“Ave Maria, full of grace, the Divine is with you! Blessèd are you among women, and blessèd is the fruit of your womb, Iesus. Holy Maria, mother of the Divine, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
It’s complicated. I’m neither a Roman Catholic nor a member of one of the several Eastern Catholic communions called Orthodox. I am a Protestant (an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.), identifying strongly with the Anglican Communion in which I grew up (and which I studied more closely in my postgraduate work in seminary). Yet Mary has always had a special place of affection in my heart. I greatly honor and respect her, holding her in the highest regard, but mostly I genuinely love her, at times tearing up and sometimes weeping when I meditate on her life and experiences. Who she is awes and humbles me and fills me with love and gratitude. More than a Protestant, I am a Franciscan: formed by this charism, the affection that I hold in my heart for Mary of Nazareth makes perfect sense as the fruit of my love for her Son.
Nevertheless, despite my personal affection for her, the way certain people worship her and give her religious veneration causes something inside me to fret and, and like other Protestants, I get an uneasy feeling that I am witnessing idolatry. Sometimes I really think I am. I appreciate icons and statues, and they bring Mary to my consciousness, but I do not worship these symbols. I do not love a goddess. I love she who is the epitome of our humanity, I love her in her humanity. My love for her is too earthy and real for that kind of piety: the object of my affection is someone—she cannot be replaced by an icon or statue—and her presence is too near and personal for me to endure any of that religious commodification.
In this essay I will attempt to explain who Mary is to me. My words without doubt will fall short and fail; I pray however that they will still honor her.
My Introduction to Her
At the beginning of my Franciscan journey, Francis’ devotion to Mary did not seem a thing discordant to me but rather something most fitting. I still own the Franciscan Crown Rosary that was given to me in my youth.
I was drawn to images of Mary, in particular the image carved in stone of the Pieta by Michelangelo. I have always been fascinated by sculpture and this masterpiece always moved me, knowing who it represented. When I was fourteen I tried to capture her face in charcoal and pastels. My rendition of her seemed so beautiful it scared me—I fretted over whether I had made an idol, such was its power to move me—and I could not finish. The image of her face still captivates me.
Earlier I had drawn another statue of her in pastels when was twelve. My art teacher, a great artist and a remarkable and spiritual woman, Juliette Levesque—who always loved me and whom I will always love—had me draw a statue that was in her house of the Madonna and Child standing victorious on a German helmet. My pastel rendition was not very good but my mother was impressed enough to have it framed and placed prominently in the house.
A friend of Juliette, Therese Bertsch, a woman on my paper route when I was barely a teen—who used to talk to me about her Carmelite namesakes, Thérèse of Lisieux (the “Little Flower”) and Teresa of Avila (and of course her friend John of the Cross), and always about Francis and Clare of Assisi and the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin—also shared with me, rather profusely, her devotion to Mary. Though I cannot be sure of how she spelled her name, I remember her as Therese Birch. She loved me more than I knew; may God give her grace, mercy and peace.
I believe it was Therese who gave me the Franciscan Crown and taught me how to use it. The Franciscan Crown Rosary has seven decades instead of the usual five.
About the Rosary
It is interesting that the word “bead,” a string of them being a useful tool for keeping one’s concentration during meditation, comes from the Middle English word bede, which meant “a prayer,” which in turn came from the Anglo-Saxon noun, bed and gebed (ge- being an intensive or collective prefix), from the verb biddan (or bidjan) meaning “to pray.” (Cognates are the Dutch bede, the German bitte, and the Mœso-Gothic bida, meaning “a prayer.”) We see this sense in the obsolete use of the English word bid. These words can be traced to their Indo-European root, bhedh, which meant “to bend.”
The desert hermits of the third and fourth centuries used a cord with knots to keep track of their recitation of all 150 psalms on a daily basis. Regular folks imitated this but, not being able to read, substituted the repetition of the Lord’s Prayer for the psalms. Later, beads were used. In twelfth century Paris those who made beads were called paternosterers and the beads were called paternosters, from Pater noster, the Latin translation of “Our Father.” I find it interesting that The Versified Legend of the Virgin Clare (written anonymously, perhaps by John the Englishman, in 1254-1255; Clare of Assisi died in 1253) says of the young Clare: “While interiorly praying attentively to the Lord, she offered herself as incense to the Lord. She used to count out Our Father’s using pebbles and to sing the Lord’s praises without tiring.” (The Lady: Clare of Assisi: Early Documents; edited and translated by Regis J. Armstrong; New York: New City Press, 2005; page 207).
However, the practice of reciting fifty times a day the Ave Maria—“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you! Blessèd are you among women and blessèd is the fruit of your womb, Jesus”—goes back at least to the same time, when we find it mentioned in the rule of English anchorites, the Ancrene Wisse. Apparently the Benedictine Aibert of Crespin (1060-1140) recited the prayer 150 times a day. The Carthusian monk, Dominic of Prussia (1382-1460), is said to have introduced the practice of meditation during one’s recitation. Peter Canisius (1521-1597) added the words, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.” The Franciscan Crown rosary goes back to 1422. With it one meditates on the seven Joys of Mary: (1) the annunciation, (2) the visitation, (3) the birth of our Lord, (4) the adoration by the magi, (5) the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple, (6) the resurrection of Jesus, and (7) the assumption of Mary into heaven. Some people add the adoration by the magi to the third meditation (3) and substitute for the fourth meditation (4) the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple and the purification of his mother.
Though I find beads useful for maintaining concentration, especially when I am very tired or stressed, the Daily Offices of morning and evening prayer (the opus dei), the practices of recollection and contemplative prayer, and the study of Scripture seem to me more fruitful spiritual practices to maintain on a daily basis. Communing directly in my heart with Mary when I need the comfort of her presence seems to work better for me than reciting the rosary.
The Divine Feminine
Of course, when I became a radical Protestant at the vulnerable age of fourteen, I gave up my devotion to Mary until my love of Jesus, the reading of the Scriptures, and the lure of the feminine drew me back to her—though I have never accepted such notions as her “perpetual virginity” or the peculiar titles and roles that the Roman Catholic imagination has conjured up for her (for me, it smells too much of the patriarchal symbolization of women (and its peculiar idolization of virginity in particular), of a secret Docetism, and frankly of rank paganism in the worst sense).
Martin Thornton’s take on this on page 163 of his precious volume, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology according to the English Pastoral Tradition (published by Wift and Stock in Eugene, Oregon, in 1986) is that, when Christ is seen only as a judge, popular devotion seeks out a mediator other than the judge himself, another “advocate with the Father.” Not only the Father: Mary also became our advocate with Christ. “It is but a short step to the heretical and unintelligent (those adjectives are important!) cults of our Lady, saints, and angels, and another short step to an over-exalted idea of priesthood.” He explains how fourteenth-century England “did much to save us from some of these excesses.”
“England never quite submitted to the mediation of a sacerdotal caste flagrantly abusing the power of the Keys … The host of heaven is essential to any fully mature spirituality, but with Margery [Kempe], as with Anselm, the saints are put firmly in their proper place; they are our contemporaries and our friends, looking on and offering their considerable support. That is very important but it is not mediation in the sense reserved for Jesus Christ.”
Besides her role as mediator, another problem, or coupled with this, is that sometimes in popular devotion people have treated Mary as if she were a female deity, sometimes alone and sometimes coupled with Jesus as a male deity, the two of them beneath the Father of them both, as if this were the Holy Trinity (actually it is tri-theistic). This was never Roman Catholic doctrine, but sometimes ignorant lay Roman Catholics speak this way and their practice can hardly deny it. However, it seems to me that this is actually a mistaken attempt to reintroduce the feminine into the over-masculinized depiction of God, the result of the Roman Catholic tendency toward patriarchy on account of its imperial Latin roots and its medieval encounter with Islam. The projection of our most authentic spirituality requires that God be both male and female (or really, female and male), as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) clearly saw, but the tradition has tended to only picture God in one of these modes. Indeed, the iconoclasm of the Protestant sects has attempted to do without the feminine altogether. Yet the Scriptures present the Father as also fulfilling a Mother role, and as medieval spiritual writers often noticed, Jesus is not only a victor and king but also like a mother to us. If you are a little perceptive, you will notice that the “Father” gives us birth and feds us with “his” milk, etc., obvious female functions, even though in the Scriptures the masculine pronoun is retained. We can notice the same in the Odes of Solomon, a collection of early Christian hymns. In addition, a fact obscured by our translations, the Holy Spirit is never referred to with masculine pronouns. In Greek the word “spirit” (literally, “breath”) is neuter (neither masculine nor feminine) but in Hebrew the Spirit of God is always feminine, as is the Shekinah, the wisdom of God, and the cluster of nouns that might point to the Spirit of God. It is unfortunate that Christians continue to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he” when she should be referred to as “she” (we are correct that it is wrong to refer to the Spirit as “it” since this depersonalizes the Spirit, who is one of the persons of the Trinity; this depersonalization is not intended by the Greek of the New Testament), and possibly as Lady rather than Lord (except that our culture does not give a lady the same status as a lord, when in this case that is always what is called for). Mary has a very special place, as we shall discuss, but she ought not to serve as a substitute for the feminine side of God that we have arrogantly chosen to excise from our projections and representations.
Mary is our mother precisely because she is human. She is blessed among women and is glorified in the biblical sense (that is, divinized). However, she is not a goddess even if people have made her out to be one so they can worship the Goddess in her name. (The primal worship of the Goddess is another matter we can discuss, but not here; this essay is about Mary. As I just said, the divine is as much Goddess as God (actually more so), but when we make Mary into a goddess we replace the Trinity of the One with a quartet of individual deities or, more actually, a familial—and patriarchal—triplet of deities because the enigmatic Holy Spirit has been left out. There is something to be said for the Jungian quarternity, but this does not describe the divine nature but rather the creature: created nature as aware.)
Mary’s Role in Creation and Salvation
Years ago, when I purchased Celebrating Common Prayer (a 1992 version of the Anglican Daily Office by the Society of Saint Francis), I found an “Anthem to the Theotókos,” a Greek Orthodox Hymn:
Into his joy the Lord has received you,
Virgin God-bearer, Mother of Christ.
You have beheld the King in his beauty,
Mary, daughter of Israel.
You have made answer for the creation
to the redeeming will of God.
Light, fire and life, divine and immortal,
joined to our nature you have brought forth
that to the glory of God the Father
heaven and earth might be restored.
It spoke to me deep in my bones and I quickly memorized it and often recited it. At once I understood that when Gabriel appeared to Mary she was the culmination of the faithful of Israel and she gave her answer on behalf of the chosen people. Moreover, not only did she answer for them, but at that moment she was the mouthpiece and representative of the whole human race, whom the chosen people stood in for, and not only humanity but the earth itself. When the infant Jesus first beheld the creation, it was his mother’s face he saw; and during the formative time of his infancy, she was the entire world to him. As the “daughter of Israel,” she “made answer for the creation to the redeeming will of God. God entered her womb and became her own substance (as all of the humanity of the Son was taken from her human substance alone). Jesus has no other DNA but hers. He was virtually her clone (if their DNA had been tested, the test would probably show them to be identical twins except for the gender markers). By her offering of herself, she offered our humanity to God that “heaven and earth”—the invisible and the visible—might [one day] be restored,” indeed, much more than restored; it would be divinized (glorified).
The Biology of the Virgin Birth
Yes, I believe that Jesus was conceived in the womb of a biological virgin. I believe this as not only a literary but a historically accurate fact. The scientist Frank Tipler explains to us that Jesus was probably a very special type of XX male. There are 28 genes on the Y chromosome (only fifteen of which are unique to the Y chromosome, the rest having counterparts on the X chromosome). In Jesus’ case all 28 Y genes might have been present on one of the X chromosomes, inserted over many generations. In Mary’s own body the mechanism that turns off the genes would have been active. It is an amusing coincidence that twenty-eight corresponds to the number of generations (according to Matthew) between King David and Jesus.
Another theory is that Mary was an XXY female (having Klinefelter’s syndrome) but a highly unusual one in that her womb was normal (all observed XXY females have undeveloped wombs). Jesus then would have grown from a cell in which one of Mary’s X chromosomes had been deleted.
A third hypothesis is that an undeveloped male embryo was in Mary’s womb from her birth (such a phenomenon has been reported) and that this embryo fertilized one of her eggs. This last theory is problematic since one might say it involves incest.
The first theory is the most probable. It is scientifically possible, but the probability that it could happen is less than 1/120 billion, making Jesus’ case unique in human history; indeed, theologically it would qualify his conception as a miracle. Miracles are highly unlikely but not scientifically impossible. They are miracles because in a special and unique way they make manifest the reality of creation; they do not violate it. Scientifically speaking—from a multiverse perspective—if the actualization of the universe’s ending is completely dependent on something occurring, however unlikely, it necessarily must occur.
The Patriarchal Idealization of Virginity
The fact of the virgin birth has nothing to do with the patriarchal idealization of a woman’s virginity as a symbol of her purity—as long as she remains a virgin, she, like merchandise, can be owned by a man fresh and unused; once he copulates with her, he takes possession of her. For any other man she is now “used goods.” The idea seems to be that by having sex with a man she then somehow belongs to him; she cannot therefore any longer belong exclusively to God. If before she was sanctified, set apart for God’s own exclusive use, or at least this potential was there, having sex has despoiled her of her sanctity or of her potential for sanctity. If Mary ever had sex with a man, she would no longer be exclusively for God, that is, holy. This is why so many people think virginity is necessary for holiness.
Only under patriarchal assumptions, however, can sex imply the male’s possession of the female. This assumes that by taking control of her generative capacity (whether she offers it or not), the man owns its fruit. If the offspring is a female, he can profit by arranging the girl’s marriage into a well-to-do family; if the offspring is a male, he has an heir to his property. The woman does not own her own body, and her children do not belong to her but to her husband.
In a strictly matrilineal society, the woman not only owns her own body and chooses who will be the father of her child, but her child belongs to her household and the family of her mother and her mother’s mother. When a woman has sex with a man, he does not thereby possess her and she has not given away any ownership of herself.
Genesis 2:24 seems to suggest that the man joins her, the woman’s, family; she does not become a member of his: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” It was only after “the fall into sin,” the ruin of humanity’s relationship to reality by its fall into collective delusion, that the man would—it does not say should—come to dominate the woman (Genesis 3:16). Patriarchy is not an “order of creation” but a consequence of our alienation from God and creation (by our identification with a false and insular self, both individually and collectively).
1 Timothy 2:15 seems to say, however, that “she will be saved through the childbearing”: that is, Eve—who is every-woman, womankind—would be saved from the “interruption” (parabasis, a break in a narrative’s flow, an aside, mentioned just before in 2:14) through Mary’s childbearing of Jesus (as God foretold to the serpent in Genesis 2:15, not any woman’s own childbearing) if they (the women believers referred to in 1 Timothy 1:9) “abide in faithfulness [to God via their loyalty to God’s Messiah] and love and holiness with sōphrosynē.” This last word classically means soundness of mind and excellence of character, as well as moderation, prudence, moderation, and self-control. It is set in contrast to hubris, and therefore implies a realistic assessment of one’s self. The birth of Jesus portends the end of patriarchy. The participation of women in the way of Jesus contributes to its demise.
To be continued …