Thursday, May 31, 2012

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.



  1. First, I want to let you know how beautiful I thought your opening metaphor referencing the use of the Magnificat and other texts at Vespers at the closing of the day was a beautiful image.

    Second, I want to make a few comments. I agree with you that Mary is not on the decline. I also loved Boss’s reading of Mary as the fabric of the cosmos, at the start of creation in playing her role in the Annunciation. However, I think the vision of Mary, and Marian devotion that you characterize is necessarily reductive (as if you can reduce Mary.) For one, your comment about feminists misrepresents the project they are undertaking. They are not complaining about the fact you can ultimately not disassociate Mary from Jesus. Instead their project (and not all feminists, but a certain school of feminist theologian) is to insert a modern understanding of the feminine into the modern understanding of a male Godhead. I do agree that their use of the historical source material is often ahistorical, and sometimes just plain wrong. But I don’t think it is just them that focus on Mary as a way to meditate on Christ. I think some would even argue that the Marian cults of Guadalupe, La Salette, and others take on a devotion to Mary that appears to be removed from devotion to Christ.

    I think it is necessarily important that Mary has entered not just modern day historical and theological conversations, but modern day conversations with sociological and political implications. It is not to say that Marian devotion was not a social and political before now. But the fact that we had a conversation about the sociopolitical landscape that Daly and Warner and Boss and Ratzinger are in dialogue with reveals to me that Mary is part of the fabric of human understanding of the world and God, echoing Boss’ argument. For if she was not important and if her devotion was not important, why would Daly examine her at all? If Warner didn’t want to examine her own feelings, frustrations and understandings of Mary (absent an understanding of God), why write her book at all? These authors keep Mary on the table of discussion, unable even as modern scholars to truly unpack her significant in theology and society. She cannot be in the decline because people, not just Catholics, not just theologians with feminist projects, but everyone can’t let her go.

  2. Mary, thank you for your thoughts (and constructive criticism). I should have either edited the comment about feminism properly or else just eliminated it. It was a reflection of a thought I had in the midst of class yesterday when we touched the subject of female subordination, and all I could think of was that that is not the way we should look at Mary (in my opinion). I just think of her role as participation in God's plan, which every human being is called to do.


  3. I agree, this is a beautiful post!

    I was hoping to find a lens through which some of the feminist arguments put forth by Daly could be less historically abrasive. But I also recognize that bad scholarship is just bad scholarship. I think that MW is right in that their project is to “insert a modern understanding of the feminine into the modern understanding of a male Godhead,” but I don't understand why this would not be achieved by simply properly understanding medieval conceptions, not only of Mary, but of the Godhead. The conversation we had in class about male and female-specific models for emulation quite surprised me; I don't think any of the medieval thinkers who described Christ with maternal imagery, or the female saints and mystics who saw themselves embodying the Eucharist and therefore assimilating themselves to Christ, would understand the distinction, or see the gendering of Mary or Christ as a barrier to imitation.

    I think that the issue of “gender” is the modern equivalent of the problem of “childishness” we confronted last week. Projecting gender expectations backwards in time is perhaps similar to projecting expectations about “affective” religious experiences, and perhaps this is what is at stake when Daly and Warner react negatively to the serene, maternal, and above all chaste Mary that seems to make concupiscence the only human sin and its repression the only spiritual victory. Boss' re-alignment, in your words, that Mary is not the subordinated, fleshly (and consequently dangerous) woman, but rather the “foundation by which the re-creation and redemption of the world takes place,” is right on, but not an assertion that would surprise our medieval thinkers. I think it clear that the feminist scholarship is reacting to a specifically post-medieval Mary, a Mary constructed by the concerns of 19th and 20th century individuals. But this seems to me to be reacting to a simulacrum, and reacting poorly-- as though, confronted with a disturbing reflection in a hall of mirrors, they decided to simply burn down the fairgrounds.


  4. I just wanted to say that I loved your image that feminist scholarship is burning down the fairgrounds in reaction to a hall of mirrors. I may be overly optimistic but I feel like critiques of such scholarship as Professor Fulton Brown did continue to keep the conversation about Mary alive (not that one should do bad scholarship in order to keep a theme/subject/theory on the table.) I think they are reacting a "post-medieval" Mary and all the baggage of gender, etc. that comes with that. But all I mean to say is that I do not think Warner's conclusion that Mary is in the decline can be reconciled with Daly and Warner (and other's) consistent use of the figure of Mary (dare I say it, maybe a different contemplation of Mary) in their work.

  5. Sorry, need to clarify. Of course, devotion to Mary also "keeps Mary alive." I don't mean to be reductive. And maybe the term alive is incorrect. All I mean to say in agreement with Boss (and LR) that Mary is embedded in the fabric of man's understanding of himself and God.

  6. A lovely post, LR! Thank you for a note of optimism to close the class.

    JLST, I think you are right in comparing the issue of gender with the issue of medieval 'childishness'; as you say, they are “Projecting gender expectations backwards in time” in order to see things that they are looking for, regardless of whether or not these were actually issues of that time period. While they see the Mary/God relationship as primarily one of woman/man, most of the sources we read described the relationship more in terms of human/divine. So, while feminists see Mary as a role model for women (because she represents women in the woman/man relationship), medievalists viewed her as a role model for all people (because she represents humans in the human/divine relationship). The medievalist approach seems to be the one that more accurately describes Marian devotion, both historically and today. It is not a devotion limited to only women! It is this type of devotion –one not limited by the feminists' obsession with gender restrictions –that allows for theology like Boss'. It is this type of devotion that allows us to say with LR, “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.”


  7. Great, insightful post LR. It is refreshing to read something that reflects an individual’s personal reflections and feelings on spirituality, religion, and Mary. As good and interesting as many of the primary documents we have read over the course have been, your post, along with the narrative stories of Latin America (and other laity-centered texts), exemplify the reasons why religion is such an interesting subject to study.

    Ultimately its about people’s emotional responses; its about reactions, interpretation, and feeling. Theological exposition is all fine and good, but how much influence did, for instance, Bernard or Clairvaux’s text, or Elizabeth’s visions, or Hildegard, have on the common person’s practice? What involvement did it have in mass worship and devotion? One could argue for a trickle down effect- that these things eventually weave themselves into common practice, but I would say that things build from the ground up (laity upwards), rather than top down. (this is a BIG issue to get into, so I will table it).

    I agree that Warner and Daly’s assertions about the decline of Marian are completely wrong. Perhaps in the ‘Western’ world (ie the United States, Britian, France, Germany, etc), but how long has it been since that was the seat of Catholicism’s spiritual power? As seen in class, in Mexico, Latin America, (I would add Italy, Portugal… and Spain to an extent although not as intensely as before), Mary is alive and well. As someone who studies the Philippines, I can very much say that Mary is still an incredibly powerful figure, and in some ways rivals Jesus as the preeminent figure on the spiritual landscape.

    I often argue on the humanity of religion, removing supernatural explanation, and I find that this perspective makes Mary an even more fascinating of a figure. She still transfixes the Christian-religious, not because of some supernatural existence, but because of the power she contains as representative of the human condition.

    I will leave with a funny anecdote: In the Philippines it is common when trying to find a parking spot in crowded lot to say, “Hail Mary Full of Grace, Help Us Find a Parking Space.” I’ve said it ever since I was a little kid. In fact, I said it just this afternoon.

    And you know what?

    It always works.


  8. What can I say other than, "Beautifully put!"? It was most definitely one of my goals in the course for us to discover ways in which Mary still speaks to us, even in our post-modern condition, even after everything that has changed in our perceptions of what it means to be human. You capture perfectly one of the things that I think is absolutely central to understanding why we still need Mary: "She orders rightly our devotions so we can reflect upon these mysteries and unite ourselves with this history of divine work, salvation." This is the sense in which I understand her as model: she teaches us by her response to God how to respond. Can we ever respond as perfectly as she did? Probably not. But I find it interesting that devotees like Warner (or, perhaps more accurately, like those who have followed Warner in her criticisms) seem to find having a model like this a reproach rather than an inspiration. Who wants a flawed model--and why? Why should it not be, rather, uplifting to understand Mary as you have put it: "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"? Herein lies our hope and salvation as human beings!


  9. LR: You address one of the chief conceits of modern writings on religion. Warner’s take on the Virgin is quite comparable to Nietzsche’s “God is dead.” (Note the difference between “God doesn’t exist” and “God is dead.”) Like God in Nietzsche, the Virgin in Warner still exists as an entity, but eviscerated and mounted on a wall, or something. (I DO think that the 19th and 20th centuries are notable in terms of the assumed and asserted disbelief of the text producers; when they wrote–consistently, or at least insistently–that God [as a stand in for religious phenomena X, Y, and/or Z] was no longer believed in, they were referring to a specific segment of the literary community as apparitions from the 19th century to the present attest). As you point out, Ratzinger and Boss (let alone popular devotion!) are powerful counterweights to Warner’s conceit.

    I like where you take it from there. When you write (citing Boss): “She [Mary] is imbedded in *literally* everything, in every detail of all things visible and invisible,” my question is about the *literal* aspect of Boss’s Mariology. Is she writing of a neat metaphoric reconception of Mary or a literal consubstantial cosmology?