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The Immaculate Conception in Mary

Updated: May 29, 2020

Before starting to consider what makes Mary the Immaculate Conception, it is good to stress, as St. Maximilian Kolbe did, that these distinctions we make, and which our intellect needs in order to see more clearly and to understand better the reasons why we should love, must not turn into occasions of diversion and distraction in our life of worship.

Our imagination leads us to think of God the Father, of Jesus, of the Immaculata, as the objects of "devotions" which are more or less similar. Instead, we should think of them as links in a single chain, as elements all leading to a single goal: God, who is One in his Trinity. (Letter to Niepokalanów, Nov. 10, 1934)

He insists on this idea:

Day by day, let us strive to belong more and more to the Immaculata, and in her and through her, to Jesus and to God; never should we try to go to Jesus without her. We do not serve God the Father, and Jesus our Lord, and the Immaculata; but we seek to serve God in Jesus and through Jesus, and to serve Jesus in the Immaculata and through the Immaculata. (Letter to Fr. Salezy Mikolajczyk, July 28, 1935)

Whenever we examine the relationships between Mary and God, we must always keep in mind these affirmations which put into proper perspective the trends of St. Maximilian’s thought. The Virgin Mary occupies the central position in the effort of doctrinal reflection carried on by this great apostle of Mary. The formal veneration of Mary the Immaculata absorbs all his attention. Still, he has not failed to place her in her correct position, which is that of a creature, even if the position she occupies is the noblest of all; for she is Mary, the Mother of God and our Mother. "No one should disapprove," says Paul VI, "if Blessed Maximilian and the Church together with him show such enthusiasm for the formal veneration of the most Blessed Virgin; this enthusiasm will never be too great considering the merits and the advantages we can derive from such veneration, precisely because a mysterious communion unites Mary to Christ, a communion that is documented convincingly in the New Testament. Never let us think of this as ‘Mariolatry’; we know that the sun will never be dimmed by the light of the moon; and never will the ministry of salvation entrusted to the Church’s solicitude in particular be impaired, if the Church is faithful to honor in Mary her most exceptional Daughter, and her spiritual Mother." (Beatification homily, Oct. 17, 1971)

The Immaculata Is a Creature

The Mother of God is a creature. It follows that all she is, she has from God. But she is God’s most perfect creature. For this reason, the homage paid to her is, by the very nature of the case, paid to God himself. If we admire a statue, we honor the artist who created this masterpiece. If we honor Mary most holy we honor God. The more we pay homage to the divine perfections found in Mary, the more perfect is our homage to God; this is perfectly in order, since God created her in the highest state of perfection (Conference, April 9, 1938).

Why do we love Mary Immaculate and consecrate ourselves to her unreservedly? Not because of what she is in herself, but because she is wholly God’s…. We love her because we love God (Conference, April 4, 1938)

Michelangelo produced a masterpiece, no doubt; but his "Moses" did not completely satisfy him, for he knew how far the realization fell short of his inner ideal. True, his "Moses" done in marble revealed the wealth of the artist’s spiritual conception, which was in him all light and love. A true masterpiece is a work in which the artist—because he possesses the genius to do it—is able to transpose his inner conceptions into marble, or onto canvas, or into music. But he cannot, of course, confer on his creation the kind of existence it has in his own mind; it remains only a symbol of the inner, ideal conception; and like any other symbol it remains distinct from what it symbolizes. A flag is not the same thing as the country it stands for.

In terms of human procreation, human parents know perfectly well that they cannot produce the spiritual soul of their child, even though they have already "conceived" him in their minds. That is why we call their action "procreation"; in this process of human generation God himself immediately creates the spirit and soul of man. God alone is the wonderful artist who is able to create a being in his own "image and likeness."

What does this mean?

St. Maximilian explains very precisely how a creature must go back to the principle from which it sprang, in order to achieve the complete fullness of being that the Creator intended it to reach:

Everywhere in this world we notice action and the reaction which is equal but contrary to it; we find departure and return, going away and coming back, separation and reunion. The separation always looks forward to union, which is creative. All this is simply an image of the Blessed Trinity in the activity of creatures. Union means love, creative love. Divine activity, outside the Trinity itself, follows a like pattern. First God creates the universe—that is something like a separation. Creatures, by following the natural law given to them by God, reach their perfection, become like him, and go back to him. Intelligent creatures love him in a conscious manner; through this love they unite themselves more and more closely with him, and so find their way back to him.

The creature most completely filled with this love, filled with God himself, is the Immaculata, who never contracted the slightest stain of sin, who never departed in the least from God’s will. United to the Holy Spirit as his spouse, in an ineffable manner, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature.

It is from this point of view—of action and reaction, of flux and reflux, that St. Maximilian considers the relationships between God and the Immaculata, between the Creator and his creatures, even the noblest of them all, the Virgin Mary. He had borrowed this notion from the field of natural science, in which he had achieved a certain competence.

Everywhere in nature we observe the phenomenon of action and reaction. This is a reflection of the activity of the Blessed Trinity itself. (In the relationships between God and creatures, we might say that) "the action is God’s, who creates from nothing; the reaction is that of creatures insofar as they tend toward and return to their Creator, more or less perfectly." (Conference, June 27, 1936)

He makes himself clearer and broadens his idea to take in the domain of grace, before he turns his consideration toward the most excellent of all creatures, the Immaculata.

We know by divine revelation that from all eternity the Father begets the Son, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. This inner life of the Trinity repeats and re-echoes itself in innumerable and varied ways in the creatures that have come forth from the hand of God, who is One in his Holy Trinity, as more or less distant images of him. The universal principle which holds that every effect must have some likeness to its cause, applies here all the more fully and exactly because God creates out of nothing; nothing exists in all creation that he has not made.

Now, every act of God’s love comes down from the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, creating, sustaining, giving life and growth in the natural order as well as in that of grace. This is how God pours out his love on the numberless limited resemblances of himself that he has made. And the reaction of love on the part of the creature must follow the selfsame path in order to go back to the Father: by the Holy Spirit and through the Son. We may not always realize this, but so it is. The act of love in the creature has no other author but God himself; still, when the creature is intelligent and free, this act of love cannot happen without its consent (Sketch, 1940).

St. Maximilian thus takes his place in the ranks of those mighty Christian thinkers, who like to consider in this way the whole cycle of life: in God first of all, and then in creatures which come from God. It is interesting to see this apostolic man, so much at home with the humblest folk, and so adept at leading them to God, not hesitating to address them in language similar to that used by the Doctors of the Church. Note how closely his teaching follows that of these great saints.

Issuing from the Primary Principle, creatures accomplish a sort of circuit, a gyratory movement, such that all things when they tend to their proper end, are returning to the Principle whence they came forth. It is to be expected therefore that this return to their proper end should be brought about by the same causes which effected their going forth from the source. Now we know that the order of the origin of the divine Persons is the supreme reason for the production of creatures by the Primary Principle; it must then be the reason for their return to their end. We were created by the Son and by the Holy Spirit; and hence it is by them that we are brought back to our end. Such was the idea expressed by St. Augustine when he spoke of the Principle (the Father) to which we are returning, of the Model (the Son) that we must follow, and of the Grace which reconciles us with God (the Holy Spirit). Such was also the concept of St. Hilary (St. Thomas, in The Book of Sentences, I, dist. 14, q. 2 a.2).

St. Irenaeus had said something very similar.

Thus, the master theologians speak the same language as the zealous apostle—a language that can be grasped by all, even simple people. It is not difficult, in fact, to consider these various movements of action and reaction, of falling and rising, of going forth and coming back, of flux and reflux, so as to find in them a precise image on which faith can find footing when it seeks to penetrate the ineffable mystery of the God who reveals himself to us. That image has the same pedagogical value as those used by Jesus in his parables, to lead us to the unspeakable truths about God he was trying to inculcate.

As early as 1938 St. Maximilian had outlined his main thoughts on the unique place occupied by the Immaculata the story of salvation. In the first lines, he mentions this favorite comparison of his: action and reaction, with its starting point and its point of final return in God the Father, so as to show that in this return current the Holy Spirit is the moving principle, just as in the going forth he is the terminus ad quem.

In 1939, in another sketch developing this same theme he did not hesitate to write:

Every action has the reaction in view. The reaction is the fruit of the action. God the Father is the primary Principle and the Last End. The Immaculata is full of grace; nothing in the way of grace is lacking to her. The path of grace is always the same: action: from the Father through the Son (Christ said, I will send him to you), and by the Holy Spirit (the Immaculata); then the inverse reaction: from creatures through the Immaculata (the Holy Spirit), and Christ (the Word) back to the Father. Action and reaction=love=grace and good works. (Notes, 1939)

He finds the Virgin Mary, the Immaculate one, therefore at the end of the action we see in the life of the Trinity, which passes from the Father through the Word to the Holy Spirit; and he finds her at the starting point of the reaction in which we see divine life flowing back from the Holy Spirit through the Incarnate Word to the Father.

Mary, in se, is neither the end nor the starting point; but it should be emphasized that she is present at the end and at the beginning or starting point by reason of her tremendously intimate union with the Holy Spirit.

To help us understand—to get some faint idea, rather—of this deep union between the Holy Spirit and the Immaculata, he compares it to the union between Christ’s humanity and the Person of the Word. If we follow him in what he says we shall see that it is rich in insights which throw light on the true place Mary occupies: that of God’s "first born daughter." His words are perfectly measured, for he never forgets that Mary is only a creature:

The Immaculata comes forth from the Father, through the Son and the Holy Spirit, as from her Creator who calls all creatures out of nothing to existence—in the very image of the Trinity—because he loves to find in them the image of himself that they bear. Creatures endowed with reason and will know and recognize that they come from God and receive all from him, i.e. what they are, what they can do, what they possess moment by moment. (Sketch, 1940)

The Union of the Divine and the Human in Mary

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, let us state it clearly at the outset: Christ is the incarnate Word of God, God made man. The Immaculate Virgin is not an incarnation of the Holy Spirit; she is a pure human creature, a descendant of Adam. St. Maximilian repeats this untiringly.

If he likes to compare the union of the divine and the human in Christ, on the one hand, and in Mary on the other, he is careful to point out the essential differences that characterize the two cases.

The Holy Spirit is in Mary after the fashion, one might say, in which the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word, is in his humanity. There is, of course, this difference: in Jesus there are two natures, divine and human, but one single person who is God. Mary’s nature and person are totally distinct from the nature and person of the Holy Spirit. Still, their union is inexpressible, and so perfect that the Holy Spirit acts only by the Immaculata, his spouse…. (Letter to Fr. Salezy Mikolajczyk, July 28, 1935)

If we wish to avoid error when speaking of the mystery of Christ we must affirm both of the following propositions: a) The man Christ never began to be; and b) Christ did begin to be a man (Cf. St. Thomas, S. T. III, q. 16, a. 9; ad 3). In these two propositions which, we repeat, we must never separate but rather consider together, we have the expression of the mystery of God’s Son become man. In Jesus Christ the divine and the human are joined so closely that there is one single being, the Son of the Eternal Father, who is God even as the Father and the Holy Spirit are. Our difficulty in understanding this arises no doubt from the mystery itself; but also from the fact that we are not capable of defining with rigorous precision what we mean by the word "being."

Either a "being" means "one who is, who exists"; and then it is true to say that the man Christ never began to exist ("Before Abraham was, I am"—Jn. 8:58). Here he speaks as God, even in his human form; "I am who am." He shows that he exists as a divine Person, even when he is acting in a human manner.

Or again, "to be" may mean to exist in some determined manner: one can be here or there, one can be great or small, one can be a man, be intelligent, be alive. … In this sense one must say that Jesus began to be a man, i.e. began to exist as a man. The Second Person of the Trinity, on becoming incarnate, began to be a human being, because he had determined that he would become one of us, starting from his conception in a woman’s womb. Still, even though he had become a man he never ceased to be the eternal "I am." This is why St. Maximilian is careful to express the dogma correctly: "In Jesus there are two natures, the divine and the human, but only one Person, who is God."

How then can we speak of a similar union between Mary the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit? St. Maximilian never forgets that it was Mary herself who stressed this union when she said at Lourdes: "I am the Immaculate Conception."

In contrast with the mystery of the hypostatic union in Christ, the words "I am" do not here indicate divine existence but the concrete existence of a human person, born of Adam’s race, just like every other daughter of humankind. What she said to Bernadette was: "I, who speak to you, whom you see as a woman, as a member of your own race, am the Immaculate Conception."

She is really and truly a human person, who began to exist in time, like every other individual of our race; but at the same time the name she uses reminds us of the names proper to the Holy Spirit.

Should we perhaps conclude that Mary has become the Holy Spirit? Certainly not! for she is and remains a pure creature. But we should say that this young woman of our race has never existed apart from the Holy Spirit, who is the Immaculate Conception in God. In more or less the same way St. Paul wrote: "I am crucified with Christ; and if I live, it is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:19-20). Through his Spirit Christ had taken over all the vital energies of Paul, his ardent apostle, to such an extent that the latter really lived with Christ’s own life. In how much more sublime a way did not the Spirit of Christ take possession of the entire life of this daughter of Adam, from the very first moment of her existence, to make of her the Mother of Christ? Her life was then nothing but the life given her by the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

A marvelous mystery lies hidden here: the mystery of the presence of a divine Person in a creature taken up so totally, down to the very roots of her being, into his control, and for all time. But like every other mystery, this one too is an overabundance of light, which stimulates the weak intelligence of the believer, and will not let it rest.

If the spirit of evil is capable of "possessing" a human creature to the point of identifying the latter with itself, even in a sort of personal way (see Mt. 8:29; Mk. 1:23-25; Lk. 8:28-30), then surely a fortiori the Spirit of God can take possession of his privileged creature, Mary. The evil spirit enslaves the poor creature which he takes over, whereas the Holy Spirit stirs up and strengthens liberty deep in the soul of the one in whom he deigns to dwell. Better than anyone else, Mary reveals the presence of the Holy Spirit in her by all she is, by her words, her actions, her whole life. And under this impulse of the Holy Spirit Mary declared: "I am the Immaculate Conception."

For this reason St. Maximilian does not hesitate to say:

Jesus Christ has two natures, divine and human, which are united in one single divine Person; such is the exact and precise formulation of the dogma. The Immaculata is united to the Holy Spirit so closely that we really cannot grasp this union. But we can at least say that the Holy Spirit and Mary are two persons who live in such intimate union that they have but one sole life. (Conference, June 27, 1936)

Such a daring affirmation is merely the echo of a no less surprising one which we find in Pius IX’s Bull Ineffabilis Deus, defining the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. "Even before the Virgin Mother of God was conceived by Anne, her mother, it was necessary that grace should have been at work and produced its fruit; it was necessary that she who was to conceive the ‘first-born of every creature’ should herself have been conceived as God’s first-born daughter."

Of course, we are not using the word "before" in a purely temporal sense here, as though the Most Blessed Virgin had existed corporally prior to her conception in the flesh! But at the very instant in which she was physically conceived, this child was; she existed in God as his first-born daughter, divinely conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Hence, from the moment of her physical conception she is already defined as the Immaculate Conception, because she lives only under the intimate and vital action of the Holy Spirit, the divine Conception of Love.

Vatican II says the same thing in different words: "The Mother of God, the all-holy Mary, was preserved from every stain of sin, for she had been formed by the Holy Spirit as a new creature." (Lumen Gentium, n. 56)

The fifth century heresiarch, Nestorius, tried to imagine what sort of union joined the Son of God and the man Jesus. He maintained that the Person of the Son of God was not the same person as Mary’s son. According to him, these two persons were united first of all by inhabitation, in that the Word of God dwelt in the man Jesus as in a sanctuary; next, by unity of sentiments, in that the man’s will was always conformable to that of the divine Person; finally, by unity of action, in so far as the man was the instrument made use of by the Word.

Nestorius was wrong concerning Christ because in his hypothesis, Jesus, however intimate his union with the Word, still remained a mere creature. Hence Mary would have been, not the true Mother of God, but the mother of a man who was united to the Son of God.

It would be wrong to suppose, however, that Nestorius and his followers made of Jesus nothing more than a mere man, entirely separable from the divine Word. This would certainly not have been the Jesus presented to us in the Gospels, who claimed to be God’s Son in a unique manner, who had been conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of God, so that he could be the Messiah, the Son of God.

If we keep in mind this union between Jesus and the Word of God, as Nestorius understood it, to illustrate the union between Mary the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit we shall not be far from understanding St. Maximilian’s way of looking at her as the spouse, the handmaid, and the living tabernacle of the Holy Spirit.

The Immaculata, Spouse of the Holy Spirit

On this point St. Maximilian follows the great tradition of the Fathers of the Church, which St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort made his own. St. Maximilian wrote to Father Vivoda: "The devotion taught by Blessed Grignion is ours exactly" (Letter, Dec. 4, 1933).

He further points out that the doctrinal basis for St. de Montfort’s devotion lies in the fact that "The Holy Spirit has made Mary his own spouse" (in an article in Miles Immaculatae, 1938, n. 2).

The image of the Holy Spirit and Mary as spouses shows that we have here two persons with two distinct wills, but that these two wills act as one.

The Mother of God is the most perfect of all creatures; she is immaculate, full of grace, all beautiful. From her God receives the highest glory a creature can possibly give him. So perfect is she, so closely bound to the Holy Spirit, that we can call her his spouse. (Conference, June 20, 1937)

St. Maximilian calls attention to the fact that this title of spouse of the Holy Spirit stresses the intimate union between the will of Mary and the unique will of the three divine Persons. This is precisely what he says in his testament-text of February 17, 1941:

In the union of the Holy Spirit with her, not only do we have the love of two beings; in one of the two we have all the love of the Trinity itself; and in the other we have all of creation’s love. Hence, in this union heaven and earth meet; all of heaven with all of earth, the totality of divine eternal love with the plenitude of created love. It is the true summit of love (Sketch, Feb. 17, 1941).

Obviously, if Mary can be wed to the will of the Holy Trinity in the Holy Spirit, this is because she enjoys a very intimate union with him, so intimate that it transcends all that we can even imagine.

For Mary, as the spouse of the Holy Spirit and therefore raised above all created perfection, accomplishes in all things the will of the Holy Spirit who dwells in her from the first instant of her conception (Miles Immaculatae, 1938, n.2).

The Immaculata, Handmaiden of the Holy Spirit

St. Maximilian has the flair of a true theologian; he possesses a fine feeling for analogies and illustrations. A single one is hardly sufficient to allow the feeble intellect of the believer to begin to grasp something of this mystery. This union between Mary Immaculate and the Holy Spirit, such as she affirms it in the apparitions at Lourdes, certainly implies that she is the one wedded to the will of God. Because of her closeness to the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, she desires nothing else but to love God, and everything that God loves, to such an extent that she identifies herself with the fruitful Power of the divine Love: "I am the Immaculate Conception." But the message of Lourdes does not contradict that of Nazareth. The one who speaks is still, as always, the handmaid of the Lord who knows so well how totally she lies in God’s hands. This St. Maximilian realizes too.

Into this world there comes the Immaculate one, with no slightest taint of sin, the masterpiece of God’s hands, full of grace. God, in the Blessed Trinity, looks down on his handmaid’s lowliness (i.e. her humility, the root of all virtues in her), and does great things in her, for he is the Almighty (Notes, 1940).

The word "handmaid" suggests something different from the word "spouse." Husband and wife are two persons on a certain plane of equality, at least when united in love; each one keeps his own responsibility for the initiative of his actions, even though these tend to coalesce. A handmaid is one who abandons her own right to decide for herself; she allows herself to be commanded by a superior authority; she does this willingly, of course; still, her submission hands over to this superior authority the right to control her activity. The most apt image here is that of an instrument in the hands of an intelligent being, making use of it for his own purposes.

In all he does, God always wills to make use of instruments…. God, who gave us free will, wants us to serve him freely in the role of instruments, by bringing our wills into harmony with his, even as his Most Holy Mother did when she said: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to thy word" (Conference, June 3, 1933).

Let us pray more and more that we may understand better and better what the Immaculata said at the moment of the Annunciation: "I am the handmaid of the Lord… let it be done as he wills." In this attitude alone will we find real happiness. This is the resumé of our mission on this earth. God made us to be his instruments… so, let us ask the Virgin Mary to teach us how our souls too can become the handmaids of the Lord (Conference, April 2, 1938).

As a creature, as a servant, Mary embraces the will of the Lord on Annunciation Day. She is already with the Lord, and he with her; the angel says as much. It is up to the Lord to bring about within her whatever he wishes. One can sense how profoundly the Holy Spirit must already be living within her, as he comes to her anew in this moment when the Son of God is made flesh in her womb. In union with the Holy Spirit, who is God’s Love personified, Mary pledges herself freely, from that moment on, to her role of divine motherhood.

Still, this comparison of the handmaid goes no further than to suggest a moral union, a union of like sentiments between the Trinity, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and Mary. It does not completely clear up her use of the expression: "I am the Immaculate Conception."

The Holy Spirit dwells in the Immaculata, lives in her, and does so from the first instant of her existence, and thenceforth forever (Sketch, Feb. 17, 1941).

The Immaculata, Sanctuary of the Holy Spirit

Mary’s affirmation at Lourdes: "I am the Immaculate Conception" refers not only to her spiritual "I," but to the total, personal "I": to her body united to her soul as to its vital principle, both making up her personal reality.

It is in this perspective that we should consider the audacious words penned by St. Maximilian a few days prior to his arrest, and which constitute so to speak his last word on the subject:

Our heavenly Father is the source of all that is; everything comes from the Blessed Trinity. We cannot see God, and so Jesus came to this earth, to make him known to us. The Most Blessed Virgin is the one in whom we venerate the Holy Spirit, for she is his spouse…

Nothing very new so far; but then he goes on:

The third Person of the Blessed Trinity never took flesh; still, our human word "spouse" is far too weak to express the reality of the relationship between the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit. We can affirm that she is, in a certain sense, the "incarnation" of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that we love in her; and through her we love the Son. The Holy Spirit is far too little known. . . . (Conference, Feb. 5, 1941).

We recognize in these words St. Maximilian’s great gifts as a theologian. He knows how to qualify what he states, thus permitting himself to say something which, without those qualifications, would not be theologically acceptable. (1) The divine mystery we are considering is truly ineffable; at times the human expressions we use seem contradictory. Thus, he says, "The Holy Spirit never took flesh"; and then declares, "the Immaculata is, in a certain sense, the ‘incarnation’ of the Holy Spirit."

In reality there is no contradiction here. Between Mary the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit there is a deep union not only because Mary’s will is absolutely conformed with that of the Holy Spirit, as a dutiful spouse’s would be, and also because she was always a conscious and free instrument in his regard, a true handmaid, but more precisely because the Holy Spirit dwells in her as in his privileged sanctuary.

The word sanctuary is the one the Council employs in speaking of the special relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit: "She benefited by the Redemption in the most eminent manner, in consideration of the merits of her Son; and united with him by a close and indissoluble bond, she receives this tremendous responsibility and dignity of being the Mother of God’s Son, and as a consequence, of being the Father’s well-beloved daughter and the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit; this exceptional gift of grace places her far above all other creatures in Heaven and on earth" (Lumen Gentium, n. 53).

Sanctuary or temple: here we have a very concrete image. It indicates a material place totally reserved for God who resides there as Lord and Master. St. Paul does not hesitate to say: "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit who is in you, and whom you have received from God? Do you not know that you are not your own? For you have been bought at a great price! Glorify and bear God in your bodies" (I Cor. 6:19-20).

Mary herself depends on the Redemption wrought by Christ; it is a body exempt from sin by the foreseen merits of Christ, her Son and her Savior, that the Holy Spirit dwells as in his sanctuary. This is what St. Maximilian means when he affirms that the Holy Spirit, who did not take flesh in Mary, yet lives in her, not only in her soul (as his spouse or handmaid) but in her body: "The Immaculata is, in a certain sense, the ‘incarnation’ of the Holy Spirit."

In a word, the Holy Spirit, without becoming incarnate in her, dwells in her totally, in her body and in her soul.

It is said that the Holy Spirit dwells in the souls of the just. If this is so, then he must dwell in the most perfect manner possible in the soul of the Immaculata. Our Most Holy Mother is totally suffused with the divine. For this reason we call her the spouse of the Holy Spirit, even though we know that this name is only a distant shadow of the reality. For the Holy Spirit fashioned the humanity of Jesus in her womb, in a miraculous manner. If Jesus says of the souls of the just: "We will make our abode in them" (Jn. 14:23), then what an immense difference there must be between us and our most Blessed Mother, in regard to this indwelling (Conference, April 9, 1938)!

Immaculate, Because She Was to Be the Mother of God

To understand the very special mode of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in Mary, we must not lose sight of this profound and decisive truth: "She was immaculate because she was to become the Mother of God; she became the Mother of God because she was immaculate" (Conference, July 26, 1939).

In this interconnection between the moment of Mary’s conception in the womb of St. Anne, and the moment of Jesus’ incarnation in Mary’s womb, we find the key that unlocks the mystery of the deep union between Mary the Immaculata and the Holy Spirit.

Nobody can understand what a seed is, as a seed, so long as he has not seen it reach its perfect development by becoming a plant and producing its fruit. Only the full-grown oak can reveal to us what an acorn really is.

To help his hearers understand the Kingdom of God, Jesus told them: What shall we say the Kingdom of God is like, or with what shall we compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed planted in the earth. This seed is smaller than all other seeds on earth. But once it has been planted, it grows up and becomes larger than all other herbs. It develops great branches so that the birds of the air can dwell under its shelter" (Mk. 4:30-32).

In this passage we find both the means of recognizing the seed, and the idea that this seed, apparently the least of all, develops into the largest of garden herbs.

There is no better comparison to help us understand who Mary the Immaculata is. Her own conception in her mother’s womb occurred without being noticed; no divine manifestation accompanied it then. We know nothing more about it than we do about other human conceptions. Moreover, she belonged to a very modest class of people; her parents lived unknown to most of their fellow citizens. So, when Mary’s life began, nothing showed the world who she was. Mary herself says in the Magnificat: "He has bent down to the littleness of his handmaid" (Lk. 1:48).

And yet she is predestined to become the Queen of Heaven and earth.

Humanly speaking, her case is difficult even to imagine. God does all sorts of marvelous things throughout the universe; he creates human beings who, since they possess intelligence, are capable of becoming his children in his kingdom, capable of becoming like him: "Look at the extraordinary charity the Father has endowed us with. Because of it we are called, and really are, the sons of God. Therefore… dearly beloved, we are now God’s offspring, and it has not yet become clear what we shall be. But we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like to him because we shall see him as he is" (I Jn. 3:1-2).

The grandiose destiny awaiting us even when we are only frail embryos in our mothers’ wombs, is almost unthinkable. But to no other creature, angelic or human, did God ever entrust his own Son, so that he could be brought forth into the world. Only the Virgin Mary was called to such a destiny.

She alone was created by God to become the Mother of God; for this she was fashioned by the Holy Spirit, so to speak, as a new creature. Her personal vocation was part and parcel of her nature as a woman; in body and in soul Mary exists only that she may be the Mother of God.

Whatever images we use, the reality is this. If we begin by accepting what revelation declares: that Mary is the Mother of God and that she was immaculate in her conception, so much so that she herself is the Immaculate Conception, we must admit that she was born of the Holy Spirit far more truly than she was born physically, carnally of her parents.

It was necessary, even before the Virgin Mother of God was conceived by Anne, her mother, that grace should have been at work in her and produced its fruit; it was necessary that she who was to conceive the first-born of every creature should have herself been conceived as God’s first-born daughter (Bull Ineffabilis Deus of Pope Pius IX).

This unique grace implies the personal presence of the Holy Spirit in her who was called to bring God’s own Son into the world. Still, the Holy Spirit is not personally present in her as the Word is present in the flesh which he took in her womb. We repeat: the Word became flesh; the Holy Spirit did not become flesh. The personal presence of the Holy Spirit in Mary the Immaculata from the first instant of her life can be compared to the presence of the oak in the acorn, because all the specific nature of that oak is already contained in it, programmed into it, so to speak. The acorn is the oak in its germinal state, its state of living expectancy. But the entire nature of the oak is there already.

Because she was a woman, Mary, from the moment of her conception, possessed a nature adapted to human maternity, just as is the case with all other women, even in their mothers’ wombs. What is special about Mary is that she was not called to be the human mother of a human son. Her special, unique vocation was to be the Mother of God; in other words, her maternity is inextricably bound up with the divine sonship of the One whom she will give birth to in the flesh. Her divine maternity, then, was already "programmed" as soon as she was conceived in the womb of Anne, her mother. Such a maternity undoubtedly implies the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We are not dealing here with the ordinary, natural presence by which God created her and preserved her being. Nor are we dealing with the special presence of God which makes every baptized person share, by grace, in God’s own nature. Of course, Mary’s soul, from the moment of her conception, was filled with sanctifying grace in a measure exceeding that given to any other creature which becomes God’s child through baptism.

What we are concerned with here is a new sort of presence of the Holy Spirit, who unites her to himself in a manner proper and personal to himself, as the divine source of all motherhood. In other words, at the instant of Mary’s conception, the Father and the Son joined this new creature to their common Spirit so that she might be capable of becoming the Mother of the Son through the Holy Spirit’s action. From that moment on, in the depths of her being as a woman, this unique grace is operative and real, since by this grace the Immaculata is already defined, "programmed" if we dare say so, for her unique vocation, that of being the Mother of God.

Every man is born with the capacities required for the mission which God intends to entrust to him. (R.N. 1922, in an article entitled, The Grace of God and the Natural Gifts of the Saints)

St. Maximilian says it again, more precisely in his last text:

Among creatures made in God’s image, the union brought about by married love is the most intimate of all. In a much more precise, more interior, more essential manner, the Holy Spirit lives in the soul of the Immaculata, in the depths of her very being. He makes her fruitful from the very first instant of her existence, all during her life, and for all eternity. This eternal "Immaculate Conception" (which is the Holy Spirit) produces, in an immaculate manner, divine life itself in the womb (or depths) of Mary’s soul, making her the Immaculate Conception, the human Immaculate Conception. The virginal womb of Mary’s body is kept sacred for him; there he conceives in time —because everything that is material happens in time—the human life of the man-God (Sketch, Feb. 17, 1941).

The late Father H. M. Manteau-Bonamy, O.P., was a "peritus" at the Second Vatican Council and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Mariology of St. Maximilian Kolbe. This article was excerpted from Immaculate Conception and the Holy Spirit: The Marian Teachings of St. Maximilian Kolbe, Franciscan Marytown Press, 1977.


(1) Theologians prize accuracy in the formulation of truths to be believed because in them the human mind must find illumination, and correct order among the ideas these formulas evoke. Thus, one should avoid saying that "The Word became incarnate in Jesus," but rather say "Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God." The former expression might lead one to think that the Word is in the person of Jesus, as in a temple; that was more or less what Nestorius believed and taught. On the other hand, one can certainly say, as St. Maximilian does, that "Mary Immaculate is, so to speak, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit." For while "the Holy Spirit did not take flesh" (and so Mary is not the Holy Spirit, as Jesus is the Word), the Holy Spirit did come and dwell in Mary so intimately that she became his sanctuary, in her very being as a woman and as a mother. Hence the Holy Spirit did, so to speak, become incarnate in Mary. But, to avoid all misunderstanding, it is preferable to say with St. Maximilian that "Mary is, so to speak, the incarnation of the Holy Spirit." As Vatican II puts it, Mary is the temple, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit. To understand better what this indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Mary means, think of a vase placed right in the heart of a bubbling spring. Not only does the vase fill with water; it overflows, so that those who come to drink can do so from the water contained in the vase, and drink all they want, so long as the vase remains in the spring. Mary, the Immaculata, united to the Holy Spirit, communicates to us this living water which refreshes all those who consecrate themselves to their Mother in the Spirit.

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