I’ve been asked to be a guest blogger in an ecumenical blog conversation between three friends of mine: Zach, Chad and Tony. The Catholic, the Orthodox, and the Protestant. This week their topic is on the virgin Mary and while each of them will be sharing from their respective theological perspectives, they really wanted to include a female perspective considering we’re talking about the most prominent woman in Christendom.
Chad kicked the Mary conversation off here: The Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
Zach followed up here: The Virgin Mary: A Catholic Perspective
Tony’s Protestant view is here: https://tonylhuynh.wordpress.com/2018/08/27/mary-mother-of-god/
So now it’s my turn to bring in the female perspective as well as touching on all three of the above perspectives. I’m a mix of humbled and excited. So here we go!
A Rocky Relationship
First of all, I have not always been a fan of the Virgin Mary, nor have I always despised her. I spent the first 34 years of my life as a Protestant before becoming Catholic so I was raised with Mary being a typical Christmas sermon topic and nothing more. In fact, my first memory of Mary was when I was a child and I was chosen to portray her in a Christmas play – which I LOVED. I clearly remember wearing a blue and white ‘Bible costume’, holding a baby doll, and pretending he was Jesus and I was his Mom…in front of several hundred people. HA!
As a teenager I respected her poise, self-control and strength when I read Luke 2:19, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (NIV) Here she was at the Nativity, having just given birth to the Messiah and surrounded by a bunch of Shepherds who were told by a ton of Angels to come visit her new Son. Now, I would have been quick to tell everyone who had a pulse about everything that had just happened, but Mary didn’t. She treasured everything in her heart. I remember thinking that there was a lot I could learn from her in that one verse.
As an adult I found myself increasingly torn by my youthful respect for her and fear at what I perceived to be worship of her, especially after I encountered a giant steel statue of her down in California on a business trip. My co-worker and I would eat breakfast at the park below the statue before our conference every morning, and while we sat there we would watch folks show up after Mass and lay flowers at her feet. I remember feeling bad for those people who seemed so confused, and I prayed they would turn from their idolatrous ways.
By the time I hit my 30s that fear I had of Mary had turned to jealousy and anger as I watched my boyfriend at the time begin to embrace the Catholic Church and with it – her. We were both Protestants, but he was open with me about his recent Catholic thoughts and experiences and would share about praying the Rosary or asking Mary for prayer. Every time he’d mention her name I could feel jealousy boiling up inside of me. I was no longer a fan of the mother of our Lord.
So what changed between then and now? I mean, I’m writing this as a Catholic…and they tend to like Mary. A lot. Hahahaha.
Well – it’s been over seven years since those early days of jealousy, and much as changed. I’ll spend the rest of this post talking about some of the main things that brought me from anger to admiration regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Misunderstandings and Miscommunication
First came all the theological arguments. But in order to actually engage in them I had to set aside my feelings of anger and jealousy so I could listen and learn. I also didn’t start engaging with the Catholic Church’s teachings initially. Being raised Protestant usually means having an irrational disdain for all things Catholic so I had to check in with a perspective I didn’t hate…and mainly because I knew nothing about it: The Orthodox Church.
I remember pelting an Orthodox friend of mine with questions about what they believed about Mary. It was usually framed in a “Catholics believe this about Mary…what say you?” sort of way. And then my Orthodox friend would usually respond with, “Yeah, we pretty much believe that too” which always left me speechless and thoughtful.
I started to realize that much of what I’d grown up believing about Mary wasn’t true…which meant taking a big dose of humility. I didn’t like hearing that I was wrong – especially when I believed so fiercely that I was right!
Take for example those folks laying flowers at the base of her statue back in California. What I saw as Idol worship was in fact reverence – very similar to placing flowers at the grave of a loved one. However, since Mary doesn’t have a proper grave* they use photos, icons, or statues as a place of memorial.
*(Both Catholic and Orthodox traditions hold that she was taken physically into heaven (known as the Feast of the Assumption/Dormition of Mary respectively) and in the Catholic Church and some Orthodox Churches that anniversary is August 15th – TODAY!)
Deeper Theologies and the Redemption of Women
Not only did I learn that some of my perceptions about her were wrong, I also learned that this woman had some rich theologies involving her that I’d never heard about. And what was even crazier is that they made sense. One of those theologies that clicked for me was her role as the new Eve.
Now this is where my perspective as a woman really comes in to play with this whole Mary discussion.
As a woman who was born and raised in the Protestant Church there was one thing I knew from the minute I learned about the Garden of Eden story – Eve screwed it all up. And as one of her daughters I felt this invisible guilt hover around me like a little rain cloud most of my life. Through the years I heard every sermon angle on that fateful piece of fruit: light-hearted jokes, explanations that Adam should have intervened, and sermons that subtly labeled Eve and all of woman-kind as dangerous.
So imagine how I felt upon hearing that Mary was the new Eve. The news touched a nerve. Suddenly that cloud of guilt faded away as I realized that Mary, in her obedience to God, redeemed not only Eve, but all women. And no, I don’t mean redeemed in the way that Christ redeems. I mean I suddenly felt like it was acceptable to hold my head up as a woman. That original sin may have initially been at our hands, but so was Salvation.
This picture/icon titled “Mary and Eve” sums it all up for me. I was so enamored by it that I hunted down the original and purchased one to hang in my office…years before I was to become Catholic. It was actually painted by a Catholic Sister and they’re available for purchase here: https://www.monasterycandy.com/Product_List?c=33 Every time I look at it I feel again that sense of dignity being restored. Ah – it’s just beautiful!
She always points us to Jesus
The third thing I learned was something both Zach and Chad explained in their posts – that Mary always points back to Jesus. This was something I experienced big time when I was learning to pray the Rosary.
I know, I know – I pray the Rosary. I apologize to all my Protestant friends and family who thought that perhaps I wasn’t actually one of those Catholics. I am. Now, please allow me to explain why.
I didn’t start praying the Rosary until after I was Catholic. Like I said before – as much as I had learned about the Blessed Mother I still had a hard time with her. What can I say? 34 years of being taught to mistrust her didn’t fade easily. But a mother of four at Church was dying of cancer and I was desperate for her to be healed so I figured I’d give the ol’ Rosary a go.
Part of praying the Rosary is thinking about certain aspects of either Jesus’ life or Mary’s life. But mostly Jesus. The day I prayed the Rosary happened to be a Friday so the aspects I was supposed to reflect on were called the “Sorrowful Mysteries”: The Agony in the Garden, The Scourging at the Pillar, The Crowning with Thorns, Carrying of the Cross, and The Crucifixion.
I began to pray for this woman’s healing fervently with each Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and especially as I reflected on each of these Sorrowful aspects of Christ’s life. But as I worked my way around those beads and through those sorrowful mysteries I found my heart changing. I felt the Lord teaching me what it looked like to follow Him and that sometimes He allows us to suffer just as He suffered. My prayers for this dying woman changed from petitioning for healing to begging for her to have the strength to endure her trial just as Christ himself endured his own.
That woman ended up passing a few months later and from what I’ve heard of her final months, weeks, and days on this earth – the Lord answered my prayers for her to have strength. And I wouldn’t have had that experience in prayer had I not decided to pick up a Rosary and given Mary a chance.
Trust, Sacrifice and The Pietà
The last thing I’ve learned in my little journey with Mary is that she understands Trust and Sacrifice in ways that I long to emulate.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been wrestling with what the Lord has for me regarding my Vocation. Will I marry? Will I have kids? Will I become a Sister/Nun? Will I become a Consecrated Virgin? Will I die before any of this happens making all these questions pointless to wrestle over? Hahahaha! God knows, but He has been frustratingly silent.
Why am I frustrated though? Because after a lifetime of following Him I still struggle to trust Him with the big and little details of my life. I want to know what the plan is so I can be prepared when instead He asks me to trust Him with both the plans and the preparation.
And then I think of Mary.
There is nothing she could have done to prepare for the bomb that the Angel Gabriel dropped on her, but aside from being confused as to how she was going to have a child since she was dedicated to being a Virgin (see Chad and Zach’s posts), she trusted God and opened herself up to His plan. I think Albani demonstrates her openness so well in the painting above of the moment she chose to accept the Lord’s will for her life.
And then we fast forward to another depiction of Mary on probably the worst day of her life. I love the Pietà for SO many reasons but a big one is the positioning of her hands. She isn’t clutching Christ to her chest. She isn’t shaking her fist at God for taking her child. She’s holding Him, but still open. Still offering. This time she’s not only offering herself but her beloved Son as well. While He sacrificed himself in death, she sacrificed herself through her life. It’s the very thing I long to do no matter what my Vocation is. I want to live my life in such a way that it is a daily sacrifice for the Lord and for those I love. It is an example that we can all learn from – no matter our state in life.
So in those moments when I’m frustrated that I don’t know what I’m doing next, when I feel like life isn’t going “my way”, when I have to let go of something or someone I love, when I suffer a loss, or when I receive an amazing gift – I think of Mary’s trust and sacrifice – and I keep my hands open.
The Relationship Continues…
I became Catholic only 2.5 years ago, but Mary was so woven into my journey that I chose “Mary Thérèse” as my confirmation name – to honor both the Virgin Mary and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. (Miraculously, my Priest let me choose two Saints even though having two confirmation Saints is VERY uncommon.)
It’s funny, even though I chose to take her name I still wasn’t completely comfortable with her at the time. I’m so glad I did though as I’ve grown closer to her since then. She brings a feminine comfort to my Faith that I didn’t realize I was missing. Mary has redeemed my womanhood, pointed me to Christ, taught me what Trust and Sacrifice looks like, and been a Mother to me in some of my darkest moments.
I was always afraid that if I loved Mary at all it would mean that I loved Christ less. But the opposite has been true. The more I learn about Mary and learn from her, the more I fall in love with her Son.
“Salve, Regina, mater misericordiae; vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve. Ad te clamamus exsules filii Hevae. Ad te suspiramus gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle. Eia ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte. Et Iesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exsilium ostende. O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria. Ora pro nobis, sancta Dei Genitrix. Ut digni efficamur promissionibus Christi.”
Pax et Bonum.