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St Bernard of Clairvaux on the Holy Name of Mary

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 1683, the armies of the Ottoman Empire were soundly defeated outside the gates of Vienna by the combined forces of the Holy Roman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This battle represents the high-water mark of the Turkish invasion and occupation of eastern Europe. Sixteen years later, after several other defeats, the Ottomans were forced to accept the Treaty of Karlowitz, which entailed significant territorial losses for them, losses which would increase throughout the following century.

In commemoration of the battle, Pope Bl. Innocent XI added to the general calendar a feast in honor of the Most Holy Name of the Virgin Mary, to whose special intercession the victory was attributed. Of course, devotion to the Name of Mary did not begin with this; a feast of this title was kept in Spain by the early 16th century. Well before that, we find this passage from a sermon of St Bernard of Clairvaux on the Annunciation, which was added to the breviary for today’s feast, a passage which nicely illustrates how the great father of the Cistercian Order earned his title “Doctor Mellifluus – the teacher whose words flow like honey.”

“Loquamur pauca et super hoc nomine, quod interpretatum maris stella dicitur, et Matri Virgini valde convenienter aptatur. Ipsa namque aptissime sideri comparatur, quia sicut sine sui corruptione sidus suum emittit radium, sic absque sui læsione Virgo parturivit Filium. Nec sideri radius suam minuit claritatem, nec Virgini Filius suam integritatem. Ipsa est igitur nobilis illa stella ex Jacob orta, cujus radius universum orbem illuminat,  cujus splendor et præfulget in supernis, et inferos penetrat; terras etiam perlustrans, et calefaciens magis mentes quam corpora, fovet virtutes, excoquit vitia. Ipsa, inquam, est præclara et eximia stella super hoc mare magnum et spatiosum necessario sublevata, micans meritis, illustrans exemplis. O quisquis te intelligis in hujus sǽculi profluvio magis inter procellas et tempestates fluctuare, quam per terram ambulare; ne avertas oculos a fulgore hujus sideris, si non vis obrui procellis. Si insurgant venti tentationum, si incurras scopulos tribulationum, respice stellam, voca Mariam. Si jactaris superbiæ undis, si ambitionis, si detractionis, si æmulationis, respice stellam, voca Mariam. Si iracundia aut avaritia aut carnis illecebra naviculam concusserit mentis, respice ad Mariam. Si criminum immanitate turbatus, conscientiæ fœditate confusus, judicii horrore perterritus, barathro incipias absorberi tristitiæ, desperationis abýsso, cogita Mariam. In periculis, in angustiis, in rebus dubiis Mariam cogita, Mariam invoca. Non recedat ab ore, non recedat a corde; et, ut impetres ejus orationis suffragium, non deseras conversationis exemplum. Ipsam sequens, non devias; ipsam rogans, non desperas; ipsam cogitans, non erras; ipsa tenente, non corruis; ipsa protegente, non metuis; ipsa duce, non fatigaris; ipsa propitia, pervenis: et sic in temetipso experiris quam merito dictum sit: Et nomen Virginis Maria.

(The Virgin Mary Appears to St Bernard, 1486, by Fra Filippo Lippi. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

Let us also speak a few words about this name, which is interpreted as ‘Star of the Sea’, and very well suits the Virgin Mother. She is indeed most aptly compared to a star, for just as a star sends out its ray without any corruption of itself, so did the Virgin bring forth a Son without any harm to  herself. The ray does not diminish the brightness of the star, and the Son did not diminish the integrity of the Virgin. Therefore, she is that noble star which arose from Jacob, (Num. 24, 17) whose ray illuminates all the world, whose splendor shines forth in the heavens, reaches even unto hell, lighting up also earth midway, and warming souls rather than bodies, fostering the virtues, and driving out the vices. She, I say, is a bright and outstanding star, lifted up perforce above the great, wide sea, shining with merits, and enlightening by example. Whosoever you are that know yourself to be here not so much walking upon firm ground, as battered to and fro by the gales and storms of this life’s ocean, if you would not be overwhelmed by the tempest, keep your eyes fixed upon this star’s clear shining. If the winds of temptation rise against you, or you run upon the rocks of trouble, look to the star, call on Mary. If you are tossed by the waves of pride, or ambition, or slander, or envy, look to the star, call on Mary. If anger or avarice or the enticements of the flesh beat against the barque if your soul, look to Mary. If the enormity of your sins trouble you, if the foulness of you conscience confounds you, if the dread of judgment appall you, if you begin to slip into the deep of despondency, into the pit of despair, think of Mary. In dangers, in difficulties, in doubts, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let Her not be away from your mouth or you heart, and that you may obtain the aid of Her prayers, turn not aside from the example of Her conversation. If you follow Her, you will never go astray; if you pray to Her, you wilt never despair; if you keep Her in mind, you wilt never wander. If She holds you, you will never fall; if She leads you, you wilt never be weary; if She helps you, you will reach home safe, and so prove in yourself how rightly it was said, ‘And the Virgin’s name was Mary.’ ”

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