Before the beginning

The advice of a solid old Anglican priest — back when the Anglicans had a use for solids — was to retain one’s balance. “Don’t try to do everything at once,” he said, after my conversion on that bridge over Thames. In particular, “Don’t try to believe everything at once. It is bigger than you, you shan’t be able to do it.” And, “Never abandon your scepticism. If it doesn’t make sense to you, leave it and get back to it later.” And, “The trick to walking, whether you are a babe or very drunk, is: one step at a time. Those who get ahead of themselves tend to fall over.”

We do not offer catechism class in this anti-blog. At least, not officially. To understand the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, requires participation first of all. Be there in the Mass. It is hard to learn anything when one is perpetually absent, and the teaching in this case as in all other cases begins not in some textbook or theological primer, but by interaction with the Thing Itself. That is where the beauty of it is displayed: the incomprehensible beauty. Unless, alas, it is obscured or shadowed in the pro-forma of the postmodern ritual, when it dissevers mind from feeling.

But it is hard to obscure the inner truth, I think, when the Epistle for today — the passage from the eighth chapter of Proverbs which sings prevenient grace (“a Dei per dominum Christum Iesum praeveniente gratia,” as the Trent Council explained) — is followed, and inwardly digested. The attributes of Wisdom that the Church has applied to Our Lady may be found in the Old Testament, as much as in the New.

Dominus possedit me in initio viarum suarum, antequam quidquam faceret a principio: “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything, before the beginning. …”

I teach “EngLit,” sometimes, and “poetics,” sort-of. In plays, such as Shakespeare’s, the speakers are well-marked. In open verse, including his Sonnets, there is often a big question. Who is speaking? It could, it might, be the author himself. Or it could be someone, or something other. The better one listens, the clearer it will be. If they were nothing more, the Prophets of the Hebrews offer a training in this vital dimension of poetry. In this remarkably prophetic passage, within the Proverbs, the question is brought to our attention in a spectacular way: Who is speaking here? Who is she?

To begin with the formal dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception, is to begin to miss the point. For as we learn from today’s epistle: we can understand nothing unless we begin before the beginning. (Which perhaps helps us to explain why we seldom understand anything at all.)

Long, long, long before the formal definition of Pius IX, belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary was common, in the East as in the West. This, too, was a beginning before the beginning, and a correction to those who imagine that popes, or any other men, make doctrine. They only defend it, when it is challenged. (And to define is to defend.) This is what happened, in 1854. But that is not the origin of something which, though logically necessary to the Christian theology, sinks beneath the necessity of reason into the profundity of faith.

Our task is to understand God in Christ; that, God Is That He Is, and not another. It is to the Mother of God we fly. We will not understand the Son without the Mother; nor conversely the Fiat without the Fiat Lux, the Fiat Panis.

All of us in this class are beginners.