So next Sunday at Church of the Common Table, the Fabulous Dr. Weave and I will be leading a service on Mary. Mary and I have some Issues, so I thought that rather than make my contribution to next week's service a giant therapy session for Moffitt, I'd hash this out on the blog. Because, you know, the internet is a great place to work out one's Issues. *cough*
So, a couple of things have happened lately that have me re-hashing The Catholic Years. I know I've mentioned this before on the blog, but I was received into the Roman Catholic Church on the Feast of St. Lucia (December 13), 1997 at St. Mary of the Angels in Bayswater, London, not very far from Notting Hill. As part of being received into the church, I took the name Elizabeth after Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be canonized by the church, and an American woman who, like me, had found the Church while living in Europe. I remained Catholic until I was received into the Episcopal Church in November of 2001.
I was a Very Good Catholic, particularly when I was living in England. I prayed the rosary regularly, prayed morning and evening prayer almost every day, went to Mass at least once a week and spent regular time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I was always in at least one choir in one church. In the summer of 1997, while I was in the process of converting, I fasted and prayed the rosary (often in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament) for three separate intentions, all three of which were answered. My friends at the time joked that I should be canonized. I became engaged to my Catholic boyfriend in July of 1998, and moved the following month back from the U.S. (where I'd returned to finish college) to the U.K. to marry him.
A year later, all three of my intentions had reversed themselves, meaning that two people who'd been "healed" were dead, and another situation that had righted itself had gone completely off the tracks again. My fiance had dumped me three weeks before our wedding and four weeks before my visa for the U.K. expired. After much discussion, I found that the main reason that my fiance had ended things was because he felt I would not make a good wife and mother. His main reason for asserting this was because I told him that I wanted to travel and see the world at some point.
I blamed him for wrecking my life with his last-minute revelation, but I also blamed Mary. I'd prayed countless times for her intercession for this relationship in addition to other intentions. I didn't see how I had an option but to believe that praying for her intercession had been a bad idea... not only had I not gotten what I'd asked for, but I'd hoped more than I ever would have had I not believed there was something extra-special about her prayers.
But more than that, I blamed the constant teaching of the Church about Mary and about her example for women. Almost every statue or image of Mary I'd ever seen, she was demurely looking down, either at Baby Jesus or just... down... like the Queen of Heaven was afraid to even meet *my* eye as I prayed for her intercession. Over and over again in sermons during Mass, I heard the phrase "she said yes" (referring to her response to the Archangel Gabriel) folded into messages that painted the Perfect Woman as passive, quiet, subsuming all her desires (and, evidently, her personality) to the whims and wishes of her husband and children.
I was pretty sure I knew that, on a level maybe he wasn't even aware of, Phil was comparing me to this Perfect Woman. *Mary* wouldn't want to travel. *Mary* wouldn't want to work outside the home, and Mary sure as hell wouldn't be spending time writing poetry or looking for singing gigs outside of the church (both of which I was doing). Oh, and Mary wouldn't swear. Or drink as much as I did (and do), or laugh as loud. Or talk at all, actually, unless responding to a direct question. I REALLY tried to be what Phil wanted me to be, tried to live up to all the unsubtle messages about the archetype to whom I was expected to conform. But I couldn't.
Of course, over time I've become convinced that neither did Mary.
When I turn away from the Church's later teachings on Mary, and instead just go to the New Testament, I don't find a lot about Mary, and what I do find does NOT suggest a person of passivity. This is what I find:
- A young woman who looked THE FREAKING ARCHANGEL GABRIEL in the EYE and said "Yessir, I will give birth to the SON OF GOD." What the what?? This gives me chills even while I'm typing it. The word "precocious" doesn't even begin to cover the kind of Stone Cold Badassery it would take to
a) TALK TO one of the FREAKING HOST OF HEAVEN and
b) calmly agree to give birth to THE SON OF GOD.
She had to have known that doing this was going to put her seriously on the outs with everyone in her family, who would have absolutely zero motivation to believe her story about being impregnated by GOD and not by the cute boy that lived down the street. And she said yes *anyway*. This may be because she had a rock-solid faith and understood her relation to God as God's servant, but also because she was confident in her ability to make this decision and to deal with the inevitable shit-storm that was going to follow.
- A woman who, directly before her due date (and after above-mentioned shit-storm, which involved, among other things, being sent packing by her fiance so she didn't get stoned to death for adultery), was informed that she had to make a long journey because of some impersonal ruler in a far away place, and upon arriving at the destination, gave birth to her first-born possibly unaided by anyone except her husband and in a BARN. No pain meds, no birthing pool, just push that sucker out in a pile of hay surrounded by animal dung a few steps from the hooves of Bessie the Cow. Again, it took serious physical and mental strength to get through this ordeal.
- A woman who, only a year or so after giving birth was forced to flee to a foreign country and live as a refugee until the Insane King who wanted to murder her son died.
- A pragmatic problem solver who was not afraid to ask Jesus to step in and be Mr. Fix It in a Situation of Social Awkwardness. There is no story about Mary I relate to more than the Wedding Feast at Cana. I could TOTALLY see myself doing what Mary did. The conversation reminds me of the kind of conversation I might have had with my brother when we were teenagers (I kind of acted like his Mom... he'd be the first to acknowledge this):
Me: Ben... BEN, listen to me.
Ben: (annoyed) What??
Me: They're getting ready to run out of wine. (raising eyebrows) We can't let that happen now, CAN we??
Ben: (even more annoyed) What do you want ME to do about it??
Me: (to the waitstaff) Do whatever he tells ya.
Not suggesting that my brother is Jesus, of course, but it just feels familiar to me as someone who fixes problems quickly and often really doesn't care how it gets done. This is not the action of a passive, shrinking violet, or someone overly concerned with propriety. Mary was not the slightest bit afraid to ask the Son of the Almighty God to fix an immediate, practical problem involving a shortage of alcohol. *This* is a woman after my own heart.
- A woman who, upon hearing that her son had been lead away and sentenced to death, went to the foot of his cross to watch him die in one of the most gruesome ways possible. I know that mothers love their children to the point of death, but watching your child bleed to death slowly is, again, not the action of a person with your normal amount of stamina. I can see a mother not being able to handle this, or not being able to remain in front of it.
I can also imagine that it took quite a bit of doing to get to Golgotha, since Jesus' execution was kind of a Thing and there were undoubtedly a ton of people there to witness it. Mary was no spring chicken by this point, but she got herself there through the crowds and the chaos and probably a security checkpoint or two (there was a healthy amount of fear about Jesus' followers) because there was no other place she could possibly be but beside her dying son (who had, by the way, three years earlier refused to settle down and have grandkids, quit his job, left her and his home and the family business and wandered around for 3 years causing trouble with the religious authorities [which would, of course, equal trouble for his family... we don't have this in the scriptures but I can't imagine they were left alone through all of this]).
The bottom line for me is that I believe I and many other women who have loved (or been raised among) Catholic men have suffered directly from being compared to an image of Mary that doesn't fit what little there is about her in the Bible. I find this an abuse of Mary, and an abuse of women who aren't particularly demure or soft-spoken... not that I'm hating on women who are demure and soft-spoken, but as it so happens I don't really possess either quality, and neither do most of my female friends. To me, these are character traits, not moral qualities... but in my experience as a Catholic, they were raised to the level of virtue. I consider this to be tragic for women whom God has made with gifts of vision and leadership, women who are eloquent and talented and who shine even when they're not trying to. I'm not talking about myself, by the way... I'm thinking of specific women I've known who have suffered greatly beneath the Church's teaching on women... have suffered as they've attempted to emulate a neutered, silent, weak-spirited version of Mary not supported by the Scriptures. Women who, unlike me, chose to stay and suffer.
When I envision having peace with Mary again, I imagine a Mary who would look me in the eye and tell me to get my shit together... with love, but also with a gleam in her eye that would let me know she was serious and would open up a can on me without a moment's hesitation if necessary. I imagine Mary with a firm jaw, saying "Yes, if I could bear the Son of God, bear the shame of my pregnancy and all of the difficulties with and questions around raising Him... and then watch Him die, then you can handle what God places in your life." I imagine a Mary who even now says "that's not too trifling a problem for me to take to God for you. Hold on, I'll be right back." I imagine her tough and strong and a little weathered. She was a carpenter's wife, after all. It's not like she had it easy.
And I also imagine her slowly shaking her head at all of the people who have promoted an image of her as weak and passive and demure... and I imagine her having a word or two with God about THAT, too.
If I make peace with Mary, it'll be with Mary, Bad-Ass Queen of Heaven... and I'll ask her prayers for a Church that accepts women as they are, quiet or loud; leaders or followers; with many children, few or none; married or single. Maybe I could go to that Church again someday. Maybe.