Among the ancient prayers that make up Vespers, a cycle of psalms and hymns chanted by monks and priests each evening, is the Magnificat, that great and humbling hymn of praise uttered by the Blessed Virgin upon learning of her motherhood. Vespers, taking place as it does in the waning hours of the day, remembers Mary’s maternity like a small child retreating to his mother’s breast at bedtime. For the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the psalms and their antiphons at Vespers particularly draw close to the Blessed Mother. What I find so startling about the texts, though, is that the motherhood upon which we meditate is not saccharine. It is not blind to the metaphor of night closing in, to the fact that these might be the last prayers to ever cross the lips of any one of the faithful so gathered. Vespers is a beautiful, tender lullaby to the Virgin Mother, and it is all the more touching for how it acknowledges the tentativeness of our lives. We are but a prayer whispered in the midst of a great silence.
Take, for instance, the very first antiphon; “I will make you enemies, you and the woman, your offspring and hers.” The Immaculate Conception takes place in the context of the stunning fall of Eve from grace and God’s response to the entrance of evil into the world. If woman and death are at permanent enmity, in the end it is woman who will overcome death through her motherhood. The maternity of Mary recapitulates the scene in the Garden of Eden as her own embrace circles round death to overcome and even include it as she becomes spiritual mother of the entire Church. The Christian promise is not that we will escape death, but that we will emerge through death triumphant on the other side.
That was a mouthful. What I mean to say is, Mary watches her son die. In doing so she expands her vocation to include motherhood of all the living and dead, because as her son conquers death, she remains, everlastingly, his mother. A mother is a mother always. If Christ is our brother, and if he gathers the dead to himself, then Mary is the universal mother.
There is a very real sense in which the Immaculate Conception and death are inextricably linked. Gertrud Von Le Fort makes this point, writing, “The mother is the image of endlessness; centuries pass over her joy and her sorrow and leave no trace behind. She is ever the same, the boundless abundance, the silence, the immutability of life itself, in its power of conceiving, of bearing, of bringing forth.” Motherhood is a participation in eternity, because it is the principle of life and death. We see it clearly in the Blessed Virgin, through whom all of creation is blessed and brought into new life but who also, at the end of her earthly days, lays down her life for pure love of her son.
Recently, I’ve been listening to J.J. Wright’s newest musical offering, “Vespers For the Immaculate Conception,” and I’ve been thinking through these themes. It’s on my mind because this album is, in some way, Wright’s response to a death in his own family, a musical reckoning with the miscarriage of his child at twelve weeks. “I had no idea how to cope with the grief and disappointment that we were going through, but this confusion led me to pray with the text of the Vespers in a different way than I had before,” said Wright. “Through the liturgical prayer itself, I was given the gift of meeting Mary and Jesus directly in my work, and the music that resulted was a direct expression of a very real sense of knowing that Mary’s parents and Mary herself must have known well the struggles that we were going through as a family.”
The hidden barb of grief is how it silences the griever, as if one must suffer quietly out of consideration, because in polite society we are expected to respond that we are fine to any queries about our well-being. We are not supposed to talk about children lost in the womb. And with a twitch upon the thread grief sinks the hook in even deeper. As a Catholic priest, I frequently inhabit these spaces, by turn they can feel constricted and vast. The smallness is in the frustration at how narrow the options have become in terms of what I can actually say or do that has any beneficial result whatsoever. The vastness is felt in the lack of resolution that taking any of those options actually provides. There are only a few answers to a grieving mother and none of them are satisfactory. Most priests have learned long ago that we have no answers to give. The way I see it, we have the quiet comfort and strength of family, of prayer, and of naming the grief so as to bring it out in the open and remembering that no one, no matter how small, will slip from the loving arms of a mother.
More than anything, art has the power to name our human tragedies. What is the nature of motherhood? Of a miscarriage? What is the nature of the joy of the Immaculate Conception when we know the end of the story, a man cut down in his prime, limp and lifeless in his mothers lap?
There is great sadness in this piece of music. By the second psalm, a violin plaintively begins a mournful lullaby, a solo voice gently insists, “He has covered me. He has covered me.” It is about as intense a piece of music as I’ve heard, a song for Jerusalem, whose gates are compared with the womb of Mary. Jerusalem, she has known great ruin, she has suffered the death of children, and she has known God’s protective arm. From her comes pain, from her comes a mother’s resolute, hidden strength.
There is also great joy in this piece of music. In the final collect we are reminded that if death is a reality we all must face, it is death which ultimately is our salvation. Indeed, Mary herself is saved by the death of her own son. Here lies both her sadness and her joy. Wright, as always, weaves a seamless tapestry, and the collect resolves into Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming, a beautiful, somber coda.
This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.