The Feminine and Universal Salvation

by Mary E. and Leon J. Podles


The close connection of women with the rest of creation gives them a desire for universal salvation. Mary's motherhood ratifies and transcends this natural symbol.


THE PUBLICATION in 1989 of the English translation of Hans Urs von Balthasar's Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? ignited a small controversy among conservative Catholics. Some critics detected the odor of the heresy of the apocatastasis, the doctrine that all creatures, including Satan, will eventually be saved. This heresy, popular among eminent Greek fathers such as Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, apparently stemmed from the Greek view of God as total goodness, and of divine punishments as educative. The view that prevailed in the West was the darker philosophy of Augustine, which saw the glory of the saved set off like a jewel against the darkness of the massa damnata, the mass of the damned. It seems to be a hallmark of orthodoxy in some circles to believe that many are lost. Any hint that somehow all may be saved is regarded as smacking of Teilhardism, Modernism, Communism or something equally wicked. Most of us have been granted no private revelations, and we pray that no one will be lost, but the ultimate destiny of the universe is hidden in the darkness of the divine counsels, although there are hints of the divine intentions in the role of the mother in both nature and Scripture.


Von Balthasar (1905-88) distinguishes his view of the possibility of salvation of all from the suspect doctrine of universal salvation by saying that he sees a hope that all will be saved, not a necessity. Von Balthasar points to the undeniable universalist cast of many sayings in the New Testament: "acquittal and life for all” (Rom. 5:18); "God has consigned all to disobedience, that He may have mercy upon all" (Rom. 11:32); "to unite all things in Him" (Ep. 1:10). The dire warnings of damnation that are found in the New Testament, von Balthasar sees as precisely warnings, although they are often cast in the form of seemingly certain statements about future events. As von Balthasar might have pointed out, it is a characteristic of Hebrew prophecy that it makes predictions about the future with an unspoken condition. The book of Jonah is the best example. Jonah did not want to preach the destruction of Babylon because he suspected that God would relent and spare the city. God did, and Jonah felt like a fool, and was bitter. God answered him: "And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?" (Jonah 4:11). God's threatened chastisements are like those of a frustrated parent. Pity is deeper than seeming justice.


A few considerations might clarify the deeper significance of the controversy surrounding von Balthasar's book. First, the visionaries whom von Balthasar quotes in support of his view are all women; second, in Eastern Orthodox spirituality the desire for universal salvation is closely connected with Mary's motherhood; and finally, the relationship of mother and child lies at the root of the human yearning for eternity, both as a natural symbol of the hope for continuity, a linking of hands across the generations, and an expression of the supernatural hope that all will be well in eternity.


It was probably Adrienne von Speyr's close relationship to von Balthasar that prompted him to propound the hope that all will be saved. Her mystical experience of the meaning of Holy Saturday made clear to von Balthasar the depth of the divine will to save humanity, a will that led Christ to descend to the dead and to the damned. Julian of Norwich is the best known Western visionary who expresses a hope for universal salvation, since she is told by Christ that "all things shall be well," and "thou shalt see that all manner thing shall be well," as she recounts in The Revelations of Divine Love. Julian marvels at this word of Christ because she knows of the eternal damnation of the demons and unrepentant sinners, but she is reassured by Christ that "what is impossible to thee is not impossible to me; I shall save my word in all things—I shall make all things well."


This hope of universal salvation is closely allied to Julian's sense of the Motherhood of God. This Motherhood is dependent upon the quasi-identification of God and the church, our Mother. "For God is Holy Church. God is its ground. God is its substance. God is its teaching." The love of a mother is one of pity. "Mercy is a property full of pity; it belongeth to the Motherhood of tender love." It is the pity of God that led Him to form the church so that He could be a mother to His creatures. "The mother can give her child to suck of her milk. But our precious Mother Jesus, He can feed us with Himself, and doth, full courteously and tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament, that is the precious food of true life."


JULIAN carefully bases her devotion to the Motherhood of God on her identification of Christ and the Church. Despite some interpretations of Julian, it is very doubtful that femininity can be attributed to God in any proper sense (see "The Emasculation of God," AMERICA, 11/25/89). Nor is it necessary to find femininity in God to establish the importance of the feminine. In Western art the breasts of the Virgin are the sign of her intercession, and are often visually paralleled to the wounds of Christ in a way that suggests her role as Co-Redemptress. The visual arts of the Eastern Church, as much as its formal philosophy and its liturgy, express a deep theology of the hope for universal salvation, a hope that is associated with the feminine. For instance, the formal elements of the icon known as the Virgin of Vladimir, express both the unity of the Mother and her divine Child, and of the viewer with them in prayer. A single linear outline defines both mother and child; except for His face, the Christ is entirely contained within His mother's enclosing contour. The repeating rhythm of their hands directs the viewer's attention upward: her lower hand enfolding and supporting the child, her upper one gently touching Him and drawing Him closer; His lower hand, a redaction of hers in small, touches her with equal gentleness, and His upper hand encircles and holds her neck.


HERE THE WORSHIPER is given pause to contemplate the touch of the child's cheek to His mother's. His mouth is juxtaposed to hers: in contour and expression, it is hers in miniature. His eyes look upward into hers; hers turn outward to the viewer, to the world that suffers in union with her son, and inward to the supernatural world where all life and suffering is redeemed. To the pious observer, the icon is more than a theological emblem or philosophical truth translated into pictorial terms like a rebus, but rather a window onto a transcendent supernatural realm.


As he looks on the image in prayer, the iconodule unites himself to the holy pair even as they are united. He is moved to pity by the infinite mercy of the sorrowing mother, and learns from her what Isaac of Nineveh described this way: "The heart's burning for all creation, for human beings, for birds and animals, and for demons and for everything there is. At the recollection of them and at the sight of them one's eyes gush forth with tears owing to the force of the compassion that constrains the heart, so that, as a result of its abundant sense of mercy, the heart shrinks and cannot bear to hear or examine any harm or small suffering of anything in creation. For this reason one offers up tears at all times, even for irrational animals, and for the enemies of truth, and for those who do harm. As a result of the immense compassion infused in the heart without measure—like God's—one even does this for reptiles."


The symbolic concept of this meaning of unity in motherhood runs deep in the art of both East and West, in literature and in the visual arts. The Swedish novelist, Selma Lagerlof (1858-1940), relates a telling incident in The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. A marshy lake that provides shelter for the nests of thousands of water-birds is going to be drained. The small child of a farmer who had led the drive to drain the marsh wanders off, and is seemingly drowned in the lake. His mother searches for him and hears the cry of the birds, which pierces her heart. "But she heard all these uncountable bird-throngs, which lived along Takern [the lake], send forth cry upon cry. Several of them followed her wherever she went; others came rustling past on light wings. All the air was filled with moans and lamentations.


"But the anguish which she herself was suffering opened her heart. She thought that she was not as far removed from all other living creatures as people usually think. She understood much better than ever before how birds fared. They had their constant worries for home and children; they, as she. There was surely not such a great difference between them and her as she had heretofore believed."


Philosophically, the concept is simple enough: The unity of the material creation provides a ground for universal hope. The physical world is a continuum, and the destinies of all material beings are interwoven. The most visible expression of this continuity is motherhood. Mater comes from materia, not by historical etymology, but by a divine pun, like Eva and Ave. Because the God whose name is Salvation (Jesus—God saves), entered the world not by a sudden appearance but through the material process of birth, Mary's motherhood, already a natural symbol of the hope of universal salvation, is ratified and taken up as a new symbol. Both in the East and the West, she bears the titles that speak of the Christians' hope in her: Refuge of sinners, Mother of God— Quick to Hear, Mother of God—Searcher of the Lost, Mother of God—Soothe my Sorrows, Mother of God—Sweet Kissing, Mother of God—Joy of All That Sorrow. In one of the oldest prayers to her, we read "Sub tuum praesidium confugimus, Sancta Dei Genetrix" ("We fly to your protection. Holy Mother of God").


This is why abortion has a special horror for Catholics. It is hated not simply as the killing of a child, but as an attack on the natural symbol of the unity of the race that gives us any hope we have of security in this life and in the life to come. In the old creation, which will persist to the end of the world, Man and Woman, Adam and Eve, husband and wife are the core of society, and their relationship is the key to the salvation or destruction of us all. Yet even that relationship already exists for the sake of children and the society they imply. In the new creation, which is already present among us, the New Man and the New Woman are Son and Mother, Christ and Mary. The focus shifts from the relationship of husband and wife to mother and child. From their cooperation the fruitfulness of the new creation springs forth. Abortion, therefore, is a symbolic striking at the very hope for salvation, an attempt to deny the bond of the unity of mother and child that provides our hope.


We are saved not by our own merits, but by the grace of God that incorporates us into the Church our Mother. God cannot be a Mother himself, since God is spirit. But through the people into whom we are born God becomes a mother to us. "As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem" (Is. 66:13). God's immanence is expressed in His indwelling in the church, the tent of the new salvation. In the icons of Mary as Protectress, she spreads her cloak over all humanity, sheltering all those born of Eve in her own motherhood. These are symbols, not dogmas; but symbols can express realities that leave discursive logic tangled in seeming contradictions.


The material unity of the creation, epitomized and symbolized by motherhood and by Mary, is a reflection of the divine unity which is somehow peculiarly associated with the Holy Spirit, the love that unites Father and Son. That is why Mary is so closely associated with the work of the Spirit in Luke, and why Leonardo Boff [The Maternal Face of God: The Feminine and its Religious Expressions, C.B.C. selection in 1987], in an exaggeration perhaps designed to irritate Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speaks of the hypostatic union of Mary and the Spirit. The Holy Spirit of compassion is the uncreated expression of infinite love; His created reflex, Mary and all motherhood, carries the message of the hope that salvation cannot be simply the isolated destiny of individuals, but the restoration and transfiguration of not only the human race, but the entire creation.



Published by AMERICA, October, 24, 1990.