Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Lent 6: There's Something About Mary, 1968, 1987

For Lent, I'm writing here about memories of significant moments from my life in faith. 

One of the persistent memories of my childhood is an image of my mother saying the rosary. I remember walking into her room to find her, the beads slipping through her fingers as she would finish each prayer. One memory is particularly vivid. She had arrived home from a trip to New York City, during which she had extensive dental surgery. It was clear she was in pain. She took her meds, lay down on her bed, and placed the cross from her beads on her mouth as she prayed silently.

I'd learned the rosary from my mother, and had gone through periods when I too said it regularly. But once in Catholic elementary school, my attention turned to Jesus. I learned that Jesus was at the heart of our faith, not Mary... Though Mary was important! There was no doubt about that. The early years of school included instruction about the mass, as well as attendance at mass each Friday. I learned that the mass enabled us to participate in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and that taking communion was a very, very big deal, because communion was Jesus.

Mom's rosary beads; felted purse by Saint Casserole
And, as I often do with things I learn about, I took my newfound knowledge and proceeded to judge the world accordingly. And what was the deal, I wondered, with the women who said the rosary during mass? There were a number of older women who stayed at the back of the church, in the last couple of pews. No matter what was happening in the service, these women were fingering their rosary beads, and murmuring the Hail Mary. They did not appear to be taking part in the mass at all.

I got right up on my high horse and took it for a ride.

I complained to my mother. I was indignant. Now, she was not one of those women, saying the rosary in mass. But she defended them with zeal. "Who are they hurting?" she said. That, I came to learn, formed a lot of my mom's outlook on life. Who is being hurt? No one? Then leave it/ them/ him/ her alone.

But my developing religious sensibilities were being hurt! "It just seems wrong," I grumbled. And took my complaints no further.

I turned to my rosary now and then as the years went on. Eventually, I put it away, it seemed, for good. I could not imagine myself praying to Mary, as an intercessor with Jesus. My theological outlook was changing.

Then, I had a baby.

Ned was perfect. But Ned was also a normal baby who needed to be fed during the night. I was nursing, and at first, tried turning on a little TV for distraction. But I quickly noticed that the light had the effect of waking Ned up, so that was a short-lived experiment.

For some reason, I decided to say the rosary.

[For those of you who are not familiar with the rosary, a nice introduction can be found here. The rosary is a set of prayers repeated, using beads to mark decades (sets of ten) Hail Marys, interspersed with the Lord's Prayer, the Gloria Patri, and several other prayers.  The full rosary (when I was growing up) consisted of fifteen decades, and with each decade, you meditated on a particular mystery: the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries of the lives of Jesus and Mary. In recent years another set of mysteries has been added: the Luminous mysteries. These added more scenes from the life of Jesus, which I think was a great idea.]

You don't actually need a set of rosary beads to pray it, of course. I marked the decades on my fingers. The darkness and the sweet coziness of rocking Ned gave me time to actually savor the prayers, and try to imagine the various mysteries in detail. Over the months I nursed Ned I came to realize that I wasn't really meditating on Mary, so much as I was having an encounter with the feminine face of God.

For those of us who grow up in Christian households, there are few feminine images for God we are offered or exposed to. I was in my twenties before I realized there are actually several feminine images for God in scripture, including God as mother (Hosea 11) and 'God with breasts' (the typical translation of El Shaddai is 'God Almighty,' but it is sometimes rendered 'God Who Suffices;' this is because the literal translation is 'God of Mountains,' something like Grand Tetons). If we're lucky, we may hear sermons on these texts once in a while. But as a pastor who is very interested in feminine images for God, I have to admit-- this often takes a back seat to other concerns when I'm in the pulpit.

But, then there's Mary. And as a young nursing mother, I was drawn to pray using her as a kind of mental/spiritual icon for a God who has a feminine face.

I think there's a good case to be made that this was the point of Marian devotion all along. The story goes, there was a temple to Diana/ Artemis in Ephesus, one of the great wonders of the ancient world. Diana is known to most of us as the Roman goddess of the hunt and wild creatures, but she was also the goddess of mothers and childbirth (virgin though she was). And after tradition placed the death of Jesus' mother at Ephesus, the church saw fit to re-dedicate the shrine of the Virgin Goddess Diana to the Virgin Mother Mary. The shrine to the goddess known as Divine Mother became the shrine to the Mother of God. Diana was known as Queen of Heaven. Mary, too.

I'm Presbyterian now, and Protestants don't think much of Marian devotion, as a rule. But I think there was real wisdom in giving a nod to the feminine aspect of God, for which there isn't too much room in traditional formulations of the Trinity. (A very wise nun once noted, "There is more to God than two men and a bird.")  Elevation of the woman Mary to near-divine status was an understandable (if flawed) attempt at acknowledging that truth to converts to whom Christianity appealed mightily, but who missed the goddesses who gave representation to their bodies, and lives, and spirits.

I think of those women at the back of the church, murmuring their prayers throughout the mass as they moved the beads through their fingers. Are they still there? I wonder what they thought during that time? Maybe the rosary was the deepest and best way they knew to get to God... through the woman who gave (at least a little) representation to their bodies, and lives, and spirits.

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