. . . from an unusual source. Reading an Italian Baroque spiritual writer of the 18th century, I came across this arresting passage:
We are exceedingly dear to Mary on account of the sufferings we cost her; mothers generally love those children most, the preservation of whose lives have cost them the most suffering and anxiety; we are those children for whom Mary, in order to obtain for us the life of grace, was obliged to endure the bitter agony of herself offering her beloved Jesus to die an ignominious death, and had also to see Him expire before her own eyes in the midst of the most cruel and unheard-of torments. . . . St. Anselm and St. Antoninus say, that if executioners had been wanting, she herself would have crucified Him, in order to obey the Eternal Father, who willed His death for our salvation. If Abraham had such fortitude as to be ready to sacrifice with his own hands the life of his son, with far greater fortitude would Mary (far more holy and obedient than Abraham) have sacrificed the life of hers.
This passage can be accepted literally by Catholics and some high-church Anglicans; it can be accepted by other believers as a symbol or metaphor of the mysteries of God’s compassion for His creatures. But it says something important even to atheists and agnostics: It offers interesting evidence about the strange kind of animal that man is. What other species could have felt, never mind expressed, a concept like this one — that it can be praiseworthy to sacrifice not only oneself but also that which is dearest to one, in pure kindness to others? It is of course possible that this view is a delusion. What other animal has this specific sort of delusion? (Ethical side-note: Moral philosophers will object that this view is a relapse into barbarism, into a magical consequentialism in which it is permitted to do evil that good may come of it. How, they will ask, would Mary’s crucifixion of Jesus for the good of souls be morally different from Mohammed Atta’s sacrifice of himself and 3,000 innocents in obedience to the will of his God? I think we can distinguish the cases according to both motive and victim. In the first case, the act is for a good that is stipulated in the text, and is a sacrifice only of that which is dearest to oneself; in the second, we do not know how much the motive was for others’ good and how much merely the desire to impose one’s own will, and the sacrifice took the lives of thousands of people who were not dear to the perpetrator.)
I do not offer this as an apologetic. Apologetics, in my experience, are tedious, and I doubt that they’ve ever actually convinced anybody of anything. (At best, they can offer a not-always-spurious sense of security in the beliefs one has already come to in other ways.) But I do think it provides a clue about man’s identity, and thus a clue about the rest of reality as well.