“Mother Mary:” More Than Just a Sentimental Figure

            Mary, the mother of Jesus, is one of the most revered female figures in Western culture. She has been the focus of countless paintings, many great pieces of music, and endless prayers (“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…”).  In addition to references in the New Testament, she is the only woman mentioned in the Koran (70 times).  Modern psychologists such as Carl Jung found her to be a powerful archetype that can resonate in our psyche, representing a divine feminine energy full of compassion.   

Great spiritual figures, like works of art and music, are not reducible to just one interpretation. Instead, they have a “surplus of meaning”[i] — every culture can find something important in them, and our personal journeys, we can come back to them at different times, seeing, hearing, and feeling things we might have not seen before. Mary is one of those enduring figures and symbols.

She was virtually ignored in my seminary education — perhaps part of the Protestant reaction to the way she had been so highly venerated in Catholicism.  In much of the art I did see, she seemed to be a frail, timid, and submissive woman.  But I began to meet people for whom Mary was an abiding inspiration, and I became curious about her. 

At one point, I decided to do a simple review of key passages in the New Testament for myself.  I was surprised at what emerged. 

Whatever your background or beliefs, I invite you to imagine you have never heard of her before. Consider this sketch as you would a summary of key points in the development of a character in a novel or a play. What kind of person emerges?  

  • When a divine messenger comes to her declaring she has been chosen to bear a child, she does not acquiesce immediately but questions and challenges the idea.[ii]
  • She becomes pregnant before being married and faces the prospect of being an “unwed mother” in a conservative rural culture.[iii]
  • From the beginning, she has a clear sense that the child she was going to bear would challenge and upset the social status quo.[iv]
  • Political decisions made by a distant ruler force her to deliver her child 80 miles away from her village and family, dependent on the hospitality of strangers.[v]
  • When she and her husband take their son to the temple to be dedicated, an 86-year-old stranger tells her that he will cause conflict in the world and bring her personal suffering.[vi]
  • When her son is still an infant, a paranoid king orders the execution of all male infants under 2 years old.  She and her husband take their son and flee to a foreign country as refugees, only coming back when her husband has dreams telling him it is safe to return.[vii]
  • When he is 12, they visit a large city with her extended family.  He disappears.  When they find him, he is debating adult spiritual teachers.  When she and her husband tell him how worried they’ve been, he tells them he identifies more with God as his father than his natural parents.[viii]
  • At some point, her husband dies leaving her a widow.  She appears to bear four more sons and two daughters before her husband dies.[ix]
  • At age 30, her son begins to teach and demonstrate spiritual power and becomes a controversial figure.  Being concerned for his safety, she and her other sons come to a house where he is surrounded by a crowd and ask him to leave with them. But he refuses to go, saying his true family is those doing the divine will.  They leave without him.[x]
  • After two years, he goes into the capital city, provokes the authorities, and is executed as a common criminal and threat to public order. Most of his male followers abandon him.  She is with a group of women who watch as her son takes his last breath.  Before he dies, he tells one of his followers to care for her.[xi] 
  • After several days, people begin to experience her son’s presence and spirit as being very much alive.  They begin to form a new community dedicated to continuing his teaching and work.  She becomes part of this new community, along with her surviving sons.[xii]

For me, the figure that emerges is not a sweet, submissive, silently-suffering woman.  This is a woman who lived on the margins in unsettled times, bearing great hardships and uncertainties throughout her life.  Her experience as a mother must have been a complex mixture of joys and anxieties, fears and hope.  By the last chapter of her life, she has lost both her husband and her first-born son.  She finds support in a spiritual community that respects and takes care of her and who share a belief that love is stronger than death.

There are many portrayals of Mary in the history of art, but one of my favorites is the statue that stands above the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.   The sculptor, Robert Graham, portrays her as a woman of blended ethnicity.  She is strong in body and spirit.  Her bare feet are planted firmly on the earth.  She has endured a great deal and behind her closed eyes you can sense a profound inner strength.  She holds out her hands and arms in a universal welcome.

I’ve known many mothers in my time who have endured great hardships and challenges.  Hard as they try, they can’t protect their children from suffering.  They find strength in community. And their love never ceases.

[i] Paul Ricouer, as cited in https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ricoeur/

[ii] Luke 1: 26 – 38

[iii] Matthew 1: 18-25

[iv] Luke 1: 46-55

[v] Luke 2: 1-7

[vi] Luke 2: 25-35

[vii] Matthew 2: 16-23

[viii] Luke 2: 41-51

[ix] Mark 3: 31-35

[x] Mark 3: 31-35, Luke 3:23

[xi] John 19: 25-27

[xii] Acts 1:14

The Spiritual Point of Conception: Reflections and Images

Is there an invisible “place” within you in which feelings and thoughts appear that seem different from your everyday thoughts?  Something like a “still, small voice” that surprises you at important moments, offering insight, encouragement, or maybe an invitation to do something new?

            I am going to explore this “place” by focusing on a figure whose story is very much a part of the Christmas season: Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’ll share reflections from my journey, a famous passage from Thomas Merton, and six paintings spanning seven centuries which illustrate ways the story has been imagined visually.

            Growing up we had a small plaster nativity set that we unpacked this time of year.  The Mary figurine was painted blue and white; she was kneeling and had acquired a few chips. But she had no personal meaning for me.

            In my mid-twenties, my spiritual journey had begun, and I spent three years earning a Master of Divinity degree at Princeton Theological Seminary.  You’d think if you became a “Master of Divinity” you would learn all the important things.  But that wasn’t the case. 

            After graduation, I became interested in “the inner life”.  I discovered the work of the psychologist Carl Jung and gained an appreciation for truths that come through dreams, visions, myths, and imagination. Biblical stories became richer.  I began practicing meditation, times of silence, and journaling. I went on retreats at monasteries and became curious about the Catholic tradition.

            A new world was opening, and the figure of Mary emerged.  Most of the debates about her had focused on being the “virgin” mother of Jesus.   What fascinated me had nothing to do with sex, biology, miracles, or doctrines, but something else – how Mary can be a rich metaphor for spiritual experience.

            As the story goes, the angel Gabriel appears unexpectedly one day, telling her she is favored by God and chosen to bear Jesus. She is afraid and questions how this could happen.  Gabriel assures her anything is possible for God.  She ponders her choices.  She decides to accept a role she did not seek or imagine, one that will create many challenges for her.  “Let it be to me…” she says.  The angel disappears.  Her life unfolds.

            I know people of good faith who believe the story is completely factual, and others who do not.  My practice over the years is to honor both perspectives and look for the soul meaning of the story, which is more like interpreting a vivid dream than performing scientific or historical research.  I often think of a quote attributed to Black Elk: “This they tell, and whether it happened so or not I do not know, but if you think about it, you can see that it is true.” 

            So what’s the “soul meaning” of Mary’s story?

Imagine this: a thought appears within us that has a different quality than our everyday thoughts. It can feel like a message sent specifically to us.  We consider it. We know we are free to ignore it. But we decide to trust it and change direction in our life.  The change may not make life easier – in fact it may mean taking on challenges and responsibilities we had not sought before.  But as time goes on, we are grateful for the change we made.  We remember the moment we received the message and realize it came with love and wisdom. We feel awe, and we feel gratitude

            Thomas Merton was one of the great spiritual writers of our time.  At one point in his life, he had a profound revelation: Mary’s story is ultimately about how the divine can be born in everyone.  All of us, Merton saw, have within us a pointe vierge, a virgin point:

“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness

which is untouched by sin and by illusion,

a point of pure truth,

a point or spark which belongs entirely to God,

which is never at our disposal,

from which God disposes of our lives,

which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind

or the brutalities of our own will.

This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty

is the pure glory of God in us …

It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven.

It is in everybody,

and if we could see it

we would see these billions of points of light

coming together in the face and blaze of a sun

that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely …

I have no program for this seeing.

It is only given.

But the gate of heaven is every- where.”[i]

            I’ve had experiences that lead me to believe Merton is right.  There is something deep within us that is “pure,” an opening to another reality that is “inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will.”

             I’ve had promptings that didn’t seem to come from the same inner source that talks to me all day long.   These promptings always surprise me.  They’ve offered me new possibilities I had not imagined or wanted; over time I find I’m being led into a deeper experience of life and service.

            I’ve witnessed such experiences in the lives of many parishioners over the years who, after long periods of struggle and uncertainty, find a peace, calling or insight that surpasses their understanding. 

            In hospice work, I’ve seen people discover unexpected clarity about life that has nothing to do with what they are supposed to believe, but is fresh and authentic.   

            Working at the La Casa de Maria Retreat Center (“The House of Mary”), I saw people of many backgrounds find healing, hope, and courage when they left distractions behind and settled into a calmer, more receptive and reverent state of awareness. The new directions did not come from personal fantasies or restless will, but something deeper, an inner light that is subtle and wondrous and real.

            We can’t control or predict when such points of light appear.  As Merton says, “I have no program for this seeing. It is only given.  But the gate of heaven is every- where.”

            Hail, Mary, full of grace.

[i] Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Imagining The Annunciation: A Sampling from Art History

Van Eyck, 1434 Notice the colors in the angel wings; Mary does not “see” the messenger directly, but experiences it during a private moment of devotion.
Boticelli, 1485: The spiritual rays of light seem to be driving the angel forward.
Hitchcock, 1887 I first saw this at the Art Institute of Chicago and found it fascinating. Mary is alone in a field of white lillies.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898 The “angel” is a column of light
Salvador Dali, 1947 — perplexing to me…what do you see?
Imagining the story in an African context