Friday, November 8, 2019

There's Something About the Virgin Mary

Serendipity is a funny thing, isn't it?

You know those "suggested groups" that come up in a sidebar on Facebook? I happened to click on one by accident while intending my cursor for another action on the page. What came up was a group called The Way of the Rose, which describes itself as "an open-hearted, inclusive community of people dedicated to the forgotten earth wisdom of the rosary ... and to the Lady, by any name you like to call Her."

Reading further, I found that the group was started by a couple who just happened to be former neighbors of a work associate of mine. The husband is a former senior editor of Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine that I used to subscribe to when I was traveling the Buddhist path. To make a long story short, in meditation he had a vision of a woman who asked him and his wife to pray the rosary, speaking of its power to heal both people and the world. This Lady, instead of espousing church dogma, expressed a connection between the rosary, her body, and the earth, such that grounding a spiritual practice in the rosary might awaken people to the restorative power, hidden yet ever present, of the Sacred Feminine in the natural world.

I also just happened to come across this group as the husband-wife team were releasing a new book, also called The Way of the Rose. My copy just arrived, and I'm looking forward to savoring its content.

What strikes me about finding this group is that it came about when I'm working on setting up my own chapel -- a real-life adjunct to my virtual Mary Chapel -- where I can settle into a daily rhythm of private prayer, meditation, and devotion. I had a small prayer nook at our old house, but now that we have a bigger house with more room to stretch out, I decided to claim a portion of the attic for a peaceful getaway. (The basement was my first choice, but it's too damp and I kept hitting my head on the low ceiling.) I have grand visions for it. I want to eventually come up with my own lectionary of sorts, including the honoring of one female saint every day of the year. I once wrote a service but never did much with it; now's the time to change that and get the ball rolling.

Once I get set up, I was even thinking of doing some YouTube videos offering some spiritual reflections, with a longer-term goal of eventually fixing up one of the neglected out-buildings on our property, where a real-life "Our Lady of the Valley" chapel could one day take shape. As I said, adventurous, but this is my passion.

The Great Mother
Like the Way of the Rose folks, my spirituality is grounded firmly in the Sacred Feminine. There are many reasons for that. One is that it's painfully obvious to me that our world is in desperate need of a loving, nurturing, healing energy. The world is ablaze with the masculine heat of anger, aggression, violence, war. We need to listen to the restorative wisdom of the feminine to regain our balance and begin to heal our world.

Another reason is that, having passed through many of the traditions of the East, I saw how the spiritual energies of masculine and feminine seemed to exist in greater harmony. The predominant religious tradition of the West envisions an all-male Godhead, with no place for the feminine, save in a subordinate position. Yet a close examination of ancient texts and commentaries shows that the Sacred Feminine was once not hidden away, not suppressed, but revered. We find that Sophia, the Wisdom of God, was present at the creation. It was she who breathed life into the Father's creation. It was she whom the prophets longed after in the books of Proverbs, Wisdsom, and Sirach -- the latter two of which are present in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but absent in others. It was she whom the mystics understood as the immanent presence of God -- the feminine shekinah that the Kabbalists speak of -- or even the ousia, or essence, of the Trinity itself, something akin to a sacred chalice that contains the three parts of the Trinity and gives them their form. Without the fruitful emptiness of the Sophian chalice, the disparate parts would have nothing to hold them together.

In that sense, Sophia is analogous to the great empty vessel that the ancient Chinese mystics knew as Tao, the Great Mother that gives rise to all things, and whose sacred, life-giving rhythms we can see in nature and emulate by sharpening our intuition and cultivating lives of simplicity, patience, and compassion.

So how do we find Sophia today? Well, we might consider that some theologians have considered her synonymous with the Holy Spirit. The ancient Syriac tradition spoke of the Spirit as the feminine aspect of God. In the Gospel of the Hebrews, whose contents only come down to us secondhand through quotes from the church fathers, Jesus speaks of "my mother the Holy Spirit." The Gnostic Gospel of Philip likewise ponders how Mary could have conceived of the Holy Spirit, for "when did a woman ever conceive of a woman?"

But then we invite further controversy when we consider the words of St. Maximilan Kolbe, who pointed to Mary as a "quasi-incarnation" of the Holy Spirit, or former Catholic priest Leonardo Boff, who said that a voice spoke to him the secrets of the union of Mary and Spirit, such that when they united, the Spirit elevated Mary until they became, in effect, one and the same.

Now, couple that with the fact that the Catholic lectionary quite often employs readings concerning Sophia on Marian feast days or otherwise associates them with Mary, and that a small group of Russian Orthodox theologians -- most notably Sergei Bulgakov -- posited a strong link between Sophia and Mary, and a picture starts to take form. One can see its form suggested in an Orthodox icon from Kiev called Sophia, the Holy Wisdom, which features Mary, embracing the child Jesus, atop a pedestal that suggests the scene from Proverbs 9:1: "Wisdom has built her house; she has set up its seven pillars."

The cherry on top comes from the book of Baruch -- again, found only in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles -- in a passage that expresses the longing among men to find Sophia, God's Wisdom, such that God felt moved to reveal her to his people. "Thus she has appeared on earth, is at home with the mortals," the passage reads. "She is the book of the precepts of God, the law that endures forever; all who cling to her will live."

Holy of holies
This is what no church theologian will admit. Yet it would explain, for example, the Immaculate Conception: Rather than needing the dogma to carve out an Original Sin exception for Mary so that Jesus could be born sinless, it would stand to reason that Mary's soul would be immaculate, if she were an incarnation of the Holy Spirit, in the same way that Jesus was an incarnation of the Word. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich once wrote that she received a vision of the creation of Mary's soul that was so brilliant and breathtaking that the angels marveled at it before the face of God; again, a divinity dwelling within Mary would explain what Blessed Anne Catherine called this "unspeakably beautiful" scene.

It would also explain why the angel Gabriel found Mary "full of grace," why God chose her above all others to bear the Son, and why Mary herself said "all generations will call me blessed."

It would explain how a young girl, no more than 13 or 14, could have possessed the faith, maturity, and bravery to bear a child out of wedlock, an offense for which she could have been put to death.

And it would explain why, according to Catholic and Orthodox tradition, Mary was taken body and soul into heaven after her earthly life came to an end.

Consider, too, the numerous Marian apparitions through the centuries, her many predictions that have come true, her ability to heal (Lourdes) and work natural wonders (the Miracle of the Sun, seen by thousands at Fatima). The church would tell you that she was granted those powers by God, by making her a vessel of his grace -- but why could she not possess those powers herself? Before the reforms of Vatican II, the church often came in for criticism that Marian veneration essentially replaced the work of the Holy Spirit with the Blessed Mother. Maybe there was a reason for that -- a reason the church was either unaware of or didn't want to admit.

This is not a conclusion I came to lightly. It's something I've been pondering for a long time, and after reading many works of speculative theology over the years. Could I be wrong? Sure. But to me, this picture of Mary simply acknowledges the power she has demonstrated to the faithful and connects her to all the symbols and images of the Sacred Feminine that peoples and cultures have been accessing from time immemorial -- from the time humans embraced the fruitful emptiness of the great Mother Tao herself. If Jesus is the masculine face of God, the yang, then Mary is the counterbalance, the feminine face, the yin, both supporting and completing each other in an eternal heavenly dance.

In short, the Mother comes to us in whatever form we need her to take. Sometimes she takes a darker form, like Hekate, because we need some tough love to get our act together. And other times she comes as the embodiment of compassion, ready to support broken souls and other works in progress. I needed the latter and still do.

So when my prayer nook was overflowing with statues and images of Kuanyin, Green Tara, Amaterasu, Gaia, Danu, the Hindu Tridevi, Athena, Hestia, and many others, Mary would have been there even if her image had not been present. But I'm grateful it was, because I needed her to give me the nudge to stop wandering aimlessly and come back home, to the face of the Mother that gave me comfort when I was growing up Catholic.

The origin story
Now that I've laid my heresy bare, let me circle back for a moment.

The day after I made my last post, regarding looking around for a church home here in North Idaho, I imagine some people who have read my posts about visiting church after church, some with no seeming commonalities with each other, must wonder why I can't just pick one church and settle into it.

Well, I could, but where's the fun in that?

The thing is, I've always been fascinated by what people believe and how they express those beliefs in their lives. I love to sit back and observe, to see how one church, priest, congregation, or Mass compares with another. And I also like to examine how things work, which is why theology in general fascinates me. I don't know what any of that says about my personality type, but I could probably be some kind of case study. Those Myers-Briggs tests are no help, either. I almost always score near 50-50 on all the "letters," save for introvert-extrovert: I usually notch a perfect 100 on the "I" side.

But religion and spirituality are more than just an intellectual fascination: I take great comfort in the good news and hope that religious systems and their texts offer. Having a religious practice also humbles you (well, it tends to do that for me, anyway), by reminding you that it's not all about you and you're not in control of your ultimate destiny. You can fight that reality with all your might, or you can submit to it and find peace with it.

I also like to think my practice makes me a little bit of a better person. The Sermon on the Mount is my guide for life -- an ideal that I'll never live up to, but one worth striving toward. 

But the funny thing is, I never felt like I had a very close relationship with the speaker of that famous Sermon. I can find no match for his philosophy and his ethical teachings, but sometimes I feel as if his message gets too junked up with all the theological baggage that's been hung around his neck for 2,000 years. It feels as if it puts a distance between me and him. And yes, I'm fully aware of the irony of a self-identified Catholic saying that.

So why would I continue to be attracted to Catholicism, then? Well, a lot of it has to do with the church's eternal pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty. A good Mass in a lovely church goes a long way toward making my day and my life better. Then there are the comforting rituals that come and go with regularity, Mass after Mass, liturgical year after liturgical year. There are also the mystics, like Teresa of Avila, who remind me there's more to the Catholic experience than communal ritual and vocal prayer -- that there's a wealth of spiritual insight waiting for us when we embrace contemplative practices like Lectio Divina that prompt us to slow down, look within, and embrace the holiness of silence. The Kingdom of God is indeed within us. Or, as the Sufi mystic Rumi once put it so well, "Silence is the language of God; the rest is poor translation."

And speaking of Teresa, it's comforting to know that you can be a thorn in the side of the church hierarchy and eventually come out on top -- a hopeful sign that change for the good within the church is always possible. The papal nuncio once called the headstrong Teresa a "disobedient and contumacious woman" who "teaches theology as though she were a doctor of the church, in contempt of St. Paul, who forbade women to teach." Well, Teresa got the last laugh: She's now a doctor of the church.

I also have to mention Catholic social teaching, as embraced by beautiful souls like Dorothy Day. Living out its values, in service to the poor and marginalized, could make the world a better place, if only the teaching were more widely lived out among the faithful. Same goes for the men and women of Pax Christi and their tireless work in pursuit of peace.

Plus, there's something fulfilling at church for all my senses -- the visual beauty of the statuary, the vestments, and the church architecture; the scent of the incense; the heavenly sound of choirs and organs and bells; the feel of the holy water on my fingers as I dip them in the font to make the sign of the cross; the taste of the communion wine.

And really, a lot of it probably just comes down to good childhood memories. The Mass takes my mind back to earlier, simpler times, when life wasn't so complicated.

And then, finally, there's that whole matter with Jesus' mom.

The long way home
Here's how this all began. Faith has never come easily for me. Even as a little kid, I asked my parents questions about Christianity that I don't think they were ever comfortable answering. That, or they weren't properly equipped to answer. The bottom line was that they preferred that I not ask questions and just accept things as they were taught to me.

But that didn't work for me, especially as I got older and my questions hardened into skepticism. I hung on for several more years for my parents' sake, but by my late twenties, I could no longer maintain my belief. Things just didn't add up in my mind. I'd also suffered through some difficult emotional times and felt betrayed when I felt I didn't get an answer to my prayers for help and mercy. And then there were all the self-proclaimed Christians who gave the faith a bad name. I didn't want people to associate me with them. So I said goodbye to the tradition I was raised in and looked east, primarily to Buddhism, but with several other interesting stops along the way.

It took me a good 15 years, and a confluence of events in my life, to eventually bring me back home. And when I did, I found a familiar figure waiting on me: Mother Mary.

The funny thing is, no matter how far I strayed from the Christian path, Mary was always present. Even when I was deep into my own eclectic Buddhist-Taoist-Shinto-pagan practice, Mary was there, in statue form, in the corner of that crowded goddess altar, silently and patiently waiting on me to reach out to her.

Now, is there something psychological at play there? Since I had a horrible, drug-addled, schizophrenic birth mother who gave me up for adoption after abusing me as an infant, and with the grandma who raised me doing her best but still weighing me down with her own significant baggage, was I looking for a better mother, an ideal woman-figure, to cling onto? Did Mary give me hope in the middle of the chaos that was my life? Was she an avatar of the unconditional love I felt I needed but wasn't receiving?

I don't know. It's possible. But I also think there was something deeper that kept me tethered to her, making her the only constant along my eclectic spiritual journey.

What is that something? I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. But I can tell you that when I found myself back in a Catholic church for the first time in 15 years, sitting with a prayer team in hopes of finding the faith I'd always lacked, I kept glancing over at a statue of the Blessed Mother while we were praying. I had the strangest feeling that she wanted me to come over and spend some time with her.

And so I did. I knelt before the statue, prayed a Hail Mary, and then just remained there for a while, contemplating her, trying to understand what it was she wanted. It was obvious to me that she wanted something, but I wasn't sure yet. All I knew was that I felt at peace in her presence.

Over the next few days and weeks, I kept talking to her, like a friend -- or maybe like a child would speak to a mother if the two actually had a normal, healthy relationship. Since I never had that, I wasn't really sure how that was supposed to work. But the more I talked to her, the more it became clear to me that she simply wanted me to know it was OK to come to her whenever I needed her, to talk to her, to spill my guts -- and that she would listen compassionately and lovingly, without judgment.

I'd never had what I'd call a religious experience before. I grew up around people who praised God with their hands in the air, speaking in tongues, all of it. I never understood that, because I was never able to feel what they felt. It was like they had this tuned-in connection to the divine, while my receiver was broken. So that made my deepening experience with Mary all the more profound. I didn't expect something like this to happen to me, when having faith had always been such a tremendous challenge for me. But for whatever reason, my defenses were now down, and I was experiencing something new, exhilarating, and scary all at the same time. Now I was "tuned in" too.

Our Lady of Seattle.
That experience reached its peak one day when I was visiting a side chapel at St. James Cathedral in Seattle with my daughter. In the chapel was a century-old wooden statue of Mary, dubbed Our Lady of Seattle, looking serenely down at the room from her pedestal. I gazed up at her, and I suddenly felt compelled to reach out for her hand. The instant I clasped it in mine, I felt a jolt shoot through my body. I instantly broke out in goose bumps. My body was enveloped in warmth. I felt frozen in place as I looked up into the eyes of the statue. My eyes welled up with tears. And the feeling that overwhelmed me is one I can only describe as unconditional love.

She was communicating with me. It was as plain as day. I never heard her speak a word, but she didn't have to. Her message was loud and clear: that she was my mother and I her child, that she loved me completely, that I could rest in her loving presence without fear, and that if I allowed myself to trust her, she would take me by the hand and lead me to the divine source of her love.

It took my daughter asking me what I was doing to break the spell that day. Otherwise, I don't know how long I would have stood transfixed there. But I left that chapel with a feeling of faith that I'd never had before, after all my years of trying and failing to just believe in something. It was as if Mary was telling me to stop leading with my head so much and to trust my heart for a change.

Starting over
What more she wanted from me, I wasn't sure. So I started off this new chapter in my spiritual life by attending Mass as often as I could, and to say the rosary daily. I eventually made the St. Louis de Montfort consecration to Mary, I joined the Association of the Miraculous Medal, and I got myself invested in the Brown Scapular, the Carmelite tradition whereby, if one acts in good faith, the Blessed Mother promises to rescue the wearer from purgatory.

I'm not sure any of it deepened my faith and trust in the institutional church, though it did bring me even closer to Mary. In fact, I soon found myself bristling against some of the legalisms of the church and unsure of what to do next. I decided to explore Orthodoxy, which also has a beautiful tradition of veneration of Mary the Theotokos, but that proved to be a dead-end. I explored other churches, some of which shared the Catholic liturgical tradition and some of which appealed to me because of their clear focus on living out the values of the Sermon on the Mount. But Mary wasn't there, and I felt her absence.

That's one reason I keep coming back around to the Catholic church, even when we don't see eye to eye on things. That's where I find Mary, even if, as with Jesus, the church restrains her under its own legalistic doctrines.

There's no doubt in my mind that the church's view of her is incomplete. I think there's much that the church doesn't want us to know about her. Where Marian veneration even exists anymore -- it was quite suppressed in the years following Vatican II -- the church chooses mostly to see her as meek and mild, tender and loving. She is those things, of course, but that's only one aspect of her. She's also a healer, a prophet, and, as we see in the Magnificat -- a passage whose public recitation has been banned more than once -- a revolutionary, calling out for justice for the poor and oppressed and the casting down of the powerful from their thrones.

And as I've discussed, her faith, trust, and bravery knew no bounds in an age when she could have been killed for her pregnancy. Consider, too, that she had to give birth to her child in a smelly stable full of animals; she had to flee with Joseph and the child for their lives from a murderous Herod; she held fast when the prophet Simeon told her a sword would pierce her heart; she didn't give up hope when the young Jesus went missing in Jerusalem; she nudged her Son into performing his first miracle; she remained steadfast at the foot of the cross, watching her Son die before her eyes, when all the male disciples save one fled in fear. And she remained faithful through Pentecost, surrounded by the community of the faithful as the Spirit descended on them all. Not exactly the life of a shrinking violet.

For me, Mary's experience at Pentecost was the moment her union with the Spirit became complete, and perhaps it was the moment when she came into the full realization of who she truly was. She disappears from the pages of scripture after that, much in the same way Sophia has disappeared from the consciousness of many Christians.

Yet Sophia remains there, obscured but hidden in plain sight, waiting to dispense her wisdom to those who seek her out. For the Wisdom of God is visible in the beautiful divinity of his creation, if only we take the time to slow down, look, and listen for her. She is there, ever present, as Mother Nature, who in turn is inseparable from the Mother Earth who gives us a home, who in turn points to the cosmic womb, the Great Mother of all, that gave rise to all things.

And as it is with Sophia, ignored by many but freely offering herself to all who pursue her, so it is with Mary -- deemed irrelevant by many, even disparaged by some, yet to those who know her, she reveals herself as a portal of mercy, redemption, motherly wisdom, and healing, an oasis of unconditional love in a world in short supply of it.

Hail Holy Queen
I still don't really know where Mary is leading me. I just trust her not to lead me astray. I've learned that she won't give me pat answers when I ask her for guidance. She expects me to put in the hard work and figure things out for myself, yet always reminding me that she'll be there for me if I stumble. I'm OK with that. She wouldn't be much of a mom if she helicoptered over me, took all my problems away, and didn't challenge me to grow.

Catholics more devout than I would insist that she's trying to lead me to her Son. But I don't feel like there needs to be a competition between the two. Because for me, religious life is not about being good to get an eventual reward, or about following arbitrary rules, or wielding the Bible as a weapon, or saying the right magic words in the right order, or staying out of hell, or condemning others to hell. It's about love. Learning to love ourselves more fully and authentically so that we can be a reflection of God's love in the world to others, treating them as we would wish to be treated.

That may sound overly simplistic, but how hard is it just to love others as ourselves, day in and day out? It may just be the hardest thing in the world to do. But it all begins with humbling ourselves -- and both Jesus and Mary show us how to live out our faith in a loving and humble way.

Mary and Jesus, in that sense, are for me more of a both-and than an either-or. "Behold your mother," Jesus said to the beloved disciple, and so to us. "Do whatever he tells you," Mary said to the servants at Cana, and so to us. They point to each other, for all time, for our sake.

On the days I struggle, I remind myself to set aside a few moments to contemplate an image of Mary and take a breath, so that I can see the Sacred Feminine at work, both in the world and in myself, and trust that all will be well. I regard her serene expression, and it tells me, "Relax, trust me, and dig deeper. Keep going. Don't give up. This is for your own good. Remember that I reached out to you for a reason. And always remember that I love you."

All I can do is keep listening, keep trusting, and let her light my way.

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