George Tyrrell On Mary, Model of Contemplative Life

George Tyrrell remains too-readily dismissed as a heretical figure in the modernist controversy. He revered Mary as the sign and summit of contemplative life. Conversely, Pope Francis is on a tear to strangle the Church’s contemplative orders. This December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, seems a fitting time to honor Mary with the words of Fr. Tyrrell written eight years before his expulsion from the Jesuits. Unlike our present pope, Tyrrell lauded the transcendent grace of cloistered distance from the endless vicissitudes of the world. He revered Mary as exemplar and manifestation of that willed detachment—inasmuch as a mother’s love permits it.

Hard Sayings: A Selection Of Meditations And Studies was published in 1898. (By Longmans, Green, & Co. at the felicitous address: 39 Paternoster Row, London.) It contains eighteen eloquent chapters and a delicate appendix on “The Gospel of Pain.” Begin with the second essay: “The Hidden Life,” a fourteen-page defense of contemplative life. I marvel to think that Tyrrell wrote this luminous reflection more than a century and a half before mass internet use. He had no inkling of the endless byways and quick sands of social media, no experience of the sight of atomized crowds walking tethered to an iPhone.

Perhaps this interior life was never more difficult, never more apt to be underrated, neglected, forgotten than in these days, when knowledge is multiplied to the hurt of wisdom, and the means of mental subsistence is exalted into an and. There is so much to be known now-a-days if we would pass muster as people of even ordinary education, so much of the experiences and thoughts of other men to be stored away in our memories, that life itself . . . is not long enough for the process and no margin of leisure remains for digesting and assimilating the food with which we have been surfeited. We deal it out to others as we ourselves received it, crude and unchanged; as it were, so much coin that passes from hand to hand . . . .


Trastevere Madonna
Madonna della Clemenza, Trastevere, Rome(c.7-8th C.).


“Knowledge multiplied to the hurt of wisdom”—a brilliant phrase more prophetic than Tyrrell could ever have imagined. The passage continues:

With the multiplication of knowledge and information . . . thought and reflection becomes the province of a dwindling number of specialists, to whom the minds of the millions are enslaved . . . . We no longer have time to think for ourselves, but our thinking is done for us wholesale, and distributed to us through the press, and the very faculty of meditation has grown paralyzed from disuse.

.  .  .  . Information and knowledge are apt to be mistaken for that vital thought, that meditative wisdom which is the true life of the soul, the quickening flame, of which knowledge and information and experience is but the fuel.

He indicts “modern education”—in 1898!—for its role in the dwindling spiritual life of the faithful. Long before any school child was outfitted with a digital tablet, Tyrrell mourned the schools’ contribution to “decay of the ability and habit of reflection.” He was equally dismayed by “everlasting fussiness and external activity”— those exaggerated ideas of practical piety that are “secretly impatient of contemplative orders, contemplative saints, and contemplation in general.” The “habit and therefore the ability of tranquil reflection tends to become the privilege of the few, and because there is so much to be devoured that there is no time to ruminate.”

However difficult the interior life may be, yet it is all-important. “Except you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, ye have no life in you.” If the first sense of these words refers to sacramental communion . . . they are also verified of the spiritual communion in which Christ dwells in our hearts through faith. . . . Christ, and Christ crucified, is the food of our soul, the daily bread of our eternal life, the fuel of Divine love in our heart. He is the Word Incarnate, the Divine “Saying,” which we must keep and ponder in our hearts.


Byzantine icon of Mary, St. Catherine's Monastery c. 600
Oldest known Byzantine icon of Mary, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai (c. 600).

To ponder this “Saying”—together with all things “true, pure, lovely, of good report and praiseworthy”—is to follow Mary into the wellsprings of meditation. “Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.” In one sentence, Jesus states the end and aim of contemplation: subjection of our mind, of all our faculties and desires, to the service of God.

In all this matter Mary must be our model of the interior life; Mary in whom Christ dwelt as He dwelt in no other, in whose heart alone He had His own way from the very first; in whose life He inserted Himself unimpeded. Her words and actions, however full of sublime significance, were few. But the whole record of her life of stupendous fruitfulness and activity is epitomized for us in one brief sentence: Mary kept all these sayings and pondered them in her heart. . . . Blessed was Mary above all women in that she was full of grace and had found favour with God; blessed in that Christ dwelt in her womb, yet rather blessed, in that Christ “dwelt in her heart by faith.”

•     •     •     •     •

Poster for the Salon d'Automne (1908).
Maxine Dethomas. Poster for the 1908 Salon d’Automne, agent in the development of modernist art as it was being created the year Tyrrell was excommunicated.

Heresy spotting is a slippery sport.

Clio, muse of history, can turn tables. Hard Sayings carries a nihil obstat and imprimateur. These ratifications were abandoned—together with the Index of Forbidden Books—in 1963 in the name of freedom of inquiry. There is poignance in this. In 1904 Fr. Tyrrell risked ecclesiastic suicide by publishing Beati Excommunicati, an article in which he suggested that the demands of conscience might sometimes require Catholics to act as did Paul at Antioch—and resist Peter to his face. They must be prepared to suffer, in patience, canonical consequences.

Many contemporary Roman Catholics, witnessing the pontificate of Jorge Bergoglio, find themselves in a position not so unlike Tyrrell’s on matters of papal authority. Revisiting Tyrrell’s conscientious opposition to ultramontanism, we might recognize him as a sympathetic figure, even a tragic one.

Mary, Mother of Sorrows, knows her Son’s own.


Note: The full text of the 1898 printing is online at the Internet Archive, link above and here as well. It is an invaluable resource.