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Posts Tagged "Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary":

Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary: Sermon by Taylor Carey


A 12th-century rendition of the Dormition by a Novgorod artist via Wikipedia


 Sermon Preached at Evensong, Church of St Mary the Virgin, Holy Island of Lindisfarne

William Golding will be remembered favourably for many literary accomplishments. From these, alas, his use of potatoes in philosophical argument may be omitted. In his fourth novel, Free Fall, Golding has his protagonist declare that ‘free-will cannot be debated but only experienced, like a colour or the taste of potatoes’. This kind of freedom, it transpires, is the freedom of childhood, a carefree, detached, and frictionless navigation of endless possibilities. A little later in the text, our narrator gives us an example: ‘I was sitting on the stone surround of the pool and fountain in the centre of the park…The gravelled paths of the park radiated from me: and all at once I was overcome by a new knowledge. I could take whichever I would of these paths…’.[1]

Philosophers have wasted little time in frying Golding’s potatoes.[2] The exercise of the will, at least with regard to any morally significant decision, is never a matter of abstract choice, freed from constraints both internal and external. To hold such a model is to entertain an unsustainable dualism which attempts the absolute separation of thought and fleshy material matter. The notion that the will is an autonomous, free-floating capacity irrespective of our material conditions is as problematic as its polar opposite: the view that choice is an illusion, and that we are already determined by our material processes. Neither will withstand scrutiny, and yet both exercise a disturbing grip on our contemporary politics.[3]

Today, the Church wades into this hallowed territory in celebrating a woman who made a choice, who said ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’, and who declared her ‘will’ to be in accordance with God’s. How then are we to avoid casting this story in the mould of the regrettable extremes already described? What is really meant by Mary’s choice? And in what way might her story shed new light on our understanding of our decision-making and learning in the Body of Christ?

Our New Testament reading offers a startling clue. ‘I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory’, says St Paul, ‘may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him’.[4] This is not a spontaneous matter, but rather an extended process of relationship; the ‘eyes of our hearts’ are not ‘enlightened’ by the momentary apprehension of a set of facts about God. This would be too quick, too painless, and too easy. Instead, we are invited patiently to attend the call of the Spirit, which moulds and shapes us as we participate in the ‘groaning of all Creation’.[5] Again, such a venture may be far from comfortable, but it is precisely in this patient disposition of openness to the calling of the Spirit that we grow into the fullness of God’s image. In the words of St Augustine, ‘our pilgrimage on earth is a school in which God is the only teacher…[and] we learn something new every day’.[6]

What this picture really resists is the notion of a ‘fixed’ or ‘rigid’ identity, an entrenched and stable stance from which to attempt to control and manipulate our social environment. Our rigidities and our certainties, the very language with which we articulate our own identities, are constantly being overwhelmed, broken, and rendered incomplete as we encounter the self-giving Spirit of God in Word and Sacrament. We are compelled repeatedly to look again at who we are, to look again at who we are called to be, and to find again that place where Jesus Himself stands, and to which he calls us. And then we can ask, ‘what kind of choice can I make here?’, and ‘which course of action seems most open to the possibility of communion and growth?’. The way we attend to ‘the world’ will change the world which we see and to which we respond; our ‘free choices’ are thus inextricably intertwined with our imaginative capacities, with the kind of world we see laid open and made possible, in hope, before us.

It is of course for this patient disposition towards the Lord – so memorably captured in many paintings of the Annunciation, or icons of the Hodegetria – that we venerate Our Lady. Western Catholic piety can, in the depths of kitsch, forget the messy materiality of it all; perhaps this is corrected most effectively in the Eastern tradition, and its talk of Mary as Theotokos, as ‘God-bearer’, as that most earthily grounded woman, filled with fear, desire, conflict, awe, and, through all of this, enormous love and trust. Mary’s ‘yes’ in this regard must be seen as an instinctive opening, the moral reflex of one who has nurtured the material conditions of her freedom through self-criticism and reflection, through humility and sensitivity. It must be regarded as akin to so many ‘yes’s’ throughout Christian history – the ‘yes’, for example, of St Maximilian Kolbe, whom we remembered on Friday, and who opted to forfeit his life for the life of another in the unimaginable hell of Auschwitz. His and Mary’s ‘yes’s’ are not choices ‘above’ the messy conditions and tragic conflicts of our shared world; rather they are the results of stances of attention and reflection which align action with the very essence of who we are called to be, precisely in the midst of the most desperate human strife. They are responses which align our will with God’s.

Hence, the Church is a school, and we learn together, each of us at different stages, yet each of us aware that we need only touch the hem of Christ’s garment to be drawn into his loving embrace.[7] Mary’s example calls us to a lifetime of sensitive discernment, a commitment to seeking out the call of the Spirit, and a rejection of any model that sees the exercise of our will as somehow detached from and indifferent to the material conditions of our shared world. This is precisely why our societal institutions of education and care are worth fighting for. Above all, this is a slow pilgrimage; in the words of Iris Murdoch, ‘if you aren’t moving at a snail’s pace, you aren’t moving at all’.[8]

For all this, we must thank the one who gave her ‘yes’ to God, who allowed herself to become the site of His Grace and creativity, that our world might be thrown open to the infinite depths of His love. To her, we simply say, ‘Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with you’.



[1] William Golding, Free Fall (London, 2013), p.2.

[2] For a lucid summary of recent developments, see Rowan Williams, ‘Can we ever be in charge of our own lives?’, New Statesman (4th May 2015) .

[3] Exemplified perhaps by the ‘privatised gain, socialised risk’ culture of the banking industry pre-2008. For a sound articulation of a democratic ‘capabilities’ approach which owes much to the writings of Martha Nussbaum, see Julian Baggini, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will (London, 2015). For a highly sophisticated argument which demonstrates how our understanding of ‘free will’ has tended to alienate us from our natural and social environment, see John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom (London, 2015).

[4] Ephesians 1:16-17.

[5] Romans 8:22.

[6] St Augustine, Sermon 16A.1.

[7] Matthew 9:21.

[8] Iris Murdoch, ‘Above the Gods: A Dialogue about Religion’, in Existentialism and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (London, 1997), p.500.

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