So here is a bit of a confession for a Catholic: I have struggled and wrestled for a long time with what I feel about Mary. There were those porcelein statues around, and this image of perfection which immediately condemned me as a failure as a woman: virgin or mother, you cannot be both, so choose one and know that you will always only be half a woman. It is the message I was receiving as I grew up as a female. And of course, she is the mother of Jesus, He loved her, He listened to her – the miracle at Cana? I am sure you know what I mean. So, I felt guilty and ignored the issue. Evangelicals are often critical of Catholics, saying that they worship Mary, and there is only one God, and while I might concede that to them, that might indeed be what it looks like, but from a Catholic perspective, if life in God is eternal, then praying to Mary (and the saints) and asking her and them to pray for me is not really that much different from asking my friends and church community to pray for me. Why would you not? No, It is not the “You Catholics worship Mary, and that is blasphemy” accusation that bothers me about Mary, and yes, that has been said to me more than once: it is more the passive, bland , vanilla image of her and how it is held up as the ideal for women who love God. Is this really who His mother is?
I read a couple of short stories which featured Mary, or an image of her, that resonated with me and made me think more deeply about the images we are presented with. One of them in The Seven Deadly Sins, on Anger, says:
…On the opposite wall above the sink there was a reproduction of a medieval Virgin and Child. The Virgin in her jewelled head-dress knelt in dazed adoration before the cradle, her hands meekly folded in prayer.
‘That’s what he wants,’ she thought, ‘That’s what they all think they have a right to.’She Went of Her Own Accord, Kate Saunders, The Seven Deadly Sins
And another, where she appears to a black man on the run and asks him to melt her:
I could never cry after that day for His loss. Since I was made marble, wax, sculpted wood, gold, ivory, I’ve had no tears. I had to carry on living this way, with a lie of stupid smiles painted on My face. Tristan, I was not what they have painted. I was different, certainly less beautiful. And I have come to tell you something.The Fall, Armonia Somers in Other Fires: Stories from the Women of Latin America , edited by Alberto Manguel
The first quote illustrates my frustration with the images we are offered as women, and the second, scandalous hope. If you want to know more about that , I recommend Armonia Somers’ story. It is not for the faint hearted.
I was so much ill at ease with images of Mary that it got in the way when I was making the Exercises. During the first week, Ignatius suggests a triple colloquy at the end of the prayer sessions:
The first colloquy will be with our Blessed Lady, that she may obtain grace for me from her Son and Lord for three favors:
A deep knowledge of my sins and a feeling of abhorrence for them;
An understanding of the disorder of my actions, that filled with horror of them, I may amend my life and put it in order;
A knowledge of the world, that filled with horror, I may put away from me all that is worldly and vain. Then I will say a Hail Mary.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
I could not get on with this practice at all. When I tried, my conversation with her was stilted and awkard, like I was trying too hard to be polite and to like her – I realised that she was a bit of a stranger to me. And when Jesus appeared with us in the second part of the colloquy, I just looked at Him agog – it was like even He was on His best behaviour, and not behaving like Himself at all! My director at the time wisely suggested leaving the triple colloquy alone since it was getting in the way, and to do the colloquy as before.
Ultimately though, it was at the beginning of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises that I felt inspired to really examine my perceptions and images. My director, again, wisely encouraged me to spend extra time on the space between the first contemplation and the Nativity, and more time with Mary during the hidden life meditations.
In the first prelude of the first contemplation of the second week, Ignatius encourages us to imagine the Holy Trinity looking upon the Earth and humanity, and coming up with a plan:
Here it will be how the Three Divine Persons look down upon the whole expanse or circuit of all the earth, filled with human beings. Since They see that all are going down to hell, They decree in Their eternity that the Second Person should become man to save the human race. So when the fullness of time had come, They send the Angel Gabriel to our Lady.The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl S.J.
In my imagination, the Holy Trinity were discussing the hows and when of putting the salvation plan into actions and had agreed that it would be inititated when:
She prays psalm 63.
In the next contemplation, The Annunciation, I was an invisible observer, watching and listening to Mary at prayer, and when she prayed psalm 63, it completely blew me away! In The New Jerusalem Bible, which is the one I normally use for prayer, the first part translates as:
God, you are my God, I pine for you;
my heart thirst for you,
my body longs for you,Psalm 63…The New Jerusalem Bible
The moment I heard her say the words in bold, there was what seemed to me at the time, a scandalous and shocking revelation that I recognised as “screaming womb”. Such was the ferocity of her desire and love of God, that it went far beyond the sexual imagery of desire of The Song of Songs, which of itself, can make uncomfortable reading. It is a young woman saying:
I want to have your baby.
And the answer to her biological question of how can it be, the mystery of it, is given in the psalm:
…and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;Psalm 63: 7b-8a
So I began to see her in a new light, as an audacious woman who loved and trusted God to the exclusion of everything else: social propriety and the thoughts and feelings of her betrothed included. As Grandmother Widow (myself as an Old Woman) said to her in a later imaginative contemplation:
You never even gave Joe a second thought, did you?
I developed a friendship with her from there: as the mother of my own inner child, little Sunflower, I brought her over for “playdates” with Jesus, and while they played in the garden fountain at the age of three, laughing and splashing, Mary and I talked. When I was overcome with tiredness, she looked after the children and let me sleep. She became for me, a real person and not an alabaster statue.
I went to the Ignatian Spirituality Course Triennial lecture given by Jerrfey John, an Anglican Theologan. It was about Mary in scripture, and we were presented with different images of her. My favourite, Che Maria, was put with The Magnificat and presented her as Mary the Revolutionary. John talked about Henry Martin, who went out to Calcutta as a chaplain:
When he got there, he was astonished to find that the local Governer had ordered the Magnificat to be ripped out of the Prayer Book, and forbade it to be used in church services, because he was convinced that if the natives heard it they would be inspired to rebel.Jeffrey John, Mary in Scripture, ISC Triennial lecture 2019.
John also pointed out:
…in 1978 in Beunos Aires, the mothers of all the ‘disappeared’ people who had been kidnapped and killed by the military junta in Argentina, gathered tohether in the Plaza de Mayo to fight back. One of the ways they did it was by plastering the text of the Magnificat everywhere, and endlessly singing it in front of Government headquarters until in the end the Government, very stupidly, tried to ban it.Jeffrey John, Mary in Scripture, ISC Triennial lecture 2019.
And he asserted that the song the punk band Pussy Riot sang in the Cathedral of the Holy Saviour in Moscow in 2012, and were jailed for, was a prayer to Mary to drive Putin away, and was very much in the spirit of the Magnificat.
Dallas Jenkins (The Chosen), talks about the care he took in the portrayal of Mary in Episode 5 of Season 1.
Dallas asks towards the end of this discussion:
How did we do?
I think they did a great job. Here is a woman I can relate to.
On our spiritual journey, I have learned that it is important to consider our image of God. Sometimes we can cling to unhelpful images of God that prevent us from moving into deeper intimacy with Him. I have come to understand, since I did The Spiritual Exercises, that the same is true of His mum. Getting to know her better has allowed me to indeed see her as an example and role model, but not in the way that others tell me to see her. To see her audacity, a woman who submits to God’s authority regardless of what the patriarchy tells her that looks like. Does that make her a feminist? To me it does. She believed that her free will allowed her to make a choice without first running it past a societally approved man; she made that choice, trusted God and lived with the consequences of it. In my eyes, she is an awesome role model for this reason and I am pleased to call her my friend.
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,Mary’s song of Praise. Luke 46b-55
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’