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Mary and Discipleship

December 8, 2022 5 min read
By Dr. Ann Brodeur Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies, University of Mary
Fra Angelico's "Annunciation"
Fra Angelico's 1445 fresco "The Annunciation" depicts the angel Gabriel's visit to Mary and her subsequent "fiat" - "Let it be done to me according to your word."

George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic explores and comments on Catholic culture, examining history and theology, art and architecture, literature and music. This article is the fourth in a series that walks through Weigel's work letter by letter, providing imagery to enhance the reader's experience. Here we explore "Letter Four, The Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem: Mary and Discipleship." Click here to view the entire series.


The Abbey of the Dormition
The Abbey of the Dormition, located outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, was constructed between 1900 and 1910, marking the location of Mary's dormition according to local tradition. Several other churches had been built upon (and subsequently destroy) the site, with the original Byzantine basilica having been constructed in AD 415. (Photo by Israel_photo_gallery, licensed through Creative Commons on Flickr: see photo attribution A, below.)

Of the many sites associated with the life of Christ and the early Christians, the present Abbey of the Dormition is one of the more recently constructed buildings. Built of golden stone and perched atop the rocky outcrop of Mount Zion just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, it was constructed at the turn of the last century by Kaiser Wilhelm II over the ruins of the Byzantine abbey Hagia Maria Sion. It is built “in the round” in imitation of Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aachen, which in turn imitated the round or octagonal plan of the late Roman church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The apse of the upper church glows with mosaics depicting the Virgin and Child, while the intricate mosaic floor details the salvation of the world.

A statue of Our Lady in repose in the crypt of the Abbey of the Dormition
A statue of Mary lying in repose is found in the Abbey of the Dormition's crypt, marking the spot of Mary's dormition and assumption into heaven. (Photo by Lawrence OP, licensed through Creative Commons on Flickr: see photo attribution B, below.)

In the center of the crypt below, encircled in an octagonal shrine, is a marble sarcophagus with an image of the sleeping Virgin atop, hands folded and eyes closed. The church commemorates the “the falling asleep of Holy Mary,” or her dormitio, which according to tradition happened on Mount Zion. The Dormition of the Theotokos, Mother of God, is a solemn feast for the Orthodox; however, in the Latin church, the focus isn’t so much on her dormition, as it is on her bodily assumption into heaven and on the promise it holds for Christians after the Resurrection.

Interior of the Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem
The interior of the abbey church was constructed according to the pattern of the Aachen Cathedral and the Basilica of San Vitale (Ravenna), with the main altar located in the front of the church and smaller altar niches around the body of the church. Two spiral staircases lead from the abbey church into the crypt. (Photo by Israel_photo_gallery, licensed through Creative Commons on Flickr: see photo attribution C, below.)

It is in the crypt before the sleeping Virgin that Weigel chooses to reflect on Mary and the model of discipleship that she presents in his fourth chapter of Letters to a Young Catholic. For Weigel, Mary offers an example of complete trust in and total commitment to the will of God. Her unhesitating fiat to the message of the angel, her decisive dedication to whatever the providence of God put before her, and her open acceptance of her Son’s passion and death mark her as the first and best disciple of Christ. While some may protest that to honor Mary in this way is obstruct the path to God at best or to construct an idol at worst, Weigel invites readers to consider her words at the wedding of Cana as a pattern for action: quodcumque dixerit vobis facite, or “Do whatever He tells you.” Throughout her life, Mary pointed to her Son and directed others to do the will of God, just as she did, without reserve and holding nothing back for herself. In this way, she becomes a fully human example of how to follow Christ totally.

The Dormition of Mary depicted at the Abbey of the Holy Trinity at Fécamp, France
Fécamp Abbey in northern France vividly depicts the Dormition of Mary. (Photo by David P., licensed through Creative Commons on Flickr: see photo attribution D, below.)

In an age in which we are encouraged to “keep our options open” and to avoid any commitment that might bind us totally, Mary’s life was a series of unreserved and repeated fiats, from the Annunciation to the Deposition of the body of her Son. Mary’s life has taught generations of Christians that the way to happiness and heaven—the way of the disciple—is to be found in the complete and trusting surrender of our hopes, our futures, and our dreams to One who is Hope and whose dreams for our future are bigger than we can imagine.


Photo Attribution A: "Jerusalem Dormition Abbey 2" by Israel_photo_gallery is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Photo Attribution B: "Dormition" by Lawrence OP is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Photo Attribution C: "Jerusalem Dormition Abbey 6" by Israel_photo_gallery is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Photo Attribution D: "Fécamp Abbey, Dormition de la Vierge" by Davide P. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Photo Attribution E: "Michaelangelo's Pieta 5450" by Stanislav Traykov is licensed under CC BY 2.5.

Photo Attribution F: "House of the Virgin Mary Ephesus 1" by Damian Entwistle is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.


A portrait of John Henry Newman, 1844

Next: Newman and 'Liberal' Education

In the fifth chapter of "Letters to a Young Catholic," Weigel explores the Birmingham Oratory to reflect on the conversion, life, and theology of St. John Henry Newman.

Newman and 'Liberal' Education
Sunlight pouring into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Previous: The Face of Christ

In the third chapter of "Letters to a Young Catholic," Weigel explores two places that confront us with the reality of Christ: a monastery on Mt. Sinai and the Holy Sepulchre.

The Face of Christ
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