It was Archbishop Fulton Sheen who once explained that only innocence can fully understand sin and its destructive effects on the human person. For although we can certainly and intimately experience the effects of sin in our lives (and those of others), our perspective on sin is one seen through eyes clouded (if not blinded) by the effects of sin itself. Perhaps this helps explain Mary’s ability to remain free from sin despite not losing her personal freedom. This may seem a subtle point, but Mary’s Immaculate Conception and her consequent sinless state are not the result of God’s grace preventing her from sinning in such a way that she didn’t have full freedom.
It is, of course, difficult for us to know what this full freedom is like since, through Original Sin, we were born with an already compromised free will significantly limited by varying degrees of spiritual ignorance and blindness. Mary’s special grace was that she began her life with a completely restored free will unencumbered by these elements of its enslavement that have been our unfortunate lot in life. And thus it was with an unimpaired will free of spiritual ignorance, blindness, or compulsion that she encountered whatever temptations came to her in the course of her holy and blameless life.
One might wonder though why Eve, who also initially faced temptation with an as yet free will, chose disobedience while Mary chose obedience. To attribute this solely to the work of grace in a totally passive Mary, would be to detract from the glory of her Immaculate Conception and contradict our Catholic notion of human cooperation with grace. In pondering this question it is important to note that Mary’s free will and Eve’s free will were not totally identical. Mary’s was a redeemed free will just as she, by being preserved from Original Sin, is the most perfectly redeemed of our race.
In addition, Mary was born into a world under the power of evil and not, like Eve, in a Garden of Eden untouched by sin. And dwelling within this sin-ravaged world Mary’s innocence and purity heightened her sensitivity to the tragic destructiveness of sin on the beauty of God’s creation and on humankind. And thus Mary was able to know what Eve could not have known or foreseen—namely, the lies of the serpent and the tragic consequences of a life of disobedience to God.
Now just as Mary’s graced resistance to evil and temptation was strengthened by witnessing in others the sad consequences of disobedience, we might look in the opposite direction—at her and the beauty that is hers as the humble and totally obedient handmaid of the Lord. In her we see that obedience to God ennobles the human person and gives us all a share in Christ’s glory. This is the truth that the ancient serpent twisted by urging Eve and Adam to seek a likeness to God through disobedience. From the depth of our sinfulness and misery we know, all too well, that this is the tragic lie that we are still in the process of disentangling ourselves from. Our Atlas Brothers who are being beatified today did succeed in disentangling themselves from this lie and by their obedience even unto death found themselves transformed into the very likeness of God—the very thing Eve and Adam sought through disobedience. May these our brothers and our Immaculate Mother thus not only intercede for us, but stand before us as living icons and living witnesses to that Christ-like obedience that opens us to God’s redeeming and transforming love and is the sole path to glory, happiness, peace, and eternal joy.