List of circular Letters by Dom Ambrose


Monte Cistello

Feast of the ImmaculateConception


My dear Brothers and Sisters,

This letter brings my best wishes for a happy Christmas and all God's blessings throughout the coming year. In times like these when mounting political tension and natural disasters cause many to grow faint-hearted, the Good News brought by Christ Our Lord remains more necessary than ever and we as Christians should not be afraid to proclaim it.

This year I have decided to take as theme devotion to Our Blessed Mother, Mary. Obviously, there is nothing that I can say about her which has not already been said by others, but it does seem worthwhile to write something since we have always had a special devotion to Mary in our Order and so far I have never written to your about her. To do so is a personal pleasure for me, as I attribute my vocation in large part to her.

In one of his books Fr. Garrigou Lagrange suggests that sometimes devotion to Mary passes through various phases. Frequently, in the first stage, it is rather superficial and perhaps sentimental. Because of this it is not able to stand up to the test of time and tends to dwindle or disappear. In a third stage it emerges once again, strengthened by reading, reflection and experience. Perhaps this letter, in God's loving providence, will be the occasion for some of us to realize that we have been in the second category for some time: that is, we have allowed our devotion to grow cool and more or less cease to have any practical bearing on our everyday lives. It has been said that in the Order as a whole devotion to Mary has perceptibly diminished in recent years. This is a difficult matter to judge and I hesitate to pronounce on it, particularly as some of the arguments advanced do not seem very convincing. However that may be, if there has been a diminution, this letter will be a reminder to us of our long tradition and will be a call to do something about it.

What I have to say may be grouped under five headings.

First of all our devotion to the Blessed Virgin should be real or true. It is not good to base it on suppositions or mere flights of rhetoric or sentimental feelings. Many things have been said about her which are interesting and feasible, but which are not really verifiable. We do not need these doubtful helps to devotion, since the truth about Mary as we find it in the Gospels and in theology is much deeper and more solid. Nor should we think about her in a way which puts her beyond creaturehood. It is true that she has many prerogatives which put her in a special category, but we should not allow them to obscure the fact that she had to suffer cold and heat, hunger and thirst, tiredness and sleepiness and all the other manifold trials which beset human beings. She had to face up to the normal difficulties of life like everyone and it is no advantage to anyone if these are forgotten or glossed over. In other words, true devotion demands that we should see her as she was in reality: a human person faced with the same difficulties which we encounter, a human person faced with the same difficulties which we encounter, but a human person prepared and graced by God in a special way and one who corresponded fully with her vocation.

This leads on logically to my second point - our devotion to Mary should be theological. As I have said above we do not need to base ourselves on considerations of doubtful authenticity. The theology about Mary may not be perfect yet, but it is sufficiently developed to supply us with deep foundations for our attitude towards her. She is the worthy Mother of God, Mother of Jesus Our Saviour and closely associated with Him in the work of our redemption. She is our Mother too, since we are members of the Mystical Body of Christ. She is Immaculate, free from all sin and model of all virtues although her life was very ordinary in its outward aspects. In these truths and others that follow from them we have something solid and sure which fills us with respect and admiration, while maintaining Christ's primacy in the Mystery of our Salvation and sanctification. Mary received these privileges precisely to fit her to be the Mother of Christ and Our Mother also. Nor is it necessary to have a theology degree to appreciate these sublime truths. What is needed is a simple and humble faith open to the word of God.

And here we come to the third note of true devotion to Mary - it must be personal. What has been said so far may seem rather cold, technical or impersonal. There is a tendency for some theologians to treat of Mary as if she were an object, a synthesis of a series of dogmatic theses. But no, she is a real, loving, warm person. We must treat her as a person, particularly as a Mother. This is one of the striking things in our Cistercian Fathers. Although they were concerned with theological accuracy - St. Bernard, for instance, refused to accept the current explanation of the Immaculate Conception because it was not based on solid theology - they did not allow it to make them treat Mary as an abstraction. Blessed Guerric of Igny's explanation of how Mary forms Christ in each one of us spiritually is a good case in point. And what can be more personal than some passages from St. Aelred?             

But our devotion ought to be personal in another sense - it has to be our own, something we have developed for ourselves (always presuming the help of God's grace) and not just copied slavishly from others, it has to be a part of us. This personal attitude will depend, obviously, on our own character and temperament and spiritual growth. As our own life of faith and love grows deeper we will come closer to Mary who is at the heart of the Church and all Christian mysteries. We will appreciate better her life of faith and love lived out in the daily round of humdrum duties. Our external practices of devotion may grow less - although some will always remain - but our interior devotion will be more mature and unified because more in touch with the deeper traits of her holiness. We will be less concerned with extending our knowledge about the Blessed Virgin than with penetrating more deeply the knowledge we already possess. It is like growing to know any other human person: not a matter of abstract reason or critical examination, but communication at a deeper level which involves our whole self and leads to some sort of communion. The process is not unlike the way in which an adult son or daughter begin to appreciate the qualities of their mother. As the years go by their own personal experience of life gives them more insight into her personality, because they now have a broader basis for comparison. For instance, those who have suffered a lot in their own lives nursing a sick relative will be able to appreciated in an intimate way what Mary suffered at the foot of the Cross.

Another note of this devotion - and here we touch a point more specific to our life - is that it be contemplative. By this I mean that we should be more sensitive to those aspects of Our Lady's life which seem to be in harmony with the contemplative ideal. It is true that we don't know the concrete details of Mary's life with Jesus at Nazareth. But we do know that she must have been in close loving contact with Him during those thirty years. We do know, also, that she used to treasure up various details about Him, pondering them in her heart. She was a "ponderer" of the Word. It is here that our intimacy with Mary should grow in a special way. Our Cistercian life in its fundamental orientation resembles those thirty hidden years. If we want to grow daily in closeness to Jesus we can learn from her, in an ever deeper faith, hope and love. What we learn will be our own secret, but it will help us to enter into the "ordinariness" of her life and how completely abandoned she was to the will of God. She was seeking Him, not herself - Magnificat anima mea Dominum et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo. At the same time she was quite human and approachable and could notice little things like the wine failing at Cana. If we keep our eyes on her it will help us to live our contemplative vocation at a deeper level, for she is always pointing to Jesus. she loves each one of us dearly as a Mother and her greatest desire is that we grow in intimacy with her Son, so we can have no hesitation in asking her to obtain for us this gift.

Finally, devotion to Mary is necessary. It is not something optional, but an integral part of Christian life, of life in the Church. The Second Vatican Council brought this out clearly by preferring to introduce a special chapter on her into the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, rather than have a separate document. The necessity springs from theological considerations. Because Christ was born from Mary and because He has incorporated us into His Mystical Body, it follows automatically that she is not only Christ's Mother but ours also. Obviously, this is a spiritual maternity, not a physical one. There is a close analogy between our relation to our human mother and to the Blessed Virgin, but on one point like all analogies it breaks down. In the human order after a certain lapse of time we can get on by ourselves without our mother. She may die, but we live on. If she does not die we become independent of her. In the order of grace such is not the case. We may be adults, but spiritually we are still dependant on our Mother. To put it in another way: spiritually we only reach our full growth, our adulthood, at the moment of death.

When I say that devotion to Mary is necessary, not optional, this obviously applies to that essential attitude of honour and love towards her demanded by our faith and not to particular non-liturgical devotions. Since we are nor pure spirits we need some devotions to express our inner devotion, but these may vary from place to place, century to century, and person to person. They are good and desirable in so far as they help us to express and live the essential devotion in an ever deeper way.

May Mary our Advocate intercede for us before the throne of God so that we may follow her Son with ever deeper fidelity and finally come to that vision of glory for which we were all made.

Ambrose Southey