Redeemer in the Womb reviews
Leonie Caldecott is a writer and co-editor of the Second Spring section of Catholic World Report. She lives in Oxford, England, with her husband and three daughters.
Mary's womb filled me with wonder
that it should contain you,
my Lord, and enclose you.
The whole of creation was too
small to conceal your greatness,
Earth and Heaven too narrow to
serve as embracing arms, to
conceal your divinity,
The womb of the earth is too small
for you, and yet the womb of
Mary is large enough for you.
These lines from Saint Ephrem's Hymn on the Nativity, quoted in the third chapter of John Saward's fascinating book, make a fitting meditation for the feast of the Annunciation. We are wont to rattle off the Credo, with its high point, et incarnatus est, barely acknowledged with a nod, far less the reverential inclination or the outright genuflection requested in the Roman Missal for this great solemnity. How much less do we incline our imaginations at the idea that the Creator of all that exists, the Ineffable, the Almighty, not only became one of us but chose to do so in Mary's womb. The notion that a historical, flesh and blood woman carried God within her womb for nine months is one of those "scandals" of Christian doctrine which are so fertile in implications not just for theologians, but for the ordinary
Christian trying to focus on the essentials.
Saward, a British theologian currently teaching in Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, has described the treatment of this theme throughout Church history, and drawn out its implications for our time. After tracing the development of the doctrine through several key stages from Saint Cyril of Alexandria, through Saint Leo the Great and Saint Maximus the Confessor, to Saint Thomas Aquinas,
he then works his way through the scriptural sources, the Church Fathers, the medieval, baroque and modern periods. He describes the spirituality associated with the doctrines, their liturgical and artistic manifestations, their ecclesial and, finally, their moral implications.
To deal with some of the theological issues first, Saward touches on the doctrine of "immediate animation,' (the idea that the soul and the body are created in the same instant). He shows how Maximus uses Christological doctrine to support his contention that all men are created in this fashion, as against the Aristotelian contention that the soul animates the body only at a later point in the child's gestation (or the Origenist contention that the soul exists before the body is created). This is then contrasted with the scholastic belief that Our Lord's conception differs from our own, only His body being animated by a rational soul at the moment of conception. Here the early Fathers were more in tune with modern
natural science than their intellectual successors.
Saward, mindful of the importance of Aquinas's contribution to this area as to others, believes that had the Angelic Doctor had access to modern biological data about ovulation and conception, he would have held the doctrine of immediate animation also. In any case, as Saward insists, the "fundamental principles of his philosophy of man are independent of his obsolete biology." Thus: "stripping off the shell of the out-of-date science, we find the permanently valid kernel of his thought on the soul."
The fundamental Thomistic axioms about the soul-body relationship still stand: that the soul is not the self, that it is natural for the soul to be united to the body, that the soul is the form of the body, and that the rational soul, which is not transmitted by the parents, is infused by God as soon as the body is ready to receive It.
Throughout the book, Saward succeeds in using the contributions of different periods and schools of thought to best advantage, often balancing one against another. He comes to the rescue of Saint Thomas again over the issue of the beatific knowledge of the embryonic Christ, an intuitive knowledge which Saward sees as working in and through the natural contemplativeness of unborn childhood. "In every little one of the human family there are hidden spiritual depths to which modern Western culture, so materialistic and mechanistic, so contra-life and contra-child, blinds the eyes of the mind." He quotes a contemporary Carmelite theologian (as yet untranslated into English), Francois-Marie Lethel, in support of the supreme importance of the fact that the sacred humanity of Jesus "was never for one instant without grace or freedom," so as to guarantee the "architecture of the merit of Christ" in which the space of our communion with His earthly life is protected: as Peguy writes, "All Jesus is ours."
Some of the most beautiful passages quoted in the book come from the seventeenth-century founder of the French Oratory, Cardinal Berulle, dubbed by Pope Urban VIII "Apostle of the Word Incarnate." Take for example the following passage on the "lodgings" (sejours) of Jesus, which unite our theological theme with the continuing eucharistic sacrifice at the heart of the Catholic faith:
There are three states of Jesus that deserve singular and daily consideration: in the womb (sein) of the Father as Son of God, God of God, consubstantial and equal with his Father; in the womb of the Virgin as Son of Man, both man and God, the Mediator of God and men; in the womb of the Church, which is his centre and altar, as Lamb of God and victim of praise and propitiation, which she (the Church) presents to the eternal Father.
Berulle's meditations on the state of the unborn Christ culminate in the theme of the union of hearts between child and mother, beginning in that period when she was the only human to worship and adore Him in His incarnate condition, hidden in her womb, "The grace infused into the Virgin, grace so excellent and exalted, applies and absorbs all the senses, all the faculties, and all the spirit of the Virgin.... Thus grace and nature conspire in her to establish an excellent disposition, one that enraptures her heart and her soul in Jesus her Son and her God." I am not entirely sure that I agree with the author when he prefers the poetry of Berulle's spiritual heir Paul Claudel to the cardinal's original formulations of this immensely rich and central theology, but it is certainly true that the poet has the freedom to give these truths a dramatic edge that theology is almost by nature disallowed:
Satan rules and the whole wide
world offers him incense and gold.
God penetrates like a thief in this
Eden of death overbold.
A woman was once deceived, and
now a woman cheats hell.
Once again, however, Saward is concerned to balance potential extremes, and having paid full due to the French School, he says that their tendency to pessimism about the human condition, with all its weakness, needs to be supplemented with the positive value given to God's creation by Saint Thomas. "It is not enough, then, to praise God the Son's taking of unborn childhood's poverty. We must also be thankful for his revealing and enhancing of its richness. The "indigence" of the womb is a secret wealth: the "incapacity" is a capacity to receive and be enriched." Here, as elsewhere, Saward's writing is scholarly yet broad, proffering delights from every drawer and closet of Church history, both well-known and neglected, Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican. Everything is presented unpretentiously and in
a form which the aver-age reader can absorb readily.
Redeemer in the Womb is important reading today for several reasons. Most obviously, no one who had allowed himself to imbibe the awesome meaning of the Incarnation through these meditations could possibly uphold any attack on or manipulation of unborn human life. Similarly, once you grasp the role of Our Lady in all this, you could never dismiss her as a vacuous projection of masculine domination.
Indeed it is one of Saward's great gifts to preach convincingly about feminine dignity, a gift he shares with the present Pope. He devotes an entire chapter to the thought of three women of the modern age, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, Adrienne Von Speyr, and Caryll Houselander. It has often struck me that in the battle between feminists and orthodox Catholics, the ground can only be gained by planting oneself at the intersection of the spiritual coordinates represented by these three: valuing the spirit of childhood, confident in the love of God, and caught up in the mystery of Our Lady's fiat.
By giving spiritual substance to the theological facts, John Saward takes the argument away from a purely moralistic focus. Catholics are now in the position of speaking to a generation which cannot understand the basis for traditional Christian morality. In a certain sense we are close once again to the early Christians, for we have to start again from scratch, even if the tools of tradition lie close at hand. Yet this same generation, however far it strays, purports nonetheless to be interested in the profoundest truths of the human spirit. It falls to writers such as Saward, following to some extent in the footsteps of Hans Urs von Balthasar, to approach these truths afresh on behalf of the Catholic faith. For if the present generation can be shown that here is holy ground, then perhaps they can be motivated to seek
their heart's desire where it can be truly answered.
Copyright © Leonie Caldecott 1994