Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary reminds us that Our Lady was conceived without Original Sin, defined by Universalis as “that twist in our nature that makes our will tend not to follow what it knows to be right.” This enabled Mary to live as the fully human person. Because this belief in the Immaculate Conception is so old it is one of the doctrines about Mary that Islam shares with Catholicism, albeit with a few different details.
I have heard and read many explanations of the Immaculate Conception but most of these are incomprehensible or (at best) struggling for relevance with my life as a man of the 21st century.
Let me have a go at communicating a single point which might be helpful.
Sometimes people say, ‘well of course I sin, I’m only human’. The fact is that when we sin we are being less than human. The person who lives their humanity fully will not sin. Take a moment to consider that again: When I sin I am being less than human since I am following a fleeting whim rather than my heart’s desire.
While this is sound doctrine, the place where I have learnt this is in my own experience. When I sin I know that I don’t feel fully happy, I don’t feel fully alive. Instead I feel regret, shame, pain and isolation even though the temptation that led me to sin promised happiness.
That’s the thing about temptation: it always promises much and fails to deliver.
While I know this in my own experience, I can also relate to this in the experience of Adam in the Genesis account. Adam felt shame and fear after his sin even though the eating of the apple (to use the language of the story) promised that he would be “god-like.”
Soon after when Adam heard God moving about the garden in the cool of the evening (what a beautiful image that is), whereas prior to his sin he would have felt delight at the presence of God, now in his shame he felt “afraid and hid”
Our problem is that we forget what God is like. We forget that when we live in harmony with God’s desire for us we feel at home. Everything falls into place and we feel deeply connected with other people.
Sin always results in feelings of isolation.
We fall into the trap of thinking that the Christian life is life reduced since it seems to exclude much that the world tells us is essential and much of what we think we really desire. We make the mistake of thinking that our deepest desire is for more prestige, greater material security, and many superficial encounters with people who prefer to live on the surface. Such desires are really very small and quite incapable of motivating and directing an abundant human life.
There is a great C.S. Lewis quotation:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” C.S. Lewis “The Weight of Glory & Other Addresses”
Pope Benedict says the same thing in a different way:
“The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.”
Mary knew that her deepest desire was to live fully with God on earth and then eternally. When she heard the voice of God she was not afraid. She did not hide. Instead she smiled and surrendered to the desire of God:
“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.
May it be done to me according to your word.”
- Know that Jesus is present with you now, right now, in this moment. Do you feel some fear and feel like hiding? Do you smile and offer to surrender to Jesus’ desire for you?
- Become aware of your many desires in this moment. Now ask yourself, what is my heart’s deepest desire.
- Use as a mantra of prayer throughout the day ahead: “Jesus, let it be done to me according to your word”, or (if it’s easier to remember) simply repeat throughout the day the similar line from the “Our Father” – “Your will be done.”