On the Holy Name of Mary, 12 September 2020

Around the turn of 20th century a man named Henry Adam wrote about his travels abroad. Being the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams afforded him an opportunity to visit France for the World Fair in the year 1900. Adams had a particular enthusiasm for science and technology. In the Hall of Electrical Machines, he became fixated upon the “dynamo,” a bulky machine using rotating metal coils and magnetic fields to produce an electrical current. Understanding how these things work is not easy today and for Adams it was no different. He writes of himself, “As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.” He was struck by the dynamo’s imposing size in contradiction to its eerie silence.  He began to see that the power of the dynamo was beyond the power it could produce. He saw that its cultural significance carried a gravity that would change the world. It would commence an age of machines. He compares this to the Cross. The early Christians didn’t have a catechetical understanding of the Cross, but they looked on and gaped at its power. They looked at the cross and saw the power in Christ’s immense love despite intense suffering—the dawn of an age of incarnate mercy. Despite his agnosticism, Adams had an appreciation for Christian values and feared that technology would become a new religion—a movement of brutish faith in machines; a cult grasping for more and more power without ever being satiated. 

Adams recognizes that within man exists a desire for the infinite. This desire drives us to push the limits of invention; at each discovery seeking the something greater. For instance it is expected that a new iPhone, with more functions and capabilities, will be released every year. The iPhone certainly adds new functions to our lives and we feel satisfied for a time. It’s almost as if Adams was speaking directly to us. We wait in procession to see and receive the newest tech, we lay our offering at the cashier’s“alter”, and leave with our beloved. Certainly that imagery is exaggerated, but the “worship” of technology is not totally unimaginable. It is eerie to think about how reliant we are on our phones, computer, email, etc.. Each of these are well and good, but none of them can permanently fulfill our longing for something that satisfies our longing for the infinte. Only God who is truly infinite can satiate our desires, because, wether we recognize it as such or not, our deepest desire is precisely to love and be loved by him. When we forget this, we attempt to satiate ourselves with the things of the world. We create powerful machines in a desperate and unaware attempt to imitate God. We find that we are not unsatisfied and so the power of technology draws us toward itself and we become addicted. 

This truth about man became clear to Adams when contra-posed against the power he saw in the Virgin Mary. He had traveled to Europe some time before the 1900 World Fair, and he couldn’t help but be struck by the art and architecture produced by the Church—beautiful gothic cathedrals, rose windows, statues, buttresses, all erected in the name of Mary. Observing Notre-Dame Cathedral in Chartes, France, he says, “If you are to get the full enjoyment of Chartres, you must, for the time, believe in Mary as Bernard and Adam did, and feel her presence as the architects did, in every stone they placed, and every touch they chiselled.” The great works of the Church were not mere commissions of art, but man stretching his arms to heaven. If one was to observe a beautiful church or cathedral simply for the technical value, or for art history, they would miss the true driving force of such majesty. More impressive and powerful than the dynamo is the Virgin Mary. It was she who bridged our finite lives on earth, with God’s infinite power in heaven. Where the dynamo was a step toward the dangerous pursuit of man created power, the Incarnation has fueled an entire culture of beauty, dignity, and grace. 

The Word was made flesh through the Virgin Mary. She is powerful because God made her the vessel of himself.  Jesus Christ was born of this woman for the redemption of all men. The Church is Marian. Christian architecture itself is a testament to this; it makes heavenly realities present here on earth. God himself, the one who is the source of all power, the one who satisfies our souls, was brought into the world through a mother. To walk into a beautiful church is like to walk into the womb of Mary. It is the place where Christ is made present at each Mass, and where he rests, reposed in the tabernacle.  Adams says, “symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest force the Western world ever felt, and had drawn man’s activities to herself more strongly than any other power, natural or supernatural, had ever done.” When we build Churches in the her name, when we say her name, we testify the reality that God became one of us through this simple and humble woman called Mary. The power of the Incarnate Word is made present in the wombs of our Churches, as it was in the womb of Mary.

Today I was able to attend mass at the Church called “Il Santissimo Nome di Maria,” keeping in mind my home parish, Holy Name of Mary of Bedford, Virginia. The power of the name of Mary is the power of the Incarnation. This particular church built during the Renaissance, and my the little church in Bedford, both testament to her majesty. God choose her to bear his son, and these churches proudly proclaim their own “fiat” by bearing the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  • Henry Adams, cited in the introduction by Asa Briggs to Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (New York: Gallery Books / W. H. Smith Publishers, 1980)
  • Henry Adams, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” in The Education of Henry Adams, Oxford World’s Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)


Seminarian Sam Hill

About the Author: Seminarian Sam Hill

Sam Hill recently graduated St. John Paul II Minor Seminary, after transferring from studies at Virginia Tech. He resides in Rome and is in formation at the Pontifical North American College.