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First, I set down the passages which create the difficulty, as they are found in the great work of Petavius, a theologian too candid and fearless to put out of sight or explain away adverse facts, from fear of scandal, or from the expedience of controversy.

1. St. Basil then writes thus, in his 260th Epistle, addressed to Optimus:—

[Symeon] uses the word sword, meaning the word which is tentative and critical of the thoughts, and reaches unto the separation of soul and spirit, of the joints and marrow. Since then every soul, at the time of the Passion, was subjected in a way to some unsettlement ([diakrisei]), according to the Lords word, who said, All ye shall be scandalized in Me, Symeon prophesies even of Mary herself, that, standing by the Cross, and seeing what was doing, and hearing the words, after the testimony of Gabriel, after the secret knowledge of the divine conception, after the great manifestation of miracles, Thou wilt experience, he says, a certain tossing {130} ([salos]) of thy soul. For it beseemed the Lord to taste death for every one, and to become a propitiation of the world, in order to justify all in His blood. And thee thyself who hast been taught from above the things concerning the Lord, some unsettlement ([diakrisis]) will reach. This is the sword; that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed. He obscurely signifies, that, after the scandalizing which took place upon the Cross of Christ, both to the disciples and to Mary herself, some quick healing should follow upon it from the Lord, confirming their heart unto faith in Him.

2. St. Chrysostom, in Matth. Hom. iv.:—

“‘Wherefore, a man may say, did not the Angel do in the case of the Virgin [what he did to Joseph?’” viz., appear to her after, not before, the Incarnation], “‘why did he not bring her the good tidings after her conception? lest she should be in great disturbance and trouble. For the probability was, that, had she not known the clear fact, she would have resolved something strange ([atopon]) about herself, and had recourse to rope or sword, not bearing the disgrace. For the Virgin was admirable, and Luke shows her virtue when he says that, when she heard the salutation, she did not at once become extravagant, nor appropriated the words, but was troubled, searching what was the nature of the salutation. One then of so refined a mind ([diekribomene]) would be made beside herself with despondency, considering the disgrace, and not expecting, whatever she may say, to persuade any one who hears her, that adultery had not been the fact. Lest then these things should occur, the Angel came before the conception; for {131} it beseemed that that womb should be without disorder, which the Creator of all entered, and that that soul should be rid of all perturbation, which was counted worthy to become the minister of such mysteries.

In Matth. Hom. xliv. (vid. also in Joann. Hom. xxi.):—

Today we learn something else even further, viz., that not even to bear Christ in the womb, and to have that wonderful childbirth, has any gain without virtue. And this is especially true from this passage, As He was yet speaking to the multitude, behold His Mother and His brethren stood without, seeking to speak to Him, &c. This He said, not as ashamed of His Mother, nor as denying her who bore Him; for, had He been ashamed, He had not passed through that womb; but as showing that there was no profit to her thence, unless she did all that was necessary. For what she attempted, came of overmuch love of honour; for she wished to show to the people that she had power and authority over her Son, in nothing ever as yet having given herself airs ([phantazomene]) about Him. Therefore she came thus unseasonably. Observe then her and their rashness ([aponoian]) ... Had He wished to deny His Mother, then He would have denied, when the Jews taunted Him with her. But no: He shows such care of her as to commit her as a legacy on the Cross itself to the disciple whom He loved best of all, and to take anxious oversight of her. But does He not do the same now, by caring for her and His brethren? ... And consider, not only the words which convey the considerate rebuke, but also ... who He is who utters it ... and what He {132} aims at in uttering it; not, that is, as wishing to cast her into perplexity, but to release her from a most tyrannical affection, and to bring her gradually to the fitting thought concerning Him, and to persuade her that He is not only her Son, but also her Master.

3. St. Cyril, in Joann. lib. xii. 1064:—

How shall we explain this passage? He introduces both His Mother and the other women with her standing at the Cross, and, as is plain, weeping. For somehow the race of women is ever fond of tears; and especially given to laments, when it has rich occasions for weeping. How then did they persuade the blessed Evangelist to be so minute in his account, as to make mention of this abidance of the women? For it was his purpose to teach even this, viz., that probably even the Mother of the Lord herself was scandalized at the unexpected Passion, and that the death upon the Cross, being so very bitter, was near unsettling her from her fitting mind; and in addition to this, the mockeries of the Jews, and the soldiers too, perhaps, who were sitting near the Cross and making a jest of Him who was hanging on it, and daring, in the sight of His very mother, the division of His garments. Doubt not that she admitted ([eisedezato]) some such thoughts as these:—I bore Him who is laughed at on the wood; but, in saying He was the true son of the Omnipotent God, perhaps somehow He was mistaken. He said He was the Life, how then has He been crucified? how has He been strangled by the cords of His murderers? how prevailed He not over the plot of His persecutors? why descends He not from the Cross, though He bade Lazarus to return to life, and amazed all {133} Judæa with His miracles? And it is very natural that the woman in her ([to gunaion]), not knowing the mystery, should slide into some such trains of thought. For we must conclude, if we judge well, that the gravity of the circumstances was enough to overturn even a self-possessed mind; it is no wonder then if a woman ([to gunaion]) slipped into this reasoning. For if Peter himself, the chosen one of the holy disciples, once was scandalized ... so as to cry out hastily, Be it far from Thee, Lord ... what paradox is it, if the soft mind of womankind was carried off to weak ideas? And this we say, not idly conjecturing, as it may strike one, but entertaining the suspicion from what is written concerning the Mother of the Lord. For we remember that Simeon the Just, when he received the Lord as a little child into his arms, ... said to her, A sword shall go through thine own soul, that out of many hearts thoughts may be revealed. By sword he meant the sharp excess of suffering cutting down a womans mind into extravagant thoughts. For temptations test the hearts of those who suffer them, and make bare the thoughts which are in them.

Now what do these three Fathers say in these passages?

1. St. Basil imputes to the Blessed Virgin, not only doubt, but the sin of doubt. On the other hand, 1. he imputes it only on one occasion; 2. he does not consider it to be a grave sin; 3. he implies that, in point of spiritual perfection, she is above the Apostles.

2. St. Chrysostom, in his first passage, does not impute {134} sin to her at all. He says God so disposed things for her as to shield her from the chance of sinning; that she was too admirable to be allowed to be betrayed by her best and purest feelings into sin. All that is implied repugnant to a Catholics reverence for her, is, that her womans nature, viewed in itself and apart from the watchful providence of Gods grace over her, would not have had strength to resist a hypothetical temptation,—a position which a Catholic will not care to affirm or deny, though he will feel great displeasure at having to discuss it at all. This, moreover, at least is distinctly brought out in the passage, viz., that in St. Chrysostoms mind, our Lady was not a mere physical instrument of the Incarnation, but that her soul, as well as her body, ministered to the mystery, and needed to be duly prepared for it.

As to his second most extraordinary passage, I should not be candid, unless I simply admitted that it is as much at variance with what we hold, as it is solitary and singular in the writings of Antiquity. The saint distinctly and (pace illius) needlessly, imputes to the Blessed Virgin, on the occasion in question, the sin or infirmity of vainglory. He has a parallel passage in commenting on the miracle at the marriage-feast. All that can be said to alleviate the startling character of these passages is, that it does not appear that St. Chrysostom would account such vainglory in a woman as any great failing.

3. Lastly, as to St. Cyril, I do not see that he declares that Mary actually doubted at the Crucifixion, but that, considering she was a woman, it is likely she was tempted {135} to doubt, and nearly doubted. Moreover, St. Cyril does not seem to consider such doubt, had it occurred, as any great sin.

Thus on the whole, all three Fathers, St. Basil and St. Cyril explicitly, and St. Chrysostom by implication, consider that on occasions she was, or might be, exposed to violent temptation to doubt; but two Fathers consider that she actually did sin, though she sinned lightly;—the sin being doubt, and on one occasion, according to St. Basil; and on two occasions, the sin being vainglory, according to St. Chrysostom.

However, the strong language of these Fathers is not directed against our Ladys person, so much as against her nature. They seem to have participated with Ambrose, Jerome, and other Fathers, in that low estimation of womans nature which was general in their times. In the broad imperial world, the conception entertained of womankind was not high; it seemed only to perpetuate the poetical tradition of the Varium et mutabile semper. Little was then known of that true nobility, which is exemplified in the females of the Gothic and German races, and in those of the old Jewish stock, Miriam, Deborah, Judith, and Susanna, the forerunners of Mary. When then St. Chrysostom imputes vainglory to her, he is not imputing to her anything worse than an infirmity, the infirmity of a nature, inferior to mans, and intrinsically feeble; as though the Almighty could have created a more excellent being than Mary, but could not have made a greater woman. Accordingly Chrysostom does not say that she sinned. He does not deny that she had all the perfections which {136} woman could have; but he seems to have thought the capabilities of her nature were bounded, so that the utmost grace bestowed upon it could not raise it above that standard of perfection in which its elements resulted, and that to attempt more, would have been to injure, not to benefit it. Of course I am not stating this as brought out in any part of his writings, but it seems to me to be the real sentiment of many of the ancients.

I will add that such a belief on the part of these Fathers, that the Blessed Virgin had committed a sin or a weakness, was not in itself inconsistent with the exercise of love and devotion to her (though I am not pretending that there is proof of any such exercise on their part in fact); and for this simple reason, that if sinlessness were a condition of inspiring devotion, we should not feel devotion to any but our Lady, not to St. Joseph, or to the Apostles, or to our Patron saints.

Such then is the teaching of these three Fathers; now how far is it in antagonism to ours? On the one hand, we will not allow that our Blessed Lady ever sinned; we cannot bear the notion, entering, as we do, into the full spirit of St. Augustines words, Concerning the Holy Virgin Mary, I wish no question to be raised at all, when we are treating of sins. On the other hand, we admit, rather we maintain, that, except for the grace of God, she might have sinned; and that she may have been exposed to temptation in the sense in which our Lord was exposed to it, though as His Divine Nature made it impossible for Him to yield to it, so His grace preserved her under its assaults also. While then we do {137} not hold that St. Simeon prophesied of temptation, when he said a sword would pierce her, still, if any one likes to say he did, we do not consider him heretical, provided he does not impute to her any sinful or inordinate emotion as the consequence to it. In this way St. Cyril may be let off altogether; and we have only to treat of the paradoxa or anomala of those great Saints, St. Basil and St. Chrysostom. I proceed to their controversial value.

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