Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Relatability of Mary

Is it important that Mary be relatable? In class we discussed what it meant to be religious. Although there may be many ways of doing so, a clearly primary answer is to praise God. Being a Christian by definition means devoting oneself to Christ and thus God. But then why is the relatability of Mary of such importance? As we all saw and discussed, almost everyone preferred an image of Mary that was personal to him or her. I also feel this way. I find the image of Mary as the grieving mother particularly touching and appealing. But then the question must be asked: Why is it important for Mary to seem personal? We all answered that it was because this made her relatable. So then why is the relatability of Mary important and the way by which we seem to measure our closeness to her?

Just as the Virgin Mary can act as intercessor for God to reach us, she can also act as such for us to reach God. We certainly cannot relate to God. He is the uncontainable, the incomprehensible, and the indescribable. We see from the texts that we read for today and for the past few classes how scholars and devotees see Mary as inextricably linked to God. We have heard her referred to in many ways joining her to God in this way, and we have seen images anywhere from her being the staircase leading to God to the bride of the Trinity. Even if one considers her simply as the mother of Christ, she is singular as the container of the uncontainable and the birth giver to the Word. At the passion, she is often seen as being so connected to Christ that she is seen dying in soul as Christ dies in body. Biel brings this particular idea to a new level, stating that Mary “participated in his self-sacrifice by suffering under the cross, thus cooperating in the redemption of many,” making her “corredemptrix” (Oberman 303). John Duns Scotus also believes that Mary has a special connection to God and claims in his Four Questions on Mary that, as Christ acts as mediator for all men, "with respect to no person did he have a more excellent degree than as regards Mary” (41). Conrad of Saxony even says “that whatever is worthily said of Our Blessed Mother rebounds wholly to the praise and glory of God” (prologue). Mary is thus seen as being inextricably linked to God, and it makes sense that praise to Mary would also be praise to God.

This special connection to God also gives her a unique status. As Conrad says, Mary has “immunity from any fault” (Ch. II). This includes freedom from original sin, not only in birth, but also in conception. This also means she is free from the normal bodily decay at death and thus her assumption. This spotless-ness is certainly unique from the rest of humanity. And in fact, because of this, Mary is Queen over humanity, … and the saints, … and the angels… and everything that is under God. She is, as Conrad says, the Lady Sovereign in Heaven, on earth, and in hell” (Ch. III), second only to God. But then the question arises: If Mary is so special that she is second only to God Himself, then how can we relate to Mary any more than we can relate to God? And as some scholars worried, including Gregory, in putting Mary on such a high pedestal, are we in fact doing a dishonor to Christ by lessening his exceptionality?

Mary is ultimately distinct from God – an obvious statement but an essential one nevertheless. Christ is a man-god. He is a son of Adam and thus human, yet he is the Redeemer and thus God. Mary, on the other hand, is merely human. This means that she can never reach the same purity that God can. Biel, in his defense of the Immaculate Conception, argued “there is a form of purity that allows for her Immaculate Conception without making her the equal of Christ in purity. Adam and Eve in paradise, before the fall, were without original sin and yet were not equal with Christ in purity” (Oberman 293). Thus while Mary is human therefore accessible to us, she is close enough to God that, through her, we can reach Him.

Perhaps God intended for us to have such a figure that we can relate to and through which we can access God. As the omniscient being that He is, God has brought it about that we have Mary who stands in this very unique role as the human Queen of Heaven. Why did He need to elevate Mary in such a way, unless to allow us such an intermediary?

The point of religion is to praise God, but the question is how do we do this adequately? Over and over again, we hear from our authors that it is impossible to do so. Indeed, they say it is impossible to adequately praise His human mother, let alone He Himself. There seem to be two different main branches of devotional texts. One emphasizes accessibility, simplicity, simplicity, and instructive, while the other is more complicated, obscure, demanding, and enigmatic. The implication is that the former excites emotions while the latter inspires intellectual contemplation. While the assumption is that the former is more concerned with relating to Mary and thus God, I do not think that this is necessarily so. Why do these scholars and monastics puzzle over the Ave Maria? To attempt to better understand the divine. Why does they want to understand God? So that they can better praise God. While understanding something and relating to something are different, they ultimately have the similar result of making God more accessible. Perhaps the only way to truly praise God is to understand Him. And if relating to Him in some way helps us to understand Him better, then perhaps relatability is necessary to religious worship. Of course, in the end, we can never understand God, and that is what makes Him so praiseworthy. So it seems the most we can hope for is to continue adding rocks to the mountain of devotion and drops to the sea of praise.



  1. Sorry I couldn't get it to have spaces! I don't know why!


  2. One of the issues that you touched on is the pivotal issue that Protestants have with the praise of Mary in the Catholic Church and that is the issue of placing Mary too close to God, making her worthy of praise and the power as Queen of the Heavens. I liked that you referenced this issue in terms of Christ’s comparable exceptionability. By putting Mary on this pedestal does she over shadow God or at least distract the focus of worship? However, as you mentioned the need for Mary as this intermediary figure is obviously necessary. We are so inadequate and unless we were as pure and devoted as Mary (which would be impossible because God designed her to be the epitome of purity) we can’t even begin to comprehend God let alone praise him. I also liked the recognition of the two different types of prayer. We keep running into either very direct simple repetitive prayer or excessively complex and demanding devotion. On is easy and less intimidating, the other is more rewarding and beautiful. Again, it’s all about personal preference. I’d argue that our need to understand God isn’t purely so we can better praise him but also just a case of human curiosity and a need to satisfy any sinful but human doubts that we have. LLD

  3. This is one of those questions that one can go round and round on, but you do an excellent job clarifying it for us as a problem. I particularly like the way you explain the necessity for both relatability and understanding in the desire to praise God. The question that the Protestants will pose is, why isn't the God-man enough? Why isn't it enough to relate to God through Christ? Isn't that the whole point of the Incarnation: that God emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, so that we could relate to Him? But perhaps this is the wrong way of posing the question. Not whether Christ is "enough" but how praising Him through His Mother enables us to praise Him even better. Then the question of relatability recedes into the more general question of God's self-revelation: not whether we can relate to God, but what God has revealed of Godself to us whether through His Incarnation as such or through His Mother. Does this make sense?


    P.S. I fixed the spacing for you: you just needed to copy from the HTML screen, go to Compose, cut what was there, and paste in the text that you copied from HTML. I'm sure that there is a metaphor in this for something!

  4. FHG asks why scholars want to understand God, answering that by doing so they are able to better praise God. However, I would like to suggest that we should think of studying as a means of praising, as opposed to praise being an end of study. The prayerful scholar’s quest is not so much to understand God better (or relate to Him better by being able to relate with His mother) as much as it is approaching the mystery of God through the means that God has provided him to think about Him. One such gift is the gift of reason, rationality, to explore the depths of His mystery, a dimension of which He reveals to us through the person of the Virgin Mary. So it is not so much that relatability is necessary for religious worship as much as full exercise of our God-given faculties is. Relatability is one way in which we can use our reason—in the exercise of analogy. Of course, it is also an exercise of empathy, which we could argue is not purely rationally based and is not considered study as much as understanding. In either case, though, relatability is also participating in the unique gifts that have been given to humanity. Using the gifts that we have been given is a way that we can praise the Giver (just as driving the brand new car your parents bought for you instead of letting it just sit in the driveway is a way of thanking them). In this way we continue adding rocks to the mountain of devotion and drops to the sea of praise – by our study, we slowly build upon our understanding and become ever more capable of using our God-given faculties to praise God more fully.

    This stands in contrast to what LLD suggests in the comments above; from this perspective, attempts to understand God cannot be simply to satisfy our own doubts. Our means of praise cannot have any intentional ulterior, selfish motive to be sincere. This exercise of our gifts has the primary function of praising God, though it may have the added benefit of dissolving doubts. We should seek to understand God through study for the singular reason that He is worthy of study as the Source of our being and the Subject of our yearning.


  5. FHG: I enjoyed this post. You have well-written discussion points on some central issues. I think this is particularly nicely put: “Just as the Virgin Mary can act as intercessor for God to reach us, she can also act as such for us to reach God,” because both parts of the sentence can be taken as literally true (in doctrinal terms) or metaphorically true.

    I share some of your concerns. For example, this resonates with questions that I raised in terms of Mary’s “relatability” in comments to post for the readings three weeks ago: “If Mary is so special that she is second only to God Himself, then how can we relate to Mary any more than we can relate to God?” It goes in the opposite direction as well. Isn’t Christ “God made relatable” through his humanity?

    I do think that there is some confusion in causal terms when you write that Christ “is the Redeemer and thus God.” Rather, in order to be redeemer, He needed to be God. This may be nit-picking, but I think it is important in Christology to distinguish explanans from explanandum.

    Finally, to your last paragraph I would like to add that, as was mentioned in class discussion about Bridget, as Mary participates in the Trinity, the more one understands and can be like Mary, the closer one can also come to participating in the Trinity. Isn’t this a good argument for relatability?

  6. I agree that there is a distinct difference between accessible, simple devotional texts and more intellectually demanding and complex texts. To relate it to a different field, I would liken it to the difference between books like "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Lolita", the one being an easy read, very accessible and, depending on your point of view, giving an interesting – if slightly whiny – perspective on life and society, and the other being an intricate story (I needed to consult a dictionary rather often) which also tells a compelling story. Both are definitely considered great works, but in very different ways.

    You juxtapose and separate the intellectual component from the emotional component of reading these texts; the more complex texts do not evoke as much of an emotional reaction as the simpler texts. I am not so sure I agree with that. I think intellectual contemplation could in fact lead to a much deeper emotional reaction than the probably more superficial emotion that comes with reading the simpler texts without the deep understanding of the complex text.

    I like the idea of hierarchy that you suggest, with humans at bottom, Mary, then Christ, and finally God. It helps simplify the notion that Mary is a figure humans can relate to, as being wholly human but in a sense divine because of her connection to God.


  7. Excellent writing, FHG. While reading the post, I began to think about what Mary means to those in the class, as in: how many are enrolled because of their faith, and their desire to know more about the development of someone (Mary) they venerate? I have noticed a particular religious trend in some of the blog posts over the course of the quarter, which is completely fine, as we kept to the texts in-and-of-themselves rather than spending the majority of the time on their historical framework. I bring this up, as I feel the class approached the subject of Mary from the position of a certain amount of reverent respect, as opposed to a position of ‘man made construct’, and that the writers of the texts were simply misinterpreting their own situation (which, I suppose, I did to some extent in my blog posts).

    Your entry got me thinking about Mary in Islam, and my wish that more of what Mary means in the Muslim faith had been brought into the class. A discussion of the relatability of Mary, and what she means to the religious, has to include a discussion of Islam. I took it upon myself to call up a Muslim friend of mine (a female), who went to an all-girls Islamic high school, and ask her: What does Mary mean to you? When I called and asked she took a deep breath, then spent twenty minutes talking about the importance of Mary:

    She said that Mary is, like in Christianity, the most important woman in the religion. She was brave- she left her family, and embarked on this seemingly impossible journey alone. Mary is the essence of what faith means- she is the essence of faith in God, and God’s power. She represents the pure... absolute purity in her virginity. She then talked about Mary in the Qur’an: there is an entire sura devoted to Mary, and she is mentioned more than any other woman in the Qur’an.

    She was always told to remain, and be chaste, like the Virgin Mary.

    As you stated, Mary acts as a relatable lifeboat with which to wade into the complicated waters of faith, belief, and the spiritual with (purple prose on my part... gotta do it every now and then, though). She may contain the uncontainable, but that does not mean one cannot aspire to be like Mary, or use her as an example of how to conduct one’s life.

    I brought in my Muslim friend in order to exemplify the relatability of Mary- how she can be guiding light, and can act as a paragon of behavior. From my perspective, the concept of Mary really isn’t as complicated as all of the readings would have us believe.
    The power of her story lies in this: she was simply a good person who was asked to something extraordinary for the sake of others.

    We should all strive to do the same thing.