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.