In the spiritual life the soul must be illuminated by faith, especially when faced with the bloody reality of Christ’s shameful death on the Cross. The Holy Apostle Paul is extremely explicit on this point: “For the word of the Cross, to them indeed that perish, is foolishness…But we preach Christ Crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (I Cor 1:18, 23-24). Without the light of faith, Christ Crucified is nothing else but foolishness; with divine faith, however, the Cross of the Savior is the power and wisdom of God.
The model of faith is the Theotokos (Mother of God) standing at the foot of the Cross. “Throughout her entire life,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “and even at the final test, when Jesus, her Son, died on the Cross, her faith never wavered…This is why the Church venerates in Mary the purest realization of faith.” (49) In her maternal gaze on Calvary she beheld her Son crucified and tormented amongst blasphemy, mockery and indifference; in her Mother’s Heart, however, she ever saw her “God-Savior” (cf. Lk 1:47) and she adored Him in His misery as the “power of God and the wisdom of God.” She offered her own suffering to the Father in union with Jesus and, as far as what depended on her, she offered Christ as an expiation for sins, sacrificing her maternal rights over her Son precisely in order to redeem humanity in her subordinate, but essential role as Mother Coredemptrix. (50) Her faith in the Divinity of her Son was constant right from the Incarnation, when she gave her informed consent, her fiat, to be the Mother of God. (51)
The Centurion: Illumination and the Theotokos Coredemptrix
As St. Bonaventure points out, we are deeply in need of this illumination of faith. “We have need of these three things…” writes the Seraphic Doctor, “to be enlightened in the intellect, to be purified in the affections, to be perfected in both works and effects. And this we cannot bring about without the interventions of the glorious Virgin.” (52) Here is the treasure we find in the Theotokos Coredemptrix: she is not only the supreme model of faith, but she intervenes and plays an active, essential role in the illuminative way. “Hence, for all practical purposes,” writes Fr. Fehlner, “it is impossible to advance in wisdom, knowledge, counsel, etc., that is in holiness, unless one is supported by the courage of the Mother who brings (profert) to earth the price of our salvation, who pays (persolvit) the price of our salvation, who possesses (possedit) the price of our salvation.” (53) She, as Mother Coredemptrix, mediates the light of faith to us. Hence the Seraphic Doctor does not hesitate to call her our “Illumanitrix.” (54)
Among the wide variety of souls who stood near the Cross there was the Roman Centurion, an executioner by profession. What should have been but another day’s work turned out to be the day of his salvation. St. Mark recounts: “And the Centurion who stood over against Him, seeing that crying out in this manner He had given up the ghost, said: ‘Indeed this man was the Son of God.'” (Mk 15:39; cf. Mt 27:54 and Lk 23:47). Upon witnessing the most humiliating and excruciating death in the history of the world and the most dreadful interior martyrdom of the Blessed Mother, the pagan soldier received the grace of professing the Divinity of Jesus Christ. And where did this grace come from, if not from the reservoir of Mary’s Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart?
The Centurion represents every soul that acquires the gift of faith and the light of heavenly wisdom. “Mary penetrates the deep recesses of the soul,” writes a contemplative, “and, in this interior depth, she shows herself and makes the soul hear her voice, admire her beauty, penetrate the mysteries of her life; and she expands over it the splendors of divine Wisdom…” (55) The Mother of God and Seat of Wisdom forms and instructs the soul interiorly, cooperating with the Holy Spirit in infusing the theological virtue of faith. Since her faith as the Mother Coredemptrix is the model of faith for every believer, she desires to instill her very own faith into souls. De Montfort, in fact, writes that “the Virgin Mary will make you a partaker of her faith…it will be…your hidden treasure of divine Wisdom and your all-powerful weapon which will serve to enlighten you.” (56)
The intervention of the Theotokos Coredemptrix in enlightening the soul by the virtue of faith occurs not only at the first moment of divine illumination, as in the case of the Centurion, but continues until that last moment of faith: the hour of our death. Regarding her ongoing maternal mediation in the illuminative way we can take, for example, the telling episode recorded by the Franciscan mystic St. Charles of Sezze: “…when I began praying before Our Lady, I did not set out to discourse with thought…God concurred with a special light within the intellect, I left as if outside of myself, that is of this base nature, and I was transformed in my soul into a supernatural being, losing my thought and intellect in that divine light…” (57) We note here how the Saint, while praying before the Blessed Mother, was enlightened from on high and even transformed in that divine light.
Equally indicative are the experiences of the three little shepherds of Fatima. In their second apparition on June 13th, 1917, Our Blessed Lady said to the children: “I will never leave you, my Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead to God.” Sr. Lucia, in her memoirs, adds: “As she said these last words the Blessed Virgin opened her hands and communicated to us for the second time the reflex of the immense light that enveloped her. We saw ourselves in it, as if submerged in God…There was a Heart before the palm of the right hand of Our Lady with thorns piercing it. We understood that this was the Immaculate Heart of Mary, so offended by the sins of mankind, desiring reparation.” (58)
Hence the Sorrowful Heart of the Mother Coredemptrix, interiorly pierced with the thorns of our sins, radiates to souls the immense light of her divine faith and communion with God; it is through her maternal mediation that the Holy Spirit enlightens the heart of man and unites him, by degrees, to Jesus who is the “true light that enlighteneth every man” (Jn 1:9). It is fitting, then, for souls to meditate on the Passion of the Redeemer and the Compassion of the Coredemptrix where these souls, like the Centurion, can profess and live their faith in the Son of God and the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ our Lord. “In considering frequently their most sweet Mother…,” writes Ven. Michael of St. Augustine, and we conclude this section with his words, “such souls sense great joy, merriment and happiness of spirit, so much so that they do not know what to say or do in order to thank God, in order to bless and praise Mary and God in a manner proportionate to the internal illuminations and knowledge conceded to them.” (59)
St. Mary Magdalene: Purification and the Virgin Coredemptrix
In the journey of the soul towards God there has to be an ongoing purification. The soul that is converted and enlightened senses the urgent need to be perfect as its heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mt. 5:48) and yet is keenly aware of its lack of perfection and inability to attain it by itself. Hence the purgative way with its various aspects of active and passive purification of both the senses and the spirit.
Let us review quickly what are meant by these terms. By active purification is meant that purification whereby we actively correspond to the cleansing action of God with prayer, penance and the practice of the virtues. By passive purification is understood the divine activity which the soul passively undergoes, the work here being entirely divine while the soul, for its part, simply abandons itself to Divine Love with confidence and hope.
In the active and passive purifications the Holy Spirit operates in two ways: from without to purify the senses and from within to purify the spirit. Hence “the dark night of the senses” which purifies the soul from creatures, that is from all that is not God, and “the dark night of the spirit” which purifies the soul from itself and the things of the spirit. (60)
Fr. Ragazzini writes: “With such direct intervention (called passive purification, or mystical purgatory, or martyrdom of love, or the night of the senses and the spirit) grace tends to purify the soul of its nature and of sin so that, being purified as such, it might then be elevated to the contemplation of God…Upon this painful purgatory,” he adds, “behold there falls the gaze of Mary and her motherly intervention which bring great refreshment to the soul already decisively moving towards complete purification.” (61)
These difficult, but necessary passages towards spiritual perfection are graces acquired by the Virgin Coredemptrix who applies them to the souls of her children. She, although being all-pure and the ever Virgin, nonetheless suffered the most intense “pains of purification,” for example, at the prophecy of Holy Simeon, at the losing of the Child Jesus in the Temple, and especially during the Sacred Passion. We say “pains of purification,” not because they purified her who had a “purity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater” (62) but rather because by these pains she, in union with her Son and subordinate to Him, merited our purification. (63) As we are healed by the wounds of Christ the Redeemer (cf. I Pt 2:24), so also we are cleansed by the sorrows of Our Lady Coredemptrix (cf. Lk 2:35).
St. Bonaventure, in fact, observes that she herself invites us to “lay aside every earthly weight” (64) in seeking spiritual perfection. But the Virgin Coredemptrix not only invites, she assists us actively and hence the Seraphic Doctor did not hesitate to call her our “Purgatrix.” (65) Precisely because of her Sorrows, the Blessed Virgin in union with her Son merits and effects our purification by drawing us near to her Most Pure Heart.
For our part, it behooves us to deliberately consecrate ourselves and the work of our purification and sanctification to the Heart of the Coredemptrix. Ven. Michael of St. Augustine states that he who entrusts himself to her “places his heart in the hands of Mary so that there it may be purified of all that which might displease God and His most Holy Mother.” (66)
Although in being purified a soul may sense itself utterly abandoned by God and the Virgin Mary, the truth of the matter is that they are most near, actively drawing the soul to the heights. Ragazzini writes that the “heavenly Mother shall stand beside me in this arduous work of overcoming myself, sustaining me and animating me along the whole course of the necessary and providential purification.” (67) Thus the painful process of purification is sweetened by the presence and assistance of the Virgin Coredemptrix.
Returning to Calvary, then, we discover one person in particular who is a type of the soul undergoing purification: St. Mary Magdalene. She “stood by the Cross of Jesus” with the Blessed Mother (Jn 19:25; cf. Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40). In sacred art she is almost always depicted on her knees embracing the Savior’s feet and weeping tears of love and sorrow. An author of the early Church says that in her Christ “found a harlot and made her purer than a virgin.” (68) Like St. Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross with the Virgin of Sorrows, so also our souls come to be purified in the Blood of the Immaculate Lamb and the tears of the Holy Virgin.
An amazing illustration of the important and essential role of the Virgin Coredemptrix in cleansing the soul can be found in the mystical experiences of St. Veronica Giuliani. With regards to the active purification of her soul she recounts that, “Turning to the Blessed Virgin, I prayed to her that she might instruct me as to what I could do in order to belong entirely to Jesus. She made me understand that I had to forget myself entirely if I wanted to perfectly unite myself with Divine Love. She promised to assist me in everything and for everything.” (69) Obviously the Blessed Virgin was true to her promise right to the very end, producing a great masterpiece of spiritual perfection. It is clear, therefore, that the soul which turns to Our Lady will be instructed and assisted by her throughout the purgative way.
There is yet another telling experience of the Saint regarding the passive purification and the tears of the Virgin Coredemptrix; she writes: “Tonight…Mary Most Holy took the chalice which contained her holy tears and it seemed to me that she poured out all of them upon me…My heart remained cleansed and moistened with her holy tears. Everything is the charity of Mary Most Holy…(which) wants to shower grace after grace upon me.” (70)
Certainly very few have the privilege of mystically seeing and experiencing the cleansing balm of the Virgin’s tears as did St. Veronica; however, the reality of Our Blessed Lady’s coredemptive and maternal intervention, even if unseen and undetected by the soul itself, is continuous and efficacious. As St. Mary Magdalene came to the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Mother, was sustained by her presence and made purer than a virgin by the redeeming grace acquired and distributed by Christ and His Virgin Mother, so also every soul docile to the workings of the Holy Spirit is brought by the Virgin Coredemptrix to the feet of Jesus Crucified, there to be purified by His precious Blood and cleansed by her maternal and coredemptive tears.
If we, for our part, abandon ourselves entirely into the hands and the Heart of “yes, our dear Coredemptrix,” (71) as St. Pio of Pietrelcina calls her, then we will be able say throughout the purgative way the very words that he himself wrote: “I am sorry that I do not have sufficient means to thank our beautiful Virgin Mary by whose intercession I do not doubt to have received much strength from the Lord in order to support the many mortifications to which I am subject day after day.” (72)
Fr. Maximilian Mary Dean, F.I. is a member of the Franciscans of the Immaculate and author of several Mariological publications which, In Pursuit of Immortal Souls.
(49) Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.149.