The Holy of Holies: Mary's Height of Sanctity

Chapter 5 of Mother of God by Fr. Cyril Bernard Papali O.C.D.

Read the other chapters here.

And thou shalt overlay the Ark with the purest gold within and without: and over it thou shalt make a golden crown round about.” (Exod. XXV. 11.)


          In the Old Testament there was no object so sacred, so central, so significant as the Ark of the Covenant which contained the word of God written on stone and Manna that rained from heaven. The detailed plans God Himself gave Moses for its construction, the precious materials used for it, the scrupulous attention and anxiety with which the work was executed, and the reverence and awe with which it was handled, all made it the heart and centre of the Jewish nation. In the desert they camped around it. In the promised land they built the magnificent temple and city and the great nation about it and for it. Over it the glory of God appeared from time to time when He answered the prayers of His people or made known to them His will. It was their treasure and their strength. Whenever the Ark happened to be taken away, with it went their joy and hope and salvation.

          Now, the Old Testament in general was a type of the New and every important incident, person or object in the Old had its counterpart, its prototype in the New. The Ark of the Covenant therefore had its great prototype which was no other than that immaculate vessel fitted out and adorned by God Himself to contain not merely His passing word written on stone but His everlasting substantial Word made flesh, not Manna but the true life-giving Bread from heaven. And this new Ark did not merely contain this Word and Bread, but She was one flesh and blood with Him. The embellishment of this Ark of the New Covenant was planned by the eternal wisdom of God and executed by the Almighty work of the Three Divine Persons. The Holy Ghost came down upon her, the power of the Most High overshadowed her, and the Son of God took flesh of her. She is an exquisite tabernacle, a golden ciborium, a precious monstrance made by God Himself.

          The elaborate preparations made for the construction of the Ark and the Temple, the wealth of precious materials and consummate workmanship lavished on them, give us an idea of what God must have done in preparing His own divine Ark and Temple. If, as seen above, her very body is the gem of creation and the wonder of the angels, what must her soul be? The Church can only exclaim about her sanctity: “Her foundations are on the Holy Mountains.”[1] Which means that her first beginnings were far above the accumulated sanctity of all the saints and angels together.

          She was conceived Immaculate, free from original sin and its consequent corruptions, disorders and defects of body and soul. She was free from actual sin, mortal or venial, and the least shadow thereof. For this reason St. Augustine would not so much as mention sin when speaking about her. What is more, the singular consecration implied in her predestination to the divine Motherhood rendered her absolutely impeccable. This is how Scheeben explains the point: “Unlike the gift of perseverance or confirmation in grace which was granted to other saints, the grace of Mary’s Motherhood lays the foundations of a perfect sinlessness, and does so in an entirely different and more sublime manner. The divine influence, safeguarding her against all sin, rests not merely on an actual decree, nor on a promise of God or an arrangement of plan made because of certain outward aims (e.g., in order to equip the apostles as worthy foundations stones of the Church), which would require this exclusion of sin. It rested rather on the very singular and personal relation of Mary to God which makes her the bride and the vesture of God. Because of this relation, God owed it to His own dignity and holiness to safeguard Mary against sin, lest her sin should be imputed to Him, or lest it should appear that He had a share in it. Because of this relation also, all graces necessary to preclude sin are virtually ensured and guaranteed to Mary in and through the principle of this grace.

          “Again because of this relation, Mary is completely taken up in God, enveloped and filled by Him, on the analogy of the grace of union and in the sense of the figure of the ‘Woman clothed with the sun’. Therefore, this incapability of sinning should not be conceived, as in other cases, as an incapability coming to the subject from without, but as an inherent incapability, founded on the inward character of the subject.”[2]

          But this is not all. Immunity form sin might be claimed even for the angels. The whole thing might be termed a negative perfection though in reality it is very, very positive. But she is full of Grace. That is where she is altogether singular. The Divine Maternity is not merely a gratia gratis data which does not necessarily affect the intrinsic worth of the recipient; it is essentially and eminently a gratia gratum faciens consecrating the soul receiving it and elevating her to the closest union conceivable with the Godhead after the Hypostatic Union itself. When the Archangel Gabriel addressed her a full of Grace he was in fact revealing the distinctive characteristic of her holiness. And the Church has read volumes in these words. “This solemn and unparalleled salutation,” says Pius IX, “heard at no other time, shows the Mother of God as the seat of all divine graces, and as adorned with all the gifts of the Divine Spirit. It also shows her as the almost infinite repository and inexhaustible abyss of these gifts to such a degree that, being at no time guilty of sin and together with her Son partaking of a perpetual blessing, she deserved to hear Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, say: ‘Blesses art thou….’”[3] At the moment of her conception she received a fullness of grace, of virtues, of gifts and privileges surpassing the accumulated perfection of all the saints and angels put together. Most Catholic theologians agree with Suarez in maintaining that “if we add up all the graces conferred on all the saints and angels in one it will not equal Mary’s grace”.[4] St. Alphonsus considers this opinion as safe and commonly accepted. Hear St. Bonaventure: “All rivers flow into the sea; and all the gifts of the saints flow into Mary. The rivers of grace of Angels, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins unite in Mary. And what is the wonder if all these graces unite in Mary, when it is through her that all these graces flow out to every one? Hence she can truly say: ‘In me is all the grace of the way and the truth, in me is all hope of life and strength.’”[5] St. Thomas of Villanova has coined a new name for her, the microcosm of the Church. Here are his words: “As at the creation of the world all creatures were condensed into man who is therefore called microcosm (the little world), so at the restoration of the world all the perfections of the Church and the saints have been gathered in one in the Blessed Virgin. Hence Mary may be called the microcosm of the Church, for she by herself is more precious and more worthy than the whole universe.”[6] “Hail full of grace,” exclaims Sophronius, “truly full, because while grace is given by measure to the saints, the whole fullness of all graces has flowed into Mary.”[7] St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil, St. Peter Chrysologus, St. Peter Damian have all expressed this idea in almost identical terms. Raymund Jordanus, commonly known as the Idiot, addressed Mary in these words: “There was not wanting to thee the purity of the Angels, the faith of the Patriarchs, the knowledge of the Prophets, the zeal of the Apostles, the patience of the Martyrs, the soberness of the Confessors, the innocence of the Virgins. Briefly no virtue was wanting to thee, O thou more than Blessed. Whatever gift was ever given to any saint was not denied thee; but thou hast all the privileges of all the saints heaped up in thee.”[8]

          This fullness comprised not only sanctifying grace and all the virtues and gifts but even those extraordinary prerogatives known as gratiae gratis datae. “There is no doubt,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “but that the Blessed Virgin received in a supereminent degree the gifts of wisdom, of miracles and even of prophecy.” St. Anselm has said the same; “Therefore the power of God and the wisdom of God and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Mary.”[9] To conclude with the words of St. Antonine: “The Blessed Virgin had a fourfold fullness of grace. Firstly, she had in the highest degree all the graces, general and special, given to all the creatures; secondly, she had graces that no other creature has ever had, thirdly, all these graces were in such a high degree that a creature cannot possibly receive more; fourthly, she contained within herself the uncreated grace, that is God, full and complete. In all ways therefore she was full.”[10]

          Now, this perfection of Mary was not static. Hers was an all-round fullness, an abiding fullness, an ever-growing fullness. It had to be an overflowing fullness too, for out of her fullness all other creatures are to receive. The weakness and want and misery of all the creatures put together was the minimum measure of her fullness and perfection. What must it not have grown into when her incredible proximity to the Divinity demanded a proportion of some sort between her and God? “The Mother of Christ must have the fullness of grace,” says St. Cyprian.[11] St. Jerome observes: “Holy Mary is hailed full of grace because she conceived Him in whom all the plenitude of Divinity abides corporally.”[12] And St. Augustine: “We know she has received such an abundance of grace because she was worthy to conceive and bring forth God.”[13] St. Gregory the Great puts it even more forcibly: “In order to rise far above the choirs of Angels, even to the throne of God.”[14] To conclude with the beautiful words of the saintly Rupertus: “She was the dawn at her birth, the day at the birth of Christ, the very sun at her death.”[15]

          No other creature ever received grace to the fullness of its capacity or corresponded with it to the best of its powers. Of every one of them we may say that even the best of its actions could have been better if only it had made a little more effort. But the case of the Blessed Virgin was singular She had a twofold fullness altogether stupendous and beyond the reach and even the understanding of other creatures. For at every step she received a fullness of grace compatible with her limitations, proportionate to her all but infinite capacity, and in every action she turned it to the best account possible. She is the only creature of whom it can be said that every one of her actions was so perfect that from her part it could not have been more perfect. She is the only creature about whom God has nothing more to wish. St. Bernardine of Sienna has said: “She never chose anything but what the Divine Wisdom indicated to her, and loved God as much as it was her duty to love.”[16] And a creature’s duty towards God is defined in the Scriptures thus: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and thy whole soul, and thy whole mind, and all thy strength.”[17] This was realised completely only in the Blessed Virgin.

          Theologians maintain that she had perfect use of reason and power of meriting from the first instant of her existence. And they even go so far as to assert that in all her long life there never was an instant when she lost consciousness and ceased to merit. Indeed, the frailty of the flesh was unknown to her and even while her body rested, her soul was engaged in the most active communion with God. “This was the peculiar prerogative of Mary,” says St. Albert the Great, “that she could merit at every moment and in every act.”[18] St. Bernardine of Sienna has explained it more clearly: “I do not believe that sleep, which in the rest of us drowns as it were and buries our reason, free will and consequently our power of meriting, did any such thing in the Blessed Virgin; but her soul was at such times rising to God in most free and meritorious acts. She was then contemplating God more perfectly than any one else at wakeful hours. Hence she says in the Canticle: ‘I sleep, but my heart watcheth.’”[19]

          Merit is proportioned to the degree of grace received and the generosity with which it is responded to. The grace Mary received at the first instant, we say, surpassed the sum total of all the graces conferred on other creatures, and her correspondence with grace was simply full and consummate. So much so that St. Bernardine of Sienna could confidently assert: “The Virgin Mother of God merited more than all the creatures put together, both Angels and men, in every one of her acts, movements and thoughts.”[20] It is folly to attempt to reduce spiritual things to mathematical equations; the theologians nevertheless suggest that if a creature were to correspond with a given grace to the full extent of its powers, that grace must double. And Mary is the only creature that did so, not once or at sundry times, but at every instant of her long life, in every movement of her whole being. What a stupendous multiplication ad infinitum, what a meteor-like flash upwards that must have been. She was a flash of lighting that rose from the tops of the Eternal Hills and buried itself in the Inaccessible Light of the Everlasting Trinity.

          Let us quote a charming passage from The Burning Bush of Dom S. Louismet, O.S.B.: “Mary stands as the greatest manifestation of how far the power of God extends in the making of a pure creature like unto Him. This may be put in relief by a few questions. Thus:

          “Can Divine Omnipotence, out of the whole massa perdita of a fallen race, preserve incorrupt and save beforehand, by a higher redemption, one single member to be used for the purpose of the future redemption of the others? Mary is the reply.

          “Can Divine Omnipotence render a human creature not only immaculate in her conception, but, moreover, without in the least interfering with the free play of her will, impeccable? Mary is the reply.

          “Can Divine Omnipotence raise a pure creature to the very confines or borderland, so to say, of the Godhead, usque ad fines divinitatis (to use a forcible and felicitous expression of Suarez), so that she should become the true and natural mother of God, and bring forth in her virgin flesh the Eternal Word of God? Mary is the reply.

          “Can Divine Omnipotence form a human heart so deep and so strong as to contain, on the one hand, more sorrow at some time of her earthly life than has ever been experienced by all angels and men in via; and, on the other hand, more joy – at least after her admission to the Beatific Vision – than will ever be imparted to all angels and saints together? Mary is the reply.”


[1] Ps. 86.

[2] Mariology, Vol. II, Ch. vi.

[3] Bulla Ineffabilis Deus.

[4] In III, Q. xxviii, a. 4, disp. 18 sect. 14, n. 8.

[5] Specul. c. 3.

[6] In Fest. Nativ. B.M.V., Conc. 3, n. 8.

[7] Sermo de Assumpt.

[8] Liber de Contempl. de B.V.

[9] Homil. in Luc. x. 38.

[10] Summa prs. iv, tit. 15, c. 2, ff. 15.

[11] Serm. de Nativ. Christi.

[12] Epist. 104.

[13] De Natura et Gratia, cap. 36.

[14] In I Reg. i.

[15] In Cant. lib. 6.

[16] Sermo 51.

[17] Matth. xxii, 27.

[18] De B. Virg. cap. 176.

[19] Sermo 51.

[20] loc. cit.