Devotion to Mary is something I never understood, then …

devotion to mary

My relationship with Mary, like that of many women, is complicated.

Mary embodies some of my most deeply held values.

As a young, poor woman from Galilee, she represents how God chose to enter into human existence in the most radically humble way.

Her “Magnificat” is one of the most powerful passages in the Gospels. And her own “yes” to God is, of course, the ultimate model of how a human being should relate to God.

These lessons, though, often become muddled when Mary is presented only as a model for women.

As the theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote in her book on Mary, Truly Our Sister, Mary is often seen as “the ideal embodiment of feminine essence.” She continues,

Whether her perfection then serves to disparage other women or to inspire them, her obedient, responsive, maternal image is at play in the community as the norm for women in contrast to men. When combined with an understanding of God and Christ as essentially masculine, the result reproduces in theology, spirituality and church polity nothing less than the patriarchal order of the world, now with divine sanction.

When viewed through this lens, Mary represents an impossible double standard.

The poet Mary Szybist told me that encountering Mary this way damaged her own sense of self-worth: “The message is that [as a woman] you are valued for your virginity and you are valued for being a mother.

To grow up to be neither a virgin nor a mother leaves the puzzle, under that kind of pressure of imagination, how does one value oneself?”

Mothers, too, struggle with how to relate to Mary’s virginity and the emphasis the church places on it.

No one, after all, is both a virgin and a mother.

It was that double standard and the way Mary was invoked as “divine sanction” for the “patriarchal order of the world,” that led me to keep her at arm’s length through much of my life.

I often told people that, intellectually, I just didn’t understand the appeal of Marian devotion.

What it was about Mary that, for example, led some of the most progressive Catholics I knew to pray the Rosary every day.

Mary, despite my hesitations, has always been present to me.

At times it feels I have been haunted by her, to borrow a phrase Dorothy Day used to speak about God.

Perhaps it is my many years of Catholic school, or my teenage habit of praying a Rosary on my morning drive every day, but I have always found myself reflexively reciting Hail Marys in life’s liminal moments: washing my hands, waiting for a red light to change, watching hot coffee drip into the carafe.

Without ever really thinking about it, I am always talking to her, always in the same words, echoing the Annunciation (“Hail Mary, full of grace…”), and finally asking her to remember me now and at the hour of my death.

My mental hangups with Mary, though, kept me from talking to her beyond these almost unconscious recitations.

I tried to separate the liberating images of Mary from the oppressive ones, but I never could.

I found that the figure of Mary was too entangled in arguments that did not resonate with me or my understanding of myself as a woman.

Then I became pregnant, and my struggling relationship with Mary became impossible to ignore. Continue reading

Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , ,