Mary, an obscure but feisty young woman from Nazareth, continues to have a powerful hold on the Catholic imagination. Rosemary Houghton writes.
Coming in from the bright sunlight, a woman kneels [Mary] before an altar in the dimness of the church; she has lit a small candle, and with many other small candles the light is reflected off glinting fabrics and jewels adorning the statue of the Mother of God. Crowned, lifted up, peaceful of gaze, she holds the Child on her lap, yet he is less noticeable. It is the great Mother to whom prayers are addressed, by women living in cultures—and a church—that gives little respect and less power to women. What does she think, the woman who lights the candle and prays to Mary? Coming in from the outside life that is so often harsh with humiliation and overwork and much grief, is there a secret comfort for her, in her powerlessness, to share needs, griefs, joys—even perhaps rage—with a woman so exalted, yet still a woman?
There is something subversive about Marian devotion. It sidesteps the structures of patriarchal power, secular and religious, and it has caused church officials unease through the centuries. Document after document has warned the faithful not to go overboard in devotion to Mary. She is Mother of God, but a creature, not divine, we are warned, and should not be offered “divine honours.” “Excessive” devotion to Mary is “immature,” the spiritual guides admonish, and this is the worst accusation! We are letting our hearts rule our heads, it tells us, being overemotional—feminine? It means we aren’t making clear distinctions, not keeping our theological categories precise and our devotions clearly labelled.
Recent psychology has noted, however, that the modern concept of “maturity,” developed overwhelmingly by male psychologists, is based on male-derived values of independence, separation, and control. There are other ways of recognising maturity, when it is judged rather by values of interdependence, inclusiveness, and relationship. It is important to ponder this if we are to understand the fullness of the treasure that Mary is for us, without having to look over our shoulders or make excuses for the power she is in the life of so many Christians and in the history of the church.
For Mary is that original subversive influence, a woman at the heart of the gospel overturning of the essential categories of human power. Long ago the emperor decreed a census, that ultimate expression of power and control. Count them—and to do this, gather them in convenient places (convenient for the census takers, not the human beings who are to be counted like so many coins). So one pregnant woman had her baby in a makeshift shelter, far from home. She was a number—or not even a number, being a female. A nonperson. But she and her son quietly and peacefully made nonsense of all that counting.
Herod, on the contrary, counted just one—the one he wanted to kill as a threat to his power. Any other deaths were merely incidental. But mother and child slipped away, still quietly subverting the calculations of power. She has been doing so ever since, evading categories, appealing to unimportant people in remote places, inspiring great tides of devotion that often break the bounds of ecclesiastical decency. Authorities may ensure that the waters of Lourdes flow only in ecclesiastically approved faucets, but the Lady is not so easily channeled.
Yet there are questions: Among the many, who knows which of her apparitions, her shrines, her devotions, are “genuine”? Some seem very suspect indeed, yet it is significant that when a deeply emotional religious feeling among Catholics needs expression, it is most often the person of Mary who is evoked, seen, claimed as support, in however bizarre a fashion. So how to judge between devotion that is “of God” and that which is the result of delusion or what we call “superstition”? To judge rightly, devoutly, we need the values of the gospel of Mary’s son—values of compassion, generosity, of the wide-flung embrace of divine love, values that do not promote blame or partisanship.
In the corners of thousands of poor homes, many only earth-floored single rooms, a generous space is given to the shrine of the Madonna—photos are pinned up, statues of other saints cluster around her, holy cards, flowers, and lights adorn this heart of the home. In Eastern Europe and Russia, the family icon of Mary glows in the light of its little lamp.
Protestant spirituality has found the rosary, once banished, and the Madonna now stands in Episcopal churches and homes. In Europe and in Central and South America her shrines stand on street corners and remote country crossroads. She looks down benignly on busy markets, she shines on vast mosaic ceilings, she glows, regally crowned, on altars. Her festivals cluster like stars in the calendar, and pilgrims flock to her shrines in millions, hoping for healing, counting on forgiveness and comfort. Sodalities and societies and confraternities honour and invoke her help in special rituals—one, in Spain, especially includes homosexuals, gypsies, and sailors. They know her as powerful, they need her, love her; she is the great Mother of God.
Mary and divinity
The question that bothers the theologians: Is she perhaps also the Mother Goddess? This is the fear that underlies all the cautions and condemnations of Marian “excesses.” First of all, it helps to remind ourselves that, theologically, God has no gender, that actually “Goddess” is as accurate a word as “God” to name divinity, so we should not be afraid of the word itself.
But we are afraid, because we have been taught to associate “goddess” with paganism, witches, sexual rituals. Yet, as Julian of Norwich said, “God rejoices to be our mother.” If we have learned (from a male and celibate “teaching church”) to shy away from a feminine awareness of God, then the human heart in its need will turn to the feminine power of God’s mother.
Where does one end and the other begin? Dare we even say it doesn’t matter? Famous paintings of the Assumption show Mary lifted up into the very heart of the Trinity, the God from whom all things come. Literally and scientifically, all things are interdependent and interconnected from the farthest grains of stellar dust to our own bodies. We and all creatures come forth from the reality of the God whom we call “Tri-une” because this divine mystery is not separate and self-sufficient, but one of endlessly exchanged love, giving and receiving, and out of that exchange of love all creation receives its own reality of endlessly exchanged life.
Mary, the obscure but feisty young woman from Nazareth, is caught up in that divine giving and receiving of love at a point of unimaginable power. Through her and with her, arrogant and stupid human power is overturned, salvation breaks out.
We don’t know much about her life. If the infancy stories are “midrash”- interpretation and elaboration on the events – still the power of their great symbols reflects the power of transformation, of a new and divine event. The other gospel references are few and show a not always easy relationship with her son.
Jesus and Mary
There is so little, yet that little shows her human life inseparable from the story of salvation. The reality of who she is cannot end with her human life; it is caught up in the great liberation that sets free and validates the deepest and most powerful human desires, hopes, griefs, and joys. Jesus was born of Mary, and they are not divided. We know what happened and continues to happen in him; we know who we are called to be because of him, with him, and through him.
And she is there, also; she can’t be filtered out. Yes, there are, in many devotions to Mary, echoes of devotions to the great mother goddesses of old. Of course there are, because human beings recognise and seek the divine feminine, the power of nurturing and healing, and also the darker power of death through which all pass: “Now and at the hour of our death” we turn to her. We don’t need to apologise to Jesus because his mother allows human hearts to seek what they have always sought. Mary and Jesus were together in his birth and death and beyond. We need not be too concerned to separate them now.
This article first appeared in