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Stephen of Sawley: Mary's Joys

Stephen of Sawley: Mary's Joys

Discovering Mary in the Middle Ages
Stephen of Sawley (1252)
Mary's Joys

– Deyanira Flores, S.T.D.

"The priest with the big rosary": That is how people used to call St. Louis M. De Montfort, one of the greatest "Apostles of the Rosary" of all times.1 In fact, the Holy Rosary was always at the center of St. Louis' spiritual life; it was a devotion which he strenuously recommended and promoted; he developed five or six different effective methods of praying it; he wrote one of the best books on the subject: The Secret of the Rosary, and his teachings are as valid today as ever.

Among the things which St. Louis teaches us is that, if we truly want to make Christ the center of our lives, to imitate Him and be ever more conformed to Him, we have to meditate constantly on His life and virtues. And few things help us so well to do this as the devotion of the Rosary, because the fifteen mysteries "unfold before our eyes the wonderful story of the life, death and glory of our Savior."2

Meditating on different events in the life of Jesus and Mary, and accompanying this meditation with vocal prayers like the Our Father or the Hail Mary did not start with the Rosary, but led to it. In the history of the development of the Rosary, which was established as we know it today between the 15th and 16th centuries, we find several attempts at uniting mental and vocal prayer. One example is Meditating on the Joys of Mary, with the number of Joys varying from five to seven, fifteen and even more; another is Meditating on Mary's Sorrows.

In this article we shall analyze an outstanding example of these "precursors" of the Rosary: Stephen of Sawley's Meditations on the Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary; which are truly extraordinary because, written as early as the 13th century, they clearly prefigure the Rosary, and are presented in a perfectly orderly form-very familiar to us now-, but surprising because it was believed that methodological prayer was developed only in the 16th century.

Stephen of Sawley

English Cistercian Abbot, Stephen of Sawley was born in Easton, Yorkshire, toward the end of the 12th century. Little is known about his life. He probably entered the Cistercian abbey of Fountains, where he received his religious formation, and was appointed cellarer, sometime after 1215. In 1223 he was elected abbot of Sawley in the south of Yorkshire. He remained there for ten years, traveling several times to Citeaux to attend the annual General Chapter of the Order. In 1234 he was chosen abbot of Newminster in Northumberland, and in 1247 he was made abbot of Fountains, the motherhouse of Newminster and one of the most illustrious houses of the Order. He governed this last abbey for four years, dying in the odor of sanctity on September 8, 1252, while visiting the abbey of Vaudy, in Lincolnshire.

Although Stephen of Sawley is not numbered among the great Cistercian authors like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, he was nevertheless a very gifted writer, well-versed in theology and philosophy, with a deep knowledge of the Scriptures, the liturgy, the Church Fathers, and Cistercian authors, among whom he distinguished himself for his concern with beginners in the spiritual life, offering them much practical advice on how to pray and live well their monastic vocation.

Stephen apparently wrote only four spiritual treatises at the request of other monks:3 the Meditations on the Joys of the Holy Virgin Mary, which we shall examine in this article;4 The Threefold Exercise, which consists of three meditations: On God and the history of salvation, on the Virgin Mary, and on the heavenly Jerusalem;5 The Mirror for Novices, which is a spiritual directory to guide the Cistercian novice in his monastic life, and On the Recitation of the Divine Office, a treatise on the fruitful recitation of the psalms during the divine office.6

He was extremely devoted to Our Lady, and called himself her "servant." He considered that, "after God, all his spiritual comfort, his life, his happiness, and hope depended on this most gracious Virgin," and he constantly "looked for the help of the Mother of Mercy. .."7 To his monks he taught that devotion to Mary was an essential part of their spiritual life.

The Meditations on the Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Stephen of Sawley starts his treatise explaining that he has divided his fifteen meditations on the Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary into three groups of five meditations, with a pause after the first and second group to synthesize what has been said, and to give to the person that does not have the time to complete all the meditations an opportunity to pause after each group.8 He indicates that each of the fifteen meditations includes a meditation on the particular Joy under consideration, a brief summary of the Joy addressed directly to the Blessed Virgin, a prayer of petition asking for the grace that corresponds to what is being meditated upon in that Joy, and the Hail Mary "supplemented by certain expressions of love."9

Using verbs like "picture," "visualize," "focus," etc., Stephen insists that the meditator ought to imagine every scene which is being considered in order to bring home the life of Jesus and Mary, and receive, through her intercession, the graces needed to imitate them.10

The Joys are arranged in chronological order: The first five deal with Mary's joys from the time of her own birth to the birth of Christ; the second consider her joys from the birth of Christ to His Passion; and the third go from Christ's Passion to her assumption into heaven. The theological content of the meditations, drawn from the Gospels, the Liturgy, and Cistercian authors, is very sound.11

We shall go over each Meditation, keeping in mind that, as Stephen insists at the very outset of his work, "the tenderness, affection, and joy with which the Blessed Virgin loved her Son escapes and transcends all human experience. About this experience she could say, 'My secret belongs to me alone' ..."12


I. Meditation: Mary's Birth

The first joy that Stephen wants us to meditate upon concerns "the joyful tidings" which Mary's birth brought to the world. He starts by asking us to ponder on the wretched state of the world from the time of Adam's fall until the coming of Christ; how sin, death, ignorance, darkness and despair reigned everywhere. Then he wants us to see how all this changed with Mary's birth, because it brought grace, hope, deliverance, light and freedom.

He addresses Mary inviting her to rejoice, because her birth will bring "liberation to the souls in purgatory, salvation to men or earth; glory to the angels in heaven; and restoration to the heavenly city."

He wants us to ask her "to enkindle our weak and confused mind with the light of spiritual desires, so that, having cast aside the darkness of wordly pride, we may receive the joys accruing from the vision of the eternal truth."13

II. Meditation: Mary's Life

The second Joy is "the Virgin's celebrated life which enlightens the whole Church." It recalls "with what labors and pure love" Mary prepared the tabernacle of her body and heart, alone deserving to receive Christ the King. "Because of her deep humility she deserved to be called Queen of heaven; because of her conscientious virginity, the immaculate mother of the virgin born Son; because of her tender love, the Mother of Mercy." With the fullness of all virtues "she drew the Son of God to herself from the Father's bosom." She alone vowed her virginity in gift to God-something unheard of in the world until that time. "Her action and example is an invitation to all to imitate her humility, chastity and love."

Thus Stephen asks her, by virtue of those "inmost sentiments which made her 'alone pleasing without parallel to Jesus Christ," to strengthen in our life those virtues and, when we die, to recognize us, though unworthy, as her servants.14

III. Meditation: The Annunciation

The third Joy is the Annunciation, when Gabriel "formulated the sweet salutation in which the whole world rejoices for all times to come." Here we are to "imagine the wonder, the love and joy experienced by the Blessed Virgin when the angel appeared and spoke to her, and she heard the details of the coming salvation." She alone was worthy to receive the joyful news of salvation transmitted to her from heaven by an angel.

Stephen asks her to teach us to offer to her daily "the gentle angelic salutation, this first pledge of our salvation, with a heart full of love and lips that are clean," and to grant that it may be "a comfort in all our tribulations, and a remedy in all our temptations, to her honor and glory."15

IV: Meditation: The saving deeds of the Holy Trinity

The fourth Joy "elevates the mind to reflect on the saving deeds of the Holy Trinity": How "God the Father, in his exceeding love, sent us his only begotten Son in the flesh. The Son, in his unspeakable mercy, took upon himself our weaknesses, labors and sorrows and all the burdens of our misery, with the exception of sin. The Holy Spirit lovingly overshadowed the Virgin with a tenderness indescribable and set her alight and ablaze so that, absolutely beautiful in body and soul, her whole being was aflame with love.

We have to think in ecstasy and jubilation" of the singular intervention of the Holy Spirit at the time of the virginal conception of Christ. "Who can sufficiently estimate the fullness of the joy with which the Blessed Trinity wrought the salvation of the whole human race in the womb of the Virgin Mary"? Stephen is sure that Mary, who alone is Mother and Virgin, experienced no greater joy than this during her life on earth. Thus he asks the "kindest Mother of Mercy," "to make us ever mindful of this great abundance of sweetness and joy," and "to let Jesus, her sweetness, be honey in our mouth, melody in our ear, and Jubilation in our heart."16

V. Meditation: The Visitation

The more exalted the blessed Virgin became as the Mother of the only-begotten Son of God and the queen of heaven and earth, the more she humbled herself. This is clearly seen when she goes to serve St. Elizabeth with the greatest humility. How great was this joy, when upon the mere salutation of the Virgin, the mother began to prophesy, the Precursor, still enclosed in her womb, leapt for joy, and the soul of the sweet Virgin magnified the Lord! Recalling the joy she felt "when Elizabeth called her blessed because she believed in the salvation of the whole human race," may she help us, and "pour the drops of her grace into our parched soul so that, well grounded in true humility, we may be able to serve her with our whole being.17


In this first pause, Stephen does not want us to be idle, but to use it to think about Mary's virtues, and how she became the Mother of the Son of God. "How happy is she who experienced fully within herself what the whole world could not understand. Who can fully measure the joy and the love, the loving thoughts and the pure ecstasy of the blessed Virgin when she felt the movement of her beloved Son in her virginal womb? Or her delight that the fountain of sweetness deigned to be a guest in her womb over a nine-month period?18


VI. Meditation: The Birth of Christ

To our soul's delight, we contemplate here "the starting point of our salvation," the immaculate birth of Jesus Christ, the Maker of the world. We behold the Mother's virginal integrity, the Divinity of the newborn Child, the Mystery of the Incarnation! The angels announced this great Joy to the shepherds, and they hastened to see the Word Incarnate, the Saviour of the world, 'wrapped in swaddling clothes.' Blessed were the shepherds who deserved to witness such great mysteries! "But, more fortunate still is the Virgin, chosen not only to contain in her womb God, the Container of all things, but also to fondle him at her bosom, to hold him in sweet embrace, to kiss his holy lips and to comfort him with her breasts filled from heaven." Likewise, "fortunate is the soul which is privileged to ruminate on these matters, which is allowed to look with a loving heart on the child Jesus. ..which can picture Joseph benumbed by this great new miracle. ..."

A virgin before, during and after giving birth, "Mary gave the world the new joy, our Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed fruit of her womb, the Saviour and Deliverer of our souls." Stephen implores her, "in the name, the love and goodness of her most beloved Son," "to amuse in us a tenderness of heart, that we may avoid all lapses into slothfulness; and to let us return to her precious birth, her motherly affections and cares during the tender infancy of her Son as to a breast, where we will learn to love in tenderness her beloved Son."19

VII. Meditation: The Visit of the Magi

The Magi journeyed from the East, "following the star of grace which enlightens from within." They had the happiness of finding Jesus in Bethlehem, "in the palace, made by his own choosing, that is, in a cheap and shabby rooming house, with His Mother Mary. Enlightened by divine grace, they acknowledged Him as God, "and proclaimed the Blessed Trinity by their threefold gifts." Mary "offered her Son to them for adoration, and understood in her soul the mystical meaning of the three gifts."

By virtue of "the holy joys which overcame her as she watched her child play with his rattles and toys," Stephen asks Mary to enlighten our mind so that, taught by the Magi, we may always long for her, attend her lovingly, and thus deserve to find near her our Lord Jesus, the blessed fruit of her womb, who is so good, gentle, and merciful, resting in her arms, at her breast or in her lap. With her as our patron, may we present to Him "the myrrh of the mortification of the flesh, the incense of fervent prayer and the gold of true discretion."20

VIII. Meditation:

The Presentation in the Temple The Mother of God carried in her loving arms the Lord, to offer Him to God the Father ''as the first pledge toward the reconciliation of the human race and the salvation of all the faithful." Simeon and Anna, "the Law and the Prophecy, received joyfully the One promised of old." Who can fathom Mary's joys at this meeting of "angels and men, of Jews and Gentiles, of the Old and the New Law?" May Our Lady purge our soul of all its impulses, make it sigh after her most beloved Son, and, guided by faith, become an offering to God the Father until it will deserve to contemplate the Blessed Trinity in the eternal vision of heaven.21

IX. Meditation: Childhood and adult life of Jesus Christ

Great were the sorrow and anguish that befell the Virgin, when she lost her Son in the temple, and the solicitude with which she sought Him whom she loved above all else; great likewise was the happiness that overflooded her heart when she found him, and heard the young boy "expounding the Law to legal experts and men of learning. ..with great erudition." Mary "delighted in the wisdom he displayed before all who were present," and "treasured all these things reflecting them in her heart" (Lk. 2:19).

"O blessed concentration, contemplation, and understanding! Mary, sublimely and singularly purified and enlightened by the gift of understanding, comprehended and weighed in herself not only these words but all the things she heard in this life from her Son, the power and wisdom of God, as she fully knew." Her joy increased ineffably when He went down with her to Nazareth and humbly subjected Himself to her and St. Joseph, sharing with her the same blessed home life. May she "grow in us an appetite for her Son's words of wisdom which must be our daily food." Taught by them, "we will learn to want our Lord Jesus wherever we go. We will grieve whenever we lose him, and with her we will search for him. ..not resting until we find him again, always under her guidance."22

X. Meditation: Cana and Jesus' other miracles

If Mary delighted "in those sweet joys which the childhood and the wisdom of her Son wrought in her soul," she rejoiced even more at the time of His baptism, when "He made water holy for us by its contact with his sacred body. ..revealed himself to the whole world as true God and, at the same time, manifested the Holy Trinity."

Unparalleled also was her joy at the conversion of water into wine at Cana, which "marked the first of his miracles, and proved that he was the true God at whose command nature itself changed." "The loving Mother begged her all-powerful Son to have mercy and compassion on their embarrassed hosts," and He revealed His power at His Mother's request, "and established one of the Church's sacraments": Marriage.

May the Blessed Virgin prepare our impure heart so that the Holy Spirit may descend into it and make it his abode, enlightening it, and turning with His divine presence the waters of empty chatter and the passions of the flesh, the waters of servile fear, neglect and carelessness into the unadulterated wine of compunction, love and pure devotion."23


In this second pause we have to think of the singular joys which Mary felt about the glorious deeds of Christ from the time of His baptism to His passion, "when he went about healing and doing good," and apply all these to our spiritual wounds, imploring Him, who is both healer and healing, to cure the ills of our soul and the desires of our flesh through Mary's constant intercession.24


XI. Meditation: Christ redeeming the world

This eleventh meditation is striking because Stephen explains to us how we can consider Christ, who is offering Himself on the altar of the Cross, a source not only of unfathomable sorrow for Mary, who stood by "with eyes full of love and looked on at her only begotten Son, her joy, in tortuous agony," but also of ineffable happiness.

In fact, when Mary saw the precious and most holy body of her Son stretched out on the wood of a cross; His head crowned with thorns; His hands and feet pierced with nails; His side split wide open by a soldier's lance, truly "the sword of suffering pierced through her soul" (Lk. 2:35). "Yet, despite being wounded to the very depth of her being by a sorrow without comparison and beyond description," she stood there and witnessed the death He freely accepted, and the shedding of that precious blood that washed away our sins. And so, despite her great anguish and sorrow, she thought also of His mercy as He redeemed the whole world, and "rejoiced with unbounded happiness, knowing with a faith that was certain and unshakeable" that thanks to her Son our salvation was imminent. Stephen asks her to let us be "among those who shall reap the fruits of his glorious redemption so that, cleansed from every stain of sin and washed in the saving bath of salvation. ..we may, by partaking of the sacrament of the altar, be united to his mystical body in this life and attain radiance through the glory of his resurrection in the life to come.25

XII. Meditation: The Resurrection

What indescribable joy felt the Blessed Virgin when she saw that, after such bitter suffering and the most ignominious of deaths, her beloved Son had conquered the author of death and through the victory of His glorious resurrection opened the doors to the kingdom of heaven! How great was her happiness when she heard about Jesus' apparitions to His disciples, triumphantly showing them "his glorified human body taken from the Virgin Mother," and strengthen them in their faith!

Stephen begs Mary, "Comforter of the afflicted," in whom we take refuge, that, "rising from the death of our soul through her holy intercession, we may also rise from the grave of evil habits to the newness of a more holy life, so that we may attain heaven at the end of this life."26

XIII. Meditation: The Ascension of Our Lord

We have to picture here Mary as she stood with the Apostles and disciples while Jesus bade them farewell and ascended into heaven. If the disciples were sad to see Him go, "how much greater and deeper must have been the sorrows felt by his mother as she realized that she was being left upon earth, and that her son Jesus, her one and only Joy, the complement of her heart and of her whole life who could not be separated from her heart and soul even for a moment, was moving away before her very eyes."

Great was her longing for His presence; but also "truly holy and ecstatic was her jubilation, as she beheld the progeny of her holy womb, once spat on, flogged, and crucified, now sitting at the Father's side as his coequal," in order to prepare for her, "his beloved Mother, a place of immortality, and to make her a trusted intercessor and a concerned advocate pleading on our behalf.

May she obtain for us that our mind be lifted up into the kingdom of heaven, and our desires be directed toward Him, pulling us away from earthly enticements and activities.27

XIV Meditation: Pentecost

The disciples were gathered with Mary in one room, praying and fasting while they waited for the One promised by the Father (Lk. 24:49). The Holy Spirit appeared visibly in the form of tongues of fire and filled their hearts "with a marvelous sweetness of understanding." In words similar to the II Vatican Council, Stephen wonders "who among those present could describe the Joy of the blessed Virgin who with them and already before them experienced the fire of love, and understood the power of the Spirit descending from above."

The Holy Spirit "dwelt in the innermost recesses of her heart, his special shrine, long before. But now he enlightened her soul with joy without parallel," when she witnessed his coming on the disciples, enlightening them and filling their hearts with graces "so that through them he would pour the flood-waters of knowledge and grace over the whole world."

Through Mary's intercession, may the power and fire with which the Holy Spirit inflamed the hearts of the disciples enlighten our minds "so that we may gain a better understanding of true wisdom, and our cold heart become a furnace of his love."28

XV: Meditation: Her glorious Assumption

The Assumption is "the completion of the blessed Virgin's joys in this life." After remaining on earth for some time "for our salvation and for the enlightenment and consolation of the apostles," she was gloriously assumed into heaven by her Son, glorified in body and soul, and seated at the right hand side of His throne of glory, "where she rules triumphantly together with Him as the lady of the world and queen of heaven, and also as the hope of the wretched and the reconciliation of sinners."

Stephen asks us to picture the Queen of Heaven dispatching the pleas and complaints of her clients, ''as they continue to flood her with their requests day and night from this valley of tears," and she pleads for their salvation before her Son. What is there that He will not grant to the Mother who received Him in her virginal womb? We should not fear being received as children by "the Father of all mercies," when 'the Mother of Mercy is our advocate before Him."

Her blessed presence has made joyful the entire city of God. With her blessed eyes, she now contemplates the Holy Trinity, "her whole joy and exultation, her whole delight, the love of her heart. ..." Who can understand the immensity of this Joy?

"Rejoice most holy, most fortunate of all creatures, the one and only hope of all human consolation and joy, because you were the recipient of such great joys, delights, and exultations which God heaped upon you as they had never before been bestowed on any human being!"

"O clement, O loving, O sweet and radiant Mary, do not cease to be mindful of us, your poor servants, who joyfully recollect your joys, but give us the grace of possessing your sweet name and the name of your son Jesus in our heart forever. ..Grant also that the pleasant and joyful memories evoked will make all transitory delights grow vile and bitter. .. make us tenderly long for your blessed and glorious presence so that we will seek no sweetness other than yours and feel no other joy, no other love, than yours. .. Turn your eyes of mercy toward us so that when our period of exile on this earth comes to an end, we may deserve to see Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb, in his glory."29


1) On De Montfort and the Rosary, cf. the article Rosary by J.-C. Laurenceau in Jesus Living in Mary. Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort, Montfort Publications, Bay Shore, NY 1994, p. 1055-1073.

2) De Montfort, The Secret of the Rosary n. 75; cf. n. 81.

3) Although the existence of Stephen of Sawley was known, it was not until the 19th century that his first spiritual treatise, On the Joys of Mary, was discovered by L Delisle; it was not published until 1929 by A. Wilmart.

4) Wilmart A., Les mediations d'Etienne de Sallai sur les joies de la Sainte Virge, in Revue d'ascetique et de mystique 10 (1929) p. 368-415; Idem., Auteurs spirituels et textes devots du moyen age latin, Paris 1932, p. 317-360.

5) Wilmart A., Le triple exercise d'Etienne de Sallai, in Revue d'ascetique et de mystique 11 (1930) p. 355-374.

6) Mikkers E., Un Speculum Novitii inedit d'Etienne de Sallay; in CoIl. Ord. Gist. Ref. 8 (1946) p. 17-68; Idem., De informatione mentis circa psalmodiam diei ac noctis, in Citeaux 23 (1972) p. 245-288. All four treatises have been translated into English in: Stephen of Sawley Treatises. Translated by Jeremiah F. O'Sullivan. Edited for publication by Bede K. Lackner, Cisterican Publications Inc., Kalamazoo, Michigan 1984 (Cistercian Fathers Series 36). We shall follow this English version.

7) Cf. Stephen of Sawley; Treatises, op. cit., p. 28.

8) Cf. Ibid., p. 29.

9) Ibid., p.27. This expanded version of the Hail Mary might have been in use in Yorkshire then. It runs thus: "Hail, holy, glorious, perpetually loving Mother of God, Mary ever-virgin, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the Lord Jesus, the sweet fruit of your blessed womb Amen."

10) His method reminds us somewhat of what St. Ignatius of Loyola asks in his Spiritual Exercises when meditating on the life of Jesus and Mary. Cf also De Montfort, SA 61; 65; 70; 75-77; 120.

11) In his works we see the influence of authors like: St. Augustine, St. Bernard, Aelred of Rievaulx, Amadeus of Lausanne, etc.

12) Cf. Stephen of Sawley, op. cit., p. 28.

13) Cf. Ibid., p. 29-30.

14) Cf. p. 31-32.

15) Cf. p. 32-33.

16) Cf. p. 33-35.

17) Cf. p. 35-36.

18) Cf. p. 36-37.

19) Cf. p. 37-39.

20) Cf. p. 40-41.

21) Cf. p. 41-43.

22) Cf. p. 43-45.

23) Cf. p. 45-47.

24) Cf. p. 47.

25) Cf. p. 47-50.

26) Cf. p. 50-52.

27) Cf. p. 52-54.

28) Cf. p. 54-56.

29) Cf. p. 58-60.

Sources: Queen Of All Hearts
(January - February 2001) Pages 18 - 21
(March - April 2001) Pages 18 - 21

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