Coming to Terms with Mary

From the January 15, 1982 Issue

Queens in the nineteen sixties had almost as many Catholic high schools as bakeries. Towards the spring of the year, the approach of Senior Proms meant big business for the local merchants. There was one store--which girls in my school were urged to patronize--that had a special section devoted to what were called "Mary-like gowns." The Mary-like gown was an invention of nuns and a coalition of sodalists, and its intent, I think, was to make prom dresses as much like habits as possible. We used to go and try the dresses on for a laugh. They were unbelievably ugly. The yardage of material could have dressed even an Irish family for a year. Nobody I or my friends ever talked to would wear them. We always figured that people who bought prom dresses like that were going to the prom with their cousins. For the purpose of them was to conceal the body, to underplay as much as possible, the natural allure of young female flesh. 

In my day, Mary was a stick to beat smart girls with. Her example was held up constantly: an example of silence, of subordination, of the pleasure of taking the back seat. With the kind of smile they would give to the behavior of Margaret the wife in "Father Knows Best," they talked about the one assertion of Mary's recorded in the Gospel: her request at the wedding feast at Cana. It was noted that she didn't ask her son directly for anything; she merely said: "They have no wine." Making him think it was his decision. Not suggesting it was her idea, no, nothing like that. Then disappearing, once again, into the background, into silence. 

For women like me, it was necessary to reject that image of Mary in order to hold onto the fragile hope of intellectual achievement, independence of identity, sexual fulfillment. Yet we were offered no alternative to this Marian image; hence, we were denied a potent female image whose application was universal. There were a few saints one could, in desperation, turn to: Theresa of Avila, who was reported to have a fresh mouth (If this is the way you treat your friends, Lord, what do you do to your enemies? Henny Youngman in Carmel. Who wouldn't like her?), talked back to bishops, reformed her order, had visions whose power and authenticity were unassailable. But any saint, however celebrated, is venerated out of choice, only by some. The appeal of Mary is that devotion to her is universal, ancient. And she is the mother of God. 

Women who were independent and intelligent rejected the Virgin Mary in favor of her son in the way that some feminists, particularly in the beginning of the movement, felt it necessary to radically reject those things that were associated exclusively with the female: dresses, make-up, domestic work, relations with men, children. But life has changed. The most interesting and sophisticated thought by feminists now sees that in rejecting those things that were traditionally thought of as female, we are going with the male system of values that rates them as inferior. What we are doing now is trying to salvage the valuable things that the past ascribed to females, and to say that, if they are valuable, why reserve them to only 53 percent of the human race? It is this impulse to re-examine and to understand in a deeper way the history of women, female genius, female work, often anonymous, hidden, uncredited, to look for new values that are not simply male values dressed for success, that is leading women back to Mary. 

But there is still a problem. Most of what we know about Mary we know from men. Much of the thought about her has been poisoned by misogyny, and a hatred of the body, particularly female sexuality. The Fathers did not like women-- and in setting Mary apart from the rest of the female sex what they were saying was that she was only acceptable because she did not share the corruption that was inevitably attached to the female condition. In an ancient and popular symmetry, the image of Mary as the second Eve has been present in Marian thought from earliest times. In talking about Eve, the early writers gave vent to their disgust for sex, and for female sexuality in general. Consider Tertullian. "Do you not realize, Eve, that it is you? The curse God pronounced on your sex weighs still on the world. Guiltily, you must bear its hardships. You are the devil's gateway, you desecrated the fatal tree, you first betrayed the law of God, you softened up with your cajoling words the man against whom the devil could not prevail by force." 

Most of what we know about Mary we know from men. Much of the thought about her has been poisoned by misogyny, and a hatred of the body, particularly female sexuality. The Fathers did not like women-- and in setting Mary apart from the rest of the female sex what they were saying was that she was only acceptable because she did not share the corruption that was inevitably attached to the female condition.

The tradition suggests that Eve, is cursed to bear children, rather than being blessed with motherhood. Augustine refers to the "feces and urine" of childbirth, in the sixth century, Venantius Fortunatus writes, "Happy virgin.., she does not weigh down sluggish limbs with an imprisoned embryo; she is not depressed and worn out by its awkward weight." In the seventeenth century, St. Jean Eudes writes, touching on the unbaptized fetus as the victim of original sin, "It is a subject of humiliation of all the mothers of the children of Adam to know that while they are with child, they carry with them an infant 9 . . who is the enemy of God, the object if his hatred and malediction, and the shrine of the demon." 

The identification of women with the flesh, men with the spirit, was a commonplace of ancient thought, and thinkers about women have used this idea to depict woman as inevitably lower--by virtue of her physical existence--than men. St Jerome informs us: "As long as a woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman, and will be called man." St. John Chrysostom, speaking of women's physical nature, opines; "The whole of her bodily beauty is nothing less than phlegm, blood, bile, rheum, and the fluid of digested food... If you consider what is stored up behind those lovely eyes, the angle of the nose, the mouth and cheeks you will agree that the well-proportioned body is merely a whitened sepulcher.”

Woman does not have to be sexually active to be threatening and disgusting; the threat and the horror are inherent in her physical nature. It is difficult to understand the transition between this disgust-filled thinking about woman and the veneration accorded to the Virgin Mary. What hope is there for the rest of us, who eat, breathe, menstruate, make love, bear children? How do we bridge the gap between ordinary woman, that repository of phlegm, bile, rheum and the fluid of digested food, and the Tower of Ivory, the House of Gold, the "floures floure," the one of whom the twelfth century poet says: "Your breasts are as fragrant as wine; their whiteness whiter than milk and lilies; their scent lovelier than flowers and balsam wood.”

We must begin by the radical and frightening understanding that the history of human thought about women has been a history of error. Christianity is not unique in this error; it is possible to say that its ideas about women are slightly more humane than those of many groups in history. For a woman to try to take her place in any tradition, taking seriously that tradition's history, the only option is a forgiving vigilance. One must forgive, or one must give up history; one must be vigilant to ensure that the tendencies so inbred in all human beings--ourselves as well as men--are passed on as little as possible. For they are in all of us, blood and bone; we cannot expect them to disappear in a lifetime. Those of us whose hearts are moved by those who have gone before us, who wish to keep the connection with them alive, must reject the temptation of historical romanticism. We must not forget the history of woman has been a history of degradation, oppression, the idealization whose other side is tyranny. But we must resist as well the temptation to reject the lovely, the exalted, the resonant life built up for centuries by living men and women. 

I have wanted to create for myself a devotion to Mary that honors her as woman, as mother, that rejects the wickedness of sexual hatred and sexual fear. I wanted this particularly as I grew older; I longed for it with a special poignance as 1 experienced motherhood for the first time. It has come to me, then, that one must sift through the nonsense and hostility that has characterized thought and writing about Mary, to find some images, shards, and fragments, glittering in the rubble. One must find isolated words, isolated images; one must travel the road of metaphor, of icon, to come back to that figure who, throughout a corrupt history, has moved the hearts of men and women, has triumphed over the hatred of woman and the fear of her, and abides shining, worthy of our love, compelling it. 

I have chosen three qualities in my thoughts about her: innocence, grief, and glory. I offer here, no system, but a set of meditations. I offer no final words, since, for a woman to come to terms with this woman who endures beloved despite a history of hatred, she must move lightly and discard freely; she" must take upon herself the ancient labor of women: she must become a gatherer, a hoarder. She must put out for those around her scattered treasure, isolates without a pattern whose accumulated meaning comes from the relations of proximity. 

The Mother of God is the Queen of Heaven; she presides over a feast, secure that all her children are, at last, well fed. 
Mother of Sorrows Pioneer Shrine (Dennis Jarvis, October 15, 2020)


Innocence, grief, glory: they are potent words, ideas, and like all human things that take on power are susceptible to perversion and corruption. The beautiful idea of innocence can be perverted, in the face of a generalized hostility to female power, to an ideal of subservience, of a loss of individual identity and autonomy, of an enforced childishness which barters the responsibilities of freedom for the privileges of a protected object. But the ideal of innocence has nothing to do with weakness. On the contrary, real innocence is capable of understanding and confronting evil in its most radical terms: it is undeceived about the Powers of Darkness, and does not confuse them with human frailty; it never forgets compassion. 

Innocence: it is a rare and a powerful quality; it is not the failure of the imagination to imagine wrong, but the naturally bestowed inability to choose malice, selfishness. Iris the inborn lack of that instinct to touch others for their harm; the absence of the desire to inflict pain. Mary embodies our love for this instinctive purity of life. I imagine her in one of Leonardo's Annunciations covered over with light, sure in her youthful self-knowledge. Humble--"Behold the handmaid of the Lord"--yet never cringing, always aware of the great dignity of her position: "All generations shall call me blessed." Her consent asked for by God, not enforced 9 Innocence suggests an inviolable goodness, not striven after, but lavishly and freely given. Hence we value it. It is not the virtue some of us struggle a lifetime trying to attain. It is a kind of luck. Grace, we call it. The love of innocence is the celebration of grace.

I call up more images. A sixteenth century sculpture I saw in Winchester Cathedral. Mary, the young girl looks amused. Her mouth, a thin indentured curve, turns up with pleasure. Her downcast eyes show what might be fear, but finally is not, but only an inward looking, an understanding, wary, perhaps, but not overwhelmed. I think of the curve of the body of a thirteenth century statue of the young Mother with her child. At ease in its own nature, swaying almost with the rhythms of maternal love, ready for life, radically open to experience, to love.

This radical openness is what Karl Rahner sees as the importance of the idea of virginity for Christians regardless of their sexual vocation. "This attitude of expectation, of readiness and receptivity to grace, this awareness that the ultimate thing is grace and grace alone, is something which, as an attitude of mind every Christian must have, even if it does not find concrete expression in virginity.”

I think of the young woman in Fra Angelico' s Annunciation; thunderstruck from the force of the Angel's entrance, serene, and pleased. I remember the face of the young Mary in Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew. A sensual girl, her wide mouth turned up in a smile of comprehending expectation. A girl of the Middle East, of the warm air of a temperate climate, picking fruit, walking on warm nights under stars we can no longer in the modern world imagine. 

Yet these images have nothing to do with the false images of innocence used in our culture to sell everything from designer jeans to membership in the Moral Majority. Contrast the image of the girl in Pasolini's movie, of Fra Angelico's virgin, of the thirteenth century young mother, the sensual curve of her hip ready for motion--contrast these images with the image of a young woman in Jerry Falwell's school. The sureness of the young Mary is a sureness born of grace; it is a sureness that never excludes understanding of human suffering, that does not assert with every flick of its coiffed head, the exclusive rightness of its position. It is an innocence that is rooted in the love of the physical world. It is an innocence saddened by much, surprised at nothing. It is an innocence that knows it will be pierced by a sword, ground under by great scandal of an unjust world. It is an innocence that lives with the knowledge of its own impending grief. 

The Grieving Mother. Mater Dolorosa. The second word I think about is grief. I note that in our culture, fixated as it is on youth, there are far fewer images of the sorrowing mother who would have to be at least middle-aged, than of the young virgin with child. I listen to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. A mature grief, grief rescued from the danger of madness, not Clytemnestra raging, vengeful over her lost child, but a mother silenced by-sorrow. Only in the heart, the great music of a resignation that is anything but a flat giving in: a lifting of the heart to God in the face of the absurd. The death of one's child. It is, for many of us, the worst we can imagine, the greatest stumbling block to faith. To witness the ignominious death of one's most innocent child! In Mary we have the emblem of all human sorrow, innocence victimized by injustice, by the incomprehensible exigencies of the cruel God who is the God of love. I see her overcome with grief, swooning from the violence of the blows of God, her Father and her Son, in Gri~newald's rendering of the Sorrowing Mother. For this woman, there is no comfort. The heart pierced with the sword, now open to the world. The sweet compassion of the innocent girl deepened beyond our comprehension. Spared nothing. We bring to her the scandal of the fallen world; we give our despair, the failure of all human consolation to assuage us. 

I see Bellini’s Pieta. The Virgin is bent over the dead body of her Son. But behind her, the winter landscape blossoms with the first flowers of spring. She is the mother of the Resurrected Christ; that too is in her fate as she lies holding her dead child. We can, in a romantic love of suffering, fixate on the Sorrowing Virgin, perverting even that image in the belief that we are facing the true nature of life. But for a Christian, the final nature of life is triumphant. Christ rises from the dead: his mother takes her place beside him at the Throne of God. 

Triumph. How easily that too can be perverted to the triumphalism that attaches to the Queenship of Mary when the church sees itself politically beleaguered, in danger of losing its power on earth. Marina Warner notes: "In times of stasis and entrenchment, as under Popes Pius XII and to some extent Paul VI, veneration of the Virgin is encouraged, and in times of strong ecumenism and change, when the church is less self-righteous and assured, devotion to the Virgin, especially under her triumphant aspect, is restrained and declines." What can we make of this? The image of the woman brought out as a weapon to threaten the rebellious? Yes, of course, if we confuse the Queenship of Mary with a human rule whose first goal is to keep everyone in line. But how ridiculous. The triumph of Mary is beyond law, and lawlessness; the notion of disobedience is a paltry irrelevance if one imagines choirs of angels and the mother of God enthroned, not above her children, but in the midst of them, their voices raised in a harmony impossible to them in their life on earth. I see gold and ivory; I imagine the music of Handel, Alexander's Feast. The Mother of God is the Queen of Heaven; she presides over a feast, secure that all her children are, at last, well fed. 

In the end, it is beyond reason, beyond argument. In the end, the devotion to Mary is the objective correlative of all the primitive desires that lead human beings to the life of faith'. She embodies our desire to be fully human yet to transcend death. The hatred of women is the legacy of death; in Mary, Mother and Queen, we see, enfleshed in a human form that touches our most ancient longings, the promise of salvation, of deliverance, through flesh, from the burdens of flesh. 

As Hopkins says: 
If I have understood, 
She holds high motherhood 
Toward all our ghostly good 
And plays in grace her part 
About man's beating heart, 
Laying, like air's fine flood, 
The death dance in his blood. 

I think, finally, it is through poetry, through painting,' sculpture, music, through those human works that are magnificently innocent of the terrible strain of sexual hatred by virtue of the labor, craft, and genius of their great creators, that one finds the surest way back to the Mother of God. 

Mary Gordon is the author of eighteen books, including Final Payments, Joan of Arc: A Life, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, and most recently the novel Payback.

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