Monday, October 17, 2011

What Are We Capable Of?

God, who does not dwell in buildings of stone, dwells in this Yes given with body and soul; he whom the world cannot encompass can come to dwell wholly in a human being.
Mary, the Church at the Source, 87-8

Reflection – In the chapel of Our Lady of the Woods in Madonna House, directly behind the altar in the holy of holies there is a beautiful icon of Mary. The Greek title of the icon is (and I quote this from memory, so you Greek scholars will excuse me if I err slightly) the platetera tou ouranois – the one who is wider than the heavens.
It is this idea that the icon communicates in color and light, form and beauty. Mary is She who contains that which the whole world cannot contain. Mary, holding Jesus in her womb, holds within herself the One who Himself holds the entire universe in being.
I gave a talk in Ottawa last night based on my book The Air We Breathe. The Q&A afterwards focused on the difficulties non-Catholics have with our Catholic insistence on Mary’s centrality. One of the questions was ‘How can Mary who is a human creature hear all of our prayers and petitions.’
My answer really flows from this whole platetera tou ouranois business. Namely, do we really know what the limits of a human being are? We think we do, but do we? I don’t know about you, but I cannot fly. Normally, humans can’t fly. But St Joseph Cupertino could – it is well attested. I cannot be in two places at once, and neither can you. But St. Martin de Porres could. I only know what I can observe with my senses and whatever else you might choose to tell me, and this is normal for human beings. But St. Padre Pio could know all sorts of things about people, miraculously reading their hearts.
And all these holy men and women were sinners – damaged goods like you and me! But in their flawed and frail cooperation with God they were already able to surpass so many of the natural limits and capacities of humanity. Given that, do we have any concept of what a sinless human being is capable of? Once a woman has carried in her womb the Maker of heaven and earth, what exactly is impossible for her, anyhow, especially once she has entered the realm of eternity of which we know precisely nothing?
This is not just a matter of Catholic-Protestant apologetics or polemics. This is deeply relevant for every human being’s life. What exactly are we capable of? What are we made for? How do we achieve the fullest actualization of, not just our natural human capabilities, but of everything God wants to work in us – flying and walking through walls and reading minds and all that jazz? Perhaps even more astoundingly, truly loving without counting the cost and pouring out our lives for one another to the very end?
Mary gives us the Christian answer, which is what Ratzinger reflects on here. It is by saying yes to God that we become filled with him that the world cannot contain, and so transcend every possible barrier to human-divine fulfillment.
It is simple, very simple. It is also excruciatingly difficult. But it is the only way. And as Mary also shows, it is an exquisitely beautiful and joyous way, too.

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