Michael Fisher on containing the Uncontainable
Hail, creature, embracing your Creator,
Hail little container, containing the Uncontainable.’
Theodotus of Ancyra, 5th century
“Hail, little container.” What an odd turn of phrase – and yet how true. Strip away some of the artistic licence you see in many representations of the Annunciation, and you find a young girl of perhaps no more than fourteen or fifteen, living in humble circumstances in a one-horse town in an obscure part of the Middle East, being suddenly confronted by the Archangel Gabriel and told that she has been chosen by God as the means by which He will enter his creation human flesh. Mary: the ‘little container’, who for nine months will carry within her the Eternal Word. Of her own free will she said ‘Yes’ to God, and so the Incarnation became possible. For that reason alone, no Christian should be afraid to say a grateful Ave Maria.
The notion of the ‘little container’ helps us to understand Our Lady’s unique place within the company of Heaven. She is the chosen vessel of God’s grace; the fulfilment of that prophecy in the Psalms: “Thou shalt not suffer thy Holy One to see corruption” (Ps 16.10). The notion that at the end of her earthly life Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven may be held as a logical development based on Holy Scripture and the teaching of the early Fathers of the Church, and as anticipating the resurrection of all members of the Body of Christ.
Every expectant mother knows the joy of containing within herself the life of an unborn child, and every mother of a child knows how uncontainable that life becomes once the child is in the world; how, as the child grows up and develops, he or she also grows away. That was Mary’s experience too. She was warned of it when Jesus was only a baby, and then, when He was just twelve years old, she faced that moment that all mothers dread: the son not only growing up, but growing away. Recall how it happened: the twelve-year-old Jesus going missing in Jerusalem, and eventually being found in the Temple deep in discussion with the doctors of the Law. “Did you not know,” he said to his astonished family, “that I must be about my Father’s business?” Uncontainable indeed – and that was only the start of it.
“O little container, containing the Uncontainable” – you could also say that about Walsingham, or, to give it its full name, Walsingham Parva: Little Walsingham. But it was that village that Our Lady chose as the location of “England’s Nazareth” when she appeared to the Lady Richeldis in 1061. Soon it became a spiritual power-house greater than that little village could contain. Its fame spread, and pilgrims came in their thousands, from all over England, and from continental Europe too. Uncontainable indeed.
It all came to a tragic end in 1538 when Henry VIII swept it away in an orgy of pillage and destruction such as had not been seen in this country since the Viking invasions. Yet Henry appears to have shown some remorse at the very end of his life; and it is said that as he lay dying he bequeathed his soul to Our Lady of Walsingham.
What, I wonder, did Our Lady make of Henry? What do you make of a boy who once called you “Mother” but who turns into a monster, turfs you out of your home, steals all your jewellery and furniture, sets fire to your portrait, and then pulls your house down? But in spite of the destruction of her shrine, Mary never left Walsingham. A thin stream of pilgrims still came – at great risk to themselves – to pray on the site of the Holy House, until eventually, in happier times, the Shrine was restored. I don’t think I’ve ever visited Walsingham without something extraordinary happening while I have been there – some insight given, some problem resolved, some opportunity for ministry presenting itself.
Many years ago, in my teaching days, I took over an A-Level R.E. class from a member of staff who had just retired. The group consisted of just four eighteen-year-old girls. Part of the course I was teaching was about Holy Places, and so I told them about Walsingham, and showed them some slides of the Shrine. They seemed quite taken with it all, and asked, “Can we go?” So – having cleared it with the Headteacher – we all piled into my car one Monday morning, and headed off to Walsingham for a two-day visit. Having arrived, we visited the Shrine; and then there were the add-ons – a trip to the seaside, and a game of darts in The Bull – until Sister Wendy came across, dangling a bunch of keys: a reminder that in those days you had to be back in by 10 o’ clock or get locked out.
On the following morning I said Mass in the Holy House, and left it up to the girls if they wanted to attend or not. Just afterwards I spotted one of them sitting very quietly on a chair at the side of the Holy House: deep in thought – or was it prayer? I couldn’t tell; but she remained there for quite some time. Back in school a few days later, the Head of Sixth Form came up to me and said, “Your Lady of Walsingham appears to have wrought a small miracle.” He then told me that one of the girls – the one I had seen sitting outside the Holy House – had been having a very uncomfortable time at home. Her parents were on the verge of splitting up, and there had been a good deal of unpleasantness. “But,” he continued, “while you were away in Walsingham they got back together, and decided to give it another go; so she returned to a very different situation from the one she had left.” Was it a coincidence? I like to think not.
But what about us? Perhaps we too may be “little containers, containing the Uncontainable”, given new birth in the waters of baptism, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. St Paul puts it in a similar way, describing us as “frail earthen vessels” containing imperishable spiritual treasures. Like the Mother of God, each of us has a calling and a mission, because the spiritual treasure in these earthen containers isn’t put there to be hoarded up or to be kept to ourselves – any more than a pilgrimage to Our Lady’s Shrine can somehow be bottled up, like water from the holy well, for our own private consumption.
Meanwhile, the spiritual treasure given to all Christians at their baptism, and sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ received in Holy Communion, is un-containable. It is intended to be given out, to be used in the service of others in the building-up of the Body of Christ on earth, and in sharing the Good News of the Gospel with those who have either never heard it or who may be indifferent to it. And, within the Communion of Saints – be they our fellow-pilgrims here on earth, or those in heaven who pray for us – we are never alone, even though we may feel at times that we are lone voices in a hostile or indifferent world. May the prayers and example of the Mother of God inspire us to be the people He wishes us to be on earth – and may we too come to share, with Our Lady, in the joy of heaven.
The Revd Michael Fisher is a retired priest in the diocese of Lichfield