Each one of us bears within us an unspeakably profound and unrepeatably unique beauty—the unique image that God sees when he gazes upon us in love. Indeed, this image is constituted precisely by the Father’s gaze, since for him to look is for him to love, and for him to love is for him to bestow beauty and goodness. When we allow ourselves to be led back to this place of vulnerable loving encounter, we come “home” to the authentic truth of our being as it ever flows as a pure gift from the hands and the Heart of God. In turn, the more we “get in touch” with this truth of our identity before God, the more that it can spread through the rest of our being to touch, to heal, and to transform us in the likeness of the One who calls us to intimacy with himself. This is how the love of God for us can gradually overcome the inheritance of sin that threatens to keep us away from him, that tempts us to close ourselves off from his gaze and from his invitation to intimacy.
It is true that no one else can pronounce for me my “Yes” to God’s love. No one else can stand in my place and experience his loving gaze…since this gaze is directed uniquely at me alone, and it addresses my own freedom. On the other hand, on my own strength or initiative alone, I cannot adequately pronounce this “Yes.” I find the obstacles within me too great. How then can I pronounce the “Yes” that I alone can give, if I, alone, cannot give it?
When Mary, in her own unique existence, experienced the loving gaze of God, she—because of the prevenient grace that had preserved her from the inheritance of original sin—was able to pronounce a complete and unreserved “Yes.” She was able to open her heart entirely to welcome God’s gift of love and to give herself totally in return. Further, as the New Eve she pronounced this “Yes,” not only in her own name, but in the name of all humanity. In her consent to God’s love and his invitation, she accepted the childlike dependency against which the first Eve had rebelled. In her “Yes,” she opened herself to the fullness of the Father’s love as his beloved daughter; she opened herself to the fullness of the Spirit’s overshadowing presence in bridal receptivity, through which she conceived; she opened herself to the very incarnate presence of the Son, who became a man within her maternal womb.
As daughter, bride, and mother, Mary has allowed God to open up the space in which God’s love finds full acceptance, and in which humanity can enter back into communion with God. She is like a “rose among thorns” (Sg 2:2), an immaculate virgin in the midst of a broken world; and in this purity she acts as a leaven in the dough of humanity, so that we too may share in her purity. Adam and Eve were the first in a long line of humanity subject to suffering and death, and knotted to the disorders of pride, possessiveness, and lust. And each of these three disordered movements—this “knot” of sinful desire which pulls our hearts from the center to the periphery, from unity to fragmentation—is an expression of the fundamental insecurity that we bear within us of feeling that we have lost God and his Love.
Let us then, in the next few reflections, delve more deeply into the nature of this “openness of heart” which allows God to restore us to the love and intimacy that was lost in sin—the openness which is directly contrary to the threefold movement of pride, possessiveness, and lust. We said that this openness of heart is precisely the single yet threefold reality of obedience, poverty, and chastity. Adam and Eve before sin bore these three dispositions within them as God’s gift, and yet, when asked to confirm them through an act of trusting surrender to God, they instead chose to turn away. Let us try in some way to glimpse what the state before original sin would have been like. This will help us, then to see how it is radiantly restored (and more than restored) in the Virgin Mary and her beloved Son, Jesus Christ—who as the New Adam and the New Eve open the way for the healing and transformation of each one of us.
Adam and Eve, before sin, were poor because, like the little children that they were (spiritually speaking), they allowed the heavenly Father to care for them in his immense generosity. They remained with open hands and open heart to receive and to give at every moment, in a sensitivity that is the very opposite of possessiveness. Everything in their existence, from the creation that surrounded them to the very structure of their body and spirit, was welcomed as a pure and undeserved gift in radiant gratitude, and in gratitude it was placed back in the hands of the Giver. In childlike simplicity they felt no need to “grasp” or to protect anything as their “private possession,” but rather welcomed without fear each instant of life in the depths of its beauty…a beauty that always surpasses anything human hands or heart can fully control or comprehend.
Their obedience flowered precisely from this attitude of childlike poverty, from this disposition of confident trust in the goodness and love of the Father. If they truly knew and believed in the love of God, if they understood and saw all as his gift, then all that was necessary for them was to live according to this gift. Their obedience was simply a way of allowing their lives to unfold in accord with the loving intentions of God which were inscribed into every fiber of creation and impressed upon their very being. Further, to live in this childlike trust, in this loving docility to God’s ceaseless gift and guidance, was to find their hearts flowering in freedom. For obedience was not a burden, an arbitrary yoke, an external imposition forced on Adam and Eve from the outside. No, it was simply the space in which the gift of Love from the outside touched, enveloped, and brought to full flowering the deepest desires in the human heart.
Finally, they were chaste because their gaze was one of pure love, a gaze that was directed only to reverence, to cherish, and to affirm the other—and to welcome the loving gaze of the other in return. Indeed, this mutual gaze was but a reflection and an extension of the loving gaze of God himself, which each experienced casting its light forth in their inmost being and irradiating their entire life. They were naked without experiencing shame, because there was as yet no cause for fear or hesitation in beholding the nakedness and vulnerability of another, nor, on the other hand, in being seen. Shame comes only after original sin, because sin profoundly twists and corrupts the desires of the human heart and its spontaneous way of seeing and perceiving others.
Shame is a defense mechanism—and often a valid one—in which a person feels threatened by the look of another out of fear of being mistreated, abused, or used. On the other hand, shame can also be experienced in the one beholding, in that they become aware that their spontaneous reaction to seeing another is not a valid reaction of love, but a movement of lust or possessiveness. In this sense shame restrains the beholder from giving expression to the disordered movements of his or her fractured heart. Shame can also, however, be disordered, when it keeps the human heart from opening itself to another when trust is called for, when authentic love is truly encountered. Above all, shame is destructive when it causes us to flee from the face of God, to hide our guilt and brokenness from him in fear, rather than opening it to his healing gaze of mercy.
Before their consent to sin, the gaze of Adam and Eve was pure, and thus they were able to behold one another in reverence and love. When Adam gazed upon Eve, he saw shining from her entire physical being the unique beauty of her individual identity in the eyes of God…and he reverenced, loved, and sheltered this identity. The same is true for what Eve beheld in Adam. They knew that each person was a gift flowing unceasingly from the creative hands of God, and their first responsibility was to reverence this gift, to cradle it in the shelter of humble love. Only within this context of profound reverence were they also able to give expression to the mutual self-giving that would bind them together “in one flesh.” Indeed, before original sin, the sexual union—if it even would have occurred in a way comparable to the way it is expressed in our fallen state—would have been in harmony with virginity, and not against it. Further, the bodily element of mutual self-giving would not have posed the danger of “submerging” the spirit in the flesh and of losing sight of the person. Rather, the body would simply have been the expression of the deeper and more intimate mystery: the joining of hearts and lives within the single, all-enveloping Love of God.
– When I reflect on poverty as simply the childlike attitude of trust in the Father’s love, and the gratitude that feels no need to possess…how do I see this being expressed in my own life?
– When I reflect on obedience as receiving the Father’s gift of love and living according to this gift in such a way that my freedom and happiness flower in precisely this way…how do I see this being expressed in my own life?
– When I reflect on chastity as the pure gaze of love that reverences and cherishes another, and also receives their gaze in trusting confidence, allowing a deepening intimacy to blossom between persons in mutual self-giving…how do I see this being expressed in my own life?