John Geometres’ medieval portrait of Mary offers the miracle of peace to all
Life of the Virgin Mary by John Geometres, edited and translated by Maximos Constas and Christos Simelidis. Harvard University Press (Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library), 2023. 496 pp., $35.00
For years I have known that the miraculous may be hidden in the mundane, that the interplay of light and water can speak to us—in novels and in life—of something more. “And a glass of water is only an ornament,” Saul Bellow writes in Seize the Day; “it makes a hoop of brightness on the cloth; it is an angel’s mouth.” What I had not known, until I experienced a small miracle myself, is that the reverse is also true: the miraculous can remain hidden even in miracles. To see the laws of physics operate differently from every other day of one’s life is interesting—but to hear how that happened to someone else can be as boring as listening to them relate the contents of a dream.
How could this be, I wondered. To my assistance came John Geometres’s Life of the Virgin Mary.
The is not a biography as we think of biographies today. It does cover the events of Mary’s life: her parents’ barrenness and their joy to be blessed with a child in old age; her infancy in a home that provided a model for all spouses, parents, and grandparents to come; her dedication to God as a toddler and her growing in grace and stature among the priests of the temple; her betrothal to Joseph; her calm acceptance of the archangel Gabriel’s good news that she had been chosen as the Theotokos, the God-Bearer; and her journey ever after as a mother unlike any other in human history—from the humble manger to the heartbreaking cross and into the present day.
But at the end of the book, Mary herself remains hidden from the reader in all the superficial ways we moderns assume constitute understanding another individual. How tall was she? What color was her hair, what shape her eyes? What foods did she cook for Jesus and St. Joseph? We don’t know. It seems that God wisely obscured such details so that Mary might grow in what Dame Averil Cameron, a scholar of late antiquity and Byzantine history, calls “capaciousness,” a remarkable ability to be “all things to people at different times and places.”
Geometres, one of the most famous writers of the Byzantine age, lived in the tenth century in what is now Istanbul and was then the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. The Byzantine Empire preserved Roman culture (and Christianity as the state religion) for nearly a millennium after the sack of Rome until, in 1453, Constantinople fell, too. Geometres excelled in three vocations that aren’t often combined today: as a military officer, a poet laureate, and a monk in what would become, after the Great Schism of 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church. The exact date of composition for his Life of the Virgin Mary is uncertain, but the editor-translator duo responsible for this beautiful scholarly edition argues convincingly that the text was complete by 969, a period of marked civil unrest within Constantinople and vulnerability to invaders from without. It seems fitting that the work should find its way to English-speaking audiences for the first time now, over a millennium later, at a time of similar discord and peril.
In Geometres’s day the audience would have heard the text read aloud, likely at an all-night vigil to mark the Feast of Dormition, which commemorates the end of Mary’s life. The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the same day, August 15. Both churches agree that Mary’s soul was immediately accompanied to heaven by her son; they differ as to whether or not Mary’s body was simultaneously taken to heaven with Jesus or slowly “translated” over the next three days. There is also some debate as to whether or not she (technically) died beforehand.
In his overview of Mary’s life and what we can call her entrance into the life to come, Geometres draws on “biblical texts, apocryphal literature, and material from patristic homilies” to help us grasp by earnest “contemplation” the “mysteries” of her time on earth.
By means of this generic mixing and ready recourse to tradition, Geometres accomplishes several notable feats. He presents us with a narrative that takes into account both chronos (the straightforward time of clocks and calendars) and kairos (the fitting or opportune moment, which operates by a less predictable logic and rhythm than the hands of a clock). He shows us both outward events—rather cinematically at times, particularly his renderings of Jesus’ Passion in vivid though never gratuitous detail—and also inner motivations. Geometres sees what Flannery O’Connor first taught me to look for: the constant and remarkable intersections between the mundane and the eternal.
His piercing vision amounts, in the end, to a portrait of a soul. And although he wrote with the bounty of harvesttime in mind, such a portrait is no less appropriate as we approach Christmas—for Mary’s soul is, in the words of Pope John Paul II, a “radiant icon” of what our own souls can become thanks to Christ’s entrance into the world.
Geometres’s layering of exegesis over biography at times has a paint-by-numbers quality. But even this is illuminating, as Marian allegory in the Psalms does not exactly decipher itself. Other explanations are less like a map key but still straightforward, as in his explanation of why Jesus moves immediately from his baptism to his temptation in the desert in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels. “Having been baptized,” Geometres writes, Jesus “exchanged the Jordan for the desert, weaving together public life with life in the wilderness and calling his Opponent to battle in that place. And he established a law for us that after our purification in baptism there is also purification through self-control and preparation for ascetic struggles.” This point brought into instant focus for me what months of praying the Rosary (the Catholic Church’s daily invitation to believers to contemplate the mysteries of God) in solitude had not.
Most often, though, the cinematic quality of Geometres’s prose takes over and revelation comes—as it tends to do in the best narratives—through details. Recalling Mary’s own spiritual martyrdom at the Passion, Geometres addresses her directly: “How did you endure seeing those pure garments, which you wove with your own hands and wrapped around his pure body, being divided by profane lots and distributed by men’s hands all covered in blood?”
It had not occurred to me that Mary’s hands wove the cloth. But in the Orthodox tradition Gabriel comes to Mary not as she prays in her home but as she takes a break from the loom to draw water at the well. Nor had I considered a mother’s pain at losing garments made terrible by her child’s blood and dear by his scent on the day she watched him die.
All builds beautifully to the Crucifixion. When Geometres ponders the fact that “the one who holds all things in his hand was seized by human hands,” and asks how the very earth could bear to hold the cross—how the air could “endure God suspended in its midst”; how Mary was “not torn in two like the veil of the temple”—it added for me a new layer of the miraculous: Somehow all creation at that instant did not return to vacuum and void.
But darkness and gloom do not get the last word in the Life of the Virgin Mary, because after the cross comes the resurrection. Among the many revelations on offer from Geometres is his insight that joy after sorrow—or joy after trial (which may or may not amount to the same thing)—is a double gift. The receiver of gifts from God is frequently one who can see clearly, purely, deeply. In Geometres’ telling, the truth of the resurrection comes to Mary in a flash. She keeps vigil by the body of her son, watching less like a hawk and more
like an angel, with her maternal being burning intensely, and observing closely, as if she had a thousand eyes, each particular thing and all things, even those that took place in the briefest moment of time. This was natural for such a mother of such a child, and for someone who from her childhood had come to learn of such mysteries and had been prepared for such wonders, and had been raised on the wings of such hopes, and thus she refused to distance herself from the tomb even for a little while, but overcame the necessities of nature, such as the need to sleep and eat—for how could they have even come to mind, when, from the start, she had been victorious over nature?
For her vigilance and her hope—for the grace she was given and did not squander—Mary is rewarded with being “the first to experience the most radiant symbols and good news of the resurrection.” The revelation “flashed like lightning” to her mind; whereas to the disciples and others it was revealed “little by little, and in many ways: to one through hearing the voice of the angel, to another through the vision of the angel’s clothing and form, and also through the rolling away of the stone, and thus, after being led by stages, he who is himself the Life and the Resurrection appeared to them and said, ‘Hail.’”
Why it should have been thus—and not just at the Resurrection but at Mary’s Dormition or Assumption, too—Geometres plausibly explains. Too much revelation to one who isn’t ready for it turns salvation into a stumbling block, all while turning the prophet or handmaid into an object of suspicion or scorn. The Holy Spirit, it seems, is very good at rhetoric. And “the economy of the Spirit” makes ample use of silence.
Readers wishing to deepen their understanding of the mysteries of Mary’s life may be thankful it comes to us now in written form. The homily version would not take quite as many hours as the page count would lead you to believe—Maximos Constas and Christos Simelidis prepared a parallel-text edition with Greek and English translations and included other scholarly apparatus; the italicized text in quotations above is their signal to look for annotation in the endnotes—but there is much to be said for reflecting at one’s own pace. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, talented rhetorician, arranged it so.
To me, this year, Geometres’s account spoke of miracles and the conditions that make them possible and perceptible. To another it may well speak of grief and joy, or parenting and discipleship, or war. To all it offers what Mary came blessedly to know: the peace that passes understanding.
Cassandra Maria Nelson is an associate fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, where she writes about faith, fiction, technology, and culture. She previously taught literature and composition at Harvard University and the United States Military Academy.