Thursday, November 5, 2015

Mary's Role-Closeness to Christ

We ended our class discussion on Mary, “Mater Sponsa, Mater Dei” with more than a few questions unresolved. Two that stood out to me particularly were whether the authors for this week show a shift in the role and relationship Mary is meant to have with the faithful and if that is impacted uniquely by the authors all being women. I would also like to weigh in on this as a woman and push back a little on what was said by Marina Warner using what is given to us primarily by Elizabeth of Schonau.

One element of the texts we read that is different from many of our previous readings is that there is no explicit call to be like Mary and follow her in her virginity or humility or motherhood. This might seem strange especially because all of our authors are women. Since they share their femininity in common with Mary and the distinct ability to be mothers, the call to live and be like her can be claimed to be natural and perhaps more natural than for a male believer. However, this is not what we see. The authors do all continue to laud and revere Mary for these traits of virginity, humility and motherhood, among others. Taking an example from Hildegard, we hear her say “Hail, high-born,/ glorious, and untouched maid./ You are the pupil of chastity” (Symphonia, 17) but, this praise is never turned around and extended into an invitation for Hildegard to attempt to follow in the same way. And similarly, at least in this work, there is no commentary from Hildegard about desiring to live like Mary in this way or to the same extent. This, I think, is good evidence to counter Marina Warner’s claim that Mary is a frustrating figure to young girls because they are called to be humble, virgins and mothers like Mary, which is simply impossible. Women are not actually called to be like Mary in each of her unique traits for which she alone was prepared for from all time and could bring to fruition. As Hildegard shows a female can still praise Mary for her qualities and not get frustrated that they can never achieve the same. This brings us to the question then of what Mary’s role relationship is to these women.

One thing that is consistent throughout these texts that is a continuation of themes found in our previous texts is that Mary remains an intercessory figure. While we saw Hildegard primarily praising Mary, in the Book of Visions from Elizabeth of Schonau we see her turn to Mary’s intercession, often in a very personal way. Elizabeth tells us that she “invoked her in my usual way and prayed to her” this time specifically for a friend who was anxious about becoming a priest. This simple statement shows us a lot about Mary’s role in Elizabeth’s life. We see that Elizabeth had frequent recourse to Mary and went beyond what was presented in the liturgy by speaking personally and directly to Mary about the details of her life. In contrast with the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, Elizabeth's conversation with Mary would not likely be considered service, but still it provides her the opportunity for frequent dialogue with the Blessed Mother. She sees Mary as a mother, one she can turn to frequently without worrying about bothering her. This approach shows true humility. Rather than put Mary on a pedestal and engage with her only through formal liturgy, Elizabeth lives out the praised humility of Mary by bringing to the Mother of God the intimate details of her life, despite the gap of holiness between herself and Mary. Perhaps it is because Elizabeth is a woman that she feels more comfortable reaching out and engaging in this way as she would a sister, but I do not think there is anything to indicate that this is the sole case or that a man could not find the same connection to Mary as he would to a concerned mother. This leaves the question unclear still about the role of Mary. We know she continues to be an intercessor, but it is still unclear what is informing this new style of devotion.

Another interesting role of Mary presented in Elizabeth's visions is Mary's connection to the liturgy and her role in assisting with the Eucharist. Elizabeth’s visions happen usually during the mass, before it or in connection to the divine office. In one vision Elizabeth describes seeing “the Virgin, clothed in a purple stole” (80), a symbol of the priesthood. At another time, Mary appears in a vision and leaves two angels to help in the celebration of the Eucharist. I think this further develops a theme we are starting to see; that Marian devotion exists largely as a way to bring us to Christ and help us stay centered on Him. The Eucharist is as close to Christ as one can get on earth and is the same closeness Mary expired to Christ. This equality is perhaps part of what keeps Elizabeth from desiring to be a priest or follow Mary exactly in each of her roles and is what refutes the complaint of Marina Warner. Even though Elizabeth sees Mary in a priestly role she doesn’t cry out to be able to do the same and as a nun and virgin she doesn’t bemoan the unfairness of not also being able to imitate Mary in her motherhood. The most important thing is something she can imitate. Elizabeth, just as Mary, is able to be physically close to Jesus and so be able to speak personally with him. This is the priority, that we imitate Mary in her closeness to her son Jesus.

This claim then disregards that these authors are women, since men too can achieve this closeness of Mary to Christ. It does however, allow women to reconcile their desires and abilities to imitate Mary and find peace that not all are possible for them.



  1. I think the connection you describe here between the Eucharist/Liturgy and Marian devotion is both interesting and incredibly important. It's worth noting that Elizabeth lived during a period which saw the Eucharist take on increasing importance, becoming more and more the centerpoint of devotion, so we might be seeing a sort of converging evolution of theology here, the Marian side and the Eucharistic side in the process of becoming united.

    The lack of calls for imitation is also fascinating. We know that, as a nun, Hildegard was already actively trying to imitate the qualities of the Virgin which you cite, is this why she doesn't feel the need to call for us to imitate Mary, because it's simply assumed? Or, as might be implied in your next paragraph, is there a sort of distance and immanence in the figure of Mary for these women, a sense that imitating her is ultimately impossible but that this doesn't mean we can't speak to her intimately? To tie this into one of the themes of the whole course, it seems like this is a key way in which Mary reflects God, who is similarly wholly immanent in Creation (a major theme of the 12th century) and utterly distant from it.

  2. I like very much your emphasis on the way in which Elisabeth sees Mary as a way to help her to become closer to Christ, including through the celebration of the Mass. Perhaps to build on this a little bit, rather than contrasting the practice of the Office and Mass with the kinds of intimate engagement Elisabeth experiences in her visions, we might reimagine the liturgy as in fact the place for such intimacy, contrary to the way in which it is sometimes experienced (or criticized), as less intimate because more formalized. Certainly, given how Elisabeth's visions seem to have come to her more often than not during the liturgy, she seems to have experienced it as not distancing ("putting Mary on a pedestal"), but the very place in which she encountered Mary and Christ most intimately. RLFB

  3. The gendered appeal of Marian devotion is a very interesting question - and, as we saw in our Postmodern Mary readings, one that you correctly predicted would continue to play a role in our discussion this quarter. It seems very interesting to me (though I acknowledge my modern bias) that this gendered devotion doesn't at all occur in the ways we might expect. As you point out, the fact that Mary is a woman doesn't mean women are automatically more inclined to expressing devotion to her, or that men are automatically less capable of imitating her virtues. On the one hand, this helps to explain Mary's near-universal appeal, at least to pre-Reformation Christians; it's no wonder the one called 'wider than heaven' was able to encompass such a diverse range of places, histories, and life experience.

    On the other hand, however, specifically gendered experiences - particularly in religion - must have existed, even in the Middle Ages. Both men and women could venerate Mary, but this was expressed in different ways. Monks and nuns both might imitate her humility, obedience, and study of Scripture, but monks who were also priests could imitate her mediation between humans and God, whereas even the most powerful abbess could not perform sacraments on her own. The gendered distinction of devotional behavior is even more marked in the lay sphere - where lay women, especially, could e.g. imitate Mary's motherhood more literally - and even more complicated in societies with gender roles substantially different from our own. (I am, predictably, thinking about Byzantium - this is the only medieval European society with a significant population of eunuchs, but this group seems to have had a very specific relationship with Mary, one acknowledged by at least some of their fellow Byzantines as different from that of either men or women. I can certainly go into more detail about this if you'd like - I'm just trying to stay mostly on-topic.) Yet I don't think the fact that specifically-gendered devotion exists necessarily contradicts your final conclusion: specifically-gendered means don't prevent achieving universal ends (i.e., a closer relationship with Christ). But how does this change our understanding of those ends? It seems that the modern tradition has forgotten this wide variety of options for pursuing unity with God - which Warner and Daly in particular seem to be reacting against - but what does this mean for Christians who have 'rediscovered' these alternate means?

    - F. S.

  4. I love that you decided to take on Warner’s claims about Mary and femininity! You focus on Hildegard and Elizabeth of Schonau here, but I think these claims could be extended to Gertrude of Helfta and complicated by Mechthild of Magdeburg, particularly as Gertrude’s visions were also highly liturgical, occurring during the offices and on feast days, for example. Of particular interest in regards to imitating Mary’s relationship with Jesus might be Gertrude’s vision during the liturgy of the Annunciation, which Gertrude believes overemphasizes Mary’s role and does not place enough importance on the role of Christ (104). Certainly Gertrude doesn’t feel pressured to imitate Mary as a humble woman if she criticizes Mary for getting too much attention! While I think Gertrude’s texts might help your claim here, Mechthild’s seem to problematize it; of the four female authors, Mechthild places the most emphasis on Mary as a mother with her references to fertility and milk. Though Mary as the bride of the Trinity is an image we’ve seen male authors deal with previously, Mechthild’s visions of Mary as suckling the prophets and protecting sinners as if they were orphans do seem more exclusively female. Does this imply Marian imitation in a way that only women could commit, or could these images also be extended to male worshippers, as the bride of Christ image has been?