Book Review: ‘Where does all the beauty come from?’
The Radiance of Her Face: A Triptych In Honor of Mary Immaculate, by Dom Xavier Perrin. Foreword by Dom Benedict Hardy OSB. Second Spring. 93pp. reviewed by Sr Mary Thomas Brown
In C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, when the protagonist Ransom at last sees the unfallen King, he is astonished by the resemblance to Christ which is seen in his face – and yet Ransom observes that, mysteriously, this most perfect of created images could never be mistaken for its Original and thus become an object of idolatry. I suppose it is unlikely that, during his life on earth, Lewis would gladly have picked up a book about the Immaculate Conception. As so often, however, his instinct was Catholic despite itself. The eyes not of imagination, but of Catholic faith, contemplate the mystery of an unbroken reflection of God in the utterly real person of Mary Immaculate, whose beauty fascinates Abbot Xavier Perrin.
In the interests of transparency, it should be noted that the author, the translator, and the author of the Foreword are all well known to the present reviewer. I hope that what follows will more than suffice to show that there are reasons well beyond cronyism to recommend this book.
Through the eyes of the angel Gabriel
The Radiance of Her Face is a translation of Regards sur l’Immaculée (Éditions du Carmel, 2006) incorporating two new chapters. In keeping with the original title, the book’s thought is indeed largely structured around a series of ‘looks’ upon the Immaculate Virgin. The first chapter is the ‘Triptych in Honour of Mary Immaculate’ of the book’s subtitle. We look through the eyes of the Angel Gabriel at the one who is full of grace, and Pope Pius IX as he proclaims the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. To see the triptych’s central panel, our gaze is aligned with that of God the Father Himself, in His predestinating of Mary to her unique role.
Chapter Two is about St Anne, ‘The Mother of Mary Immaculate’ – muchloved patroness of Abbot Xavier’s native Brittany – beginning with a helpful look at the so-called ‘Protoevangelium of James’ (on p.27, the phrase ‘than in the West’ should be read immediately after the word ‘East’). Anne looks at Mary and Mary looks at Anne: ‘The ancient, graced world, represented by Anne, greets in Mary the new world of pure grace’, while both await the Christ (p.37).
The totality of Mary’s belonging to God
The third chapter is ‘The Mercy Stairway’. We climb from Mary Magdalen ‘the Sinner’ via Thérèse of Lisieux ‘the Innocent One’, to Mary Immaculate, and thus see the mounting wonders of God’s mercy in restoring the sinner, preserving innocence or – ‘the masterpiece of prevenient mercy’ – creating the total freedom from sin which is the Immaculate Conception.
Next ‘The Mirror and the Flaming Torch’ help us to open our lives to Mary’s influence. The ‘Mirror’ is St Bernadette Soubirous. Despite receiving Our Lady’s self-identification as ‘the Immaculate Conception’, Bernadette’s response did not involve the articulation of this mystery – she even found the phrase hard to remember – but rather the selfeffacing reflection of Mary’s way of life: humility, obedience, faith in suffering, mercy, hiddenness. ‘Bernadette, mirror of Mary Immaculate, seems to tell us that Mary herself is a mirror, the perfectly pure mirror of the glory of the Word Incarnate’ (p.65). St Maximilian Kolbe, by contrast, is a ‘Flaming Torch’, eager to spread the message, in the strongest terms, of Mary’s unique participation in the life of God and thus her unique role in bringing the world back to God. Some of St Maximilian’s formulations concerning Mary’s special relationship with the Holy Spirit may be rather surprising – they certainly required hard thought from this reviewer, though I do not think they are incomprehensible. But no reader is especially obliged to make St Maximilian’s theology his own. The point to take is that Bernadette and Fr Kolbe coincide in pointing us to the totality and radicality of Mary’s belonging to God, and the ‘radical dispossession and entire gift of self’ to which the Christian faithful are called in order to enter into this.
Intercession and conversation
Chapter Five is on Mary’s role as intercessor, in the form of a meditation on Cana and its significant connection to Calvary. ‘Mary’s privilege as the Immaculate One establishes her in utter dependence on the redeeming sacrifice of the Son on the Cross and on the mercy of the Father... She prays for us in the simplest way: she presents us and all our needs through Jesus to the light of God’s mercy’ (pp.76- 7). And in Chapter Six we move from contemplation to conversation, in the cor ad cor loquitur of the Immaculate Heart and the Sacred Heart. The book concludes with a brief meditation on the Preface for the Mass of 8th December, uniting our gaze to the Church’s and drawing us to praise of the Thrice-Holy God who has worked all these wonders.
The one who has received the most
This is a slim volume, and highly readable, but as Fr Benedict says, it is worth reading slowly and then re-reading as we participate in Abbot Xavier’s own ‘contemplative gaze’. It contains profound theology, conveyed with Abbot Xavier’s happy knack of arranging his thought and expression in eloquent structures (witness the chapter headings above). We see the Immaculate One as the fitting mother for God’s Son, of course, but the main emphasis is the Immaculate One’s special role as mother in the economy of salvation, God’s plan of merciful love. Mercy is a theme dear to Abbot Xavier’s heart (this book’s French publication predates Pope Francis’s pontificate). Mary’s privilege is the outstanding work of divine mercy; it is not merely a negative reality (being without sin) but the positive reality of a share in God’s life – deification – to a degree unique among created persons, embracing Mary’s whole being and history, constituting her identity. Precisely as the one who has received the most, she is the most humble, the most aware of her total dependence; precisely as the one who has received the most, she is ready and able to give all at the service of God’s other, sinful children – us.
A mission at the service of life
Mercy and humility are two constantly recurring words in these meditation. It is specifically as woman and mother that Mary reflects God’s mercy. In commenting on Genesis 3:15, Abbot Xavier shows as Mary as ‘the Woman par excellence ... Mary surpasses Eve as the perfect type of feminine humanity’ (pp.20-21). The Immaculate Conception is exactly what makes Mary the new Eve: ‘Standing beside the Son of God made flesh, [who is] foreign to sin by nature, God has always seen and foreseen Mary, the all-pure one, foreign to sin by grace’ (p.21). Motherhood, whether bodily or spiritual, is described here as ‘a mission at the service of life’ (p.35), a vocation proper to women. We may link this with the later comment that the ‘one work of God’ is to give life: ‘The whole drama of the world is one divine gift of life’ (p.78). How could this wholly graced woman who is ‘first in the order of mercy’ not then have ‘a universal motherhood in the Spirit according to the order of the Father’s merciful grace’ (pp.55-6)? Meditating with Abbot Xavier on the Virgin’s radiance widens our receptivity to the divine light. Psyche, of C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, famously asks, ‘Where does all the beauty come from?’ There is no better pointer to the answer than His Immaculate Mother.
Sr Mary Thomas Brown OSB is a nun of St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde.