Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mary and the Place of Faith

            One important and key element that has not factored into our discussion of Mary thus far this quarter is faith. Tuesday’s readings, along with the previous miracle/apparition story readings, call for faith to be added to the discussion and considered along with the material we have covered. We have been taking a scholarly approach to Mary and Marian devotion, trying to understand sources of devotion to Mary, images that represent her and motivations for serving her. However, without considering faith we cannot have a full understanding of what we have studied for none of these practices would be possible without faith. Faith is the gift of believing in something you haven’t seen, belief without proof. Following Christ and following Mary requires just that.
            From Henry Adams’s writings we know that he lacked faith, but grasped its force, importance and its necessity to understand something like the great cathedral at Chartres.  Adams writes, “If you are to get the full enjoyment of Chartres, you must, for the time, believe in Mary as Bernard and Adam did, and feel her presence as the architects did, in every stone they placed, and every touch they chiseled”. It is only by believing in Mary that someone could devote themselves to an endeavor as crazy as that of building Chartres. Faith then is the foundation from which springs any number of otherwise seemingly inexplicable acts from tumbling to following a strict schedule of devotional hours, to sticking to a story for which you are ridiculed.
            But, faith is not applied equally to everyone. Again, Adams points out that “the force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes…but in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force”. Adams posits that the American character that ignores sex and the force of reproduction, which is closely associated with Mary, makes the American people indisposed to the power of the Virgin. Adams makes a claim on a whole people who is incapable of feeling the force of the Virgin and are thus indisposed to receive faith. The same can be said however, for many in the apparition stories we read. Faith is a key element to understanding these stories.
            Mary does not discriminate when appearing or manifesting herself as the degrees of faith and characteristics of Melanie and Maximim at La Salette were different than that of Juan Diego in Mexico. Mary is willing to make herself available to anyone, but the belief or growth in faith depends on the response of the receiver. Many who were close to the apparitions were indisposed to receive faith and thus believe in the apparitions. Even the mothers of some of the children privileged to these sightings doubted. For these people, they lacked the foundation of faith necessary accept this miraculous appearance that many around them, on the other hand, were ready to believe.
            The Church and the faithful seem to always struggle with faith and disbelief. The Papal documents we read show how this struggle is present even in most recent times. Munificentissimus Deus which defines the dogma of Mary’s assumption opens by outlining the Church’s longstanding belief in this dogma. By citing religious institutes, names of churches and special liturgical offices the Church is trying to show how for years members of the Church have put this belief into action. It could be said for many things, but speaking about the liturgy in general the document reads that “the liturgy of the Church does not engender the Catholic faith, but rather springs from it”. This is a re-echoing of Adams observation that from faith great things spring up. The many elements of Church life that have adopted the doctrine of the Assumption are not what shape the faith, rather they have all been given life from faith and a specific faith in this certain doctrine.
            Even in Lumen Gentium in the section outlining doctrine on Mary and proper devotion everything comes down to rest on faith. The council Fathers write “that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love toward our mother and to the imitation of her virtues”. So one can try to understand Mary, use her as a role model and take advantage of her position in the story of salvation but this would not be “true devotion” if one lacked “true faith”. But, as we have seen not everyone has this true faith and there seems to be no one way to acquire it. People who have had miraculous apparitions occur on their doorsteps even then don’t always begin to believe.
            It seems to me important to consider who is given this true faith, who allows themselves to be touched by the force of the Virgin and what the effects are. For example the Bishop in the story of Juan Diego didn’t have faith right away, as he required a sign as a condition for belief. This led to the great image of Our Lady of Guadalupe and goes to show that just because you are in the Church hierarchy doesn’t mean your faith will be 100% solid all the time. The same can be said for the papal documents. How much was motivated by faith in the doctrines outlined and how much was thoroughly explained as a response to a lack of faith? I think the documents attempt to make a person disposed to receive faith by clearing away their ignorance and showing examples of faith in action, but ultimately it seems that a person cannot just will themselves to have faith.

            And so I have to wonder, can you properly study Mary without faith as I suspect many in this class have done? What happens when you take Adams’s advice to believe in Mary for a time to get the full enjoyment and understanding? Or, is there no place for faith in a scholarly assessment of Mary?


  1. Thank you for raising this question! Yes, we have not talked directly about the role of faith in our understanding of Mary, which, as I am sure you can appreciate, has been a deliberate choice on my part. But can we, as scholars, understand what it means to be devoted to Mary without having faith ourselves? Adams certainly struggled with this question, and I think that you are right that both Pius XII and the Council struggled with it as well. One of the big difficulties I have encountered in writing about Mary as a scholar is how to mediate between texts written from the perspective of faith and readers who may come to those texts without sharing that faith. Adams in his own way tried to find a way "inside" the faith by way of his meditation on the dynamo, but for myself I am not convinced that he succeeded in recapturing what Mary meant to her medieval devotees: his reading of faith itself is too caught up in the skeptical romanticizing characteristic of the nineteenth century criticism of religion for him to be able to read the medieval sources as part of a living tradition. But do, in fact, the Pope and the Council do any better at drawing those who do not already have faith into their understanding of the Virgin? RLFB

  2. MB raises an interesting point. I think Adams’ distinction that Mary is “not merely as a sentiment but as a force” (384) is helpful in considering the place of faith in Marian study. Thinking of the texts we’ve studied -- if most are believed to be true accounts -- there are many different Mary’s. There is the Mary of Gautier de Conci, who requires devotion that is deep and honest but not necessarily traditional. There is the Mary of Santa Gadea, who wants a shrine built in her honor. Then of course there are the differing accounts from early Christians and disagreements within the Church itself. On the face of things, it seems difficult for a true believer to distinguish who exactly Mary is and what she wants if she needs to be one divine person, one actor. But perhaps she’s not acot but rather, as Adams suggests, a force. Mysticism was native to early Christians but began to diminish around the 1600’s. Perhaps returning to this more nebulous and mystical Mary is necessary for a true believer to study Mary just as understanding, appreciating and empathizing with mysticism is necessary for a historian who studies Marian texts. Professor Fulton-Brown warned us not to apply modern-day thinking or logical tests to ancient Marian doctrine, this applies to those with faith as well as secular historians. To understand Mary without dismissing many of the documents and accounts of her requires understanding her as a force, changing with time and place but consistent in her desire to bring us closer to her son.


  3. The question of the role of faith in exploring and appreciating the Marian tradition is one that I’ve grappled with since the beginning of this course. One of the most pressing issues is, as JLK points out, the inconsistent portrayals and “uses” of Mary from ancient to Mediaeval to modern times. Look at the Munificientissimus Deus, in which Pope Pius XII charts out a fairly extensive history of priestly proofs and scholarly treatments of the Assumption. Even here, the Church seems cautious in handling the connection between Mary and the Christ Redeemer. Pius XII recounts the theologians and preachers who “have been rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture to explain their belief in the Assumption”, echoing the reluctance of contemporary scholars to consider Psalmic references and non-explicit Scriptural descriptions as supportive of Mary in the canon. Here, he describes how Mary was viewed as the Ark, the Queen of Heaven, the pillar of smoke and the cloud, the significance of “gratia plena”, etc.

    But to respond to Professor Fulton Brown’s question: how persuasive, or even comprehensible, is this treatment for readers without faith? Do documents like the Lumen Gentium or the Ineffabilis Deus have any relevance for those with purely an intellectual interest, or those coming from a different faith? To the first question, while I think this history of the Assumption can be an informative starting point for further research, I don’t think it’s particularly compelling on its own feet. It demands that the reader be taken with the salvation allowed by Jesus, and hence the love and intimacy the Mother of God shared with this perfect being necessitates that she be Assumed into heaven upon death. In other words, while the reader might be able to chart and analyze the development of the Assumption, she may not grasp why it was so important for Pius XII to dogmatize the Assumption in such a radical Constitution.

    Would all this sound impressive if you did not believe? Perhaps not here. But in other texts we’ve read, I think there is potential for anyone to appreciate and marvel at the wonders of a tradition that has existed and transformed whole cultures, as MB notes, for millennia. Just consider the personification of Biblical figures in the Mystical City of God, the countless miracle stories portrayed in the Cantigas and the accounts from Rocamadour, the modern apparitions at Lourdes and others that still draw thousands of pilgrims, and indeed, tourists, to this day. By approaching these texts with a sense of the majesty and very real significance these beliefs had on other human beings, by tracking the metaphors for Mary across texts and trying to find what she meant for so many people, and perhaps for you as well, I think it’s possible to open your mind to Mary and see where she takes you.


  4. I agree with you M.B. that it is not possible to ‘will’ yourself into faith. Perhaps will and faith are entirely separate entities. It is surely possible to want above all else to believe in God yet still find you do not truly believe, and faith falters. Or maybe faith is just a deep desire to believe that exists below believers’ conscious appreciation. Adams comments that the Virgin ‘has acted as the greatest force the Western world had ever felt, and had drawn men’s activities to her more strongly to herself more strongly than any other power.’ (The Education of Henry Adams, p388). This sense of being ‘drawn’ to her hints of the lack of will involved in these acts of faith. For Adams Mary generates a sort of force of faith and a power that is difficult to comprehend or explain. Perhaps this is why his attempts to imagine himself into belief through the dynamo seem, as Professor Fulton-Brown says above, to fail. They are too wilful to replicate true faith. Faith appears to generate an active force that itself ‘attracts’ and results in ‘four-fifths of the noblest art’. Adams cannot imagine himself into a position of faith as it faith that must come for him.


  5. I think the question of faith is an interesting and important one to our study. I agree with M.B. that faith or lack of faith plays a key role in the documents she mentions (and indeed all our readings for this course). It certainly is something for scholars to think about when building their frameworks for understanding. But, and perhaps I am merely relying on a knee-jerk reaction here, I do not think personal faith is necessary for scholars to successfully approach and analyze Marian works. Quite simply, I feel historians often find themselves in some way “outside” what they are studying. Time, geographic distance, cultural difference, and a myriad of other things can separate an individual from the people and events they are trying to study. And even more importantly, some areas of historical study do not lend themselves to sharing the world view or ideological values of those being analyzed. When Mary is the object of study asking about faith as precursor to understanding seems harmless. But substitute Mary for many other historical figures and you would be hard pressed to find a legitimate historian who believed what those figures promoted. Further, just because Adams wasn’t successful, doesn’t mean other scholars might succeed where he has failed. Certainly, a lack of faith may be both an obstacle or a challenge to understanding but I hesitate to call it an insurmountable one; to me, it seems, for non-believing historians to be merely one of many factors of separation to be addressed in an attempt to reach (or at least draw closer to) understanding. After all, as JLK notes, time and evolving conceptions of Mary have already separated even those who approach Mary from a faith-based perspective from an easy understanding of the past.


  6. I think we were so drawn to Adams because in many ways he represents us, both in project and position to Mary. He is trying to put himself back into the mental space of the Christians who built the great Cathedral at Chartres, just as we are. The success he has in this venture can be argued, but he does at least recognize that he belongs to a different context. He is an outsider to the Marian tradition and approaches his problem without the faith in the virgin that raised the cathedral walls. We are also all outsiders to this tradition, at least in its pre-modern iteration. I think then that the question of faith should not be can you study Mary without faith, because even those of us who have a faith do not have the faith that created the Marian tradition which we have been studying. I think the question should be can you approach Mary if you do not believe that faith, and the faith that created her literary corpus in particular, exists. I may not have the faith that led people to build cathedrals, but I believe that others did, and I accept faith as rational for action; much as how while I detest eggplant, I believe that there are people who genuinely enjoy consuming it.



  7. Not to be merely contrarian, but I'm curious whether it's necessary or fair to create a hard dichotomy between faith and non-faith in regards to our study of the Blessed Virgin.
    Naturally, I think M.B. makes a great point that too much of our Marian "documents" are not properly "documents" per se, but objects of devotion that are improperly received if not with some measure of accordingly fitting devotion. Even so, I want to contend as I have in class that any interaction with Mary inevitably becomes a personal one, such that even if an individual attempts to wrestle with Mary from a position of skepticism or some contrived “objectivity” these efforts cannot escape the inescapable personalism of the Virgin. While this personal encounter that is inherent to Marian study may not strictly qualify as being accomplished through the mode of “faith”, it is nevertheless necessary that we give some room for writers like Henry Adams who acknowledges his temporary religiosity, or even Mary Daly for that matter who tends to personalize Mary as a victim, to explore the space that Mary occupies.

    - W.K.