I understand why monks include manual labor in their daily regimen, because you do have time to think in the relative peace and quiet of nature. This morning I couldn’t help but think back to 1972 or 1973, when I spent a semester researching a master’s paper on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Why I chose this subject I honestly can’t remember, and why the morality/spirituality department of my theology school accepted my topic is a real mystery. I have come to think that college faculties sometimes pass proposals to satisfy their own curiosities from the safety of their offices—if a young graduate school student gets mired in heresy, they have plausible deniability.
So I started off and worked on my own for several weeks before checking in with my supervisor/reader, and I came to know the writings of Hilda Graef, one of the most published mariologists of that time. Her Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion was a standard text in mid-century; a new hard cover copy of this work today runs to $419 on Amazon, though an updated and (relatively) cheaper edition appeared in 2009. The work was available to me back then in part because after Vatican II Marian studies was falling into disfavor for reasons I was beginning to comprehend. To the point, I was discovering that recently declared Marian Doctrines such as the Immaculate Conception (1854) and the Assumption (1950) had tenuous, almost invisible, links to the Apostolic Era. Following sources from Graef, primarily, I found that the Assumption as we would understand it today was the product of devotional works of piety from about the fifth century forward. One of the factors of Church life in the first millennium was the failure to find a tomb. The Church established a feast called the Dormition or Sleep of Mary, though no one could say whether or not this “sleep” was actually an “expectant death” (and Pius XII in 1950 never stated if Mary actually died.)
I presented my initial findings to my reader, a Franciscan from another branch of the Order, and suffice to say he was not pleased, and strongly intimated that I had not researched deeply enough. He also noted that I was then living with the present chairman of the U.S. Mariological Society of Marian scholars, and he wondered what my superior/Marian scholar would have to say about my work. I had not told my superior anything about this, because of the political as well as the academic problems that would create. (He could have expelled me for heresy or my impudence, I guess.) Besides, my superior was always right about everything, whether he was or not. I pointed out to the reader that I had used Mrs. Graef’s sources extensively. Still rather unhappy with me, he suggested I move away from historical emphases toward theological ones.
Had I more experience in the field of theology then, I would have known that in my imperfect way I was finding common ground with theologians around the world, not least of which was Cardinal Newman, who as a younger theologian in the 1800’s was wrestling not just with Marian doctrines, but with the overarching doctrine of papal infallibility itself. Newman wrote that while the Church’s doctrines are timeless and eternal, the ability of the hearers to discern and understand them is gradual. The phrase “development of doctrine” would be attributed to him, but alas, I was unaware of his writing at that juncture. But sometimes research is 75% luck, and I came upon an essay by perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner, in the first volume of his theological studies. (When I talk about luck, I’m not kidding, his series runs to about twenty-five volumes!) A few years ago, I reviewed his volume one; it was the least I could do.
As best I can explain it, and I have the text right here, Rahner argues that to approach this doctrine from a historical point alone misses its richness (and avoids a number of pitfalls, as I mentioned.) He begins with the Nicene Creed, specifically the statements involving the Incarnation of Jesus, and his birth of the Virgin Mary. He then proceeds to Jesus’ own death and descent into the ground. These are at the heart of the Church’s treasury of belief, Rahner observes, and thus it would be an error to hold that Mary was exempt from a universal reality that Jesus himself embraced. Jesus’ resurrection and glory is the first fruits of his cross and death, and in the Creed we profess that there will be a resurrection of the just at the end of time. Rahner, noting the unique role played by the human Mary in the mystery of redemption, makes the point that if all of the articles of the Creed just cited are true, and we believe they are, then there is a logic to pronouncing with certainty that Mary would win resurrection of the body and eternal glory.
In a sense, then, the Assumption is a doctrine which has “unfolded” from those acknowledged before it. There are elements of Newman, here, to be sure. I noted in my paper that the exact time of the Assumption has never been declared. Conceivably it is a future event, as is the Second Coming. Thus the Assumption as a doctrine stands as a beacon of hope for those of us who, like Mary, bear Christ through our baptismal consecration.
I got an A. My boss never found out.