"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.