Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Modern Mary- According to Local Circumstance

Something that I thought about that didn't come up in class was that the apparition of La Salette initially spoke to Melanie and Maximin in French. This is confusing because Melanie's French was imperfect, necessitating the apparition to switch over to their local dialect. If this really was the Virgin Mary, why would she have started speaking in a language that the children did not understand? For that matter, what she had to say to Melanie and Maximin was itself puzzling. The woman warned them of the town's godlessness and impending famine, but they were only children—and not especially devout children, at that. Melanie was described as "extremely lazy, disobedient, and sullen"; she was illiterate and not very knowledgeable of prayer. Maximin, in a similar vein, was "a reckless child, an innocent without malice but also without foresight." He was also illiterate and had only been taught a few prayers "with a great deal of difficulty." If the Virgin Mary had really appeared, why did she appear with such a portentous message to two children who weren't exactly model Catholics?
The nature of the message's delivery was also unlike previous appearances of Mary that we have seen this quarter. She said:

"If you have wheat, it is not good to sow it. All that you will sow, the beasts will eat, and that which remains the beasts will not dare to eat... A great famine will come. Before the famine comes, the children under seven years of age will be seized by trembling and they will die in the hands of those who hold them..."

This sounds to me nothing like the benevolent, radiant maternal figure of previous visions and encounters. Rather, it reminds me of the more wrathful Old Testament God. Why was there this sudden and dramatic shift in the tone of the apparition—now somewhat fallible, having initially tried communicating in a language that the children did not understand? The message in the event seemed to have been ignored by the population; there was no large scale attempt by the clergy to use it to rally religious fervor, and it seems that there was little panic caused by the prediction of hardship. Rather, one of the features of the apparition that contributed most to its popularity was the miraculous healing spring.
The message delivered by the apparition at Lourdes made me think along similar lines. Among some of Mary's most extolled virtues were her humility in our earlier readings; although the vision that appeared to Bernadette was not as wrathful as the one that spoke to Melanie and Maximin, it seemed to lack that humility. It reportedly had said: "I am the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. I want a chapel built on this very spot." Demanding the construction of a chapel doesn't strike me as particularly humble. What changed, then, in the image of Mary and the nature of her popular cult? As the world entered the age of modernity, it seemed that not only did visions of the Virgin Mary begin appearing to less educated people and become more accessible to people without a strict religious background and education, but her messages also began to shift, losing some of their old maternal quality.
Some of the changes in her appearances' receptions may have been due to simple practicality. Unlike previous writers who we have read, the children at La Salette, Lourdes and Fatima came from poor and troubled backgrounds. They (and those close to them) had little time, much less the religious education and upbringing in some instances, to properly receive and digest the visions as Maria de Agreda had done, and in any case had other things to worry about. For instance, one of the reasons that Lucia's visions created a rift between her and her mother was that one of the effects of the visions was to hurt them economically. "Lucia's sisters... found themselves, after the onset of the apparition, spending a large amount of time dealing with the people who wanted to speak with Lucia and watching the sheep in her place so that she could spend time with these people herself... These were matters of considerable importance, at a time of general economic distress, for a family who had only limited resources to start with..."
This unfortunate practicality stemming from the children's backgrounds was not the only new aspect of Marian devotion in the "modern" world. As Marian and Christian devotion became more "decentralized" and prominent in local, small towns and villages, the effects of their smallness became more evident. Melanie and Maximin were not fluent in French; there has also been some discussion over the vision at Lourdes and how it fit into local Pyrenean religion. "Although [Bernadette's] apparition bore little resemblance to orthodox Marian imagery, its similarities with mythical creatures of Pyrenean folklore were much more marked... Bernadette chose the term used to describe fairies, the little women of the forest." What Bernadette saw was a little girl—a child like herself, not a maternal figure at all. Nonetheless, the events at Lourdes were eventually accepted by the Catholic Church, Bernadette was later canonized as a saint and the shrine requested by the apparition was built.

Modernity, then—much had changed over the course of the centuries. Visible instances Marian devotion had spread to a much wider social strata, and the nature of the appearances had changed to reflect differences between locales and the unique socioeconomic circumstances of any particular visionary. That these apparitions were accepted by the authorities indicates that these changes were recognized by the Catholic Church, as well.



  1. I would urge you to be wary of talking in terms of "shifts" in images when you are talking about modernity: modernity likes to tell itself stories about how it is so different from the past, but often the ways in which it differs are not what it claims! The points with which you open are your strongest: why, after all, did the woman speak first in French? And why did she come bringing the kind of warning that she did? It is not in fact the case that Mary invariably appeared as a kindly maternal figure in the older sources that we have read: often she appeared as a great Queen (as, for example, to Sor Maria), and even when she was carrying the Child (as in the Spanish apparitions) she could be awe-inspiring more so than comforting. Be wary of looking for what you expect Mary to look like and practice seeing the descriptions that we actually have. This is the first step to understanding what actually has changed--and what is merely an illusion of change created by our own periodizations! RLFB

  2. The fact that the Virgin speaks in the "wrong" language at La Salette is incredibly interesting. I'm not sure what to make of it, but it's stuck in my mind ever since the first time I read the story. There's almost a way in which this fits were her appearance as a more queenly figure, simply assuming her subjects spoke her own cultured language and then shifting into dialect when she realizes her mistake. Perhaps this bit of characterization tells us something about how Mary was understood in this part of the world at this time?

    Also, I want to caution against assuming that all medieval depictions of Mary were kindly. The saints, Mary included, often have an edge to them in medieval literature, dealing harshly with those who irritate them or transgress. We can probably see this most clearly in the Rocamadour miracles. Maybe, though, the fact that this is not what we took away from the medieval tells us something, either about ourselves or about the way that these "harsher" descriptions operate in the broader context of medieval depictions of Mary (and, of course, it's not entirely out of character for a mother to deal sternly with disobedient children).

  3. Perhaps the (seemingly) conflicting images of Mary do not arise with changing times, but are a constant feature. The above commenters have fairly noted that Medieval Mary is not necessarily comforting and maternal (see, for example, the nuns' depictions). But neither is she necessarily queenly and demanding. We saw an artistic shift in the 12th or 13th century from the sedes sapientiae to the more "human" mother and child images. This did not represent a loss or change to the tradition, so much as a broadening. Similarly, the tradition of "mater dolorosa" appears in various forms from pretty early in Church history. Is there any way for us to connect this to Queen Mary or Mother Mary?

    My intuition is that these images connect much more clearly on the ground than from our academic vantage point. Where Daly and Warner see a symbol, I propose that most people historically have seen Mary as a unique person. The artistic tradition of painting in sequence the "Life of the Virgin" suggests that, while certain moments could be isolated for devotional purposes, there was no difficulty in seeing continuity between those moments in the life of the virgin. Just as artistic themes surrounding art of the child Jesus differ from those surrounding his Passion, Mary is able to be seen in varying lights. I'm concerned that modern thought about Mary has lost sight of her personality in an attempt to explain her. This is obvious in Daly and Warner, but it is present in the "Mary as Church" system presented by Lumen Gentium. It seems to me that, feeling threatened by Protestants, the VII fathers devised the Mary as Church idea as a way of explaining away Mariology, making it palatable. Unlike some in our class, I do think there is something to say about the relationship between Mary and the Ecclesia, but I don't think any fair reading of the tradition makes that relationship the essential of Mariology.

    This post seems to wonder how Mary can be everything. Angry and maternal and also childlike. To some extent, I think that is a fair question. If we can really find all things in Mary, is there anything unique to her any longer. Nonetheless, I think the desire to simplify is more threatening because A. it doesn't seem to have been a concern to the tradition and B. it risks reducing Mary to a symbol, rather than a unique person.


  4. The position of the children at La Salette, and the other apparitions we discussed in class, is certainly a strange one. The role these figures come to play in the story is often very interesting. By all accounts the rest of Melanie and Maximin’s lives were fairly troubled, both widely described as living unhappy ‘wandering’ lives. This is a potentially problematic element to these modern apportions. Unlike the depersonalised, second-hand voices of the Rocamadour miracles, after these modern apparitions the children went on to live distinctly human, normal and flawed lives. These apportions cannot exist in uncomplicated isolation. Melanie published a prophetic and expanded version of the secret she received from Mary in 1879 which was rejected by the church. Two Melanies therefore exist, the innocent and simple observer of 1846 and corrupted and untrustworthy older Melanie. This makes me wonder about how the church is happy to use these observers. In the case of La Salette, it seems that for as long as Melanie’s views could be aligned with the use for them the local or wider church desired, she was praised, yet when she strayed from this she was condemned. Maximin, conversely, despite his unhappy life, is praised for his humility in defending his apportion but never claiming to understand it, saying “We were but a channel, like parrots that repeat what they have heard. We were stupid before the apparition, we were stupid after the apparition and we shall be stupid all our lives.”


  5. As this has not been the first time we have seen the intentionally degrading language used to describe the person who allegedly witnesses the apparitions (Mary of Agreda in her humble self-loathing, I might add), the description of the children in La Salette in their ordinariness does not surprise me. These children were commoners, raised in no particularly wealthy or fancy lifestyle. I must say the way in which they children are depicted as normal humans who are troubled and susceptible to the same facts of life and death which all humans must ultimately face. W. Russell’s distinction between the 1846 Melanie and the 1879 Melanie is a helpful one. It shows how her voice could very well have been influenced by the needs of the local church. I wonder if there is a rhetorical gain in emphasizing the ordinariness of those who witness the apparitions for the church. That is: does the apparition sound more true or appear more true if it is witnessed and accounted by someone from a low social class who more or less has nothing to lose by telling the full account? I found W. Russell’s quote at the end of his comment to be especially helpful to this point. I would like to know more about why these particular people’s accounts have been chosen to be canonized other than their ability to stay within the strict confines as being doctrinally correct and harmonious with the established theology of the church.


  6. I would like to push back on the author’s point that brings the apparition at Lourdes into question. E.C. claims that Mary’s humility is compromised because she declares herself to be the Immaculate Conception and instructs the children that she wants a church built on the spot where she is appearing. There are two things to consider that refute this. First, historically we have seen Mary appear and ask for a church to be built in her honor. A few hundred years earlier Mary appeared to Juan Diego and also asked for a church to be built on the sight of her appearing. Second, it is important to consider what humility is. True humility is many times understood as conforming to the truth. Seeing yourself and your conditions for how they are. Thus we have come to interpret humility using this mindset as being lowly and small and not imposing because most people the truth about ourselves reveals our many faults and all that we can’t do. For Mary then, the opposite is true. Humility permits her to declare herself the Immaculate Conception and ask, and even demand, a Church to be built in her honor. This behavior corresponds with the truth of who she is and humility acknowledges and recognizes this.

  7. I think that it is interesting that the Modern trend toward a localization of Mary mirrors one possible origin story for her tradition. Barker postulates that Mary might have her roots in an ancient Jewish female figure of divine nature, whose presence is hinted at in the Old Testament and by the archeological record. The Queen of Heaven postulated by Barker was a local Deity, belonging in her specifics to the religion of a single people. She was however recognizably related to similar female figures who appear among neighboring people; much as how these modern apparitions are closely tied to unique local tradition, but are all also associated with Mary. Her flexibility plays a large part in her enduring popularity and prominence. The ability to adapt to different circumstances allows her to be what is needed at any given moment. This is not a new aspect of Mary, it can be quite difficult to get a handle on medieval Mary because she was being read in different ways for different purposes then as well. Mary contains the uncontainable. Perhaps she can handle filling all these different roles and versions of herself without loosing her core identity because she contains creation.