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Channel and Fountain Symbolism

Channel and Fountain Symbolism

- Sister M. Danielle Peters

Q: Can you comment on St. Bernard’s comparison of Mary to a channel?

A: Though he is called the Marian Doctor[1] of the Church, St. Bernard’s authentic Marian writings amount only to about 3½% of his writings. Perhaps the name of his place of birth (St. Bernard was born in 1090 in Fontaines near Dijon, France) has something to do with Bernard’s extensive writings about the spiritual meaning of water and fountains.

In his "Sermon for Christmas day: On the Fountains of the Savior,"[2] St. Bernard explains that, though Christ ‘has come to us now as a little One, not little but great are the blessings He has brought and bestowed upon us'. These blessings manifest themselves in Christ, the fountain,

in which we may wash ourselves clean, as it is written Who hath loved us and washed us from our sins. But this is not the only use of water: it can serve us in more ways than by washing our stains. Thus it can also quench our thirst. … A third use of water is irrigation, of which young plants especially have the greatest need. … Whoever, therefore, has sown the seeds of good works should seek for the water of devotion, so that irrigated from the fountain of grace, the garden of his virtuous life may not wither but may flourish in a never fading bloom. … Do you think it possible to find … a fourth fountain, so that we may be able to cover paradise, which was watered and beautified by a four-branched stream? … In this living paradise we have now discovered three of the fountains, and the fourth is yet to seek. We have the

(1) waters of pardon from the fountain of mercy to wash away our sins;

(2) waters of prudence from the fountain of wisdom to slake our thirst;

(3) waters of devotion from the fountain of grace to irrigate the plants of our good works. Let us now seek for the

(4) heated waters of ardent zeal with which to cook our food. For these waters serve both to spiritualize and to warm our affections, and they flow from the fountain of charity.… and see if the Prophet Isaiah is not alluding to these fountains when he says: You shall draw waters with joy from the Savior’s fountains.

Although, St. Bernard does not yet refer in any way to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Christ, the Fountain, we may nevertheless apply this homily to her who was the first one who has received the waters from the Savior’s fountains. Having been conceived immaculately, she was washed with the fountain of mercy. Having carried him in her womb and lived with him for 30 years she was able more than anyone else to quench her thirst from the fountain of prudence. Having been educated by her Son in doing the Father’s will at all times, she was bathed in the fountain of grace which made every moment of her life fruitful in the service of her Son’s kingdom, manifested in the fourth fountain of charity. Likewise, we can also rightfully allege that since the ultimate source of Christ’s fountain originates in the Father, Mary was chosen as channel between the Father and the Son.

St. Bernard’s meditation on Christmas Day continues as he elaborates on the functions of these fountains.

Furthermore, of these four fountains, the second, third and fourth appear to belong to the three orders in the Church, one to each. The first is common to all, ‘for in many things we all offend’, and consequently have need of the fountain of mercy to wash away the defilement of our transgressions. … Therefore, since no one is free from stain, the fountain of mercy is necessary for all, and all alike, Noah, Daniel and Job[3] ought to run to its waters with the same eagerness. With regard to the other three fountains, let Job seek especially that of wisdom, because, he, more than others, walks in the midst of snares, so that it will be a wonderful thing if he avoids all evil. Daniel must have recourse to the fountain of grace, for he needs to irrigate his penitential labors and the austerity of his abstinence with the grace of devotion. … But to Noah belongs in a special manner the fountain of zeal because the zeal of charity is looked for particularly in prelates.

In an organic way it follows that Mary is involved in providing these waters for God’s children, since she is the one who is the life giver of the four-fold fountain. This becomes especially evident on Christmas itself. Next, St. Bernard leads his audience from the crib to the cross,

Therefore, my brethren, to us who are still living in the flesh, Christ exhibits in Himself four fountains. And he promises, after this our exile, to give us a fifth, namely, the fountain of life…. Perhaps it was to designate the first four fountains that Christ was wounded in four places whilst he hung yet living on the cross; and the opening of His side after He had yielded up His Spirit, may have been intended to signify the fifth. He was still alive when they pierced His hands and His feet, so that He might allow four fountains to flow forth from Himself unto us, who are also still living. The fifth wound was inflicted after He had expired, in order that for us, after our death, the fifth fountain may be opened.

Mary, standing beneath the cross is sometimes depicted collecting in a chalice the blood and water from Christ’s pierced side. In the Liturgy of the Hours’ Morning Prayer in the ‘Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ we pray for instance:

Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the cup, Christ the Saving Blood![4]

Clearly, Mary is seen here as the channel of the fifth life-giving fountain. At the same time she is also the first one to enjoy the fullness of this fountain after her Assumption into heaven. Hence, St. Bernard encourages us to

run with thirsty souls to this fountain of mercy, let our misery have recourse with all the eagerness of desire to this treasury of compassion. Behold, O most blessed One, such are the affections with which we have striven to accompany thee today on thy heavenward path to reunion with thy Son.[5]

On the Sunday following the Feast of the Assumption St. Bernard draws the parallel between Eve and Mary, calling Mary explicitly the channel of redemption:

A most cruel Mediatrix was our mother Eve, through whom the old serpent communicated the mortal poison of sin even to the man; but Mary is faithful. Mary offers the remedy of salvation both to men and women. The former became the means of our seduction, the latter co-operated in our reconciliation; the former was made the instrument of temptation, the latter the channel of redemption.[6]

At another occasion, Bernard appeals to Mary, who is full of grace; we may also say that she is full of the waters of her Son’s five-fold fountain. This gift and privilege is also her eternal mission as Mother and Mediatrix of all of God’s children as she nourishes us with these waters of our salvation.

Thou, O Virgin, art full of grace, full of the dew of heaven, flowing with delights, leaning upon the Beloved. Feed us today, O great Lady, feed us, thy poor mendicants, with the food of the spirit; let the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table; give not alone Abraham’s servant but his camels also to drink from thy overflowing pitcher because thou art the true Rebecca chosen and predestined for the Son of the Most High, Jesus Christ, our Lord, Who is over all things, God blessed forever. Amen.[7]

We shall yet appraise another homily of St. Bernard exclusively dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary as channel or aqueduct. St. Bernard does not tire in proclaiming the glories of Mary as the well of living waters.

A never-failing fountain, which irrigates the whole extent of the paradise of God! And not merely does it irrigate: it floods, that fountain of gardens, the well of living waters which run with a strong stream from Lebanon; it is the river stream whereof maketh the city of God joyful.

At this point Bernard explains Mary’s mission to be the channel, which provides the fountain of life giving waters. She is the aqueduct connecting the Father, 'the heavenly source’, to the Son, who is the fountain. The aqueduct in itself cannot do anything but because of its connectedness, the aqueduct is always filled and ready to give. The aqueduct moreover is never as strong as the fountain or the original source, yet it is able to provide enough moisture for the needy. This indeed is the function of a well to be empty of self and constantly available to be used and consumed in the service of others.

Now what is this fountain of life if it be not Christ the Lord? … For the ‘Fountain is conveyed abroad’ in a stream even to us; its waters flow ‘in the streets’ although ‘the stranger partake not of them’. This stream from the heavenly source descends to us through an Aqueduct; it does not indeed exhibit all the fullness of the Fountain but it serves to moisten our dry and withered hearts with some few drops of the waters of grace, giving more to one, less to another. The Aqueduct itself is always full, so that all may receive of its fullness, yet not the fullness itself. You have already divined, dearest brethren, unless I mistake, to whom I allude under the image of an Aqueduct which, receiving the fullness of the Fountain from the Father’s heart, has transmitted to us, if not as it is in itself, at least in so far as we could contain it. Yea, for you know to whom it was said: “Hail, full of grace.”

At this point St. Bernard clearly makes a doctrinal statement, explaining that only the one who is ‘full of grace’ would be worthy to be so interwoven in the economy of salvation by being fused to the heart of God the Father as well as to that of her Son, Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and not through any human intervention.

But shall we not wonder how such and so great a Conduit could have been formed, the top of which-- like the ladder which Jacob saw in vision – was to reach heaven, nay, to be lifted higher than the heavens, and to touch that Living Fountain of ‘the waters that are above the heavens…? In fact the reason why the streams of heavenly grace did not begin to flow down upon the human race for so long a time was this: that the precious Conduit whereof I speak did not as yet mediate between God and man. … But how did this Conduit of ours, this ‘Valiant Woman’, attain to the loftiness of the Fountain?

You perceive now, my brethren, that in this manner likewise our Aqueduct reached up to the Fountain of grace; that it was not by her prayer alone that Mary penetrated the heavens, but also by her incorruption, which according to the Wise Man "bringeth near to God.” The Virgin is in truth ‘a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up; the living temple of the Lord, the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit .…

The Fountain of Wisdom is the Word of the Father Who dwelleth on High. … This Divine Word will become man, O Virgin, through thy co-operation so that He Who can say ‘I am in the Father and the Father is in me' may be able to say also ‘From God I have proceeded and come' … Even then Wisdom’s Well was full, but as yet not only to Itself.

St. Bernard concludes this extraordinary sermon by encouraging his audience to make good use of these waters offered to us through the intercession of Our Lady who not only channels the divine waters to us but wants to be an aqueduct also between us and the ultimate heavenly source; God, the Father.

For the rest, most dearly beloved, let us strive with all diligence that the Word Who came forth unto us from the mouth of the Father and through the Virgin’s womb shall not return to Him void, but through the same holy Virgin let us render Him back ‘grace for grace’. … For unless they (the rivers of grace) revert to their fountain head they shall be dried up; if we are found unfaithful in that which is little we shall not deserve that which is greater.[8]

As we have seen, for St. Bernard the symbol of fountain and water refers above all to Jesus Christ who brought us the five-fold waters necessary for our redemption. Implicitly, Mary’s role can be seen as the source from which these waters flow. St. Bernard refers more directly to Our Lady in his homily about Mary as channel or aqueduct. He calls her the channel of redemption and well of living waters as Mother of the Redeemer and as our mother, too. As never-failing fountain, Bernard refers to Mary’s sinlessness as commonly understood in his time. Encouraging the faithful to ‘run to this fountain of mercy’ on the feast of the Assumption, Bernard points to Mary’s cooperation in the economy of salvation.

[1] Leo Scheffczyk, Tendenzen und Entwicklungslinien der Marienlehre im Mittelalter. In. German Rovira, ed. Das Zeichen des Allmächtigen. Die jungfräuliche Gottesmutterschaft Mariens in ihrer Verbindlichkeit für das christliche Leben. Marianische Schriften des Internationalen Mariologischen Arbeitskreises Kevelaer e.V. Würzburg 1981, p. 126.
[2] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, volume 1, The Carroll Press-Westminster, MD 1950. Here: "First Sermon for Christmas Day: On the Fountains of the Savior," 381-389.
[3] These three holy men are taken as types of the three orders referred to, Noah representing the prelates (Gen 7:20), Daniel the virgins and Job those engaged in the married state. Ibid. p.388.
[4] Quoted from: Frederick M. Jelly OP, Madonna, Huntington, Indiana, 1986, p. 168.
[5] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, volume 1, The Carroll Press-Westminster, MD 1950. Here: Fourth Sermon for the Feast of the Assumption--On the resurrection of Lazarus and on the Dignity and Virtues of Mary, p. 256.
[6] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, volume 1, The Carroll Press-Westminster, MD 1950. Here: Sermon for the Sunday within the Octave of the Assumption: On the Dignity of Mary and on the Mystical Stars that constitute her crown, p. 258.
[7] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, volume 1, The Carroll Press-Westminster, MD 1950. Ibid. p.280.
[8] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for the Seasons and Principal Festivals of the Year, volume 3, The Carroll Press-Westminster, MD 1950. Here: Sermon for the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p. 284ff. Also called On the Aqueduct or Channel Of Divine Grace. See also: St. Bernard, The Glories of the Virgin Mother and Channel of Divine Grace. Boston, 1867, 102-106.

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