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A Book Review… Unveiling The Divine Mysteries Of The Mother Of God

August 22, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


The World’s First Love, by Fulton J. Sheen (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2011), 280 pp. $17.95. Available from or by calling 1-800-651-1531.

Like all of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen’s spiritual works, this book dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, “The Woman I Love,” provides a comprehensive education on the breadth and depth of Catholic thought. The range of insight, the fullness of Catholic truth, and the multitude of subjects it treats make the experience comparable to a semester course in theology that offers a banquet of intellectual and spiritual nourishment for both the beginner and the advanced student.
Following the major events in the life of the Blessed Mother from the Immaculate Conception to the Annunciation to the Assumption, the book unveils the divine mysteries that inform both the life of the Mother of God and the Son of God.
Sheen begins with a simple but profound statement of the mystery of love: “Every person carries within his heart a blueprint of the one he loves. What seems to be ‘love at first sight’ is actually the fulfillment of desire, the realization of a dream.”
This discovery illuminates both human and divine love. God Himself possessed in His mind “an eternal blueprint” of the woman He desired to be His Mother, the most perfect, pure, gentle, merciful, humble, and obedient woman — “the one whom every man loves when he loves a woman — whether he knows it or not,” the person every woman wants to emulate, and the ideal every man seeks in his choice of a wife. God’s chooses the most immaculate woman to serve as virgin and mother.
The book examines God’s unique relationship with man that always involves cooperation, not dictatorship, and respects man’s free will and human dignity without coercion: “The mystery of the Incarnation is very simply that of God’s asking a woman freely to give Him a human nature.” Mary’s fiat (“Be it done unto me according to Thy Word”), Sheen explains, proves that she consented, collaborated, and abandoned herself to God’s plan in the surrender of love.
Mary’s welcome to God in her conception by the Holy Spirit and her willingness to be the Mother of God revealed a generous heart devoid of every trace of self-interest and receptive to the fullness of God’s grace: “The more empty the soul is of self, the greater the room in it for God.” Therefore she magnifies the Lord, for He has filled her with abundance. God’s design depends on man’s “Yes” to His will.
Sheen then explains the mystery of the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception: “How could God become man and yet be a sinless man and the Head of the New Humanity?” To be born as a son of Adam and Eve and inherit original sin would not fulfill the plan of God’s redemption. Only a birth conceived by God and a virgin full of grace and endowed with an Immaculate Conception and an unfallen human nature satisfied the divine conditions for salvation: “If we take her away, then either God does not become man, or He that is born of her is not God.”
Mary’s cooperation with God’s Providence permitted Christ to mediate between God and man and allowed the Mother of God to intercede between Christ and humanity (“Son, behold thy Mother.”)
The example of the Holy Mother illuminates the vocation of womanhood in its virtues of acceptance, resignation, and submission. The handmaid of the Lord accepts God’s call with humility, resigns herself to an unknown future about a sword piercing her heart, and submits with the total gift of self-forgetfulness, “with total and complete dedication” as the servant of God.
As “Collaborator with the Divine,” Mary exemplifies woman’s generous role in the fruitfulness of God’s superabundant love: “Woman is made for the sacred. She is Heaven’s instrument on earth . . . who fulfills in herself the deepest aspirations of the heart of every daughter of Eve” — to love with a bountiful heart that never stops giving.
Sheen describes the marriage of Joseph and Mary as “the world’s happiest marriage” because the marriage unites two hearts rather than two bodies, and the debts of husbands and wives to one another are sacrificed for God’s higher purpose. Without the normal marital union of conjugal love, Joseph and Mary nonetheless brought to their marriage “two hearts with greater torrents of love than had ever before coursed through human hearts.”
They omitted the ecstasy of human love as a symbol or foretaste of heavenly joy because “they already possessed the Divinity” and experienced the “sweet voluptuousness of hearts” with no thought of the flesh.
Christ’s boyhood in the life of the family sanctified the virtue of obedience. His obedience to Joseph and Mary in humble service, quiet humility, and glad willingness to cooperate and please, Sheen explains, combats every temptation of pride, defiance, and rebellion and teaches the duty of children to honor their parents according to the Ten Commandments:
“The only recorded acts of Our Blessed Lord’s childhood are acts of obedience — to God, His Heavenly Father, and also to Mary and Joseph.”
Thus the home in Nazareth epitomized the domestic church, “a home that was dedicated to God.” Jesus’ example illustrates that growth in intelligence and wisdom follows from dutiful obedience: “The more we obey the inherent law of anything, the more that thing reveals itself to us.” The obedience learned in the home naturally cultivates obedience to natural authority and just law — the foundation of civil order.
Sheen’s reflection on the marriage at Cana observes that it was the Holy Mother, not the servant, who noticed the lack of wine — a kind mother anticipating others’ needs before they express them. This episode teaches the importance of man’s essential role in cooperating with God’s will by filling the jars with water and then witnessing the great miracle God performs with man’s meager contribution — ordinary water transformed into the best wine served last: “Aid yourself, and Heaven will aid you.”
As Sheen explains Mary’s maternal role in each person’s salvation, she senses man’s needs before he recognizes them. Just as a child cannot perfectly articulate his needs and depends on his mother’s sensitive understanding, “so the Blessed Mother understands our cries and worries and knows them better than we know ourselves.” In this way she is the Mother of the living.
The Blessed Mother’s role in man’s redemption illuminates the mystery of the relationship between love and sorrow. The mother whose great joy magnified the Lord soon learned that a sword would pierce her heart. A Transfiguration that radiates the splendor of the sun and the beauty of purity serves, Sheen notes, as “prepayment” for the sorrows and crosses that inevitably follow, just as the ecstasy of young marital love offers an “advance” for the many responsibilities and demands of lifelong union and the care of a family.
While the beginning of every love story fills the heart with love’s sweetness, it can never be mindless of its demanding obligations and many sacrifices. Sheen cites the greatest proof of the Holy Mother’s Immaculate Heart of sacrificial love in her example at the Annunciation: “a woman who would accept the responsibilities of love without the prepayment of pleasure.” This purification of love through sorrow always ennobles and elevates the heart to “a higher degree of love through the bearing of a cross.”
The chapter on Mary’s Assumption depicts the nature of love as an upward movement like the direction of fire that Sheen calls “a law of spiritual gravitation” — the soul leading the body as in Christ’s Ascension and the Holy Mother’s Assumption and radiating its beauty as human love ascends to spiritual love. The Assumption of Mary like the Resurrection of Christ proclaims the victory of love over death, and “the Church meets the despair of the world….She affirms the beauty of life as against death.”
Mary’s departure from Earth without the corruption of the flesh or separation of body and soul promises the restoration of all that is lost in death and the integration of divided man into his original unbroken unity. God’s Providence works in miracles that bring good out of evil.

Love And Fidelity

In the chapter “Man and Woman,” Sheen acknowledges woman’s special role in God’s redemption revealed by Mary’s example and the women at the cross. While men like Judas, Pilate, Annas, and Caiaphas failed Christ and Peter denied Him three times, “there is not a single instance of a woman’s failing Jesus.” Mary of Magdala, Mary of Cleophas, and his Mother Mary remained at the cross and never abandoned their Lord.
Sheen compares the crisis of modernity — the crisis of the family — to the greatest of all crises, the crucifixion, when the women proved their love, fidelity, and commitment to the cause of life.
As nurturers, custodians, and defenders of human life, woman restores the image of man to the likeness of God and values the preciousness of the gift life as sacred and God-given — as an ultimate value the world fails to appreciate.
She protects the sanctity of life from all the political ideologies that precipitated the wars of the twentieth century and that have produced the culture of death in legalized abortion:
“It is a historical fact that, whenever the world has been in danger of collapse, there has been re-emphasis of devotion to the Woman, who is not salvation but who renders it by bringing her children back again to Christ.”
Thus the revelations of the Blessed Mother at Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima reveal the intercession of a maternal heart filled with mercy and compassion for the victims of atrocities that dehumanize human life.
The restoration of Christian culture depends on Mary’s example and woman’s virtue. By modeling devotion, fidelity, and the indissolubility of marriage to resist the culture of divorce and cohabitation, by respecting “the primacy of the human” above the utilitarian, political, and the economic view of man as a mere worker or consumer, and by exemplifying purity to curb the worldly temptations of lust in its shameless displays of immodesty, “God in His Mercy is trumpeting the Woman to ‘make a man,’ to remake personality.”
Recalling that a forgotten epithet of the Holy Mother as “Lady of Equity” pleading for mercy impressed Henry Adams in the Cathedral at Chartres, Sheen views modern woman’s quest for equality rather than equity a folly. The Lady of Equity governs with “woman’s special glory — mercy, pity, understanding, and the intuition of human needs.” No career offers the fulfillment of the deepest desires of a woman’s heart — “someone for whom she can sacrifice herself — not in a servile way but in the way of love” that inspires care, devotion, and the personal human touch.
Civilization flourishes and societies learn the virtues of the heart from the maternal and feminine virtues of noble women who inspire men to cherish life, value the personal, and see in each person the image of God. Though equal in dignity in God’s eyes, man and woman differ in their distinct roles and unique virtues “like the lock and the key.”
In short, Sheen’s masterpiece offers the wealth of the Church’s teaching in the fullness of the truth and in the depth of its mysteries. To follow the life of the Holy Mother from her birth to death inspires a contemplation of mysteries and miracles that reach the depths of the soul. With the aid of Sheen’s masterful exposition, the life of Mary and the life of Christ educate the mind, heart, and conscience in human and divine wisdom with invaluable lessons that require both faith and reason for understanding.
God is neither a simple and clear idea nor an inscrutable enigma, but an intelligible mystery filled with light for reason and filled with love for wonder.

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