The Wisdom of the Virgin

~Frithjof Schuon

In speaking of the "wisdom of the Virgin" we are considering the Virgin Mary not solely in her quality as Mother of Jesus, but above all as Prophetess1 for all the descendants of Abraham; this enables us to compare the Magnificat with several as it were parallel passages from the Koran. The Magnificat (Luke, I, 46-55) contains the following teachings: holy joy in God; humility—"poverty" or "childlikeness"—as a condition of Grace; the holiness of the Divine Name; inexhaustible Mercy and its connection with fear; immanent and universal justice; the merciful assistance accorded to Israel, this name having to be extended to the Church2 since according to St. Paul the Church is the supraracial prolongation and renewal of the Chosen People.3

Further, the Magnificat speaks of the favour granted to "Abraham and his seed," and not exclusively to Isaac and his seed; Abraham includes all monotheistic Semites, racially or spiritually, thus irrespective of physical race in certain cases.

The connection between fear and Mercy—enunciated in the Magnificat—is of cardinal importance: contrarily to prejudices current in the world of lukewarmness and psychologism, the traditional doctrines which insist most on Mercy have as their point of departure the conviction that we run the risk of hell, or even deserve it, and that we are only saved by the Goodness of Heaven4; the way then consists, not in wishing to save oneself by one's own merits, since this is considered quite impossible, but in conforming to the requirements of a Mercy which seeks to save us while demanding of us a priori the fear of being lost. Mary's hymn is impregnated with elements of Mercy and Rigour, and it thus reflects an aspect of the nature of the Virgin herself: the mildness of the Virgin is accompanied by an adamantine purity and also by a strength of soul which evokes such Biblical figures as Miriam and Deborah, and which represents a dimension inseparable from the greatness of her who was called o clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria.5

The severities of Mary's canticle towards the proud, the mighty and the rich, and the consolations directed to the humble, the oppressed and the poor refer—apart from their literal meaning—to the equilibrium-restoring power of the Beyond; and this insistence on cosmic alternations is easily explained if we remember that the Virgin herself personifies Equilibrium, since she is identifiable with cosmic Substance, which is both maternal and virginal—a Substance of Harmony and Beauty, and thereby opposed to all disequilibrium. In the doctrine of Mary the roots of disequilibrium are essentially expressed by pride, injustice and attachment to riches6; or more precisely, love of self, contempt for one's neighbour and the desire to possess, which includes insatiability and avarice.
As for the joy referred to in the Virgin's canticle, this goes hand in hand with humility—the awareness of our contingency and of our ontological nothingness—or more precisely with the divine Answer to this humility; whatever is empty for God will by the same token be filled, as Meister Eckhart explains by the example of the hand lowered and opened upwards. To the humility—or poverty—of man corresponds the Generosity of God; now the message of the Virgin according to the Koran is, as we shall see, a message of Divine Generosity.

The doctrine of Mary as it appears in the Koran insists on Mercy on the one hand and on immanent and cosmic Justice on the other, or on the alternations due to universal Equilibrium. We find the idea of Mercy—teaching of the Virgin—in the following passage: "And her Lord ("her" refers to St. Anne, the "wife of `Imran") accepted her (Mary) with full acceptance and caused her to grow with a goodly growth, 7 and made Zachariah8 her guardian; whenever Zachariah went in to her in the prayer-niche (mihràb),9 he found beside her the necessary food 10; he asked: O Mary, whence cometh unto thee this (food)? She replied: it cometh from God: truly God giveth beyond measure to whom He will." (Surah of the Family of `Imran, 37).

This reply is the very symbol of the Marian message as it appears in the Koran; and even in other passages, in which the name of Mary is not mentioned, this phrase in fact indicates an aspect of the message. "The life of this world has been made attractive (by Satan) to those who do not believe, 11 and they mock those who believe; and those who fear God will be above them on the Day of the Resurrection; for God giveth beyond measure to whom He will." (Surah of the Family of `Imrân, 212).

In this passage we encounter, along with the key-phrase regarding divine Generosity, the ideas enunciated in the Magnicat: the necessity of fear, then the play of cosmic alternations, i.e. the compensatory and equilibrium-restoring relationship between the here-below and the beyond. An analogous passage from the same Surah is the following: "Say (O Prophet): O my God (Allahumma), Sovereign of Royalty, Thou givest royalty to whom Thou wilt and Thou takest away royalty from whom Thou wilt; Thou exaltest whom Thou wilt and Thou abasest whom Thou wilt; in Thy Hand is welfare; truly Thou art powerful over all things. Thou causest the night to pass into the day and Thou causest the day to pass into the night. And Thou bringest forth the living from the dead, and Thou bringest forth the dead from the living. And Thou givest sustenance beyond measure to whom Thou wilt." (26-27). Here again, along with the key-phrase, we have the idea of cosmic alternations.

Another passage: "O my people! The life of this world is but a passing enjoyment and in truth the future life is the abode of stability. Whoever doeth an ill-deed is requited only with the like thereof, and whoever doeth good, whether male or female, provided he is a believer 12 —all such will enter Paradise where they will receive sustenance beyond measure." (Surah of the Believer, 39-40).
One of the most important passages, from the generally Islamic as well as from the specifically Marian point of view, is the Light Verse and the three verses which follow it: "God is the light of the heavens and the earth; His light is comparable to a niche wherein is a wick 13; tree (from which comes the oil), an olive tree which is neither of the East nor of the West, and whose oil would almost glow forth (of itself) though no fire touched it. Light upon light; God guideth unto His light whom He will; and God speaketh to mankind in parables; and God knoweth all things." Coming immediately after this famous passage are the following verses: "In houses which God hath suffered to be built, and in which His Name is remembered (invoked), men whom neither trade nor barter distract from remembrance (invocation) of God, nor from Prayer and Alms-giving, glorify Him at dawn and at dusk; they fear the day when hearts and eyes will be overturned. So that God may reward them for the good works they accomplished and give them more out of His grace; and God giveth His sustenance, beyond measure, to whom He will." (Surah of Light, 35-38).

This group of verses evokes first of all the symbolism of the prayer-niche, symbol of the mysteries of the Divine Light and of its modes of presence or immanence, and ends with the key-phrase of the Marial message, the words on Generosity. We likewise encounter an allusion to the Name of God and another to fear; finally, the Light Verse contains the virginal symbols of crystal, star,14 blessed tree15 and oil, the Marian interpretations of which can easily be discerned.16

In its intrinsic meaning the Light Verse refers to the doctrine of the Self and of the refractions of the Self in cosmic manifestation; the connection with the Virgin is convincing because she personifies the receptive or passive perfections of universal Substance; but she likewise incarnates—by virtue of the formless and occult nature of Divine Prakriti—the ineffable essence of wisdom or spirituality, the both virginal and maternal materia prima of all formal coagulations of the Spirit.17

But Moslems think of the Virgin in connection not only with the prayer-niche (mihrab), but also with the palm-tree (nakhlah): Mary is beside a withered palm-tree in the wilderness, and a voice commands her: "Shake the trunk of the palm-tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe and fresh dates to fall upon thee." (Surah of Maryam, 25). This miracle of the palm-tree is the companion of the miracle of the niche: in both cases, Mary is nourished by God, but whereas in the first case the fruits arrive without her doing anything other than invoking God in the prayer-niche, in the second case she must participate in the miracle; it is a miracle of pure grace in the first case, and a miracle of active faith in the second. That is to say, the niche evokes the graces of prayer of a static and contemplative kind, while the palm-tree suggests active and dynamic prayer; to the perfection of quietude must be added the perfection of fervour; the latter demands an awareness of our earthly distress or of our exile, while the former implies our sense of Unity and of Beatitude.

The Koran contains a particularly synthetic passage concerning not so much the "wisdom" of the Virgin as her "mystery": "And Mary, the daughter of `Imran,18 who kept her virginity intact: We breathed into her of Our Spirit; and she believed in the Words of her Lord and in His Books and was of those who, are subject (to God)." (Surah of the Prohibition, 12).

"Who kept her virginity intact": the Arabic term, which is concrete, implies a symbolism of the heart: God introduces into the heart of the Virgin an element of His nature, that is to say that in reality He "opens" this heart to the transcendentally omnipresent Divine Spirit. Hearts are unaware of this Spirit from the fact of their hardening, a hardening which at the same time is dissipation; the virgin heart, on the other hand, is both fluid and concentrated, metaphorically speaking.

"We breathed into her of Our Spirit": the image of breath evokes both the intimacy and subtlety of the gift, its depth or infinitude, if one will; "of Our Spirit": no divine manifestation can involve the Divine Spirit in itself and in its intrinsic totality, otherwise the Spirit would henceforth be in the manifestation in question, and no longer in God.

"And she believed in the Words of her Lord and in His Books": the Words are inward certainties, the contents of the Intellect; the Books are the Revelations, which come from outside.19 "To believe" or "to accept as true" (saddaqa) means here, not to admit with difficulty or retain in the mental faculty alone, but to recognize immediately and believe "sincerely; " that is to say, drawing the consequences which the truth implies and demands; this virtue explains the qualificative Siddiqah which Islam attributes to the Blessed Virgin: "She who believes sincerely, totally." There is this in this quality a part of intuitive discernment relating to "purity of heart" and a part of "realization-bringing" sincerity, of total gift of the soul.

"And she was of those who are subject" (qànitin): the Arabic term implies the meaning not only of constant submission to God, but also of absorption in prayer and invocation (qunüt), meanings which coincide with the image of Mary spending her childhood in front of the prayer-niche and thus personifying contemplative prayer. Muhyi 'd-Din ibn `Arabi,' after having shown that his heart "has opened itself to all forms," that it is "a cloister for monks, a temple of idols, the Kaaba,20 adds: "I practise the religion of Love21; now it is over this informal religion that—Semitically speaking—Sayyidatnâ Maryam ("Our Lady Mary") presides. She is thus to be identified with the supreme Shakti or with the heavenly Prajnâpârarnità of the Asiatic traditions.22

The fact that the Islamic tradition records the supereminent dignity of the Blessed Virgin creates a problem: if on the one hand the Logos in Islam is necessarily and obviously identified with the Founder of this religion,23 and if on the other the feminine aspect of the Logos—to the extent that it is taken into consideration—can only be personified by Maryam in view of her incomparable quality as attested by the Koran and the Sunna, why did this personification have to appear outside the Arab world and in connection with the Founder of the Christian religion?24 The reason for this is the following: precisely because, in the world of the Semitic monotheists, Maryam is the only "feminization of the Divine," if one may so put it (or the only avataric Shakti of Vishnu, in Hindu terms25 ) she had to appear in all three monotheistic religions at once, and consequently on the threshold of Christianity. If she had been an Arab, she would have remained a stranger to the other two religions; if she had lived in Israel before the time of Jesus, she would have remained a stranger to the Christian religion, or she would have anticipated it in a certain manner26; being unique and incomparable both in Judaism—by her concrete personality as Prophetess, whether understood or not—and in Christianity—by her function as Co-Redemptress—she was ipso facto unique and incomparable for Islam and was "at home" in it, like all the Semitic prophets up to and including Christ. From the point of view of Islam there was thus no necessity, nor even any possibility (this question not existing for the other two religions) that Maryam should have a function in the genesis of the Moslem world; in her quality as the sole major Shakti in the monotheistic world, she occupied the only historical place that she could occupy and assumed the only religious role that she could assume. Or again: if Maryam could neither appear in the Arab world nor in the Jewish world before Christ, it was because, in view of her very incomparability, she had to be linked with a masculine manifestation of "human divinity"27; now this manifestation, in the Semitic world, is precisely Christ or, in other words, the possibility of such a manifestation in the Semitic world is in itself quite enough to explain the existence of Christianity, from the point of view at issue here.

Maryam belongs to Judaism by her personality in fact, to Christianity by her special function, and to Islam by her supereminence in the whole Abrahamic cosmos. The Jewish message of the Virgin is to be found precisely in the Magnificat in so far as it refers to Israel; this hymn is at the same time her Christian message in so far as "Israel" is the Church, and it is also her Islamic message in view of the reference to the "seed of Abraham"; a message which, as we have seen, was re-formulated by the Koran in terms appropriate to Islam. In a word: Maryam comes into the Abrahamic-Mohammedan cycle by virtue of the fact that she belongs to the Sinaitic-Christian cycle which, from the Moslem point of view, constitutes an internal dimension of the first-mentioned cycle.28 We must remember also that the Marian wisdom is necessarily an expression of the Christ-given wisdom, to which she adds—or from which she extracts—an aspect which is proper to herself, and this is precisely the aspect enunciated in the verse of the prayer-niche29; whereas the doctrine of cosmic or human alternations is of Mary because it is of Christ, the doctrine of sustenance obtained from God—or "from the Inward"—is of Mary herself, along with the virginal and maternal graces which emanate from the very person of the Virgin. The following saying of Jesus is, in spirit, Marian in nature: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matthew, IV, 4) and likewise the saying: "My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew, XI, 30). As for the Magnificat and its Biblical anticipations, it is in no wise contradictory to describe as "Christ-given" a teaching formulated before the birth of Christ himself, given on the one hand the cosmic and spiritual inseparability of Jesus and Mary, and on the other the unity or timelessness of the Logos, considered here in its Semitic and monotheistic interpretations.30

Specifically Marian spirituality may be summarized in these terms: to become pure prayer, or pure receptivity before God—Gratia plena—so as to be nourished only by Him; for Maryam, the Divine Quintessence of this bread—or of this "sustenance" (rizq) 31—was 'Isa, the "Word of God" (Kalimatu 'Llàh) and "Spirit of God" (Rûhu 'Llâh), this Bread on which she lives in eternity and on which she was already living, inwardly, during her childhood in the Temple.

That the Blessed Virgin, speaking spontaneously should express herself in Biblical terms, is a matter of course for anyone with an inkling of what must be the relationship between infused know-ledge and formal Revelation in the soul of such a being as Mary. We should like now to quote the main Biblical passages which in some fashion prefigure the words of the Magnificat—if it be permitted to express oneself thus 32—and we shall do so in the same order as the ideas in this hymn appear.
"Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk, III, 18).
"Who is like unto the Lord, our God, who dwelleth on high, who humbleth Himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth! He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth the needy out of the dunghill." (Psalms, CXIII, 5-7).

"The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad…They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." (Psalms, CXXVI, 3 and 5).

"He sent redemption unto His people: He hath commanded His covenant for ever: holy and reverend is His Name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom…" (Psalms, CXI, 9 and 10).

"Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord hath mercy on them that fear Him…But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him, and his righteousness unto children's children; to such as keep His covenant,33 and to those that remember His commandments to do them." (Psalms, CIII, 13, 17 and 18). "Thou hast broken Rahab34 in pieces, as one that is slain; Thou hast scattered Thine enemies with Thy strong arm." (Psalms, LXXXIX, 10).

"And the afflicted people Thou wilt save: but Thine eyes are upon the haughty, that Thou mayest bring them down." (II Samuel, XXII, 28).

"Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake, as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art Thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon?" (Isaiah, LI, 9).

"The Lord lifteth up the meek: He casteth the wicked down to the ground." (Psalms, CXLVII, 6).

"The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." (Isaiah, XL, 3-5).35

"To set up on high those that be low; that those which mourn may be exalted to safety. He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise." (Job, V, 11 and 12). "For He satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness." (Psalms, CVII, 9).

"But thou Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend. Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away. Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee: yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness." (Isaiah, XLI, 8-10). "He hath remembered His mercy and His truth toward the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God." (Psalms, XCVIII, 3).

"And I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee." (Genesis, XVII, 7).

Finally the canticle of Anne, mother of Samuel, summarizes the whole doctrine of the Magnificat: "My heart rejoiceth in the Lord, mine horn is exalted in the Lord 36…The bows of the mighty men are broken, and they that stumbled are girded with strength. They that were full have hired out themselves for bread; and they that were hungry ceased…The Lord killeth and maketh alive: He bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up.37 The Lord maketh poor, and maketh rich: He bringeth low, and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill…He will keep the feet of His saints, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness…He shall give strength unto His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed." (Samuel, II, 1-10).

See Notes

And see: Frithjof Schuon