I have been making my way slowly through Bishop Robert Barron’s Exploring Catholic Theology this summer. As is often the case with collections of essays, it can be a bit repetitive, but Barron nonetheless shows why he is one of the leading public theologians of our time. One of his fundamental insights is what he calls “the noncompetitive transcendence of God.” Grounding his argument in both Scripture and Tradition, particularly by way of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Barron says that God is not the supreme being in the way we sometimes think of Him, as if He were the largest and grandest of things that exist, but rather He is existence itself. In Barron’s words, God “coinheres” with His creation, meaning that He exists both outside of it and alongside it but without ever being in competition with it. God plus the world is not more than God Himself. If God and humanity had to fight for the same space, than God would not be God at all.
It is a remarkably simple point that Barron makes and yet it carries with it many profound implications. One of them, which Barron does not address, has to do with how we see the saints and particularly how we see the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Barron contends that the non-competitiveness of God means that God can direct and guide our lives without depriving us of our free will. The fact that we choose what we do with our lives does not negate God’s involvement, nor does God’s choice to point us in one direction or another make us somehow His puppets. In a world in which God coinheres with creation, the world can do the work of God without somehow taking over His unique place in order to do it. God makes the world holy by way of acting within and through the actions of free persons. If I act for the good of my neighbor, it is neither me working from my own goodness apart from God nor God working through me apart from the taint of my depravity. Rather, it is God at work within me and me at work by my own volition because of my sanctification. Neither cancels or negates the other.
Many Protestants fear that venerating the saints and asking for their prayers is tantamount to idolatry. Indeed, the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion warn against the perceived danger of the “invocation of saints,” though without defining exactly what is meant by these words. The Scottish priest William Forbes (1558-1634) argued that Anglicans could call upon the saints without running afoul of the Articles by simply making it clear, in their minds if nowhere else, that they are asking for the saints to pray with them and on their behalf, not praying to them. Forbes styled this advocation as opposed to invocation.
However, if Barron and Aquinas are correct, than the real issue is not one of keeping a proper distinction between the Creator and the created but rather of understanding the kind of relationship that God has with His creation. The holiness that is found in the saints deserves to be celebrated precisely because it is the same holiness that is in God. The saints have been made one with God through Christ, filled with His grace and life, fully immersed in His radiant glory. To venerate a saint is to worship God even as it is also to admire one of God’s creatures. The saint does not stop being a free person when he or she becomes holy. You cannot venerate a saint without worshipping the God whose energies shine through that saint’s life, but neither can you do so without acknowledging the active, free human being in whom God’s holiness has taken root. Where holiness abounds, neither God nor His creatures are threatened by the presence of each other. That is the mystery of salvation.
Perhaps the greatest source of Protestant unease about the veneration of saints is the way that Catholic Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic—give honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even amongst the saints, she holds a special place. Her intercession is sought more than any other. She is called the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God. “O higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim,” we sing about her in that immortal hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. We try to play this down in apologetics sometimes out of fear of spooking those whose antennae are sensitive to mariology, but let’s face it, Mary is revered by Catholics. We love and adore her. Let me just put my cards on the table. I love and adore her. I have no trouble offering her the following prayer:
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O merciful, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.
How is that not idolatry? How is it not blasphemy? How is it not elevating a creature to the throne that is rightfully reserved only for the Creator?
Truly, it is none of those things, because Mary is not in competition with God. They are not two items in the world duking it out for a finite amount of space in my heart. The difference between God and Mary is that Mary is finite while God is infinite. Mary reflects the eternal being while God is being itself. God and Mary can take up the same space without having to knock each other out of the way. In fact, one of the beautiful and glorious things about the Christian God is that He chooses to make His glory known in and through the lives of people.
While this may seem to be a bit of sideways thinking to Protestants, it is assuredly in line with how the God of the Bible operates. His mouthpieces are many, sometimes willing and sometimes not. Cyrus the Persian acts unwittingly for God. Some of the prophets, most notably Jonah, do everything in their power to run in the opposite direction when God comes calling. Nonetheless, God’s glory still shines through them. But it shines all the more when it is met with cooperation. Moses glowed after coming into contact with the Lord (Exodus 34:29-35). King David was so deeply changed by his encounter with the living God that he wrote the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known in the psalter. John the Baptist pointed the way even from the womb when he leapt at being in the presence of Christ (Luke 1:41). None of this was forced or coerced. God did not force David’s personality out of the way in the writing of the psalms or use him simply as a tool, even though it is surely God’ voice that we hear in them as much as David’s. We can appreciate and even venerate David when we encounter the beauty and majesty of the Psalms without for a second denying that they are thoroughly a gift from God.
So it is also with Mary whom all generations are to call blessed (Luke 1:48). She is more glorious than any other saint because through her womb the world was sanctified. Her very flesh was deemed holy enough for God to dwell therein. She was not simply a husk used by God to complete His purposes. She offered herself in service to God, becoming in the process the mother of all creation. She is not in competition with God or with any other saints. To love her more is not to love God less, any more than to have a new child is to love the old one less. And so we honor her, not simply as an instrument to be used and then discarded, but as a free person who offered her very life for the sake of millions of people like you and me whom she did not know. In honoring her, we ultimately honor Him, even when that is not explicit, because the faithfulness of Mary was such that her actions and His were intrinsically intertwined.
The life of a true saint is such that we may finally only speak of the saint’s actions and desires in contradistinction to Christ’s actions and desires in a theoretical way, similar to the way we speak of the continuing distinction between humanity and divinity within Christ Himself. To be a saint is no longer to be in competition with God because you have given yourself to Him freely. To be able to love Mary and Christ and your neighbor as yourself, all at the same time, is the mark of mature discipleship.