Friday, April 20, 2012
The Mother of All and the Face of Hope
As I was reading the miracle stories, a line from a book I recently read for another class, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, came to mind: “Although both men and women may have fondled babies, spanked toddlers, and chastened teens, the affectionate side of child-rearing was symbolically liked with mothers, the authoritarian with fathers.” Though, as the subtitle of the book makes clear, Ulrich was describing motherhood in a very specific context, that of colonial America, the general view of motherhood seems to me to hold true not only in modern times, but to some extent, throughout history. To think of Mary as a mother is certainly nothing new, however to me it is a key to understanding the vastly different types of stories collected in our readings. Indeed, several stories deal with mothers calling on Mary on behalf on their children, with one in particular seeming to appeal to Mary as mother. Herlot tells a story of a woman whose son has been taken prisoner. Though calling on Mary again and again, her son is still gone, so this mother goes into the church and takes an image of Christ, saying “…as my son was taken from me, so will I take away yours….” How better to appeal to Mary than as a mother who has lost her son?
Perhaps part of the reason why I identify with Mary so personally within these stories is that Mary, in her role as mother, is fundamentally relational. If she was not the Mother of God, Mary would be admirable and perhaps even worthy of praise because of her faithfulness, but she would not be Mary as we understand and celebrate her. It is only within the context of this relationship that Mary becomes significant and enters into the salvation story. The reason these stories get told and retold, is that they are so relatable, so personal. God, formless and all-powerful, alone uncreated can seem foreign and incomprehensible. Even Jesus in the completeness of humanity, is still God. Mary, though, is not only a person, but a person that we all know and hold in special regard. She is a mother. Even those who have no mother or are mistreated by theirs, I think can still connect powerfully with the idea of motherhood. Motherhood, indeed, is the most intimate of relationships—even in situations where constraints on time and social norms may have caused the role to look a lot less nurturing than we understand it to be today (Ulrich in her book calls this extensive motherhood, with many children and many chores, as opposed to intensive mothering, with time to play and cuddle with children). In raising children, they also serve as their children’s’ most valuable teacher. Mothers, in their role as nurturer, also show love even when it is not deserved and are quick to respond to their children in their times of distress (gee, this is making me miss my mom!). When I first read through these stories, I was a bit shocked at the stories that seemed to show as, what the called in class (and I also have written in the margin), vengeful. It sat uneasily with me to see Mary in this light, and I had difficulty understanding it. The more I thought about Mary as a mother, however, the less uneasy I became. Mary did not act for the sake of causing pain in retribution for a slight (true vengeance)—instead, in each instance, Mary’s punishment ultimately brought about repentance, which, presumably, was the point. Though it is still difficult to think of Mary as causing pain, it is much more clear why she might serve in the role of punisher.
Mary’s role as mother makers her an extraordinary advocate. Through Mary, there is hope for all. As we discussed in class, these stories depict a tremendous variety of people. Mary comes to the help of empress and beggar alike. Both the wise and the “half-witted” (as in the case of the priest who knew only one mass) are granted her mercy. Whether your sin is willful, as those of the many thieves that graced our pages, or coerced and resisted as is the case of the pregnant nun, it is not beyond the mercy of Mary. She does not turn her back on the faithful or the wicked. Mary even shows mercy on a Jewish boy (from my understanding of the context, being Jewish would have been seen by many as worse than being wicked). Mary regards no distance, as Mary in the form of the Lady of Rocamadour worked in lives of those at the church and those far from it. Death and a deal with the devil, both of which are boundaries ordinarily seen as insurmountable by all but God and Jesus, are overthrown by the mercy of Mary. Mary’s mercy can conquer even the protest of God (particularly vivid in Herlot’s story of Theophilus). We discussed in class how it perhaps seemed unfair that someone who is faithful may have to wait and wait for Mary to grant a miracle, while others just have to cry out in their time of need and are automatically granted what they need. To me, that suggests the purpose at the heart of these stories: there is always hope. If you have led a life of sin, you still have hope in Mary; and if you have been faithful but still suffer, do not give up, because Mary still hear your prayers and will intercede. All of these stories, as seen so poignantly in the story of the Tumbler, show that Mary will accept you for whatever you are, so long as you are willing to submit your heart. Mary is emblematic of the hope of salvation. She is its human face, even more so than Jesus. And she is not only human, but stands in relationship that is uniquely intimate, uniquely loving, uniquely sustaining, and uniquely trustworthy. The hope of all humanity is represented in the form of Mary, one who loves as only a mother can. --LB