True and false Madonnas

 — Feb. 6, 19996 févr. 1999

The cult of Mary has been a target of feminist writing, which has argued that she is not a good role model for women today. The criticisms are here considered and answered by the reader in church history in the University of Cambridge.

In 1954, four years after the solemn definition of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, Pope Pius XII declared a Marian Year. With greater or lesser enthusiasm, Catholic Europe responded, and in my home town, on the east coast of Ireland, the response took spectacular form. The women were invited to donate jewellery, the men money, towards the creation of a solid-gold crown for the statue of the Blessed Virgin in our parish church. It was a poor community, yet the response to the appeal for the Virgin’s crown was remarkable, many of the women even donating their wedding rings. The statue, an insipid, life-sized plaster replica of Our Lady of Lourdes, white-robed, blue-sashed, smallbusted, neither a recognisably maternal nor even a very convincingly human image, was duly decorated with a crown which would have paid several times over for any one of the houses in which most of the donors lived.

That characteristic gesture of Catholic Ireland, one of the last, I suppose, before the cultural deluge of the Second Vatican Council swept such gestures away altogether, has stayed with me. What was going on? At an obvious level, the people of my town were celebrating one of the defining elements in a universal Catholic culture, making a gesture which linked our provincial backwater with Catholics everywhere.

But there was more at stake. In honouring Mary we celebrated a particular vision of goodness, femininity emptied of danger and the shadow of the apple in Eden. At more or less the same time, in her posh upper-middle-class English convent school, the future writer Marina Warner knelt before just the same statue, herself dressed in white with a blue ribbon sash, and offered candles to Our Lady of Lourdes. The white and blue were the symbols of a desire to emulate Mary in her idealised virtue — her chastity, her humility, her gentleness, the culmination of womanhood as the Church liked to imagine it. It was, as Warner’s agnostic father liked to remark, “a good religion for a girl.”

Marina Warner was to go on to renounce her childhood Catholicism, but also to produce one of the most readable popular accounts in any language of the history and meaning of the cult of Mary. She called it Alone of all her Sex, and the title conveys the agenda of the book, which was to suggest that for all its power and beauty, the cult of Mary had been, on the whole, a damaging thing. Damaging above all for women, for in the Church’s idealisation of Mary, womanhood had been denigrated, not exalted: Mary, alone of all her sex, had pleased the Lord. The Church had been unable to cope with femininity. Woman was Eve, temptress and harlot, and only Mary, pure Virgin and perfect Mother, had escaped the blight of Eve.

One of the problematic characteristics of the cult of Mary is that it is impossible to defend it entirely against these sorts of attacks. The cult of Mary has taken a thousand forms, not all of them helpful or even respectable, and many of them difficult to square with any mainstream Christian theology.

The decisive theological moment for the cult of Mary was the decision of the Council of Ephesus that she should be given the title Theotokos, God-bearer, softened in Western usage to Mater Dei, Mother of God. The title, of course, was designed to say something about Christ rather than Mary, to assert and protect the reality of the Incarnation by insisting on the absolute identity of the eternal Word of God with the man Jesus. To call Mary the God-bearer was to assert that in her womb God had once and for all thrown his lot in with humanity, had joined us, holding nothing back. Mary was not a pipe through which divine spirit inserted itself into earthly matter, or a bag in which the precious spice of the Godhead was temporarily contained, but the intimate source of the human identity of God himself, giving to God incarnate all that a mother gives to her children — blood, bone, nerve and personality. In her conceiving and childbearing heaven and earth were wedded beyond any possibility of divorce: a stupendous miracle had occurred which raised human nature to heaven itself.

In the title Theotokos there was more than enough substance for all the future development of the cult of Mary. Its effect, in both East and West, was a dramatic growth of interest in Mary herself, so that she came to loom larger than any other saint, eventually eclipsing in importance every figure in Christianity except her Son, and sometimes seeming to threaten even his centrality. Many of these later developments seem to take us a long way from what might seem to be the central core of the doctrine of the Theotokos, the intimate connection between Mary and her Child. This is particularly so in the West.Consider the popular devotion of the last three or four centuries: Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Garabandal, Our Lady of Medjugorje are not mothers with babies, but young women, even girls.

There are of course perfectly good reasons why this should be so — all these images are, for a start, based on what are believed to be appearances of Mary herself, in her risen humanity: and since her Son’s risen humanity is that of an adult man, not an infant, she could hardly appear carrying him. But the character of much of the Marian piety of the last two centuries does indeed appear uncomfortably vulnerable to the accusations levelled against it by its critics. We need look no further than the Marian hymns in any one of the standard pre-conciliar Catholic hymnals — the Westminster Hymnal, for example.

That book had 30 or so hymns to Mary. What characterises most of them is a picture of the world as dark and evil, society as hostile, and the devotee of Mary as steeped in sin.

See how, ungrateful sinners,
We stand before thy Son;
His loving heart upbraids us
The evil we have done.
But if thou wilt appease him
Speak for us but one word,
For thus thou can obtain us,
The pardon of the Lord.

These hymns depended for their emotional force on the contrast between Mary and the ordinary Christian, the contrast between pure and defiled, good and evil. And that inner alienation was paralleled by a disengagement from external as well as inner reality. The client of Mary in these hymns was imagined as ill at ease in the world, an exile, lonely and at odds with all around:

Ave Maria, the night shades are falling,
Softly our voices arise unto thee,
Earth’s lonely exiles for succour are calling,
Sinless and beautiful, Star of the Sea.

These hymns encode a decidedly beleaguered sociology and politics. Their world, and that of the Marian cult which nourished them, is one in which “the banners of darkness are boldly unfurled” against the “tempest-tossed Church.” In this world, the devotee of Mary is beset by enemies, who hate goodness and purity, who hate Mary and the Church.

But it is not my intention to present the case for the prosecution against the Blessed Virgin. Marian piety offers an antidote to an understanding of the transcendent as dominant and aggressively male. Take one of the world’s minor masterpieces of Marian piety, the late medieval English poem,”! sing of a maiden,” familiar from the wonderful musical setting by Benjamin Britten in A Ceremony of Carols:

I sing of a maiden that is makeles
King of all kinges to her Son she ches

He came all so stille there his mother was
As dew in Aprille that falleth on the grass

He came all so stille to his mother’s bower
as dew in Aprille that falleth on the flower.

He came all so stille there his mother lay
As dew in Aprille that falleth on the spray,

Mother and maiden was never none but she —
Well may such a lady Godde’s mother be.

This exquisite little meditation is typical of a whole world of Marian devotion which explores the beauty and tenderness of the Incarnation. The Virgin here is imagined as the still earth, on which the life-giving dew falls, bringing growth, renewal and flowering. It is a Christmas poem, but it is set in April, the springtime of fertility. But the action of God in entering his world is not imagined as masterful, violent, domineering. Instead he comes silently as the dew on the petals of the rose. And though the cult of Mary has been accused of denigrating human sexuality, this is certainly a poem which affirms and celebrates the erotic dimension of human life, for the lover’s assignation is presented as an image of the coming of God into his world, and the poem is saturated with the language of fertility.

This seems to me to be Marian devotion at its very best, expressing and bringing into focus dimensions of Christianity which could be expressed in no other way. It is also Marian devotion deeply in touch with the Bible and the liturgy.

It would be possible to perform much the same exercise with many other of the classic expressions of Marian devotion. The hymn Stabat Mater, a medieval Franciscan meditation on the grief of Mary under the Cross, is designed to encourage sorrow and compassion in the hearts of believers, so as to move them to true contrition for their sins.

If “I sing of a Maiden” expresses a type of Marian piety which derives from the infancy narratives in St Luke’s gospel, the Stabat Mater focuses on a more Johannine picture of the grief-stricken mother on Calvary:

Eta Mater, fons amoris,
Me sentire vim doloris
Fac ut tecum lugeam.

Fac me tecum pie flere
Crucifix condolere
Donec ego vivero.

Juxta crucem tecum stare
Et me tibi sociare
In planctu desidero.

“Ah, then, Mother, fountain of love, let me feel the force of your grief, so that I can mourn with you. Make me weep lovingly with you, make me feel the pains of the crucified, all my life through. I yearn to stand beside the cross with you, and to be your companion in your lamentation.”

The whole point of the hymn is inclusive, not alienating: the devout Christian aspires to share Mary’s grief and so to share also something of her closeness to her Son. In this hymn Mary becomes the enabler of real human feeling. What is important about her is not that she is different from us, infinitely pure and remote, as in the nineteenth-century hymns, but that her humanity is seen here as the pattern of what ours can be, and her grief as a means by which we can learn something of an authentic human response to the death of God incarnate. Mary represents redeemed humanity under the Cross. And once again, this is a Marian poem deeply embedded in the liturgy, this time of Holy Week.

One of the most welcome aspects of the theology of the Second Vatican Council was its drastic reorientation of the whole basis of Mariology, in an attempt to recover the richness and inclusiveness of the patristic and medieval inheritance. The bishops of the council momentously rejected the notion of a separate document on the privileges and place of Mary, thereby calling a halt to the doctrinal and devotional inflation which had been taking place in Marian doctrine over the course of the previous century. Instead, they dealt with Marian themes within the framework of the council’s greatest theological achievement, the constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The mere fact that the bishops placed what they had to say on Mary within a treatment of the Church was itself a major theological breakthrough, for it reconnected doctrine about Mary to doctrine about the Church.

The Second Vatican Council opened the door for the recovery of an image of the Madonna which does not maim. But such a Mariology has rather conspicuously failed to materialise. Much post-conciliar preaching and writing about Mary has been self-defeating. Most recent treatment of Mary has been relentlessly hortatory and moralistic. It has set aside most of the poetry of the Marian tradition, and instead has looked for immediate intelligibility and straightforward “relevance.” It has refocused disproportionately on the annunciation story in Luke, and has seen Mary as essentially a model of obedience to God, someone we should imitate. It is my strong conviction that any Mariology focused primarily on this aspect of her role is doomed from the start, for it is far too cerebral and abstract. Whatever the faults of older Mariologies, they were rarely dry.

The Marian tradition is rooted in something far more basic, far more concrete — in the simple fact of her childbearing. This is, of course, not to suggest that her childbearing was a brute physical fact, divorced from her free co-operation with the will of God for her and all mankind: ‘ Christianity can never separate human childbearing from human loving, and we cannot separate Mary’s womb from her heart and her will. But the Church after Vatican II has in fact been curiously coy about the material fact of Mary’s motherhood.

Fra Angelico, and the Ceremony of Carols, and the Litany of Loreto remind us that the figure of Mary is too complex, too rich, even too contradictory to be simplified and moralised into banality. A Madonna who is primarily an example is as oppressive and dispiriting and as life-denying as any of the projected Madonnas of the past. In Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, the Lord did not invite us to contemplate Mary in order to see in her what we must do, but to see in her how we are loved. Christians have never thought of Mary primarily as a good example. Rather, she has been loved as the principal miracle of God’s grace and power, and because she is the cause of our joy. We must learn again not to imitate but to celebrate the multiple glories of the Theotokos — the Ark of the Covenant within which the glory of God came to rest: the Rose of Sharon on which the dew of the Godhead descended: the Gate of Heaven, through which the light of life shone on humankind. Christians love the Mother of God not because she sets a standard they must imitate, but because, beyond all desire or deserving, she was the Mother of God.

Posted: Feb. 6, 1999 • Permanent link:
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