Wednesday, June 13, 2012

In Praise of the One Who Contained the One Who Cannot Be Contained

The posts on this blog were written by the undergraduate and graduate students in Prof. Rachel Fulton Brown's course on "Mary and Mariology," taught at the University of Chicago in Spring 2012.  The posts were assigned as reflections on the discussions that we had over the course of the quarter in class, but the posts themselves regularly took on a depth and rigor far beyond that which we had been able to explore in class. The assigned readings for our discussions are listed in the syllabus; the blog posts themselves are labeled according to the theme of the discussion in response to which they were written. There is undoubtedly much more that could be said both about our readings and our discussions.  We offer these reflections simply as a glimpse at the beauty of the Virgin Mother of God and of the devotion that has been offered to her by Christians over the centuries.  We hope very much that you will enjoy reading our reflections.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

How Far Will They Go?

            After completing the final reading for this week's class, and ultimately the year, I can't help but wonder how far "scholars" will go to stretch and twist the teachings of their opposition in order to try and prove their points.  After reading Luther a few weeks ago, I was surprised to see his error in accusations concerning the medieval veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  After reading Mary Daly and most Marina Warner, however, I must say that I am more disappointed not because of mistakes in accurate detail, but because of how effective they allowed their bias to influence their writing to the point where they sound like conspirators.
            Let me first begin with Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation.  It is made clear from the very beginning that she will allow her feminist approach to interfere to make her point, which doesn't surprise me coming from a woman who was at once forced to retire by her university for refusing to allow male students into her advanced woman's studies class.  Apparently, Daly thought (or still thinks) "women aspirations are not being taken seriously", thus she feels the need to twist Catholic theology in order to prove a point that is not even true, and make it seem as if the Catholic Church is cleverly using Mary as mechanism to passively ensure the subordination and inferiority of women to men. 
            The early parts of Daly's essay begin with sarcastic remarks such as: "Mary is 'good' only in relation to Jesus....the inimitability of 'Mary conceived without sin' ensures that all women as women are in the caste with Eve" to suggest the apparently "contradictory message" of the Church and its means of suppressing women.  She critics the Church theology of Jesus, regarding it as being built upon a "male savior", "male God", and "male theologians", almost implying a wish for a female deity, but then contradicts her obvious desire by criticizing the church with the exact opposite by saying it deems a "God-like status of Mary (always officially denied in Roman Catholicism of course)".  Thus, she accuses the church for not having a female held at higher regard, and then says that the church does so in Mary, but that it actually denies it - I'm not sure how this argument works. 
            Daly also attempts to cleverly criticize St. Thomas Aquinas and the Immaculate Conception:

"Thomas Aquinas, a fairly consistent patriarch in this matter, rejected the doctrine.  He insisted that if the Blessed Virgin had never incurred the stain of original sin, "she would not have need redemption and salvation which is by Christ....Aquinas taught that the Virgin was sanctified in her mother's womb..." 

Daly tries to make it seem that because the "doctrine" of the Immaculate Conception was so "contradictory" and ridiculous that Thomas Aquinas, a Doctor and Scholar of the Church, was even rejecting it because it was "unfitting" as it would imply that "Christ is [not] the Savior of all men", once again returning to her demise of the idea of God and salvation being in the hands of "males". While she does mention that it did take a while to become an official doctrine of the Church, she fails to state that specifically at the time of Aquinas that the Immaculate Conception was not a belief of the Church.  If it had been, Aquinas would not have denied it, and it thus it failed to measure up to the Vincentian Canon for the Faith and it thus could be rejected or accepted as a mere private opinion and not an article of faith (similar to the teaching surrounding belief in apparitions of the Blessed Virgin.  Just because they are confirmed as authentic does not mean they are  required beliefs).
            In the same token, Daly even goes as far to say that the Ascension is titled "The Ascension" because "Jesus 'went up' under his own power, whereas Mary was 'taken' up" in the Assumption, and did not enter heaven by her own means, but by the power of the "male God". Thus, Daly believes that this "jargon" is an act of sexual hierarchy. Overall, Daly believes that the "Roman Catholic Church's degrading of women" is so severe that it diminishes women to the level of evil, as she says they are both "excluded from the Deity of the Holy dogma of the Trinity".  Daly believes that Mary is intelligently used by the Catholic Church to obtain the "victory that is of the male." 
            Marina Warner's essay Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Marym,
 while shorter than Daly's, accuses the Catholic Church as using Mary to limit the freedom of choice of women:

"At one moment, a religion of this type declares that by obeying one moral code and performing certain rites correctly, the believer will prosper; at another, it spirits away this book of rules and substitutes another, contradictory one.  Catholicism operates in a similar fashion, for on the on hand it affirms the beauty and goodness of the natural world and insists that man's purpose is to cultivate fully his God-given gifts on earth; but on the other it endorses the most pessimistic world-denying self-sacrifice as the state of the elect, and it accords virginity, the symbol of renunciation, the highest accolade."

Warner is referring to the idea of embracing natural humanity and then goes on to say that the Church holds so sacred the idea of sex and virginity (through the use of Mary), calling it contradictory because it limits the "embracing of natural humanity".  Warner proceeds to contradict herself, however, in saying that "the Church's teachings on contraception and abortion stem directly from the same misogynist ideas about women's role contained in the myth of the Virgin, exacerbates the terrors of sex and childbirth by maintaining pregnancy as a constant and very real danger".  How is contraception in sexual activity "embracing the natural humanity"? Would not "maintaining pregnancy" also be natural instead of disgracefully murdering a child through abortion? Therefore, Warner swallows her own bullet with this attempt of an argument against the Catholic Church, and tries to conclude her essay by reducing Mary and her role to nothing more than a "myth".
            Mary Daly and Marina Warner are clearly extreme feminists, and the history surrounding their biographies and other writings support this accusation.  While I am by no means a sexist, I must say that these two writings were rather blown out of proportion.  Daly and Warner not only allow their biased language to push away the reader, but they also permit it conjure simply ridiculous arguments that accuse the Roman Catholic Church as using the Blessed Virgin Mary as a conspiracy method to maintain male supremacy and abolish women's rights and their roles in humanity. 


Ecce Mater Tua


“Behold your mother.” (Jn. 19.27)
 (Unable to find photo attribution)
“[Mary] is imbedded in literally everything, in every detail of all things visible and invisible.
That's why she is my mother. And your mother. And everyone's mother. She is the Mother of the Church. She is the Mother of the World.” ~LR (post ‘The Closing of the Day’ 5/31/12, 1:19pm)

What began in my mind as response and follow-up to LR’s inspired post has turned into a post on its own. With LR I share the desire to see in Mary hope for our world. Each of our postmodern authors have taken their approach to Mary in the face of some perceived problem in the contemporary world: Daly, Warner, Boss and Ratzinger each diagnosed the problem differently (sometimes vastly different); excepting Warner, each found in Mary a potential solution (even if only Daly’s “free-wheeling symbol,” 87). In a previous comment to MCW’s ‘Defense of Spretnak’ (5/25/12, 4:14pm), I expressed a shared expectation with Spretnak that premodern Mary can offer hope to our postmodern world. However, instead of Spretnak’s formulation of problem and solution, I have been meditating on another way thinking the problem and the solution. Here are my humble thoughts:
With traditional bulwarks being washed away, you and I, postmodern men and women all, stand on uncertain ground – perhaps, even, upon no ground at all. Our “crisis of meaning” results from a fragmented and chaotic field of knowledge through which the search for meaning appears “difficult and often fruitless.” As a result, values are found to have their value only by and in those who hold them. But, as many discover, values which are only valuable insofar as one holds them are no values at all. Release them and they drop into nothing. Our highest values, at our whim, fall into an abyss – upon which, I suggest, we postmoderns often find ourselves standing.

What is this ailment except nihilism? Who suffers from nihilism but the human person? Acutely aware, John Paul II wrote: “Nihilism is a denial of the humanity and of the very identity of the human being. …The neglect of being inevitably leads to losing touch with objective truth and therefore with the very ground of human dignity.” (Fides et ratio 90; previous quotes: 81) 

Present nihilism dissolves human dignity. (I do not think I need convince many of this, but if I am wrong, please speak up.) I wonder whether Mary can be the champion of the inherent dignity of the human person. 
In our course of reading, it appears we find many different Marys. We find the “Second Eve” who stands beside the “Second Adam” undoing the original knots of sin; Mary is young Jewish girl of Joachim and Anna, a primordial contemplative in the Temple; Mary is Ephrem’s Container of the Uncontained, Cyril’s Theotokos, Akathistos’ protectress, the Assumed Mother who gives comfort to the dying and guarantee of resurrection, Damian’s and Voragine’s jealous guardian of Her devotees, and so on.

But perhaps, these are not all different Marys. Perhaps, perhaps the heart of faith can see in all these one, multi-faced Mary who impossibly contains all the roles and functions of her tradition of devotees. In an earlier post, I mentioned the concept of doctrinal development: In each time, region, culture and state, devotees have seen and thought about Mary is various and different ways. The eyes of faith can see these developmental variations as gradual unfoldings of the single Person of Mary.

As we have seen, I think, each age find in Mary what or who that age needs. Our age, I suggest, needs the Person of Mary, that is, Mary the type, defender and advocate of the dignity of the human person.
Mary’s role for us as advocate of personhood, is not a new idea. Edith Stein wrote, “As co-redeemer by the side of the Redeemer, she emerges from the natural order. Both mother and son spring from the human race, and both embody human nature…they have lived for the sake of humanity.” (Works II.189-190; trans. FM Oben)

Ratzinger also saw Mary’s remedial answer: “Mary is the image of the Church, the image of the believing person, who can come to salvation and to himself only through the gift of love – through grace.  [Mary] – “full of grace” -  represents humankind, which as a whole is expectation… and which can never fill that void that threatens humanity when he does not find that absolute love which gives him meaning, salvation, all that is truly necessary in order to live.” (Introduction to Christianity, 280; trans. JR Foster)

While a Roman Catholic in creed, I have grasped the basics of the Marian doctrines. But prior to this course my imagination had never been fired with the richness and beauty of the Marian cosmos. If I have worn my heart of my sleeve in this post, it is my own confession of the wonder I am beginning to experience in the Blessed Virgin in the face of the grim “caduke”  universe (“Not that all disappears or falls, but all can fall and disappear.” J-L Marion, God without Being, 126; trans. T Carlson). 

For this awakening to the treasure of Mary’s mothership, I am grateful. She is our mother, because She is a gift to us from Christ. On the cross, Jesus spoke the words “Behold your mother” to a disciple. John Paul II noted: 
“It is not merely a gesture of a family nature, as of a son making provision for his mother. But it is a gesture of the world’s Redeemer who assigns to Mary… a role of new motherhood in relation to all those who are called to membership of the Church… Jesus wished to give Mary the mission of accepting all his followers of every age as her own sons and daughters.” (Jesus Son and Savior, 469; general audience 11/23/1988)

I take solace that Mary stands between me and nothing. I pray for her help against my and our ways of dissolving and wounding robust, healthy and joyous personhood:

Sancta Maria Mater,
advocata pro humanae personae dignitate,
ora pro nobis omnibus Deum!


Friday, June 1, 2012

Sifting for truth

The past couple of blog posts have commented on the far from perfect scholarship of our post-modern readings. While I agree that it is unacceptable for writers like Daly, Kristeva and Warner to make generalizing assumptions about Marian devotion and get their facts blatantly wrong, I still think that each and every one of them have something very valuable to offer.

Let’s start with Warner. Her personal experience with the Virgin is her truth. She explicitly tells us about her life-long relationship with the Virgin, from making her own Marian grotto as a child to feeling shame for her ‘impurity’ as a teenager. Without the anecdote in the prologue, how would we know the context of her argument? And even though several of us in class questioned Warner’s conclusion that Mary is an impossible model, I have to say that there is truth in that claim for her. And if it is true for her, than how many other Christian women without a voice is this true for? 

Kristeva starts her Tales of Love talking about how hard it is to write, but how important the process is if you love your subject:

“Words that are always too distant, too abstract for this underground swarming of seconds, folding in unimaginable spaces. Writing them down is an ordeal of discourse, like love. What is loving, for a woman, the same thing as writing” (235).

When I read Kristeva’s work the first time, I read it without reading the bolded words until the end. Poor choice on my part. Kristeva’s creative writing is chalk full of anguish, shame, and burning love to the point where really anything that I say about it would be inadequate. For Kristeva, writing this book was a soul baring experience. And even though she comes to some interesting conclusions (“The Virgin obstructs the desire for murder or devouring by means of a strong oral cathexis (the breast), valorization of pain (the sob), and incitement to replace the sexed body with the ear of understanding” 257), it would be disrespectful of us to discount all of Kristeva’s work. After all, according to the quote on page 235, this work is a work of devotion. Like many of the authors that we have read in this course, Kristeva uses her talent as a writer as a way to show her complicated love for Mary, to add just one drop to the vast sea. Without Kristeva’s personal anecdotes, how would we know that Tales of Love is also a devotional work?

Finding truth in Daly’s work is a little harder to do than Warner and Kristeva’s, because Daly’s book is full of incredibly biased language. She draws broad conclusions without providing us with evidence. Example:

“On a functional level, Protestant obliteration of the Virgin ideal has to some extent served the purpose of reducing “women’s role” exclusively to that of wife and mother…Concretely, instead of having ‘the nun’ as religious ideal, Protestant women have been offered the picture of ‘the minister’s wife’.” (85).

I had quite a bit of difficulty with this passage for a couple of reasons, mainly because Daly is NOT Protestant. She grew up in a ‘Catholic ghetto,’ so she calls it. This claim is not even based on personal experience, like Warner’s and Kristeva’s works, so how does it have any backing? Secondly, unlike Catholic women, many Protestant women can become ministers! How can Daly say that because Protestant women do not have Mary as a model in the same capacity as in Catholicism, that these women have a diminished role in the Protestant faith?

Still, does Daly have any truth for us? Perhaps the truth lies in the vehemence of her writing. She is a radical feminist for a reason. Daly must have met with some sort of sexism in the patriarchal structure of the Church in her life, and then reacted against it. Her personal experience of having Mary as an inadequate model is a truth for her, even if it does not make sense to us (well, me).

Now what about Ratzinger? As the almost-Pope, his motivations for writing his bit on Mary are pretty clear. He does a good job of reconciling ecclesiocentric and Christocentric Mariologies. It is obvious that Ratzinger spent a good deal of time thinking and learning about Mariology before writing the article. There may have been a little self-revelatory section in his work:

“If the misery of contemporary man is his increasing disintegration into mere bios and mere rationality, Marian piety could work against this ‘decomposition’ and help man to rediscover unity in the center, from the heart.” (36)

I can’t say that Ratzinger may have, as a ‘contemporary man’, fallen like many of us into the seductive ‘rationality,’ but it seems like if he had, he now realizes that Mariology allows us to find a middle ground between pure logic and pure affectivity.

Boss’s work, based on the class consensus, was what we wanted post-modern scholarship on Mariology to look like. No historical inaccuracies (that I could find, at least) and little biased language. I think that Boss provides many of us with an adequate account of Mariology, but in my opinion, that does not mean that that should be the only style of scholarship available to us. Part of the beauty of Mariology, as we have seen throughout the quarter, is that Marian devotion comes in so many forms. Poetry, art, academic writing, music, and so much more! There is truth in every act of devotion to Mary, even if it is not the truth we may be expecting. 


Militant feminism and shoddy scholarship - a potent combination

Assume I had not taken this class, nor had I done any of the previous weeks' readings, but had done the readings for Wednesday. [Comments from the “post-Mariology-course me” are in bold.]

As a non-Christian, I like to think that I passively participate in Christianity-specific theological conversations [like the one created in class between the five authors we read for Wednesday] from an unbiased point of view; while I might take a stance on a more broad religious debate – I do love a good argument – such a specific topic like “Postmodern Mary” would be one that I would watch from the sidelines, not knowing much about Mary, postmodern or not. I have no experience with the Virgin Mary and admittedly little exposure to several facets of Christianity in general. I think that my disinterest in the issue allows me to see both sides of the argument and draw my own conclusion. [In fact, this approach would probably work if the five authors had actually been put in conversation with one another.] It's easy in a debate to point out the flaws in your opponent's arguments, and this process illuminates a whole lot for a bystander who would otherwise have no idea what the perceptions of Mary are and have been over the hundreds of years gone by.

Scholars like Kristeva know and have read all that they need to, and are authoritative on the evolution of Marian devotion in all its aspects. After all, it's their job and duty as scholars to have a strong command over what they write and profess expertise in. I read the works by Daly, Warner, Kristeva, Ratzinger and Boss and end up confused because of the large difference in the postmodern conceptions of the Virgin. All of the authors make good points about feminism, power, divinity, and many other concepts relating to problems concerning the Virgin. But who is right? Is anyone right? If what all of them say is true, then why is there such a disparity between what Warner and Boss say?

Back to reality. After having read all that we read over the past quarter it was very hard for me not to side with Boss and Ratzinger (particularly Boss) about the perception of Mary in postmodernity. In short, their perceptions were beautiful and meaningful, using the history of Marian devotion to support their arguments in a way that highlights Mary's importance to her devotees.

After having been in a couple of history classes, I've come to realise that scholarship is often shoddy. Facts are treated as malleable, and even a simple word choice can dramatically alter the effect of a sentence. The problem that I would have faced when reading the excerpt Stabat Mater, for instance, is that I would have believed Kristeva when she wrote that Bernard of Clairvaux did indeed transpose the Song of Songs and, in doing so, glorified Mary in her role of beloved and wife (Kristeva 243). I would have, as an innocent bystander, expected that the scholars knew what they were talking about.
I'd like to talk a little about my problems with Marina Warner and Mary Daly in relation to some discussions we've had in class. Both Warner and Daly seem to be grasping for a female role model in Mary. Christianity seems (to them) to look at women as inherently and innately sinister, and that Mary achieves “serene” womanhood (Daly referencing Nikolai Berdyaev on page 91) in fulfilling to contradictory ideals – remaining chaste while still bearing a child.

Warner makes the following incredibly bold statement in the epilogue to her book, “(T)he Virgin will recede into legend (...) the Virgin's legend will endure in its splendour and lyricism, but it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real powers to heal and to harm” (Warner 339). She and Daly seem convinced that the role of Mary as an “instrument of a dynamic argument (...) about the structure of society” (Warner 338) will be the undoing of devotion to her. Mary, to Warner, is only revered because of Jesus. This is hard to refute.

But isn't that the whole point, or am I missing something huge here? Would Mary be special without Jesus? There is clearly a distinction to be drawn between a pious, devout person and someone who is touched in such a personal and meaningful way as Mary was touched by God. I would not be sitting here writing this post about Mary in this context had she not miraculously borne Jesus Christ. There is a difference between Mary and other saints too, and this difference in holiness comes from her maternal connection to Jesus.

I thought the way that Boss explained her view of Mary was beautiful, and casts Mary as the person who was chosen to be able to contain the uncontainable – and then led her life in such a way that other people were able to find divine meaning in Christ. She is the fabric of the universe. As such, she permeates every single person, every single atom in existence. She is within us and without us. In Boss' interpretation, miracles that Mary performed can stand alone, while being supported by her divine connection to heaven and her all-pervading nature. I particularly liked this interpretation because, while maintaining the supreme importance of the Creator and of Jesus Christ, it gives Mary the standing she truly merits and deserves as the complex, mysterious and pious figure that we have come to know her as throughout the quarter.


Thursday, May 31, 2012

Feminist Theology and Iconoclasm

I totally agree with the previous poster’s [LR] assessment that Mary is not going anywhere, and I think this can be best understood in the context of the narratives of a general “fall of religion” that have been proposed in the modern era. People keep thinking that science and “rationality” will supersede religion at some point, and it keeps not happening, and with Mary as with other objects of devotion, it won’t happen.

Still, this does not relieve modern people of the task of interpreting and understanding the tradition within a modern context. As much as I disagree with Warner’s claim that “the Virgin's legend will endure in its splendour and lyricism, but it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real powers to heal and to harm,” (339) I sympathize with the difficulties she experienced growing up as a Catholic girl/woman in the second half of the twentieth century. While the demand of the Virgin for “purity” may not actually have been interpreted as solely referring to “sexual chastity” for the “nearly two thousand years” that Warner claims (xxi), it seems undeniable that it has taken on such an interpretation in a strong way in recent years, and this is a development that will only be reversed if scholars and Catholics and people increase the extent to which alternative interpretations are voiced. We can see from current events such as the recent crackdown on the Leadership Council of Women Religious that it is not always easy to be a woman in the Catholic Church today, and while gender should never be our sole category of analysis with regards to historical and social issues, it is a relevant one in today’s society unfortunately often. While the events of the last half century have not eradicated Marian devotion nor religion in general, they have certainly shifted the cultural landscape greatly. We are still feeling the effects of these shifts now and will probably continue to do so going forward. In order to gain the most benefit from religious traditions such as the tradition surrounding Mary, we must put in the work of interpreting them in a way that is simultaneously faithful to the tradition and relevant to the modern context. This process does not entail the “salvaging” of resources from the past that Daly (83) or some other feminists would have it be, but rather just one more iteration or reiteration of Mary and her images and meanings that have been repeatedly refigured and reimagined over the course of the past 20 centuries. Any appropriate modern reimagining will, to my mind, include a combination of accurate understanding and interpretation of the historical tradition with an understanding of the needs and concerns of modern people in our contemporary context. Perhaps with even an element of divine revelation thrown in there.

This need for constructive reimagining is why I (like many people, I have to assume) find myself frustrated with Mary Daly. I think I have very little patience for iconoclasts in general, because at some point you have to stop tearing things down and actually put forth a constructive suggestion. As far as I can tell, Daly never really puts forth an alternative to the “patriarchal past” (83) that she wants to completely reject, neither in this chapter nor anything else I have read by her. More accurately, the only alternative she puts forth is a vision of some sort of primal power of the “Great Mother” who existed before all patriarchal religion. I would be more sympathetic with the ideas Daly proposes within this framework if she admitted that the idea of a unified female religious symbol that existed before Christianity was in the realm of feminist mythology rather than history. (not to be dismissive of mythology!) I suppose that one is meant to take Daly, as a theologian (of sorts), as speaking religious truth rather than historical, but it seems to me that this line is particularly easy to blur when creating new myths in a “postmodern” age where mythology is popularly looked on as foolishness. There are isolated passages of Daly’s writing that I really appreciate. The paragraph on page 86, for example, that begins “when the idea itself of Mary’s being conceived without ‘original sin’ is ‘selectively perceived,’ it can convey an entirely different meaning” would be insightful if it were framed differently—if, for example, she had written “Imagine if Mary’s being conceived without ‘original sin’ was a negation of the myth of feminine evil.” Such an invitation to a new conception of the figure of Mary would be welcome to me. The problem is Daly’s statement that we “can” “selectively perceive” aspects of the Marian tradition and come up with anything like an appropriate interpretation. The ideas she puts forth in this paragraph are interesting to think about whether or not one believes they are theologically sound. Her mistake comes in framing hers as the only acceptable interpretation and rejecting all existing aspects of the tradition.

On the flip side, the same concern with a combination of respect for the tradition and constructive new suggestions for the modern era is why I particularly loved Sarah Jane Boss’s interpretation of Mary as creation. She opens the chapter with biblical interpretation, grounding her understanding firmly in the tradition. She goes on to construct an interpretation that remains theologically grounded while speaking to a modern audience. She views her interpretation as correcting for a modern Western culture that is “at war with nature” (8), and she acknowledges the potential biases of her modern Western readers (9). In this way, through her interpretation she allows those aspects of the tradition that seem most pertinent to today’s context to speak to modern readers.

To my mind, this type of interpretation that remains grounded in the tradition but simultaneously aware of its modern context is the ideal form for a feminist theology. One does not have to accept Daly or Warner’s interpretation to recognize a potential need for feminist theological interpretation—by which I mean theological interpretation that takes into account the specific needs of contemporary women. One good outcome that I would credit Mary Daly in particular with, despite my vehement disagreement with most of her framework, is that her work spurred many other Catholic feminists to create new interpretations that spoke to the needs of contemporary Catholic women (ultimately similar needs to those Warner and Daly recognized) without rejecting or vastly misreading the preexisting traditions.

The Closing of the Day

As much as the end of this course on Mary seems to be anticlimactic, and that the doors to an effective and influential Marian devotion in the Church are closing, I believe that the post-modern conception of Mary is going to serve as the foundation for a renewed, holistic, and dedicated devotion to the Mother of God throughout the world. I wrote a post a while ago about how vespers at the closing of the day is “Mary's hour.” She uses this closing time as a means to salvage the dimming light and conserve it until the sun comes up again. That is why we cannot lose hope that Mary will have a significant place in Christian thought and prayer today and in the years to come.

Marina Warner may claim that “the Virgin's legend will endure in its splendour and lyricism, but it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real powers to heal and to harm” (339), but one must know better. We, who have access to and understand the entire history of Marian devotion in the Church from Mary's life up until now, can see the bigger picture. Marian devotion has endured trials, criticism, Councils, the Dark Ages, the Enlightenment, modernity, and pluralism. In every age and place since the time of Christ, devotion to Mary has broken through every barrier, proclaiming that yes, this woman is important and yes, she has a mysterious power and role that we strive to understand. Simply because post-modernity has come up with another roadblock to devotion, you mean to say that these past forty years will wipe out Mary altogether? I beg to differ!

This is why I preferred the positions of Ratzigner and Boss in our readings. Each in his/her own way chose to take a proper understanding of Mary's role and her function in today's world. They both were able to take Mary's context throughout history and interpret this for the modern believer. Ratzinger took the position that Mariology is best understood in the context of both Christology and ecclesiology. [Side note: I just finished a course on the Christology of Ratzigner/Pope Benedict XVI, so I really cannot escape the knowledge that almost any issue or theology he expounds upon is intended to direct the faithful to a Christocentric view and spirituality.] Mary's purpose is to lead people to Christ. She is nothing on her own at all. And boo hiss to the feminists who complain about this! OF COURSE she is insignificant without Jesus Christ; we never would have known about this woman if it weren't for God's choosing her to be His Mother. Back to the point... Ratzinger explains the uniqueness of Mariology, noting that “Mariology underscores the nexus mysteriorum—the intrinsic interwovenness of the mysteries in their irreducible mutual otherness and their unity” (29). He adds, “While the conceptual pairs bride-bridegroom and head-body allow us to perceive the connection between Christ and the Church, Mary represents a further step, inasmuch as she is first related to Christ, not as bride, but as mother. Here we can see the function of the title “Mother of the Church”; it expresses the fact that Mariology goes beyond the framework of ecclesiology and at the same time is correlative to it” (29). And so Marian devotion, to Ratzinger, is a fruitful addition to the faith so long as it is conducted within proper respect to Jesus Christ, serves an enhancement of the Christian mysteries, and stands as a balance between the head (rationality) and the heart (affectivity).

Likewise, Boss takes Mariology and connects it with a new cosmology and understanding of the human person in relation to God. To Boss, Mary “stands at the Annunciation in the same relation to God as do the waters of creation at the beginning of the world. It is as though the world's redemption in Christ is in fact its re-creation, and that God accomplishes this re-creation by breathing and speaking afresh upon the world's foundations, in the person of Mary, whose very flesh and blood are transformed into the divine microcosm that is her son” (4). This is such a refreshing take on Mary's role in the Divine plan. She is not simply a mother, or one who obeys, but she is most importantly the foundation by which the re-creation and redemption of the world take place. If Mary is “present in all physical things as their foundation” and “shows the glory to which all things are called by their Creator” (5), then we must vehemently disagree with Warner's prediction of the dissipation of Mary's influence in the world. We cannot simply shut her up in a box and pull her out occasionally when we are feeling particularly nostalgic. She is imbedded in literally everything, in every detail of all things visible and invisible.

That's why she is my mother. And your mother. And everyone's mother. She is the Mother of the Church. She is the Mother of the World. If Christians believe that Jesus—God's self-revelation—is everything, then Mary is not simply a historical figure or just part of the story. She is everything, too. She contained the uncontainable, people! She allowed the world itself to be re-created, and thus redeemed. She orders rightly our devotions so we can reflect upon these mysteries and unite ourselves with this history of divine work, salvation. Mary shows us how to live as a true microcosm, a universe within us, all creation summed up in what we are supposed to be. For me it is simply saying “Yes.” Yes to what God asks of me. Yes to the plan. Boss sums my thoughts up perfectly: “If we ask the question, 'What is it to be fully and properly human?', the answer given by Catholicism implicitly takes the form of teachings and other practices concerning the Blessed Virgin. In Mary, we see what God intends us all to be – and more than this, we see what God intends for the whole of creation” (28).

Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee. What else do we need? She is chosen, beloved by God. And better yet, she is not simply up on a pedestal. She's right down here, completely imitable, completely approachable, and completely a guide for us to be the best that we can possibly be. She's not going anywhere.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

CDF's Document on Apparitions and Private Revelation

Hello Everyone,

I came across this news piece today about a document that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has published on the subject of apparitions and private revelation. The document dates back to 1978 but it has not been "officially" released to the public until now. (Hmm, we wonder! Why now?) I think that it has had public access throughout these years, but there is something about it now being "officially" released.

If you have a chance to read, above is the short news release. Pay attention to the second-to-last paragraph which briefly explains that official approval of a private revelation only means that there has not been anything found about the event that speaks contrary to the Church's teaching.

Here is a version of the document from the CDF that I found on the Vatican's website.

Note that "private revelation" is not the same as "public revelation." Private refers to an individual or group's experience, while public revelation refers to Jesus himself, his teachings, and the work of the first apostles in the early Church. Basically, public revelation is the New Testament. Public revelation is to be believed by all the faithful but private is only binding on the individual that receives it.


Friday, May 25, 2012

In Defense of Spretnak

I want to use this post for two purposes. In class for the last few weeks, we have been critiquing scholars (and ourselves) for not leaving their (and our) own ‘modern’ worldview at the door when researching and writing about Mary and Marian devotion.  When thinking about this issue, my first thought is: does it matter? If we conceive of modernity as ‘rational,’ and reasonable; if we characterize the Medieval period as diminutive, irrational, mystical, and childlike; if we conceive of gender and sex as a construct; if we read texts through our modern lens and as stepping stones to the present, rather than as representative of their time, does it matter?

I can partially answer this question: Of course it matters. However, I do wonder how historiographical shifts shape our own understanding of the past. If we conceive of the Medieval period of childlike, the teenage years of our adult present, does it make it true? Does it matter the reality of history or how people conceive of themselves and narrativize the past in response?

I don’t have an answer. I truly invite comments.

Second, I want to defend part of Spretnak’s argument that was heavily criticized in class. I do disagree with her argument that the Church has been working for centuries to ‘contain’ Mary as our readings plainly debunk this idea. But I think she is on to something in terms of her narrative of modernity and its effects on our concept of Mary. I do think she doesn’t give enough credit to the work of the Medieval period, and I think she goes too far to suggest that the Church actively dismissed Mary as a figure of devotion in an attempt to assert the patriarchy.  But I think she primarily critiques modernity itself and that that critique is important to unpack.

I think Spretnak’s assertion that the Catholic Church moved to a faith that is more “text-based, rational, and – in a word – modern” is actually not what she is arguing. Instead, I think she is pointing to the fact that the understanding of life, society, and everything really in modern thought requires one to deconstruct texts, relationships, and even biology. It is necessarily a process of reduction. She points out the history of this phenomenon, from Newton to Smith to Darwin. We recognize now that we are not merely a whole but a sum of cells made up of atoms made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons, made up of quarks, and I don’t know if there are smaller units because I am not majoring in Biology. She points out that post structuralism in the last forty years has even deconstructed those things taken for granted, arguing that every ‘experience’ of a man is shaped by societal constructs of language and relationships and all constructs are merely conduits of power. She even points this out this in terms of Mary, that is she points out the “radically reduced recognition of the spiritual presence of the Blessed Mother” (44).

I think then that she is not arguing that the medieval period was also not rational and text-based even though she makes that claim. I think she is arguing that the ‘modern’ period is reductionist and is characterized from a “shrunken modern focus on the human in isolation from the larger context” and the Vatican II pronouncements about Mary reflect this. (53) The Medievalists were able to access, accept, and examine the Cosmology of Mary, the whole that is greater than the sum of her parts. Moderns on the other hand, I think she is arguing, recognize only the sum, but not the whole.

This is particularly interesting in light of our readings on Monday. I think the fact that apparitions and their stories gained such prominence in the 19th century might reflect this to some degree. In each, Mary appears to an individual. She appears in human form and seems to be small enough for humans to touch and grasp. Bernadette even sees her as a child, like herself. I wonder if this reflects the trend that would be set into stone at Vatican II. That the cosmology of Mary has given way to an understanding of her as a person, as the example of piety, as a member of the Church instead of the woman who was the container of the uncontainable, the Co-Redeemer, the Mother of God, the Intercessor for Mankind. People needed to think of her as a person, rather than a symbol.

Spretnak seems to be critiquing our reductionist tendencies as citizens of a Modern era and instead advocates for a “spirituality that is multivalent and evocative in its symbols, metaphors, and rituals” (54) I think what she gets wrong is the assumption that this is not in line, nor has ever been in line, with the Catholic Church. We know that to be incorrect. I also think, ironically, that in arguing against the tendencies of the Modern period to only see the parts, she often generalizes about the Catholic Church, devotion, and Medieval thought and does not take a more nuanced approach to her scholarship.

Maybe then I have answered my own question. It matters that we place Marian texts within the philosophical thought of their time. It matters that we understand and recognize how our own preconceptions and paradigms of thoughts shape the way we see the world. Recognizing our tendency to deconstruct everything gives us the opportunity to embrace a more mystical approach. In her words, “the all-embracing, poetic approach to the ineffable is compelling because it reflects the cosmological magnificence of which we are a part.” 


Adams and the Transcendence of Art and Love

Though he was contradictory and even condescending in his handling of Chartres and Mary, I still found myself, as I read the selections from Henry Adams, connecting with some element of his description of Chartres in relation with Mar that was aided, I am sure, but the elegance of his writing, but not explained by it.  Perhaps my biases as someone who is herself religious and who finds religion, for all its foibles, to be deeply beautiful, but when he spoke lovingly of Chartres and Mary, I felt I was hearing something authentic, something that was being covered up in the infantilizing and dismissiveness.  There is a category in which a few things fall that are deemed by most to be beyond the ability of words to describe—they are somehow transcendent.  Art and love both fall in this category.  Religion also often does for those who take it seriously as a category of experience; in modernity, however, religion had no place in this category. Religion in modernism was understandable, reducible, and dismissible.  It was the pre-scientific way of trying to understand and interact with the world; it was an earlier step in development that was perhaps useful at the time, but now, has been utterly surpassed.  And just as adults can no longer fully understand and appreciate their childish worldview now that they have grown beyond it and have developed a rational mind, so too can people in modernity experience religion as those who lived before this supposed development of rationality.  Adams believed this so completely that he even saw science as replacing religion as a moral force. As we see now, from our postmodern perspective in a world in which religion did not die at the feet of science and science has not proved to have limitless explanatory power, the reductionist approach of modernity is not satisfying, not complete—religion cannot be so easily explained away.   In my reading of Adams, he experienced this shortcoming of modernity in Chartres. 

Standing under its vaulted ceilings, Adams felt something, something that was not reducible to science, and he did not know what to do with it, did not have the religious vocabulary or background to respond to it as an encounter with the divine.*  He lived in a world that, from his thoroughly modernistic mindset, did not give him space to respond to religion as something beautiful and transcendent.  He could, however, relate to that transcendence in other ways—Adams’ Chartres is both an artistic masterpiece and a love letter.  Not only is Chartres, in all its splendor and beauty, a work of art, but it is also a work of art with a scientific bent.  Though Adams insulted the architects and builders instead of praising them for their ingenuity, he obviously, behind his infantilizing, had a deep and sincere appreciation for the mechanics of it.  As he discusses light, it is with a sense of awe—on page 96 he speaks of them pushing architecture to its limits to “take all the light there was to take.”  Perhaps imprudent and impractical to Adams, it was still a marvel.  He further speaks of the mechanics of the creation of space and convenience.  These all have a scientific element—though Adams may not acknowledge them, careful calculations had to be made, detailed plans drawn, and innovative building techniques used.  As The Education of Henry Adams so clearly shows in his descriptions of the motors, he sees deep beauty in mechanical and scientific grace.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why the artistry so appeals to him—it is in some ways comprehensible to his scientific mind, but in others, like all great art, transcendent and elusive, giving him a means of facing what he was feeling.

Additionally, as he talks about the tender relationship between the builders and Mary, their loving desire to please her and their delight in doing so, it called to mind ideas of romantic love.  Throughout “The Virgin of Chartres,” I pictured Mary as a queen from any number of period films I have seen, regal and royal in a beautifully appointed palace surrounded by people who both wanted to please her and who wanted something of her.  As Adams described the builders of the cathedral, I could picture princes and courtiers courting our queen, bringing her back the most beautiful things they found in their travels, the most exquisite art they could commission with the hope of pleasing our queen, of bringing to her something that she delights in, and having her show favor on them.  Perhaps I watch too many movies.  It seems that again, this description of their love for Mary gives Adams room to talk about something he was experiencing that was beyond the scope of science and rationality, something that he did not quite know how to express, but was none-the-less undeniably real to him.

*Perhaps what Adams was connecting with was not the divine, but was no more than the artistic beauty.  I do not want to impose on him an interpretation that is not authentic to his experience.  Instead, I want to suggest that if he did encounter the divinity of Mary in Chartres, he would have difficulty understanding and expressing it as such.  Such an experience would not only be alien and unfamiliar to him, and would likely be derided by his peers, who, from the excerpt of his Education that we read, sound to be thoroughly scientific and modernist.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Understanding Henry Adams (if at all possible)

While the readings from Wednesday really incited much confusion and speculation within me as a whole, I was especially drawn to the pieces written by Henry Adams. Adams begin his account of Chartres on page 87 by saying that "no two men think alike" about the cathedral, which is ironic because even Adams' own thoughts on the cathedral do not appear to be cohesive with one another. Adams calls Chartres magnificent; yet, he simplifies the cathedral as well by saying on page 98, "There is nothing about the Chartres you would think you need note how symbolic and how simple the sculpture is...even what seems a grotesque or an abstract idea is no more than the simplest child's personification."

His contradictions even venture toward the Virgin herself. At first, on page 88 he says, “She was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her son, who, at Chartres, is still an infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence final.” But then, on page 99, he says that Mary “troubled herself little with Theology.” He insults her feminine taste and equates her childlike disposition with the childishness of the cathedral.

How can he begin by revering the Mother so highly and then later insult her so greatly? Is he conflicted within himself? Or is there some underlying message within the text that I was missing?

During yesterday’s discussion, a point was made that one really does have to view Chartres with a childlike mind in order to fully appreciate it. A child’s viewpoint is that of awe and wonder, rather than the adult viewpoint of speculation and practicality. As Adams said, the American mind would be more concerned with how much money went into the construction of the cathedral, rather than reveling in the cathedral’s mystery and beauty. This made me wonder whether Adams’ referring to Chartres as something for our amusement is in fact a good thing. It seems as though when he visited Chartres himself he was so awestruck, so taken aback by the light and beauty within the cathedral, so overcome by the Virgin’s presence, that he felt like a child again. He said we must rid ourselves of the traditional idea that gothic architecture exhibits gloom and put ourselves in a childlike mindset to fully understand and appreciate the magnificence of Chartres. He says Mary’s first commands were for the cathedral to be full of light and of color, two aspects children would appreciate, and these two elements would have a harmonizing effect. To a childlike mind, the image of Chartres would be breathtaking.

But why not for a mature, adult mind? Would those with mature, logical minds only look at the cathedral for its value or architectural significance?

This is the point I think Adams may be trying to make. Viewing such a spiritual creation with a practical mindset will never give one pleasure in viewing that creation. I feel that when Adams visited Chartres, he was taken back into a state of childhood. He felt that this building was bigger, held more spiritual significance than another building built for architectural enjoyment. This was built out of devotion and love toward Mary, the endless, unconditional, unquestioning love of children. If we are to understand and appreciate anything spiritual, anything that is greater than human life itself, we cannot view it with skeptical minds. Instead, we must open up our hearts and minds like children do, feeling Mary’s presence within Chartres, and taking in all its majesty and beauty.


Mary: The Woman

I should start my post by saying that I have no idea where I am going with it, and so I apologize if [when] this turns into a ramble. The issues involved in the “modern Mary” are tricky, and I suspect that I will only be able to pose questions rather than answer them. I heartily invite conversation and comments –and answers, if you have them. I would like to talk about Mary’s femininity and in which contexts her femininity is important.

Somehow the idea arose that the “institutional Church” and the “popular Church” are two opposing factions at war over the issue of devotion to Mary: that the patriarchy is suppressing the grassroots piety of the Catholic lay people –particularly of Catholic lay women. I could talk for a long time (as we did in class) about why this is a misconception. However, I think it will be more interesting to look into why it persists.

So many controversies today about the Catholic Church center on femininity, and I think it’s very easy for people to just categorize the Mary question as a social/feminist issue: “the old guys that run the Church are trying to keep women from roles of power by suppressing devotion to Mary because she is a powerful woman”. Spretnak makes virtually this exact same argument: “Containing the influence of Mary has been a recurring concern for the Church since the 4th century….Such a huge female presence included with Christ in the central focus of the Catholic faith! Is this really necessary?”

I think the confusion stems in part because Mary’s femininity is an integral part of who she is and why she is venerated, specifically in the context of the economy of salvation. Mary is the Mother of God. It was her womb, her female body, which brought forth Christ Our Redeemer. The roles of Daughter, Mother, and Spouse of Christ are not roles that can be fulfilled by a man; a woman was needed in a very particular way to participate in God’s plan for the Incarnation.

The Church has always recognized this. Far from de-emphasizing Mary’s femininity, Catholic
Marian doctrine focuses on her femininity and the femaleness of her body. One obvious example is the Hail Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Other examples can be found in readings we’ve done for this class: Irenaeus’ theological arguments that Mary is truly the Mother of God, Mechthild’s description of Mary as the bride of the Trinity, Bridget’s reflections on Mary’s maternity and her relationship with her Son, etc. Ample praise is bestowed upon the womb that bore the Lord and the breasts that nourished Him. Mary is invoked as Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Our Lady, Our Blessed Mother, and Queen of Heaven. Surely it cannot be denied that the Church venerates Mary in the fullness of her femininity!

Actually, maybe that is the problem; maybe the argument is not that the Church does not acknowledge Mary as a powerful woman, but that it tries to limit Mary to her femininity, rather than recognizing her as a person. In other words, one could argue, “Yes, the Church honors Mary’s womb. But does it honor Mary herself?” On one hand, the Church has a great history of praising Mary for her virtues as well as her maternity: her obedience to the will of God, her wisdom with which she taught the Apostles and guides the Church, her faithfulness to Jesus even up to his final moments on the Cross, her compassion and mercy on those who call upon her for aid, etc.

On the other hand, Lumen Gentium is a bit of a different story. Spretnak criticizes Lumen Gentium for emphasizing Mary’s obedience and ignoring her other virtues –the implication being that the council honors Mary’s obedience because it thinks that obedience is the proper virtue for women. I think Spretnak’s observation of Lumen Gentium’s lack of a robust depiction of Mary is a valid one; Lumen Gentium poses Mary as a model for the Church in its obedience to the Will of God to the neglect of her other laudable qualities. But what conclusions can we draw from it? Spretnak seems to make the following argument:

The Vatican II Council praises Mary for her obedience.
Mary is a woman.
The Vatican II Council is made up of men.
Therefore, the Church wants women to be obedient to men.

Her argument is probably more subtle than this. [Again, I invite discussion! The Spretnak reading made me very uncomfortable and I didn’t entirely follow her.] In fact, I hope it is, because that syllogism is awful.

Even if this isn’t quite the argument Spretnak is making, however, it is certainly in the line of popular modern criticisms of the Catholic Church. To be perfectly honest, I’ve caught myself making similar arguments when I’m annoyed with the Church. It can be tempting to say that the council was simply being misogynistic, especially when 1) it was sitting on almost 2,000 years of patriarchy that wasn’t exactly at the forefront of women’s rights, and 2) it made several other statements that feminists don’t like.

I get muddled here. To what extent are these secondary factors relevant to the issue at hand?

Concerning issue 1: How relevant is the Church’s history of misogyny to the specific arguments about Mary? If the institutional Church of ages past, with all its suppression of women and what not, didn’t see devotion to Mary as a threat to the patriarchy, why would the Second Vatican Council of the 20th century view it that way?

Concerning issue 2: What does demoting Mary have to do with the Catholic social teachings which have sparked such controversy? Or, rather, what do these other teachings have to do with demoting Mary?

Again, I apologize for the rambliness of my post. I feel like I'm staring into a cluster of knots trying to figure out which knots are connected by the same strings and which merely look like they're connected because the strings are wound about each other so closely. If I had to pick out the gist of what I'm trying to say, I guess my point is that the Mary question is not simply a feminist issue; it’s not just a matter of the Church trying to suppress women by suppressing devotion to a powerful woman. The Church is a very theologically, philosophically, socially complex entity and there are a lot more motivations at work in the demotion of Mary than simply the desire to keep women from having power in the Church. I’m not saying that these secondary issues were not at play in Vatican II, but I am saying that reducing the question of devotion to Mary to a power grab on the council’s part is a representation that fails to grapple with the true nature of Mary’s relationship with the Church.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The LSAT, Comparisons, and Marian Apparitions

I am currently taking an LSAT preparation course two nights a week downtown. One of the sections of the exam focuses on arguments. The test taker must analyze a few sentences or a short paragraph and either resolve, strengthen, weaken, supplement, undermine, or compare and contrast the components of the argument. One of the more common flaws in the arguments present on the LSAT is that the argument compares the components of the individual parts to the components of the whole (for instance, an Olympic team created by taking the very best player of every team in a league cannot be considered analogous to a division of a company that interviews top candidates in a field and chooses those to create a new division). Essentially, this argument flaw advises us to be mindful of the nuances of the parts of a whole rather than simply look at the similarities in our considerations.

Monday’s lecture and discussion focused on three particular personal experiences of Mary. The modern-day apparitions of La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima each seem to bear a certain resemblance to one another when considered in tandem, but to merely consider them alongside one another would be akin to comparing an Olympic team to a new division -- it only focuses on the whole rather than the parts and makes the comparison ill-suited.

I know I am guilty of falling into the trappings that many other readers perhaps also fall victim to. In reading these accounts in preparation for lecture, it proved to be slightly more difficult than I assumed it would be to parse out specific details and attempt to keep the minutiae of each narrative straight in recollecting. The stories were all different, of course, yet, not unlike the accounts of Mary as healer previously encountered, there seems to be some repetition, or at least commonalities. By lumping these tales together, this may inadvertently lead to some level of reductionism. If we as readers choose to reduce the stories to a more simplistic, narrative arc, certain trends emerge, and this can obscure the perception of the reader and make it difficult to look at the microscopic effects of the specific, particular vision.

Likewise, these similarities present an analytical problem. As implied, the various apparitions tend to blur together and create a sort of apparition genre, which means that an astute reader may look for literary significance to make and construct meaning. We bring certain premonitions and expectations to our reading. We as literary readers expect a youthful protagonist, possibly of limited financial means, who has been forced to occupy a low societal position. There is skepticism embedded within the narrative, as someone -- typically someone with means and authority -- attempts to undermine the protagonist, and therefore launches an investigation with the aim of proving the underdog wrong, perhaps intending to tarnish his or her reputation along the way (though, truth be told, there might not be much of a reputation to protect in the first place for an impoverished child). Not unlike the story of Juan Diego and the Marian apparitions from pre-modern Spain, there is a portrayal of the Church as self-serving, greedy, perhaps even tainted.

Though it is problematic to overlook the details in many, if not most circumstances, it may, at times, be useful to neglect the wisdom of the Princeton Review’s LSAT preparatory course and look at the broader, sweeping scheme of the stories. When looking at these apparition narratives in tandem -- all of which are tales that been have been confirmed as worthy of belief by the Vatican and therefore, have been validated and confirmed through a rigorous process -- the obvious question is what makes these instances three of only twelve recognized by the Vatican.

The question that remains, then, is what is the alternate storyline? If the Marian apparitions that have been verified and deemed by the Holy See to be worthy of belief are the few rare exceptions and are few and far between in number, what are we to do with these other tales? I’m interested in this question because I think that comparing a few different apparitions that have since been rejected or await confirmation could illuminate precisely why these three accounts of La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima are so compelling.

In class, I made a comment regarding the mass following that these apparitions are able to gather. That’s really what I find most interesting about these tales. The event itself is obviously interesting in that it is antithetical to the norm of daily life. However, equally astounding is that idea that a following develops and is able to sustain belief in the initial apparition itself. The construction of the magnificent shrines themselves requires continued financial assistance. The mystic of and devotion to the Marian apparition would cease to exist without the journeying to pilgrims. Word would cease to spread without a captivated public and keen interest and observation on the part of the observers. Unless there is some credibility bestowed on the vision by religious and secular authorities, the entire apparition itself is undermined. Additionally, there needs to be some sort of adherence to piety or devotion on the part of the visionary. If any of the visionaries themselves somehow falter, then the entire cult seems to lack authenticity.

Though in most cases, comparisons seem to reduce some of the detail of the individual components, in the cases of these apparitions, it seems to be vital to look at both the macro and micro. 


The (Il)logicality of Apparitions

As someone who was raised Catholic, there are many questions with which I have struggled as I have tried to come into my own faith. The biggest has been "But why would Jesus care about insignificant me? Why would Jesus care about sinful, disobedient, tiny, irrelevant me?"

That's not the question I'd like to consider, but it is connected to the question we discussed on Monday of why some apparitions are more believable than others in the eyes of believers and in the eyes of the Church. It's a question that has stuck with me since I first learned about Lourdes and Fatima in grade school and which was thrown into sharper contrast after reading Pius's Constitution on the Immaculate Conception: Why would Mary appear to those people? Why did she single them out?

(I still haven't figured out the first question.)

In some respects, these questions go back to questions we have discussed earlier in the course, such as which presentation of Mary is most appealing, what aspect of Mary strikes us most, and how people connect to the various apparitions and why different versions of the same woman have such different--and yet equally dedicated--followings. When I read Pius's descriptions of Mary, I was overwhelmed. A human above all humans I was used to considering, but above all angels? In his description of her, she is the perfect woman, the perfect vessel, untainted and untouchable by humanity. In many respects, she stopped being human to me, which meant she could no longer be a role model for my own existence and her example was inaccessible to me since she was granted circumstances unique to my own. In his painting of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, then, we have a woman who exists on a wholly different sphere and who is untouched by the horrors of our world. In the course of reading that treatise, I lost sight of the other Mary's I knew--the Intercessor, the Mother, the Gentle Woman. How dared I, someone tainted by such sin and defiled by the world, appeal to this perfect individual? Why should I possibly expect her to intercede on my behalf?

And this is where we return to the question of the apparitions or, as I see them, moments when perfection comes into contact with imperfection and we are forced to confront the question of why Mary would appear to us at all and why she would choose certain individuals? The stories that we read abound with skepticism of the individuals who reported visions or sightings--some were too sexually promiscuous, others too wild and adventurous, some with a history of illness, others too imaginative, some not devoted enough, others not pious enough... the list goes on. Very few were deemed fit the Church's requirements for being an ideal model, displaying appropriate levels of piety and obedience.

Why would Mary, who is perfection itself, choose to appear to those who are untrustworthy or (in our perception) undeserving of her presence? Why would she appear to those who could not recognize her and give her proper adoration? Why would she risk her message on those who might not be believed? Logic tells us that Mary should appear to those individuals who are entirely ready to take her into their hearts and decipher her messages, who have purified themselves and made themselves temples for Christ, and who are mirrors of herself: models of perfection in their communities.

And yet, why would she not appear to such individuals? Jesus said that he came to save those who were in need of salvation; that is why he reached out to the sinners, to the outcasts of society, and to those in need of aid. Those who are well do not need a doctor (Mark 2:17). Why would His mother do any less? Would she not continue his mission: appearing to the outcasts of society, bringing them into its circle, appearing to those who needed her most in their lives and could perhaps be turned away from the path of destruction by witnessing her presence and her message? In many of her apparitions, she came to call the world into repentance, so it would be logical for her to begin her mission by reaching out to those whom society deem to be sinners or who are in need of salvation.

Part of the confusion, though, comes from how the apparitions occur. They are full of complex mysticism which the initial seers cannot understand and which can only be understood and decipher by learned individuals in the Church (examples being Bernadette's confusion regarding the phrase "I am the Immaculate Conception" while the priests and religious in the Church understood it more easily and were aware of its significance or Melanie and Maximin's assumption that the woman they saw was referencing domestic violence, not the destruction of the world). But at the same time, they are simple enough and accessible enough that children can chase the vision with excitement and wonder and that the woman inspires trust and continued conversation. Throughout, the visions are full of contradictions, such as in the case of Melanie and Maximin, who could not initially understand the woman because she spoke in French but who was quickly able to switch into their dialect--would not the Mother of God, above all men and all angels, be aware of the conversational capabilities of the individuals to whom she has chosen to present herself?

And this is why I think the apparitions can be so confusing, so difficult to believe, and why the Church struggles to determine which should be recognized and promoted and which shouldn't: because the events themselves are not clear and because an argument can be made for why the individual chosen for the message is both the perfectly right choice and the perfectly wrong choice.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Children's Apparitions

Like my last reflection, I’m going to treat this much like my personal blog and just work through/touch on issues that our Monday class explored that I personally found interesting.

First one of the disclaimers we had for Monday’s class is to be cautious of the impacts of the chronological proximity of the versions of the apparition stories we’re reading about the modernist twist they can have. This illuminated some tensions I was having with the texts not with the modern people writing about them but about the nearness of the events themselves to modernity. Where as I could read all the other apparition and visitation stories with a suspension of disbelief, I found myself constantly challenging the apparitions of La Salette, Lourdes, and Fatima partially because of their proximity to modern time. My mind easily accepts that in “ancient” times apparitions were certainly possible. If I didn’t, I couldn’t believe many of the stories of the Bible. Even the stories of knights and peasants of the middle ages I could stomach with a relatively low sense of doubt. But these stories, ground against my nerves. In my mind, apparitions and the like are tales of days well past that I don’t need to consider the reality of because the time difference allows me to separate my reality from theirs. But, especially twentieth century apparitions, I find to be too close for comfort. One of the major reasons for this is the media and fame that came along with these tales, a symptom, no doubt of modernity.

One thing that struck me the most about these apparitions were not the press writing articles. With the current impact of the newspapers and blogs on people’s opinions and knowledge as well as their ability to distort and spread the information rapidly through those means is not lost on my understanding of the effect of the press during the early twentieth century. Yellow journalism anyone?? Although less advanced and slower, people were perhaps more limited, less jaded to, and more reliant on the information they took in through their available media.  This isn’t what surprised me most about the media coverage. What surprised me most were the photo graphs of the children. Photographs place them in the range of time I consider to be relatable technologically to my current time what with photography and industry. Since then we’ve been advancing through the “take a picture or it didn’t happen” age.  What a fascination we have with the visual for historical documentation and proof. Pictures overcome the language barrier, as well and play up the emotions of the viewer. Who wouldn’t believe the innocent, poor children looking back at you? The devout and simple looking Bernadette? What an impact these pictures could have had. What a game changer they could be!

And now we’ve touched a few times on the believability of these apparitions. Part of me wants to believe these children so very much because they are in a situation where they have little to gain from having these visions. They are too young to want power, refuse monetary compensation, and know little beyond their daily prayers. They couldn’t understand the impact of what they have seen. They couldn’t make something like that up for attention. It’s too coherent, too many details to remember and too many times to perform under pressure. It seems like a natural choice for Mary to choose young, poor children for this role.  After all, they still believe in “magic” of sorts and won’t immeadiately deny the apparition trying to rationalize it like an adult would. Children have a level of trust and faith in their naïve innocence that adults cannot muster. This is also why adults have so much trouble believing children. Not only are they naturally cynical about such things but they know how susceptible and naïve children are to the world. That innocence that makes them so perfect for receiving apparitions also makes them unreliable sources in a way. The poverty aspect plays up on a sense of pity on the surface level and deeper justifies why they would be the ones to see this apparition.  To experience so much suffering in such a short time and giving this suffering to the lord which they tend to do would make them perfect examples of those virtuous people who suffer more on earth to receive more in heaven. Martyrs of sorts.  

However, I distinctly remember challenges I faced dealing with my younger sisters when they were at similar ages as Melanie, Maxmin, Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta.  The older of my two younger sisters lied. She told elaborate stories and the more she did it the better she got, being able to cover up her tracks and manipulate me into believing her ridiculous tales. She would speak a made up language for multiple days and have imaginary friends that could last months.  The youngest could play alone for an entire afternoon, talking to people we couldn’t see, making up games and the likes. My roommate told me a story about how when she was a child she convinced her entire class that a girl who moved away had died and that in order to bring her back they had to use a stone she had found. To this day, only one person in her class ever found out it was a lie.  As I mentioned before, children have incredibly intense and well developed imaginations that are capable of imagining and sustaining a made up story much longer than any adult could possibly allow their rational selves to even think about.

 Three things keep me on the side of believing that the children had a real religious experience; one, they didn’t accept gifts and seemed to not gain anything for their troubles, they maintain consistent to the day they died about their stories, and they appeared to be so incredibly devout that it would be so ludicrous to them to even consider being heretic enough to lie about the Virgin.  In an even more general sense, who are we to say what is or is not a religious experience for someone? If it deepened their faith or brought them some answers or direction then it is believable enough for me.  The problem comes in when they have something to say to other people, a message or direction because then it impacts more than just their personal faith and we have to evaluate the validity of their experience because humans in general have tendencies to manipulate people for power by using religious revelations.

One aspect I found rather fascinating was the obsession with the appearance of Mary. It seems completely rational to me that she should appear in many different forms as would allow her to relay her message the best rather than which form is most true to who she was physically during her lifetime.  If she’ll have a greater impact being tall and imposing as she was in the New World apparitions, then she’ll choose tall. If she wants to be relatable she might choose to reflect the age and general demeanor of the person she is appearing to, like Bernadette. It seems entirely reasonable, especially under the modern customs of advertising a message to people.  It’s all about tailoring it to their needs. This makes me wonder though, is it the frame of modern times that finds this shifting of appearance so natural. The ability of Mary to show many different faces could easily be discomforting to people who thought of her in only one manner, the one created by the Church.  The shape shifting concept is a little science-fiction-esque. I’d think that people who were so comfortable with the concept of ghosts and faeries would be fine with the idea of Mary.  Speaking of this fascination with the spiritual world, there seems to be a strong impulse from the people present at apparitions to witness the witnesses to try to explain the apparition in terms of the spiritual realm. But why is that so much more believable than a religious apparition? Why would they rather the girl is seeing ghosts than Mary? Perhaps because they had cures for ghosts and ghost sightings were more normal.  But were religious apparitions really that much of a novelty? Perhaps it was just a way of crossing off all the possibilities, starting with the curable ones, the ones that wouldn’t require a complete reordering of one’s understanding of their religious world.

Regardless, I still don’t know who I believe or don’t believe if I believe anyone at all. I’m inclined to believe based on faith but my modern experiences won’t let me entirely.  These readings are so uncomfortable to read because they create so many contradictions and tensions so that I can’t figure out whether to read them as miraculous myths or non-fiction biographical material.

Did anyone else have these tensions? If you did, how did you resolve them? If you didn’t, why not?


Monday, May 21, 2012

Determining an apparition's "worthiness" of belief

I wanted to elaborate on a point that I brought up (although not too eloquently) in class. I find the idea that the Church had standards by which all apparitions were to be judged to be puzzling, although at the same time (being skeptical myself) I understand where they are coming from. I think it’s an interesting dichotomy of their thought process, wherein utmost belief needs to be coupled with careful investigation. I can certainly sympathise with the latter, because it’s quite understandable that many people would want to take advantage of pulling wool over the Church’s eyes in search for fame, respect - in short, whatever may be gained from such a hoax. Such deceit can obviously not be tolerated by any religious institution, or indeed any well-meaning institution at all.
We discussed in class how the Church was very demanding of the apparitions; they had to fit a certain mould, and tick some checkboxes in order to be classified as a bona fide apparition. I looked this up online right after class today because I was curious to see what exactly these criteria were, and I’d like to share what I found on this website:

The positive criteria includes moral certainty (the certainty required to act morally in a situation of doubt) or at least great probability as to the existence of a private revelation at the end of a serious investigation into the case, with consideration of the following circumstances:

- an evaluation of the personal qualities of the person in question (mental balance, honesty, moral life, sincerity, obedience to Church authority, willingness to practice faith in the normal way, etc.)
- an evaluation of the content of the revelations themselves (that they do not disagree with faith and morals of the Church, freedom from theological errors)
- the revelation results in healthy devotion and spiritual fruits in people's lives (greater prayer, greater conversion of heart, works of charity that result, etc.)

The negative criteria include the following:
- glaring errors in regard to the facts
- doctrinal errors attributed to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to the Holy Spirit in how they appear - any pursuit of financial gain in relation to the alleged event
- gravely immoral acts committed by the person or those associated with the person at the time of the event
- psychological disorders or tendencies on the part of the person or persons associated.

(EWTN is a Roman Catholic-themed cable television network; they cite the “Norms of the Congregation for Proceeding in Judging Alleged Apparitions and Revelations”, issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees the Catholic Church doctrines.)

I think that, while the negative criteria are more defined and can be grounded in evidence (such as psychological disorders or doctrinal errors), it is much harder to fulfil the positive criteria in a decisive fashion. I am especially puzzled with the last sub-criteria: “The revelation results in healthy devotion and spiritual fruits in people’s lives”. How can you solely attribute the improvement in the devotion of a person to seeing an apparition of the Virgin? To play devil’s advocate here briefly, I would posit the idea that it is merely the thought or notion of having seen an apparition that might cause one to pray more sincerely and so on. Even with the assumption that the recognised apparitions were in fact truly apparitions, it would be hard (I think) to judge whether someone has been touched by an apparition or simply by a perceived apparition.
It’s also hard to gauge a lot of the attributes and qualities that comprise the positive criteria such as honesty, sincerity and moral life. Who can judge the “willingness to practice faith in the normal way” of the two children, Maximin and Mélanie, from the story of Our Lady of La Salette? Children are usually not considered to be fit to make decisions, and it’s hard to imagine that these two were special in any way. Regardless, they seemed to have ticked enough boxes for the Church to deem the apparition “worthy of belief”.
I would also like to touch briefly on the Church having such a clear-cut (or apparently clear-cut) way of determining whether or not an apparition is worthy of belief. The fact that Bernadette saw the apparition as a young girl is interesting, as we have mainly encountered the divinity of the Virgin in any context of her as a maternal figure, rather than her as a young girl who has yet to fulfil the prophecy of the virgin birth. It seems that perhaps the Virgin appears to different people in different forms. “But why?” one may ask, “Why does the Virgin appear in different forms? Shouldn’t there be some consistency?” To this, I think a good (if wishy-washy) answer is that the Virgin has never been one for crystal clarity - think about all the mystery surrounding her, like in certain passages in the Walter of Wimborne reading. I cannot explain her several different apparitions, but it certainly stays true to her inexplicability.
I think the Church is caught in an interesting catch-22 where they are criticised for not taking all apparitions to be true manifestations of the Virgin while they would be criticised as being superstitious and backwards for accepting all of them. While I can see why they would not accept every single “apparition” as being worthy of belief, I think that the criteria by which the Church judges worthiness is open to interpretation; hence investigation into an apparition may vary greatly depending on the conductor of the investigation. However in a situation where so much relies on faith, sincerity and devotion, it is unsurprising that it is these criteria that need to be fulfilled.

- AC