Our Lady of the Dynamo

A meditation on the timing of the dogmatic declaration of the Immaculate Conception (1854), with glosses on the media by Marshall McLuhan

“Effects are perceived, whereas causes are conceived.” 

At length, on the distant horizon, rises, with a soft and radiant light, the aurora of the Sun which has been so long desired. The happy Mother of the Messias was to be born before the Messias himself; and this is the day of the Conception of Mary. The earth already possesses a first pledge of the divine mercy; the Son of Man is near at hand. Two true Israelites, Joachim and Anne, noble branches of the family of David, find their union, after a long barrenness, made fruitful by the divine omnipotence. Glory be to God, who has been mindful of his promises, and who deigns to announce, from the high heavens, the end of the deluge of iniquity, by sending upon the earth the sweet white Dove that bears the tidings of peace!
— Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year, vol. 1: Advent, December 8

“Whenever any new medium or human extension occurs, it creates a new myth for itself, usually associated with a major figure.” 

God Ineffable — whose ways are mercy and truth, whose will is omnipotence itself, and whose wisdom “reaches from end to end mightily, and orders all things sweetly” — having foreseen from all eternity the lamentable wretchedness of the entire human race which would result from the sin of Adam, decreed, by a plan hidden from the centuries, to complete the first work of his goodness by a mystery yet more wondrously sublime through the Incarnation of the Word. This he decreed in order that man who, contrary to the plan of Divine Mercy had been led into sin by the cunning malice of Satan, should not perish; and in order that what had been lost in the first Adam would be gloriously restored in the Second Adam. From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so loved her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully. 
—Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854)

“Experience translated into a new medium literally bestows a delightful playback of earlier awareness.” 

Lesson from the Book of Wisdom.

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made anything from the beginning. I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made. The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived: neither had the fountains of waters as yet sprung out; the mountains with their huge bulk had not as yet been established: before the hills I was brought forth: he had not yet made the earth, nor the rivers, nor the poles of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was present: when with a certain law and compass he enclosed the depths: when he established the sky above, and poised the fountains of waters: when he compassed the sea with its bounds, and set a law to the waters, that they should not pass their limits: when he balanced the foundations of the earth: I was with him forming all things: and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times, playing in the world: and my delights were to be with the children of men. Now, therefore, ye children, hear me. Blessed are they that keep my ways. Hear instruction and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, and that watcheth daily at my gates, and waiteth at the posts of my doors. He that shall find me, shall find life, and shall have salvation from the Lord. 
— Proverbs 8:22-35

 “Electric light abolished the divisions of night and day, of inner and outer, and of the subterranean and the terrestrial.”

Then he showed his scholar the great hall of dynamos, and explained how little he knew about electricity or force of any kind, even of his own special sun, which spouted heat in inconceivable volume, but which, as far as he knew, might spout less or more, at any time, for all the certainty he felt in it. To him, the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. 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. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring,— scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power,— while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive. 
—Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, chapter 25: “The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)”

 “The mosaic is the mode of the corporate or collective image and commands deep participation.”

O Most Holy Virgin, who was pleasing to God and didst become His Mother, Immaculate in thy body, in thy soul, in thy faith and in thy love, we beseech thee to look graciously upon the wretched who implore thy powerful protection. The wicked serpent, against whom the primal curse was hurled, continues nonetheless to wage war and to lay snares for the unhappy children of Eve. Ah, do thou, our blessed Mother, our Queen and Advocate, who from the first instant of thy conception didst crush the head of our enemy, receive the prayers that we unite single-heartedly to thine and conjure thee to offer at the throne of God, that we may never fall into the snares that are laid for us, in such wise that we may all come to the haven of salvation; and in the midst of so many dangers may holy Church and the fellowship of Christians everywhere sing once more the hymn of deliverance, victory and peace. Amen. 
— Pope St. Pius X 

“Radio is not only a mighty awakener of archaic memories, forces, and animosities, but a decentralizing, pluralistic force, as is really the case with all electric power and media.”

O Mary! Ark of the Covenant, built of an incorruptible wood, and covered over with the purest gold! help us to correspond with those wonderful designs of our God, who, after having found his glory in thy incomparable purity, wills now to seek his glory in our unworthiness, by making us, from being slaves of the devil, his temples and his abode, where he may find his delight. Help us to this, O thou that by the mercy of thy Son hast never known sin! and receive this day our devoutest praise. 
—Dom Prosper Guéranger,  The Liturgical Year, vol. 1: Advent, December 8
The symbol was force, as a compass-needle or a triangle was force, as the mechanist might prove by losing it, and nothing could be gained by ignoring their value. 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; the historian’s business was to follow the track of the energy; to find where it came from and where it went to; its complex source and shifting channels; its values, equivalents, conversions. It could scarcely be more complex than radium; it could hardly be deflected, diverted, polarised, absorbed more perplexingly than other radiant matter. 
—Henry Adams,  The Education of Henry Adamschapter 25: “The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)”

And you thought this was all about the pope making things up to piss off the Protestants. Tl;dr: It has to do with electricity and the invention of the telegraph, as well as the way in which God works in time.


  1. Diego Velázquez, The Immaculate Conception (1618)
  2. The Miraculous Medal (1830); Cooke and Wheatstone’s telegraph (1837)
  3. The proper lighting with which to read Mary and the Art of Prayer
  4. The labyrinth at Chartres; Schumann Resonator with Labyrinth Coil
  5. Mosaic L-R, top-bottom: The Palace of Electricity where Henry Adams saw the dynamo (1900); Our Lady as the Burning Bush; the Dove of the Church; Vivien Leigh, veiled; the chandelier under which I was sitting when we finished Act IV of Aurora Bearialis; labyrinths juxtaposed; Christ as King, doorway to St. Thomas the Apostle, Hyde Park, Chicago; the ark in the cathedral of Our Lady at Antwerp; the light portal by which I enter into the video world
  6. The Ark of Our Lady at Antwerp

For further reflections on the medieval mosaic of devotion to Our Lady, see The Lady and the Logos and my book Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (Columbia University Press, 2017).


  1. "The Church assumes Mary herself was conceived in the normal way through loving intercourse of her father "Joachim with her mother Anne..."

    Her Mother's name was 'Anne' spelled in the way we know it to be today? I didn't realize 'Anne' was/is a Hebrew name?

    I still say our current Pope would be well served to fall silent and let you, Rachel, do the writing and speaking. If you could spare the time.....


  2. Deeply grateful for your marvelous meditation on Mary.

  3. Beyond health and beauty I loved her, And I chose to have her rather than the light, because her radiance never ceases.

    Wisdom 7:10


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