Followers of mystical phenomena are most likely familiar with two different “biographies” of the Virgin Mary, The Mystical City of Godby Mary Agreda and The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich. Both of these biographies are based off of mystical experiences and private revelations received by the aforementioned. Recently, scholars have now been gifted with another biography (or hagiography) of the Virgin Mary, The Life of the Virgin by Maximus the Confessor. Prior to Stephen J. Shoemaker’s translation from the Georgian, this work was never before accessible to English speakers.
Maximus the Confessor’s authorship of The Life of the Virgin is disputed. Some believe the work was accredited to Maximus because he refused to call Mary Theotokos (p. 3). Hans Ur von Balthasar believed the work could be attributed to Maximus but he would defer to the scholars’ (p. 6-7). Despite the dispute over authorship, The Life of the Virgin, weaves together different sources (e.g. Protoevangelium of James) and traditions (e.g. Chalkoprateia)over the centuries up until the seventh century in this volume. This earliest biography of the Blessed Virgin Mary provides the reader with a glimpse into the beliefs pertaining to Mary throughout the first several centuries.
Style of Writing
Over the centuries many saints and theologians have written about Mary. Some, like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Alphonsus Ligouri, or St. Louis de Montfort, could be classified as having a “high Mariology.” Maximus’ work is of no exception. Take for example this excerpt:
But there is no one among the human race who is able to praise and glorify the holy Theotokos worthily and fittingly, not even if the myriads of tongues were brought together, and even if all the nations of humanity came together, they would not be able to attain the worthiness of her praise and glory.
This high Mariology also is evident from the salutations lauding Mary within the text, (e.g. All Holy Theotokos, Immaculate Mother). Throughout the text the author provides beautiful prose and poetry which takes the form of a prayer (e.g. paragraphs 77, 106). Other times the author writes as if the Blessed Virgin herself is speaking (e.g. paragraphs 81, 87). In the concluding section, a beautiful litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary summarizing her role in salvation history is found (paragraph 122).
Insights into Mary’s Life
The Life of the Virgin chronicles Mary’s life in nine sections: Birth and Childhood, The Annunciation, The Nativity, The Presentation in the Temple, The Epiphany, On the Passion, On the Resurrection, The Dormition, and concluding thoughts. Throughout these sections new insights can be gleaned into the life of Mary. For example, drawing upon the Protoevangelium of James, Maximus draws similarities between St. Anne (the mother of Mary) and Hannah (the mother of Samuel) because both went to temple and prayed for a child because both were barren. Furthermore, he notes that Anne is a derivative of Hannah.
Maximus also wrote about a rather controversial question: Did Mary suffer the pains of child birth? This is a question that I wish to research and write on more extensively at a later time. Nevertheless, Maximus upheld the belief that she avoided pains of birth (paragraph 35), and that no pain or weakness of child birth appeared in her (paragraph 39). For many people this question is quite difficult, but with The Life of the Virgin, we can clearly see that this is a longstanding belief which Maximus maintained in the seventh century.
Maximus also offered a new insight into Mar’s role in the ministry of Jesus and the early Church. In paragraph 69, Maximus recounted the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law in which the Holy Theotokos was present. After the healing, “they became her servants and her advisors.” A community of women began to form around the Holy Theotokos, in fact James and John, the sons of Zebedee, “brought their mother and joined her to the servants of the holy Theotokos, in order to serve the Lord always with her” (paragraph 70). After suffering with Christ along his passion as a mother would and becoming the first witness of the Resurrection, Mary became an intercessor and resource for the community of disciples. Maximus goes so far as to say that they apostles reported to her and they returned to visit her after their missionary sojourns (paragraph 99).
Regarding Mary’s death, or her Dormition or her Assumption, Maximus revealed that Mary received another visit from the angel Gabriel announcing that she would soon be reunited with her Son. She instructed the disciples upon what should occur at her death and she promised her intercession. Maximus recounted that after Mary’s dormition, the disciples carried her body throughout the streets. Those who were sick or blind were healed (paragraph 111). Bearing many similarities to Jesus, Mary was also placed in a tomb (115) and the disciples remained there for three days in which they heard angels singing. One of the apostles was delayed in his return and was unable to participate in the procession. He begged for the tomb to be open, and when it was, only an incorruptible garment was left behind (119). Jesus had taken Mary, body and soul, to be with Him in Heaven. The dormition account of Maximus weaved together many different dormtion accounts, including apocryphal accounts, while not incorporating John of Thessalonica’s homily on the dormition. .
Maximus the Confessor, the attribute author of The Life of the Virgin, has given a gift to those who have a desire to know more about the life of Mary, facts that are not contained with the canon of Sacred Scripture. The information presented about Mary’s life though must be understood as “tradition” and not “Tradition.” Catholics are not obliged to believe what is contained within Maximus’ hagiographical work. Nevertheless, the work offers insights into Marian devotion up until the seventh century, which can then be compared and contrasted against other “biographies” of Mary from mystical revelations. By examining The Life of the Virgin according to Maximus, one will certainly come to a greater love, appreciation, and understanding of the significance of Mary within the Church, both then and now.