apostles, who were aided by her counsel, who did nothing without consulting her, for she had the new law written in her heart.

Well, I’m not too sure how much of that we have to believe today. My image of Peter and Paul is not of someone who went running to Mary before they went out onto the streets to preach the word!

What are we to make of this, that Colin gave us? Well, we also know that so much of Fr. Colin’s fleshing out of the picture of Mary in the early Church came from the revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden and of Mary of Agreda. Not our favorite bedtime reading!

He believed those details. We don’t have to and it doesn’t really matter, because once again, we are at the level of symbol, we are at the level of imagination, that was the way he imagined it. But it doesn’t work for us today. Let us not throw out the whole image just because we don’t believe that Peter came running to Mary whenever he had a problem, that therefore Mary at Pentecost is irrelevant to us. That would be wrong.

“Let us be humble (small),” said Fr. Colin, “the Blessed Virgin was thoroughly humble, although in reality she was the Queen of Heaven and the first of all creatures. She is our model. Let us do a great deal of good, but like her let us do it, tanquam ignoti et occulti – hidden and unknown (FS  120:2). That’s a typical exaltation from Fr. Colin. Mary in all her greatness, nevertheless, she was humble, lowly, yet she did great good, but she disappeared, no-one noticed.

Even if we don’t accept today the details of Fr. Colin’s account, (and I don’t think we have to), nevertheless, we still treasure the symbol. And there was one trait of Mary that he insisted on which is still very relevant and is reflected in our Constitutions. Her concern for the Church.
In Constitution n. 3 “Jean-Claude Colin and his companions were challenged by these words to make their own the concern of Mary for the Church of their time, which was threatened by new dangers. The new congregation would be made up of several branches so as to reach all classes of people. It would be at once universal and diocesan, prepared to go wherever it was needed, but closely identified with the local Church. It would learn from Mary’s presence among the apostles how to be present in the Church in such a way that the more hidden it was the more effective it would be.”

This touches us again with that root going deep into our identity. Its Mary’s concern for the Church of their time. Her concern for the Church of our time.

It’s not just that Mary was worried at the time of Pentecost how this motley bunch of disciples who’d been pretty faithless so far, how they were going to carry on her son’s mission. Its not just that worry. Sure, she was probably worried at that time, but the point is that Mary is still alive and well, still concerned that her son’s work be carried on. She is still concerned today.

The point at issue for us is very much the reality of Mary. That is why I asked at the end of the last conference, let us examine that, “Who is Mary for me today?” Is she real, or is she just an historical personage. Is she alive and well and a factor in my life? These are the questions.

Mary supported the Church at the beginning. She still wants to do the same sort of thing today and she wants to do it through us. Its her concern for the Church now that Marists must reflect.

Colin’s basic intuition is our key. She forgot herself in her concern for the Church. She was Queen of the Apostles, Queen of Heaven and Earth, he said, she was the greatest of creatures, but what did she do about all her greatness. His answer, his insight was that she forgot it in a certain sense and joined the Church. She disappeared into it so effectively that the memory out of which the Acts of the Apostles were written, had no record of her.

But she didn’t just die, didn’t fade away. She still worked effectively, she was concerned, she disappeared into it. And so, she helps us to realize that the Church will always be much more than we are. Its always larger than the Society, than each one of us. As Constitution n.15 says, “Mary did not press her privileged position as the mother of Jesus, but was ready to be first and foremost his disciple, one who ‘hears the word of God and keeps it.’”

There’s that insight enshrined into our new constitutions. She didn’t press her privileged position as the mother of Jesus, and certainly in that early community, that was a privileged position, the mother of the hero. There’s no evidence that she had tickets on herself. Instead, she was ready first and foremost, to be a disciple, one who hears the word of God and keeps it, puts it into practice. Mary’s concern for the Church – and if she is still to be concerned for the Church today, she wants to do it through Marists, through us.

That is why it is also important for us to realize that we are a congregation, a Society, which is both universal and diocesan. It’s a bit of a peculiarity for Marists to be equally a universal Society of pontifical right canonically, but Colin’s insistence that each bishop must look on us as his own men, tanquam tuuam, as his own society.

This wasn’t just a diplomatic thing, a political stunt. For him, it went right down to the understanding of the reality of concern that Marists should have for the work of the Church. A concern, an anxiety that the work is not being as effective as it should be.
Marists should be reflecting that concern of Mary that none of her children should be lost. A mother’s heart is such that she is anxious that all her children should be treated equally, all should be loved and cherished. A mother is not happy if only the majority, or some of her offspring are saved. Her concern is very much for the one who might be missing out. The poor and unfortunate in the eyes of others. There is a special mother’s love for that one. To the abandoned, the neglected, the poor one, the less handsome, the handicapped.

The Society was founded for those people. We are not founded for those who were already being looked after, for those who had already found the Good News and were on the way. Colin, many a time referred to that. We’re not there for the just. We are there for the abandoned, for the ones who would miss out.

That is why our first work was to those missions in the hill country, the neglected villages where the Church had not penetrated after the Revolution. It is why our first overseas mission was to Oceania where the Church had not yet penetrated, where there were thousands, millions of people who hadn’t yet heard the Good News. That was why Marcellin Champagnat devoted himself to the education of young people because the school system in France had broken down and they weren’t hearing the gospel. These were Mary’s children who were in danger of being lost. These were the ones she was worried about and these were the ones Marists turned to.

It is the Church in its concrete manifestation that concerned Colin. The official Church in the post-Revolution times was much concerned with restoring itself to its former glory and grandeur and the people were turning away from it in droves. Its energies were going in the wrong direction. Mary was concerned. Colin was worried and so the Society was born to make sure that the message of Christ was preached effectively.

It is the Church’s mission. It is the Church though. It’s not our mission. Its not as though we have something over and above what the Church has to do. The Church is the extension of Christ. In another famous quotation from Fr. Colin, all of Mary’s concern was with the extension of the Incarnation (FS 60:1).

What was meant by that was that it was Jesus work. What he had come to do, he entrusted to his Church to continue on after he had returned to his Father. Now it was that mission, that work which was Mary’s concern, the work of Jesus through his Church, through the extension of himself through his Church.

What was concerning Mary, what concerned Colin, was that that work was not being done effectively. Too many were missing out, energy was going in the wrong direction. The word was not being heard. Not as good news anyway. It was either not being heard at all or it was being met with indifference. “Who cares” or at some times, it was being met as bad news.

The clergy were asking for money, they were wanting to restore their palaces. They were driving around in flash carriages and the people had to pay for it and they resented it. Of course, we don’t blame them.

This was the Church Mary was concerned about. It was the Church of their time and our question today, is the Church of today. We are concerned for the Church. We should have a critical eye on the Church, not in order to be critical of it, but to spot where it is being ineffective, where the message is being relayed with too much static so that it is not being heard as good news.

Our critical eye is to spot the obstacles, so that we can avoid them. Not so that we can criticize the Church so much, but it is a critical eye to spot the obstacles, to see why the great treasure of grace, freedom, joy and happiness that Christ promises, that the Good News promises, that people are not hearing, that people are not receiving. Why? That same challenge confronts us today as it did Colin in the early years of last century.

There are two key texts from Fr. Colin which are relevant to us as we contemplate this privileged mystery. “As for ourselves, we do not take any congregation for our model, we have no other model than the new-born Church.” (FS. 42:3)

What Fr. Colin had in mind here, was that we were not to try to emulate the Jesuits or the Dominicans or any of the big orders. Although we know that he thought we were going to be a big order like them. No, they are not our model. Even though he took various parts of our constitutions from the Jesuits for example. But no, we’ve got no other model, no other congregation than the new-born Church. The Society began like the Church. He was aware that most of the apostles were fairly rough, uneducated men, fishermen. I would guess that he was well aware that the early Marists were fairly rough and ready. That was why later, he urged that we should start applying ourselves to learning.

“The Society must begin a new Church over again, I don’t mean that literally, that would be blasphemy. But still, in a certain sense, yes, we must begin a new Church” (FS. 120:1) Now that was a radical statement. Why? He was looking at the Church in the concrete, as he saw it in France in the early years of last century and it was not being effective. The Good News was not getting through. It was not sounding good, it sounded old, tired and inhibiting.

We must begin a new Church. Let’s make a fresh start. This is one of his big ideas, one of his daring ideas. When you think of the little timid Frenchman that he was, it was a big, daring, stupid idea. But it’s true for us. The old Church has not been working too well of late. The message has not been getting through.

And we’ve got to face that too. That’s the world in which we live. The Good News no longer sounds good and that should distress us because each of us believes that it’s Good News for us and we want to share it. The great problem is that people don’t want to hear it. Life is good enough without it and so the Good News is not getting through. The salvation so painfully won by Jesus is not considered relevant and Mary is concerned.

We need a new Church, a Church which will be a more effective vehicle of Christ’s message and salvation. This is not just our challenge, this is the challenge facing the Church. That is why the pope has called for a new evangelization and the emphasis is on the new because the old is not working too well.

Our Constitutions tell us how to go about this. Constitution n.15: “To choose Mary’s name is to enter into a special relationship with her, which teaches Marists how to relate to their neighbour in such a way that through them Mary can be present to the Church of today as she was to the Church at its birth.”

It’s an important number. Marists have a special relationship with Mary and it’s that relationship with her which teaches us how to relate to others. The key to that relationship is so that through the way that we relate to others, Mary can be present in the Church today as she was then.

That’s her wish and that’s our vocation. That’s our task; to enable Mary to be present today as she was in the Church at Pentecost and there we do need an effort of creative imagination.

Too often our imagination is stuck with pictures like this. I shouldn’t have put it on the front – there’s Mary in the midst of the Church all right, like the queen bee and everyone buzzing around her. I suggest it wasn’t like that but that’s how the artistic imagination has seen it. Mary just sitting there, beautiful and all the others buzzing around.

I don’t know what it was like, but I guess it wasn’t like that and certainly Marists are not just to sit there and have everyone else buzzing around us. That’s certainly not what we are on about. But we are on about enabling Mary to be a presence today as she was then. That’s our root metaphor, that is the image that we have to creatively imagine and make real in today’s Church.

Fr. Jago, in that lovely letter he gave us, “Mary Mother of our Hope,” envisages the new Church for us and it’s worth pondering yet again. “As Marists we must dedicate ourselves to the more important and radical task of transforming the Church into a communion and a people. Our basic challenge as Marists today, is to enable the laity to play their full part.” (We are not the queen bee!) “Such a Church will demand a different form of leadership, one based not so much on hierarchy, as on the ability to create an atmosphere.”

A lovely image that, “the ability to create an atmosphere in which people can recognize their gifts and have the courage to offer them for the task of the Kingdom.” Make it an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to be themselves and to use their gifts, the gifts of baptism, for the sake of the kingdom.

A leadership which fosters a network of relationships, relating people with God, with Christ, with Mary, with one another, with those who are unbelievers, a whole network of relationships, interconnecting. That’s our job, through which a community cares for itself. A leadership which desires to let go of its power, once it has helped to develop people to their effectiveness.

It’s a Church which is also alert to the allergies of people with regards to the Church, another wonderful phrase. It’s this idea that when the Church approaches, people break out into a rash! That’s what I meant by being critical so that we can spot the difficulties, attentive to the allergies of people, particularly with regard to the Church. That’s our task, that’s reflecting Mary’s concern, the compassion of a mother who doesn’t want any of her children to be lost. Doesn’t want any of them to miss out on the Good News won by her son Jesus.

Source: Fr. Patrick Bearsley.  Conference Two, Boston Province Retreat, 1994.

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