From June 25 through June 29, about 50 priests and brothers who are members of the Society of Mary, USA Province, gathered just outside Dayton, Ohio, for their annual summer retreat. Among the prayers and activities throughout the week was a series of presentations given by New Zealander and Marist Fr. Justin Taylor, s.m., on Marist founder Jean-Claude Colin as well as a number of in-depth insights into the Marists and their ministries.
By Fr. Justin Taylor, s.m.
Some time ago, I received a suggestion that the subject of this retreat might be along the lines of: ‘The Mary of Jean-Claude Colin, Then and Now.’ So I thought I would be begin by trying to answer the question: ‘Who was Mary for Jean-Claude Colin?’ That theme will recur in various ways in other talks, and perhaps some ideas about the ‘Now’.
So, who was Mary for our founder? How did he think of her? I am taking for granted that he shared all the ideas about the Blessed Virgin that were current in the universal church and in the church in France in his time, including one that was declared in his lifetime to be a dogma of the whole church, namely her Immaculate Conception. At one stage, early on in the history of the Society and well before 1854, he was thinking of making it a special feature of the Society of Mary to champion this belief. This morning, however, I want to focus rather on features of Fr Colin’s ideas about Mary that were especially characteristic – though not necessarily uniquely so – of him.
To begin at the beginning, Jean-Claude Colin regarded the Virgin Mary as his mother. Well, so does every Catholic and many other Christians as well. But, for Colin, this was a relationship that was real and personal. It began when his own birthmother, Marie Gonnet- Colin died before his fifth birthday. As she lay dying, she asked for a statue of Our Lady, took it in her hands with visible emotion and told the Blessed Virgin that she was leaving behind eight children and entreated her to serve as their mother. Throughout his life, Jean- Claude regarded the Virgin Mary as his mother and showed her the tender affection of a son. You might say that he had the same sort of feeling for her that someone might have who had lost his mother as a small child and been adopted by a woman who truly loved him and regarded him as her own son. She was his mother, the only one he really knew – it was as simple as that. Throughout his life, he had for her a deeply felt love and also the confidence that a child – even a grown-up one – may have in their mother. She was the one to go to, the one who listened and understood, the one who could give good advice as well as comfort, the one who could sort things out and put things right.
A question for us in this retreat could be, Do we think of Mary as a real person? Do we relate to her in any way as our Founder did?
Besides what he was taught about Mary at home, in church and school and in the various seminaries he attended, Jean-Claude’s ideas about her were further developed by his reading. It was, of course, common currency then as now, in devotional and theological
writing about Mary, to emphasise that she perfectly imitated Jesus, that her virtues were the perfect reflection of his, and that her part in the work of salvation was a sharing in his. Jean- Claude would have found these ideas everywhere. One of his favourite books, which is still in the library at La Neylière, was The Imitation of the Most Holy Virgin, on the Model of the Imitation of Christ, whose author takes the famous master-piece of Thomas à Kempis as a basis and framework of his treatment of Mary’s virtues and place in God’s plan. There, in chapter 1 of Book 4, Colin read this address to Mary:
‘Jesus has rendered you so like himself, by the most eminent virtues, that he has made you a living image of himself … Jesus is the King of the ages, the author of grace, our advocate with the Father, the God of mercies, the God of all consolation, the light of the world; and we call you, with the Church, Queen of the world, Queen of Heaven, our advocate, mother of grace, mother of mercy, consoler of the afflicted, a star that leads the way, through the tempest, to the port of salvation.’
Mary so perfectly imitates her Son that she is perfectly united with him. Some writers in the French tradition could even speak in terms of a quasi-identity. So Pierre de Bérulle, of whom we shall have more to say, could declare: ‘Speaking of you, Mary, we speak of Jesus.’ He was too good a theologian to confuse the uncreated and created orders: he knew very well that Mary has nothing she has not received. The expression is not meant to be taken literally; it is, if you like, deliberate hyperbole, but it expresses a great truth.
Today, we might favour a ‘Mariology-from-below’, if I can use that term, and prefer to think of her as the simple village girl, who finds herself caught up in God’s plans for the human race, but who never leaves behind her humble social context – an ordinary woman, who could be the person next door. A ‘Mariology-from-below’ does not deny the privileges of grace that were bestowed on her, as a consequence of her involvement in God’s plans, but they are not usually the focus of imagination and reflection. We might like to think that Fr Colin, who so emphasises Mary’s humility and hiddenness, could have been a pioneer, so to say, of a ‘Mariology-from-below’. In fact, it seems, his approach to the Blessed Virgin was quite the reverse.
When Jean-Claude was at Cerdon and spending his nights in the little alcove off his room in the presbytery, he wasn’t only thinking about the Marist rule and composing draft constitutions. He was also reading and studying. Besides books he already had or found in the presbytery, he was able to borrow from the library at the chateau of Mérignat, at that time the home of the mayor of Cerdon. Among the books he tells us he read during his time at Cerdon
was The Triple Crown of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, by the Jesuit François Poiré (1584-1637). Jean-Claude drew heavily on this book for both the subject and the content of the sermons he preached about Mary, both in the parish and a little later on the Bugey missions. The ‘triple crown’ of the Blessed Virgin Mother of God, according to Poiré, is that of her ‘principal grandeurs’ namely her excellence, her power and her goodness. A treatise is devoted to each of these ‘crowns’, and each chapter describes a ‘star’ in the crown. Poiré thus celebrates systematically and exhaustively all that can be said of Mary’s greatness, which included her command of the armies of the Lord. It is important to remember that Jean- Claude Colin would have retained this exalted view of the Virgin Mary all his life. In particular, Poiré’s military metaphors still find an echo in Number 1 of the final Constitutions (‘This very name [of Mary] sufficiently indicates the banner under which [the Society] desires to serve in fighting the battles of the Lord.’) That Colin later dwelt upon Mary’s humility, her obedience or her hiddenness did not represent a change of ideas about her but rather the perception of a paradox. This Queen of Heaven and Earth deigned to be the lowliest of all. It was an ‘annihilation’ – a favourite word of classic French spiritual writers – or, to borrow St Paul’s language in Philippians 2, a kenosis, a self-emptying resembling that of Christ himself at the incarnation.
Fr Colin was not a scholar, in a formal sense, let alone an academic. He was, however, an extremely well-read man. He did not, however, necessarily adopt all the ideas he came across in the course of his very wide reading. One of the books in the library at La Neylière has the title: God Alone: Holy Slavery to the Admirable Mother of God. Its author was Henri- Marie Boudon, another whom we shall see again. It was first published in Paris in 1674, and the edition at La Neylière is from 1823. Most of us, I imagine, are acquainted with the idea of ‘holy slavery’ to the Mother of God, from the True Devotion to Mary, by Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. Montfort’s book was written in 1712, so over thirty years after that of Boudon, but it remained in manuscript and practically unknown until it was published for the first time in 1843. Boudon was, I suppose, in some way a source, perhaps the direct source, of Saint Louis-Marie’s ‘true devotion’. However, the real author of the idea is none other than Pierre de Bérulle, who spread the idea of ‘holy slavery’ to Jesus and Mary – Jesus and Mary, not just Mary; but had he not said: ‘Speaking of you, Mary, we speak of Jesus’? Jean- Claude presumably read Boudon’s book – unless, of course, like many of us, he bought it but never got round to reading it. He also seems to have known about Grignion de Montfort’s book once it was published. All the more interesting, then, that the terminology and idea of ‘holy slavery’ to Mary never appears in his utterances. Did he not find it attractive? Was he
privately an adept but thought it wise not to speak of it? We just don’t know. At any rate, it was not part of Who Mary was for him, or at least of Who he wanted Mary to be for the Marists.
The author who had the most influence, in the sense of he most extensive influence, on Jean-Claude Colin was Mary of Ágreda. María Fernández Coronel y Arana, in religion María de Jesús, was born at Ágreda in Old Castile, Spain, in 1602 and died there in 1665. When she was fifteen years of age, her parents decided to embrace religious life: her father and two brothers became Franciscan friars while her mother, with Mary (as we shall call her) and another sister, remained in the family house where they became nuns of the Order of the Immaculate Conception. When her mother died, Mary was appointed acting superior of what had become a community of about twelve nuns, who eventually elected her, though only twenty-two, as abbess, an office to which she was continually re-elected (with a respite of three years) for the rest of her life. Under her government, the community grew in numbers and was exemplary for its religious observance. Mary seems to have been a woman of high intelligence, good judgment and spiritual depth. From an early age her life was marked by mystical phenomena, including ecstasies, visions, levitation and even, it has been claimed, bilocation. Not surprisingly, she came to the notice of the Spanish Inquisition, which investigated her and concluded in her favour. In her lifetime, she had a reputation for holiness and was revered by many people, including King Philip IV. This unlikely pair corresponded regularly for many years, and over 600 letters survive, in which the cloistered nun gave the king human friendship, as well as spiritual and occasionally political advice. Pope Clement X introduced the cause for her beatification in 1673, and she was accorded the title ‘Venerable’. Besides her letters to the king, Mary of Ágreda was a prolific author. Most of her spiritual works remain unpublished. The one that gained her fame – or notoriety – is known in English as The Mystical City of God. This is a life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom the writer identifies as the ‘holy city’ that the visionary of the Apocalypse saw ‘coming down from God out of heaven’ (cf. Rev 21:2, 10). The work is composed in three parts. The first begins with the creation of the world and the predestination of the Virgin Mary, and then narrates her life from her own conception to that of Jesus. The second part deals with the life of Mary during that of her son until his ascension into heaven accompanied – note well – by his mother. The third part begins with her return to earth in order to strengthen the Church by her aid and teaching. It continues with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost upon the apostles and other believers – an event at which Our Lady was not present, but which she ‘saw interiorly’. The reader learns of the Blessed Virgin’s life among the apostles and first
disciples in Jerusalem and of how she taught and ‘governed’ them; of her departure for Ephesus and return to Jerusalem. The book concludes with the Virgin Mary’s dormition and bodily assumption into heaven, where she is crowned Queen of heaven and all creatures.
How to categorise a book like The Mystical City of God? To me it is, among other things no doubt, midrash. Like many Christians as well as Jews, Mary of Ágreda sought to fill out the often meagre details of biblical narrative and tell the ‘full’ story. She thus supplies answers to questions that believers will always ask, such as ‘how did Mary spend her childhood?’ or ‘how did the Holy Family live at Nazareth?’, ‘what did she do after Jesus’ ascension?’ and ‘how did she end her days on earth?’
Mary of Ágreda found answers to such questions in the early Christian extra- canonical (or ‘apocryphal’) literature. This was widely read in Christian antiquity and later ages and in some cases accepted with a status close to that of Scripture. Thus the iconography of the Byzantine East as well as of the medieval West can put side-by-side scenes of the infancy of Jesus based on the canonical Gospels and scenes from the infancy of Mary based on the so-called ‘Proto-Gospel of James’ and similar texts. Other ancient narratives recounted the Virgin’s dormition and assumption. These writings give proof of great imaginative creativity; some may also convey genuine traditions. However, Mary of Ágreda’s ‘knowledge’ about the life of the Blessed Virgin was not restricted to these literary sources: she also benefited from what she believed to be personal revelations, which showed her places and persons and events that she describes and narrates in her book. A third element in the Mystical City consists of long passages where the author professes to transcribe teaching on the virtues given her by the Blessed Virgin so that her life might mirror that of Our Lady (cf Book 4, chapter 4).
Ever since the Mystical City was published in Madrid in 1670 it has continued to be republished and translated into many languages down to the present day. Also, from its first appearance until now, it has been the subject of sharply differing evaluations.
It is not known when Jean-Claude Colin began to read The Mystical City of God. Once he started, however, he never stopped. According to Mayet, he ‘loved this book with a rare predilection . . . he told us that he made it his meditation, his spiritual reading’. In this, he told Mayet, he was only following the example of prelates in Italy. He called it ‘a treasure for these last times’. It had been judged and approved by learned men. Its divine origin was, for him, beyond doubt: ‘One feels that the human spirit is not capable of going that far. Yes, a human being could not invent such things.’
At the same time, he exercised caution, both for himself and for fellow-Marists, concerning the Mystical City. ‘At the time he was exercising the sacred ministry’, Mayet tells us, ‘he did not want to continue to read this work, for fear of mixing up in the pulpit what he was reading with what the Gospel and tradition teach us’. For the same reason, he forbade certain younger confreres to read it. On the whole, he tended to restrict his talk about the book to informal conversations.
What did Colin take from his reading of Mary of Ágreda? First, he obtained what he took to be concrete real details about the Blessed Virgin, especially about her way of life and about the interior attitudes that shaped her outward bearing. In the Second Part of The Mystical City Jean-Claude found abundant material for meditation on the Blessed Virgin’s care of the child Jesus and more generally on the life of the Holy Family. Book 4 embellishes the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and circumcision and his presentation in the Temple (Luke) and of the visit of the Magi and the flight into Egypt (Matthew) with many details showing his mother’s love and reverence for him. In the last analysis, perhaps, the effect may not be so very different from that desired by St Ignatius in the second week of the Exercises, for example to ‘see with the sight of the imagination … the place or cave of the Nativity, how large, how small, how low, how high, and how it was prepared . . . to see the persons . . . looking at them and serving them in their needs, with all possible respect and reverence . . .’, finally to speak with the ‘Three Divine Persons, or with the Eternal Word Incarnate, or with our Mother and Lady’. There are also touching details typical of Mary of Ágreda, such as in chapter 7, where the Blessed Virgin makes the swaddling clothes for the child she is about to bear; corresponding to this is the scene in chapter 29 where she takes the one-year-old child out of his swaddling clothes, dresses him in short pants and a seamless tunic she has made and puts sandals on his feet. Book 5 recounts the life of the Holy Family at Nazareth after their return from Egypt, beginning with the episode in the Temple at Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve.
It is in the Third Part of The Mystical City that Jean-Claude read of the Blessed Virgin’s care of the newborn Church. In particular, in Book 7, chapter 4, he learned much more than is contained in Acts 1:12–14 about the days spent in prayer in the Cenacle between the Ascension and Pentecost. Mary began then and continued every day to pray the Lord to ‘send into the world men of outstanding holiness, whom she knew to be destined to work for the conversion of sinners’. She took care that the apostles and other disciples prepared themselves to receive the Holy Spirit worthily. She consoled them in their sorrow at being deprived of the visible presence of her Son and brought them out of their dejection. Each day
of this retreat she devoted an hour to expounding to them the mysteries of faith that her son had taught them; this she did ‘not with authority, but in a conversational way’. She also encouraged them to spend another hour talking among themselves about the counsels, promises and teaching of Jesus, to engage in vocal prayer with the Pater Noster and some psalms, and to pass the rest of the time in mental prayer, which she taught them how to make. In the evening she told them to take a light meal of bread and fish, then sleep.
For Mary of Ágreda – and for Fr Colin – the theme of ‘Mary among the apostles’ is concerned with much more than the scene of Pentecost, upon which Marist discourse seems to rest. The rest of Part Three is filled with details of the Blessed Virgin’s way of life between Christ’s Ascension and her own Assumption, as she lived with the disciples in Jerusalem or with Saint John at Ephesus. Mary of Ágreda shows how throughout the rest of her time on earth the Blessed Virgin carried out the ministry with which the Lord had invested her of ‘Mother and Teacher of the holy Church’ (chapter 11). In words that Jean-Claude attributed directly to Mary herself, she was the ‘support of the Church at its birth.’ Fr Mayet collected several passages in which Colin took inspiration from Mary of Ágreda in order to imagine the blessed Virgin in her role as support of the Church at its birth.
Jean-Claude also found in the Mystical City rules and guidelines of conduct that he applied to Marist life. Some of these he inferred from the narrative, others were directly taught by the Blessed Virgin to the author. Whenever Colin says, ‘the Blessed Virgin was, or did, this or that’, his source (unless, of course, the canonical Gospels) is almost certainly the Mystical City. So, in the Cerdon rule, we read that ‘the blessed Mary . . . always abhorred this spirit of covetousness throughout her life.’ He knew this from Book 4, chapter 18, where Saint Joseph, at the bidding of the Blessed Virgin, gives away the presents that the Magi have just offered, to the Temple, to the priest who has circumcised Jesus and to the poor. She goes on to impart a teaching of radical detachment from all such things, especially in her disciple’s capacity as abbess of the monastery. This was a lesson that Colin took to heart and sought to impart to Marists.
The ‘house of Mary’ is one of the ‘golden threads’ that run throughout the Mystical City and give it unity. Mary of Ágreda gives close attention to the dwelling place of the Blessed Virgin at every stage of her life and of how she lived there. The fragment of the Cerdon rule that we know as the Supplementum ad Regulas sees the house of the Marist community as the ‘house of Mary’. The rule is therefore concerned, in Jean Coste’s words, with ‘life in a house, with everything that happens within its walls’. As the house of the Blessed Virgin, the life led there is one of silence, prayer and penance. Covetousness and
pride, so abhorrent to Our Lady, must be absolutely excluded. It is also a house where everyone, like the Blessed Virgin herself, must turn their hand to domestic chores.
The Marists were not to remain permanently within the house of Mary as in a monastery. From it they were to go out on missions to believers and unbelievers, to catechise and to teach, to visit the sick and imprisoned. And to it they were to return, to continue their life of poverty, humility and fraternity.
In the second fragment of the Cerdon rule, on the way of holding a council, we read that ‘Mary always followed the will of others rather than her own.’ Here is another ‘golden thread’ in the Mystical City. It can be put this way: the Blessed Virgin Mary was Queen of angels and the most exalted and privileged of human persons; yet she always reverenced and obeyed all those who were in authority over her, even though they, of course, were lesser mortals. So she obeyed her parents (Book 1, chapter 24), the priests and her governess while she lived in the Temple (Book 2, chapter 4), Saint Joseph, treating them all with the utmost respect – she called Joseph ‘My lord and spouse’, he called her ‘My lady’. After the Ascension of Christ she brought this same attitude of obedience to her relations with her son’s disciples, Saint Peter and the other apostles, although she was their Queen and their ‘Mother and Teacher’.
Mary of Ágreda thus furnished Jean-Claude Colin’s mind and imagination with many concrete details about how the Blessed Virgin was ‘the support of the Church at its birth’. Colin was sure that she would also be ‘the support the Church at the end of time’. Mary of Ágreda could not help him visualise how she would do this and he did not try to imagine what form that intervention would take, except that the Society was destined to be her instrument. So we find little in his utterances about this theme beyond general assertions and rather conventional imagery. (I don’t think he had a very creative imagination, although he was quite sensitive to the imaginings of others.)
Speaking to the general chapter of 1866 he declared (OM 3, 807:4): ‘I have always had this thought that the Society is destined to do battle until the end of time. Mary was the support of the Church at its birth; she will be also at the end, and she will be through you.’ Note that he says he had ‘always’ thought thus; so it was not a new idea of old age, nor was it a youthful notion that he later abandoned. At La Neylière, after his return from the chapter, he remarked (OM 3, 808:5): ‘The times are bad, our dear little Society is called to do battle against the Antichrist, it will have martyrs.’
It could, of course, have been foreseen, from the moment of accepting the mission to Western Oceania, that Marists might lose their lives: Pierre Chanel was murdered in 1841;
when Br Blaise Marmoiton was killed in New Caledonia, Colin saw it as a fulfilment of that prophecy. On the other hand, the prediction that there would be martyrs in the Society of Mary goes back to around 1820, and to someone other than Colin himself. In his deepest thought, Jean-Claude Colin foresaw Marist martyrs not so much in the context of a dangerous mission but in the course of the struggle against Antichrist, which would not be long in coming. The conviction that the Society would be one of the last bodies to arise in the Church before the Last Judgment and would pass through ‘very difficult times’ ultimately goes back to the project of Saint-Irénée and to the idea or rather hope expressed by Courveille at the end of his account of the experience at Le Puy of 1812: Mary herself wanted a Society that would bear her name and whose members would be called Marists, ‘to do battle against hell . . .’
How does such talk sound today? Quaint? Outmoded? Listen to these words of the Epistle to the Ephesians (6:12): ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’ And has not our age been called a new age of martyrs in many part of the world, perhaps one day in parts of the Marist world?
Next presentation: A Marist Re-set?