On the morning of February 11, 1858, a young French peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, saw a luminous vision in a grotto in southern France, beginning a series of ‘visions’ of what the Catholic Church now believes was the Virgin Mary. When asked her name by Bernadette, the Lady replied in French patois, Que soy Immaculatou Conceptiou, ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. This was four years after Pope Bd. Pius IX declared dogmatically what the Church had always believed, that Mary, the Mother of Christ, was conceived without the ‘stain’ of original sin. Of course, being largely illiterate, Bernadette had no idea what the Lady meant, and had to ask the priest; so began the ongoing miracle of Lourdes.
This may sound odd to secular ears, to talk of visions and original sin. I will grant you the visions as difficult to believe from a non-religious viewpoint, but, as John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote, if there is one truth of the faith that is evident to everyone, it is original sin. Defined by Saint Thomas Aquinas as a ‘disposition of a complex nature towards sin’, every news report, indeed all of our daily interactions with our fellow humans (especially if we live with them!), gives truth to the claim that Man indeed has a tendency towards evil, and that unless he fight against this tendency, by his own free decisions (and, as the Church teaches, the help of the grace of God), he will become ever more diabolical.
After what we historically call ‘the Fall’, when Man rebelled against God, our nature changed, for the worse: Our minds became proud, our wills ungoverned, and our passions unchecked. We now resist truth, goodness, beauty, and choose instead falsity, chaos, domination and strife. One need only watch the behaviour of children who, if left without some moral guidance and discipline, turn into insufferable, spoiled adults or, as have had the sad occasion to witness daily, worse. We all have some of this chaos with us…
As the English poet John Betjeman wrote:
Does Mum the Persil-user still believe
That There’s no Devil and that youth is bliss?
As certain as the sun behind the Downs
And quite as plain to see, the Devil walks.
The thing is, following Pontius Pilate, we argue about ‘what is Truth’, and, of course, the subsequent question about ‘what is Good’, but deep down, when alone with our conscience, we all know truth and goodness when we see them. There is a connaturality to what is truly good, and, as Dante and Milton so eloquently described, the wide chasm between the Devil and God. That is why we enjoy good stories and praise heroes, those who sacrifice themselves for others, why we still listen to Mozart and Bach, and why the Gospels have an eternal resonance in our hearts. That is also why, to be seasonal, we still, even in our neo-pagan society, still celebrate Christmas, and why the ‘conversion’ of Ebeneezer Scrooge, and the goodness of Tiny Tim, somehow fills all our hearts with joy
The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, that one creature in history was created by God without this primordial ‘wound’, is deliberately put close to Christmas, is meant to give us hope and consolation, that all is not lost, and that this world does not give the full truth of who Man is, or, more properly, who Man is meant to become. Our Lady is an example of who we were in the beginning, and what we will be in the end. True goodness is not only what we truly desire, but, with the help of God, eminently attainable. ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden is light’, if we but follow the Him Who is the Truth.
December 8, 2014
Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception