Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mary and the Faces of God

Today I was talking on the telephone with an old friend who grew up Catholic. Her mother died last year, and she has been struggling with her grief and in her relationship with her dad. I asked her if she had a Rosary, and she said yes, she thought she did, but she had never really prayed with it. She has sometimes prayed to Mary, such as when she was pregnant, but in general has not had a Marian devotion. I shared my "discovery" of Mary and the peace I receive praying the Rosary and suggested she give it a try.

A couple of days before Christmas I went out to dinner with my oldest friend, who also grew up Catholic, and who also didn't have much experience with the Rosary or Marian devotions. She had heard of Our Lady of Guadalupe, but she didn't know the story, and this is the patron saint of the Americas! How did I, a Protestant who heard nothing about Mary but her name as the mother of Jesus, and at that mentioned only briefly at Christmas, come to know Mary more personally than these women?! My Catholic friends had no more in depth experience in church regarding Mary than I did. Yet from all of my reading about Mary from a Catholic perspective (a slew of library books suggesting that I am bordering on obsession), the veneration of Mary as Mother of God is indispensable to the Catholic faith.

In Our Father, Our Mother: Mary and the Faces of God, author George T. Montague, S.M. clearly presents Mary as the spiritual mother of all Christians. She is the mother of the Christian family and a channel of the Holy Spirit. Though human, not divine, she is holy, the divine mother. She also represents the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant, and is seen as the woman in Revelation 12 who is revealed as the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of God in heaven, the vessel containing Jesus, the new covenant. She is the ark of the new creation, and Jesus is the living Word of God (the 10 commandments) and the Bread of Life (the manna from heaven) who is a shepherd (as in the staff of Aaron), within her.

Mary is identified as the ultimate gebirah, or Queen Mother of the Old Testament Davidic tradition. The gebirah reigned with her son the king, acting as confidant and advisor to him and as intercessor to the people. Her power in the kingdom was second only to her son's. Since the king had many wives, none of them was queen. The queen was the king's mother, and he bowed to her. As Solomon said to his mother Bathsheba, "I cannot refuse you." Between the scene in Revelation 12 in which we find Mary crowned in heaven, and in light of this conception of the role of the gebirah, we can understand the title "Queen of Heaven" that Catholics give Mary. So how did my friends miss out on this rich tradition?

Born in the late 1960s, just a few years after Vatican II, perhaps they grew up in an era that reduced the role and spiritual presence of Mary in the Catholic church, which aimed not to offend Protestants in the spirit of ecumenism. Just as with my experience, my friends came of age seeing no women church leaders and without any understanding of the sacred feminine. God was all male.

In Our Father, Our Mother, Montague explains that the use of the metaphor "Father" for God was never meant to exclude the feminine aspect of God. He gives ample Biblical examples that describe God in feminine terms, using images such as milk and breasts, and portraying the Spirit of God as a mother bird. He focuses on Jesus' use of the Aramaic title "Abba," which reflects Jesus' intimate relationship with a kind, tender, loving Father, rather than an angry, punishing, oppressive patriarch. Jesus corrects this Old Testament
misunderstanding of God and the extension of this impression to the husband's role in family life.

While there is adequate biblical and theological precedent for adding "Mother" to God's name, as the Unity Church does in referring to "Father-Mother God," Montague argues that adding Mother presupposes that Father excludes the feminine, which, again, it was never supposed to do. And it is true that Jesus only uses the title Father, or Abba, himself. Montague goes on to assert that God reveals his feminine aspect and maternal love through the human person of Mary. God as Father is transcendent, while Mary gives us the experience of God's immanent, close, maternal presence. The author says, "Jesus, whose mother was Mary, called God 'Abba,' and it was Mary, not God, whom he called 'Imma.' And it was Mary, not God, whom he told us to call 'Mother.' That fact is the ultimate reason for retaining, in its rich and overflowing biblical meaning, the title 'Father' for God, and fully exploiting, for it's spiritual power, the title 'Mother' for Mary."

Montague's writing echoes that of other Catholic authors regarding Mary, but for me he brought it all together most perfectly. His explanation of these titles goes a long way toward healing the wounds inflicted by my experience of an all male religion and the patriarchal churches in which I grew up. Still, there is a point upon which I am not quite satisfied. Every book I have read emphasizes that Mary's purpose always, exclusively, is to lead us to her son. Yet if she indeed is the living symbol of the maternal face of God, shouldn't we also be looking to her directly, and holding our gaze at times on her alone, so as to comprehend the divine feminine that she reveals? If we are to have a balanced view of God and family life as Christians, isn't the Mother worthy of singular veneration and honor? It is true that I have returned my attention to Jesus as a result of my Marian devotion, and this is right and good. However, I need my relationship with my heavenly mother, and as I have only just begun to get to know her, it seems fitting to dwell equally upon Mary for the time being. I have had a relationship with my Abba for a long, long time.

And yet, my friends, there is an even deeper exploration of Mary and the feminine divine that I continue to unearth. There is the feminine spirit found in Proverbs, Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon who is called Holy Wisdom, or Sophia in Greek. Is she a mere personification of an attribute of God, or is she an independent person, created by God before all of creation, as she tells us herself in the Bible? And how does she relate to Mary? In the end, despite the conclusions I may come to, such mysteries of the nature of God will never be fully explained. I don't think they are meant to be. Such things are perhaps intuitively revealed rather than logically proven. Still, I will continue to explore my spiritual path using the tools of imperfect words.

What is most important to me on this journey is that my daughter has me as her primary female role model, and through me is learning of my love for and devotion to "the mother of my Lord," as Elizabeth refers to Mary in the Gospel of Luke, and of Mary's love for us. I have it in my power to give the gift of a spiritual Mother to my daughter, a gift I have only recently received myself, and in doing so I can mother myself and heal the girl within, who became a woman lost in a maze that dishonored and neglected the sacred feminine. Hail, full of grace.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Does Christianity Need a Mother?

Here are some quotes from Life magazine, December 1996, in a feature article, "The Mystery of Mary":

"I envy Catholicism its Mary. Protestantism has nothing that can replace the part that she could or might play in their churches. She lends the idea of God a feminine face and makes the idea more available, less exclusionary. I would like to think that she could be a bridge between religions."
--Forrest Church, Unitarian minister

"I think that everybody needs to know that God loves us both like a father and a mother. And the Mary metaphor reflects this. The way that a mother loves a newborn child whom she's holding in her arms and is about to nurse--that's the way God loves us." --Father Greeley

"The primordial picture of the mother with her child has been a good counterbalance in a male religion. The image of the mother--it's a strong one, an ancient one, a powerful one." --Karen Armstrong, religious historian

In subsequent articles I'd like to focus on the way that I am working out this Divine Feminine image, to locate the actual person behind the image and metaphor. The purpose of art, including paintings, statues, poetry, and song, is to align one with hidden, mysterious concepts and realities that are difficult to grasp in a linear, literal fashion. This enhances the learning of scripture, as does personal devotion.

In my own home I am decorating for Christmas, and I always begin with my living room fireplace mantle. It is a wide marble mantle resting on limestone. In the center is a Victorian style silk flower piece built upon a large, antique spool. On the left of that is a Nativity scene, and on the right a Victorian metal box in which I keep wedding mementos. On top of this box stands a statue of Mary holding lilies, and leaning against it is an Italian plaque of Mary and the baby Jesus, both sets of eyes serenely closed in ineffable love.

A daily devotion I practice is to light a candle in front of the statue and say the "Hail Mary" prayer. I ask for guidance as I go about my daily round, ordering and decorating my home, preparing meals, caring for and educating my child, and being a wife. I also understand Mary, and myself, as a "woman unto herself," an ancient definition of "virgin" uncovered by Christian writer and novelist Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair) in her memoir Dance of the Dissident Daughter. The "woman unto herself" is autonomous, not defined ultimately by any of her roles, such as daughter, wife, or mother, but as a person who is spiritually and psychologically whole unto herself, subject to her own inner authority, in line with the will of God.

The Virgin Mary is shown to be one unto herself when she says "yes" in the Annunciation scene in the Gospel of Luke. She doesn't ask her father or Joseph for his opinion or permission. Her answer is autonomous and rests upon her faith in the Lord. Jesus further emphasizes a woman's value as a faithful disciple over the traditional value of a woman based solely on her ability to produce children in the Jewish society of those times. He does not devalue motherhood or family, but instead underscores the new relationship of the family of Christ as foundational.

Jesus' message is egalitarian, equalizing the status of women and men. However, the church Fathers were often misogynist in their writings, and this attitude toward women was pronounced in the formation of Mariology that pitted Mary (pure, ever-virgin, undefiled, perfect) against Eve, and by extension, all women (whore, temptress, defiled, inferior). I will show in subsequent articles how this idealized Mary sterilized her image and harmed both women and men psychologically and spiritually. I think that an integration of Protestant and Catholic beliefs about Mary, an ecumenical Mariology, is needed if we are ever to be integrated as individual people and as a society.

Christianity does need a mother. As Christmas nears, let us all contemplate the reason for the season, gazing more closely than usual upon the mother in the picture, the human mother of a divine child and the gift and promise they brought to save the world, together.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Personal Revelation

"Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then, being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth...And she bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and to his throne." --Revelation 12:1,2,&5

By the end of the day yesterday I was about ready to give up my mission to restore Mary to the Protestant faith. Already, the task seemed too daunting. I have been caring for my sick child and trying to get back into a regular routine after being out of town all last week. Physical fatigue affects the mind and spirit, as the three aspects of our being are inseparable. But today the sun shines, and I am finding that something my grandmother said recently is surely true: "Tomorrow will be a better day."

My dad once accused my mom of reading too much. To an avid reader, this does not seem possible. But if I apply the concept of relaxed homeschooling to myself, it is evident that I have been trying to inhale too much information and cram what other people have written into my head, expecting instant results of understanding and wisdom. This is not a gentle spiritual path, and certainly the way of Mary is gentleness. I turned to the Rosary last night and had a personal revelation.

I have given up trying to be a Bible scholar. I just don't have time. I don't mean that I don't have time to read and study the Bible, but other people have already contributed centuries worth of exhaustive exegesis. I can slowly absorb the work of these others, perhaps avoiding some of the more cerebral, philosophically oriented writing. My personal orientation, though not lacking a solid foundation in logic, tends to be more intuitive and mystical. It is more important to read the Bible myself and to receive personal revelation than to understand someone else's interpretation.

One thing I find interesting about the Catholic Church is the traditions, which it seems to put on equal ground with the scriptures. This is because originally the Christian community was largely illiterate and the stories and beliefs were passed orally from person to person and passed down to the next generation, similar to the Native American culture. Not all of the writings of the Christian faith made it into the canonized Bible, so perhaps a full understanding of the faith is not as likely to be present without the preservation by the church of its most ancient traditions. I was also surprised to discover that the Catholic canonized Bible includes two books that the Protestants do not, the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, a.k.a Sirach. These two books are full of the Wisdom tradition that is also contained in the book of Proverbs.

While it has been edifying and useful to me to learn certain things about Catholicism, and to a lesser extent, Orthodox Christianity, I just don't have time or feel compelled to endeavor a conversion to one of these churches. I think, rather, that I can take what I like and leave the rest. Because counterintuitive as it may seem, the very absence of Mary in my Protestant upbringing gives me the unique opportunity to decide for myself who she is, to develop my own, personal Mariology. By definition, devotions are a private practice.

In the American culture at least, people want definitive answers and scientific, or at least literary, proof. But faith requires believing without seeing. Protestants focus almost exclusively on the Bible and study it exhaustively and try to apply the teachings to their own lives. This is not wrong. However, us Westerners weren't taught how to meditate. Meditation seems Eastern and foreign and at the very least, uncomfortable in the idea of sitting still with a straight back, staring at a candle and humming "om" for long periods of time. The Rosary, I have discovered, is a brilliant way to meditate in which one can lie down in the dark with one's eyes closed. This to me is a much more accessible way to meditate! When my mind wanders, I simply bring it back to the prayer or mystery on which I am focusing. The repetition of the prayers quiets and centers the mind and puts one into a meditative state.

Last night I meditated on the "glorious mysteries" and had a personal revelation. Catholics believe that Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven when she died, which has no specific basis in scripture, except for the woman mentioned in Revelation as appearing in heaven clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet and a crown of stars on her head. She is present with the Ark of the Covenant and is usually interpreted as Mary. This woman is pregnant and gives birth to a child matching the description of Jesus. Uncannily, the picture of this woman almost exactly corresponds to the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who refers to herself as "ever-virgin." It occurred to me that the Bible says that when we die and our souls go to heaven we get a new body. From this perspective, it makes sense why Mary's apparitions always appear as a young woman of exceeding beauty. As a Protestant, I can agree that Mary was assumed into heaven but was given a new body, just as we all will be. And the Catholic mystery of her crowning as the Queen of Heaven, which is symbolic rather than literal, can be accepted in terms of the woman in Revelation. Mary, as the mother of a king, would be given the title Queen Mother.

As for Mary's perpetual virginity, this too can be seen from a Protestant perspective. All Christians agree that Mary was a virgin, in the definition of not having had sexual intercourse, when Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. They diverge in the belief of her remaining a virgin after his birth. Personally, I think the Protestant idea of a Mary who had a regular marriage and may have had other children is more relevant to us today and more fully reflects the mission of Jesus. He came as a bridegroom, with the church as his bride. It makes sense that he would have learned the role of the bridegroom from the experience of growing up with his earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, understanding the full intimacy of a human marriage. And there is more than one meaning of "virgin." "Alma," which was translated as "virgin," can also mean "young girl," any unmarried woman, or "hidden one."

Obviously Mary was a young girl when she conceived Jesus. Receiving a new body in heaven, she is eternally this young girl, this virgin. She is also eternally a mother, pregnant always with the hope of the salvation achieved in Jesus and the new beginning of creation. The woman of Revelation and Our Lady of Guadalupe symbolize this spiritual state. Mary will always be the virgin mother of Jesus, whether or not she had other children. The mystery of Mary's hidden quality could refer to her being overshadowed by the power of the Most High, to the physical hiding of the holy family from the wrath of Herod, or to the spirit of Wisdom (Sophia) hidden within her.

In regard to Mary's Immaculate Conception, this too can be understood from a Protestant perspective. Catholics believe in the doctrine of original sin, but the Orthodox church does not. Mary would have been born sinless like everyone else. However, we are born with the tendency to sin in the Orthodox tradition. I don't know if Protestants have a uniform doctrine on this, but as far as I know, the churches I grew up in did not teach the doctrine of original sin. So Mary, in my opinion, surely could have been born without sin, as I believe we all were. Jesus paid for the sins of all who ever lived and would ever live with his death on the cross. With his resurrection, we all can become children of God, so we all can be seen as pure, or virgin, in God's eyes. In fact, when Mary revealed herself to Bernadette at Lourdes as "the Immaculate Conception," I believe she was in effect establishing a new doctrine to replace "original sin."

As children of God, created in the image of God, and filled with the Holy Spirit when we are baptized, we are fully human but also share in the divinity of God. Quantum physics is proving scientifically that all living things are connected to the ultimate source of life energy and the universe, which is God. So while Mary is not divine in the sense of being God or a member of the three persons of the Trinity, her sacredness by virtue of being the Mother of God-the-Son, as well as her pronouncement by the Bible as being highly favored and blessed among women (indeed, all generations are directed to call her blessed), gives her a unique place of honor and reason for devotion in the divine plan. It is also helpful to know that Catholics regard prayer as communication rather than worship, so praying to Mary is not designated as worship of her. She is a person of sacred femininity who can be understood by all members of the Christian community as ever-virgin, filled with the Wisdom and grace of God.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Step 11 and Ecumenism

November 8, 2011

Step 11 of the AA/Al-Anon Twelve Step groups:  sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

ecumenical (from Webster's dictionary) 1: worldwide or general in extent, influence, or application; 2, a: of, relating to, or representing the whole of a body of churches; b: promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation.

catholic (from Webster): including a wide variety of things; universal

"Though traditionally considered a Catholic act of devotion, the Rosary with its primary focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is ultimately a catholic, or universal, prayer that can appeal to Christians of all faiths and denominations...Ultimately, the Rosary is your prayer and can be prayed the way you see fit."
--from The Rosary: A Journey to the Beloved by Catholic writer Gary Jansen

"I am the Mother of all nations." --Our Lady of Guadalupe, to Juan Diego

A common saying in the rooms of AA and its affiliated groups is, "Take what you like and leave the rest." This comes to mind as I proceed in my spiritual journey of exploring the history of the Christian church and the Virgin Mary and the beliefs and practices of Catholicism. My vintage Rosary arrived in the mail today, and I look forward to using it as a tool for prayer and meditation. I have already been praying the Rosary using Jansen's book, as cited above, which includes pictures of the beads to use in the absence of the real thing.

Interestingly, prayer beads were not invented by the Catholic Church. Buddhist Japa Mala prayer beads preceeded the Rosary and are likely one of its sources. There are also Islamic prayer beads. I already own and have used Japa Mala beads for meditation, though I am not Buddhist. I also practice yoga (a spiritual as well as physical practice), though I am not of Indian origin or Hindu. Charlotte Mason, a Christian educational philosopher and homeschooling pioneer declared that all of the world religions contain the light of truth but that Christianity contains the greatest, brightest light.

When I was a Montessori teacher at St. Joseph's school in Columbus, I heard for the first time the word ecumenical, defined above. Students and teachers did not have to be Catholic to attend the school. It welcomed members of any religion or none, just like AA and its affiliated groups. I thought this was a pretty cool attitude, and it seems that many Christians could use a dose of it.

Protestants do not only object to what they perceive as the overly exalted veneration of Mary and her worship, but also Catholic beliefs and practices such as purgatory, confession to a priest, penance, the community of saints, and in some cases the baptism of babies. I believe in baptism by water when the person is old enough to make a conscious decision, but I don't think the baptism of babies is wrong. I have been to Protestant churches that baptize babies and ones that baptize adults in the Holy Spirit only, with no water at all, neither by sprinkling nor immersion. As a Protestant raised with the baptismal practice of immersion in water and with that as my personal preference/belief, should I subsequently avoid like the plague any church that baptizes in a different way? Such nitpicking over the details of Christian practice surely misses the point and would not be pleasing to God. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote his book, Mere Christianity. 

I have a Jehovah's Witness friend who considers herself and her church Christian, and they do not believe in hell. They assert Biblical sources for this belief. We must consider that there are a plethora of interpretations of the Bible, as well as the certain disadvantage we have in reading an English translation, where much is lost and translations can vary widely and be incorrect. It is also of historical record that the Bible was many times edited by men. The Jews, Catholics, and Protestants all have certain parts of the same Bible in common but others that are included or not included. Also, the religion of Islam has a common ancestry.

A homeschooling Christian friend of mine commented, in a discussion of organic food, that it is possible to make an idol of what we eat, referring to the scripture passage from Matthew 6 of not worrying about what we will eat or wear. Taking focus off  the meaning of Jesus' life and putting it on details of contention within the Christian community instead, especially in an attitude of judgment and fear (which is not in love, and so is not of God) is idolatrous. For any human being to think that he completely understands the ineffable God and the holy scriptures, or that he has the market cornered on salvation, lacks wisdom and is prideful. Jesus said, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God." This is what I am doing.

Being devoted to Mary is not the sole domain of the Catholic Church. In fact, according to Catholic writer Charlene Spretnak, devotion to Mary has waned since Vatican II. And many Protestants are rediscovering Mary in the light of ecumenical dialogue and the quality of her place in scripture. (Consider too that devotion and worship are not the same thing.) The Rosary does not belong exclusively to Catholics either and can be embraced by any Christian. One doesn't have to be Catholic to attend mass at a Catholic church, nor does one have to be Protestant to attend a service at one of their churches. One can be Protestant and honor the holiness of Mary and the sacred feminine.

Take what you like and leave the rest, practice Step 11 whether you are a member of a Twelve Step group or not, and seek the Kingdom of God first, setting aside fear, anger, indignation, the judgment and condemnation of others and their religious beliefs and practices, and the idolatry of placing your focus on the red tape rather than the Redeemer. The life of Mary is surely inseparable from the life of Jesus, and the contemplation of the Mysteries can be a part of any Christian path.

A Marian Mission

I transferred my previous articles about the Virgin Mary here from my other blog, so as not to leave any gaps in the continuance of my covering of this subject. Today my mind posed this question: Is it my mission to bring Mary to the Protestants? I think the prompting of this question came from a re-reading I did last night of journal entries I wrote in 2008, three years ago. As far as I was consciously aware, my intense interest in Mary did not begin until this past September; however, the seeds were apparently planted at least three years ago!

In my journal I wrote, "Having grown up Protestant rather than Catholic, I didn't even have Mary to stand in as the Divine Feminine." In hindsight I understand that I was "missing Mary" without even realizing where the hole in my religious spirituality was coming from. I had, however, found someone to fill the gap. At a vegetarian restaurant years ago in Columbus, I came across a book about Kuan Yin, the Chinese "goddess" of compassion. I was intrigued, as I had studied a lot of mythology and thought I was aware of all the major goddess traditions. My journal recounts my experience: "Eventually I met Kuan Yin, and she has been for me the focus of my study of the Divine Feminine, which for me has been a study of the depths of compassion. Kuan Yin is 'the one who hears all the cries of the world.' She is a savioress, protector, and a warrior. She seems to combine the many faces of the goddess into one."

"I don't think of Kuan Yin as actually existing in a physical form, although one of her legends tells of her being the maiden Miao Shan in her earthly life. She is a bodhisattva who delays entrance into Nirvana until she can bring all the souls of the world with her. I see parallels between her story and that of Jesus." This is not the only parallel I see today. Consider the Salve Regina prayer: Hail, holy Queen, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee we lift our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and, after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Oh clement, oh pious, oh sweet Virgin Mary! Queen of the most holy Rosary, pray for us, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Now, I had read in my studies of Kuan Yin that there were parallels to Mary, and that in fact Kuan Yin took on the look of Mary via white statues, holding an infant. I did not like this comparison. Subconsciously, I had been trained not to like Mary. Catholics prayed to Mary, which was not right, as she was only human. My journal continues: "Kuan Yin is important to me as a focus for meditation. She helps me to embody peace, strength, and compassion. I'm not sure exactly how to incorporate her into my idea of the Mother God, except as an archetypal representation of the Divine Feminine. She helps me to invoke that energy."

For some perspective on this, I should mention that I regularly attended the Unity Church of Christianity, which referred to "Father-Mother God" in prayer. I liked the Unity church but found that it seemed to have an exclusively metaphysical interpretation of the Bible, which for me was missing something vital. Still, the acknowledgment of the feminine face of God was comforting. Yet I was obviously having trouble conceptualizing how the "Mother God" fit in to my understanding of the Trinity and the form of Christianity I grew up with. Kuan Yin allowed me to meditate on the sacred feminine, but how did she fit in with Jesus? Clearly, Kuan Yin is Mary. Mary made her way even into the hearts of Buddhists as Kuan Yin, who is easily the most popular deity in the highly patriarchal country of China. She is equally revered as Kannon in Japan. So what is going on? Mary is the ecumenical bridge between all people of faith.

So in answer to my own question, do I want to remain Protestant and help return to them their lost Mother of God? I just received a book from the library today called Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary. I'm going to start there. I am also reading a book called Maria-Sophia: A Holistic Vision of Creation. The ideas in this book reflect a more Eastern Orthodox perspective of Mary and her relationship to Sophia, the Holy Wisdom of the Bible. Can I bring what makes most sense to me from the Catholic and Orthodox traditions surrounding the Virgin Mary and show her to be instrumental to the faith of all Christians, including Protestants, as well as to the healing of the wounds of this lost world? That, it appears, is my task, and a mighty one it is.

The Hail Mary

November 15, 2011

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of 
thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, 
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

 As a person with a Protestant upbringing (which by "upbringing" I refer to any combination of home life, church teachings, and cultural/societal impressions), participating in some Catholic practices can feel, at the very least, a bit subversive. It can feel like a downright guilty secret. There is so much I am trying to learn and understand in my studies of the Catholic faith and traditions, that no single blog could hold the insights I have gained. So let me begin with the Hail Mary prayer, which is central to the Rosary.

I was vaguely familiar with this prayer before but had no idea of its origins. The first section comes straight from the Gospel of Luke. "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" is the greeting the angel Gabriel gave Mary at the Annunciation (announcement of God's plan for her to become the mother of Jesus). Some translations read "Rejoice, highly favored one," but I am going to refer to the 1st translation to discuss the deeper elements Catholics believe this greeting implies.

The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is that Mary was born free from the stain of original sin caused by the disobedience of Adam and Eve. "Full of grace" implies that in Mary both sin and the fullness of God's grace could not have dwelled. The next part of the first section is another quote from Luke by Elizabeth when Mary visited her after the Annunciation, and Elizabeth was pregnant with John the Baptist and Mary was pregnant with Jesus. "Blessed art thou among women" tells us that Mary was in a uniquely favored position with God. I don't think most Protestants would object to the beginning section of this prayer. In fact, Protestant reformer Martin Luther did not.

It is the petition to Mary in the 2nd section that gets sticky, so let's look at that. Is "Holy Mary" an accurate description? Catholics identify Mary with the Ark of the Covenant, which held the covenant (the ten commandments) between the Hebrews and God. It is considered a type that foreshadows Jesus as the new covenant and Mary as the vessel that contains Him. How could such a person not be sacred?

In Missing Mary, Catholic writer Charlene Spretnak argues that growing God-the-Son from her very flesh would have changed Mary ontologically, moving her "...into a space that did not exist before: For eternity she is more than human but less than divine, a unique mediator intimately linked with both humans and the divine." She goes on to say, "...a woman is subtly but irrevocably changed after growing a person inside herself. Mary, it follows, must have experienced far more of a transformation than usual since the being in her womb was God." Indeed, modern genetics tell us that a mother and her baby in the womb literally share blood, and that some of the baby's DNA is transferred to the mother and can remain there forever. Without doubt, Mary is holy.

Centuries ago the nature of Jesus as both entirely human and entirely divine was hotly debated. The Catholic church strengthened the faith in Jesus' divinity by giving Mary the title Mother of God, which explicitly points to Jesus being one with God the Father. She is not the mother of the Trinity, but of God-the-Son, who is indeed God in human form. Martin Luther also did not object to this title. The honor of Mary's title points us to the true nature of God, which leads us to the "Pray for us sinners" part. This is asking Mary to pray for you just like you might ask a friend to do for you in your time of need. Mary is the mother of all of us, as Jesus gave her as mother to John at the cross before his death, symbolizing giving Mary to the Church as her mother as well.

Mary is thought of as Intercessor and Advocate. An illustration of this comes from the wedding at Cana. This is where Jesus performed his first miracle, at the prompting of his mother. He seems to rebuke Mary, saying that his hour has not yet come. His reluctance could be read as the understanding that this miracle will be the first to bring attention to his Godly powers, which will inevitably lead to his crucifixion. In the garden at Gethsemane, Jesus prays to his Father that if there is any other way, "take this cup from me."

Mary, as Jesus' mother, knew him better than anyone else but God. She would have anticipated his reluctance to intervene in the problem with the wine. She guided him and brought him up, influencing the person he became. He honored her wisdom and listened to her. And she gently prompted him to his first miracle. She also instructed the servants to do what Jesus tells them, which leaves an example for the rest of us.

Also, in those days, running out of wine would have reflected very badly on the wedding host, a great embarrassment. Mary's actions here are of intercession between humans and Jesus and points to her deep compassion.

The "Hail Mary" prayer, in its seeming simplicity, reminds one of these events in the life of Jesus and encourages contemplation of the deeper mysteries of Christianity. Mary always points back to her son, and we can't really think of the Son without honoring the Mother.

Marian Protestantism?

November 6, 2011

It is evident that I must continue to write about the Virgin Mary. As personal as this spiritual journey truly is, it can't stay locked in my head or hidden in my heart; perhaps because I intuit that I am not the only one facing these questions. And it is conceivable that I may have a unique perspective as a person brought up Protestant, as a spiritual seeker, and not least as a woman. While it makes me vulnerable to post for the whole world to read, I have never been one to shy from controversy. I may very well have something entirely new to contribute to the ecumenical dialogue.

I went to St. Mary's Catholic Church in Edgerton last night for mass for the first time. Beezy went with me, and when we entered the sanctuary a little early, there were already "Hail Mary" prayers being recited. The Rosary is of particular interest to me. I have for some time craved a spiritual practice that involves a metaphysical element, a meditative path to the deeper mysteries of the Christian faith. The church I grew up in, and was baptized in, was in no way mystical. My personal experience, however, was mystical indeed. At the age of 8, while sitting in Sunday school in the basement of the Church of Christ, God spoke to me quite clearly and instructed me to be baptized.

Right after Sunday school I told my mom of my experience. Surprisingly to me, she took me seriously. I thought that because I was a kid she would not. She asked if we had learned about baptism in Sunday school, which we had not, and I told her again that God just told me to get baptized. She said we would talk to the minister after church about it, and we did. I was ready to be baptized immediately, but because of my age I had to undergo religious instruction via visits by the minister to give me a slide show presentation with corresponding workbooks to be completed. To me it was all very simple. God told me to get baptized, and I wanted my sins to be forgiven. The condescension of the slides and workbooks was annoying.

At last the day of my baptism arrived, with the slight insult of my uncle, who was 13, getting to go first. After all, it was my idea (or rather, God had personally directed me), and he was copying me (as it seemed in my young mind)! What I remember is affirming my belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and He is my savior. I wore a white robe, which I remember being very heavy after I was dunked and it became thoroughly saturated. My spiritual experience was the opposite. I felt completely light, pure, and free from sin. I vowed never to be mean to my little brother again!

So having my first experience as a mystic at the age of only 8, I suppose I was destined to continue a long, long search for the Divine. Mary, as I have written before, was of no great significance in my religious upbringing. Now I am finding that there is a vast history of the Christian church of which I have been wholly ignorant. From the time of the earliest Christian communities, the people were devoted to Mary and understood her role in the new religion as a full spiritual presence, in a cosmological as well as a human sense. This was all lost in the Protestant tradition, and as I have read in the book Missing Mary, much of the mystical beauty surrounding devotions to the Mother of God was also lost to the Catholic Church after Vatican II in the early 1960s. Yet apparitions of Mary appearing to people on earth right into modern times is certainly significant and should not be ignored.

My question today then, is can a Protestant be devoted to the Virgin Mary, or must one convert to Catholicism to do so? With a quick internet search, I could see that there is a resurgence of ecumenical dialogue on the subject of Mary, and the idea that she may very well serve as the bridge between the various branches of Christian faith, that is so desperately needed. In fact, Mary seems to be honored more in the religion of Islam than she is in the Protestant tradition!

So here I find myself often visiting the Rosary Garden, and with a small statue of Mary on my fireplace mantle, studying how to pray the Rosary, and waiting for vintage rosary beads to arrive in the mail. Unfortunately, although I want my daughter to be raised with a much fuller expression of the sacred feminine as part of her religious experience than I ever knew, the Catholic churches in this area have no Sunday school or children's church experiences. So to a 7 year old child it is a boring service! Can a family belong to two churches? On the Sundays in which the Presbyterian church that we have attended does not have children's church, perhaps we could go to the Catholic church instead. And perhaps I could go to mass by myself some of the other weeks.

I don't doubt that some readers will think me confused. But a renewal and deepening of my faith, and a deeper dimension to the mysteries of the life of Christ are being opened, and I believe that there are many, many possible paths. This is mine, and I am sharing the journey.

Poems to the Virgin Mary

October 27, 2011

Ah, Great Mother, there
you are, climbing the rose bush
Reddest of roses

She comes to the garden
Dropping dew on the flowers
Dancing like fire
The Morning Star

Catholic Mass

October 2, 2011

I wrote in a previous blog about my experience with Mother Mary in the Rosary Garden in Montpelier. Since then I have been curious, and a little afraid, to attend a Catholic mass. I didn't know if it would seem too foreign, or if I would be confused trying to follow an unfamiliar service. But this morning Beezy and I went to mass at St. Patrick's in Bryan. The sanctuary was full, so we had to sit in the far back, which was fine. I could observe without feeling conspicuous!

I was looking around for a statue of Mary, as I had remembered seeing when a close friend of mine got married in the Catholic church, her uncle being a priest. I remember wondering about the part during her wedding in which just the bride kneeled in front of Mary's statue. My friend explained to me that women pray to Mary for help with the particular concerns of being a woman. I didn't see Mary at first in the sanctuary, because as it turned out, she was directly to the left of my chair! I didn't think that was a coincidence. There were candles lit before her, which I imagine represent people's prayers.

I really enjoyed the service. I felt more peaceful there than I have all week, and it helped that the sun was shining brightly. The sermon was given by a retired priest, and his message about marriage was one of love and service. I felt uplifted and not uncomfortable at all, except for a moment when I was offered communion. Some Catholic churches don't like people of other denominations to take communion, but they usually say so in that case, and this morning they did not. So I took it, hoping I didn't do it "wrong," by which I mean that the ritual is a bit different in the Protestant denominations.
The only problem with the service was that there was no children's church, so all the squirmy, bored, and in some cases crying kids were in the sanctuary for the entire mass. I would like to continue to attend the Catholic church and see if I want to officially join (convert?), but I want Beezy to have a good experience too. Since my husband is gone on Wednesday evenings, maybe I will have Beezy attend one of the many church programs for children in Montpelier on those nights, and I will go to mass by myself. My husband is not a regular church goer.

The pastor today specifically recognized God as having both a feminine and a masculine face, and I felt enveloped in love and consoled in my spirit. It felt like home. There is also a Catholic mass in Montpelier on Sundays at 9:00 a.m. While a little early for me, I would like to visit there too. I will continue to pray and to listen for the answer to where I belong. I feel a contentment in my new relationship with the Virgin Mary that I have not, perhaps, ever felt in my spiritual life. There is much to learn in this unfamiliar tradition, so I am entering it with an open heart, mind, and spirit. I am reading a book from the library called Mother of God written by a Medieval expert on the history of Mary and the development of Christianity on a global scale, up to the 16th century.

I sometimes do work on Sundays, but I really want to set Sunday aside as a day of rest, reflection, family, and contemplation. I am planning to head to my grandparents' log cabin in the woods of Michigan today with my family and experience the divinity present in nature, the peace and quiet, although full of the soothing sounds of Life. There are many ways to worship, and I receive such feelings of respite and reprieve from this closeness to wild Mother Earth.

Mother Mary

September 21, 2011

Last night I was having trouble sleeping, vaguely worrying about the plight of women, thinking about breastfeeding and the struggle many women have with not being supported by society, or even by family members and friends. The most natural, beautiful thing in the world, and people are uncomfortable seeing it. Nursing mothers are kicked off airplanes or asked to feed their babies in a restroom. It is a reflection of the debasing and degradation of women, of nature, of all of God's creation. Jesus was breastfed, without doubt. Inexplicably, for the first time in my life, I prayed to Mary. I prayed for peace in my heart, and I slept.

Today I was coming undone, and I ran out of the house to walk the dog. A perfect Indian Summer day. Warm and breezy, sunny, full of the promise of rest. I headed west on Jefferson Street, and before long I knew exactly where I was going--to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church on S. East Avenue. I am not Catholic. I went looking for Mary. I remembered a white statue outside the church. Was it of her? No, it was Jesus. But she was there, I knew it.

I tried the front door. Locked. I peered in the windows, saw the stained glass in the sanctuary. A sense memory. Yes, I had been here before. I don't know exactly how old I was, probably a preteen or very young teenager, when I went to mass with my best friend and her family. I had never been inside a Catholic church.  My family belonged to a conservative Protestant denomination. Mary was a part of the Nativity scene, the virgin mother of Jesus. And that was about it. We didn't pray to Mary.

I started calling for her, a little desperate. Where was she? Maybe on the other side of the church? I walked around, looked through the windows again into the social hall. And then I turned around and saw a garden, and for a moment I wondered where I was. I had never noticed it before. A painted sign said Rosary Garden, and it felt so welcoming. The garden was surrounded by a fence. I saw a white statue, and I knew instinctively it was Her. I went to the gate, and it was unlocked. Was it okay to go inside? I wanted to so badly. Then I saw a friend of mine working right next door in his backyard, and I asked him if the garden was public. Yes, it was okay to go in. I let my dog explore while I tentatively walked around, pretending to be nonchalant, and approached the statue timidly and with reverence. I knew she knew I was there. I sat at the base of an old oak tree with branches sprawling to Heaven and leaned against its trunk, right in front of Mary.

I talked to her, I prayed, I wept. I smiled. I listened, and she answered me. She was calling me all along. I understood, finally. Queen of Heaven, Mother of God. She conceived of the Christ child when the Holy Spirit descended upon her. In the Old Testament, written in Aramaic and Hebrew, the Spirit of God is named Ruah, a distinctly feminine word. Shekinah, the presence of God, is also feminine. I need to know the feminine aspect of divinity. Women, as well as men, are created in the image of God. God is neither male nor female, and God is both. God is spirit. Ruah. Sophia, the name of the Wisdom of God, who was with Him at creation. I ache for Her. The world aches for her. Mary, the embodiment of the sacred feminine.

Let It Be
 by The Beatles










Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A New Journey

Some of you may be readers of my other blog, so welcome to those both familiar with and new to my work! I am the homeschooling mother of one child, who I will refer to as Beezy, as well as a wife, poet, writer, and dancer/teacher. My motivation in beginning a 2nd blog is to allow me to have a lower profile and the relative anonymity to express myself more freely. Sometimes starting fresh is the wisest course.

Indigo, on the color wheel between blue and violet, symbolizes a mystical borderland of wisdom, self-mastery, and spiritual realization. Motherhood has been a mystical journey for me for the last seven years. Indigo's biblical symbolism is heavenly grace and is associated with the Virgin Mary, who is often depicted wearing indigo or blue clothing. I recently "discovered" her and am very drawn to her presence. Though topics will overlap between this blog and my other, I have a feeling Maternal Indigo will flow along a more spiritually and religiously focused path, which is already reflected in my other recent articles.

My posts will generally be written in the literary genre of the personal essay, relating various themes as seen through the lens of my life. This is a highly subjective style in which the theme is laced throughout true stories, reflecting my feelings, opinions, and observations, with real people functioning as the characters. The purpose is to share a lesson learned, insight gained, or point being made. The personal essay is a work of creative nonfiction and serves as a conversation between the author and the reader. I sincerely hope you will join me in this ongoing conversation and the creation of a sacred space.