For decades I felt unworthy of Mother Mary. I have spoken about this in previous episodes. I knew I wasn’t alone. But it wasn’t until I read Elisabeth Johnson’s book Truly Our Sister that I understood the magnitude of what had been done. I also found words and the context for what I have felt within me to be true. I want to share with you some of the things I’ve read in her book.
Throughout the episode, I will cite Elizabeth Johnson and other theologian authors. Citations will be in the episode’s transcript on my website blog, if you want to go deeper by yourself.
Idealization of Mary and Its Detrimental Effects
First of all, let’s talk about the idealization of Mary and its detrimental effects on women and the society as a whole. Here is a phrase that makes me feel both sad and angry at the same time: “Alone of all her sex” she stands pure and blessed by God (Warner, Alone in All Her Sex, cited in Johnson), “her glorious precedence prevents any analogy between herself and other women, all of who fall short by comparison with her perfection.” (Johnson, p. 23)
A LONG LONG SIGH. Right?
Now the first one that has taken the fall was, of course, Eve, and then we all follow. As Leonie Liveris says in Time to Speak:
“Always women carry with them the past reputation of Eve; always they travel towards the sinless and unobtainable but beloved Mary, the Mother of God.” (Liveris, Time to Speak, cited in Johnson)
This is what Rosmary Reuther calls a classic example of the “madonna-whore syndrome”. (Reuther, Mistress of Heaven, cited in Johnson)
In Johnson’s words: “The pattern is powerfully harmful because it allows churchmen to love and revere the ideal women in the transcendent woman Mary, but to ignore and dominate concrete women with impunity and with immunity even from the searchings of their own conscience. Further evidence for this judgment is provided by sociological observation… those churches that have the strongest official attachment to Mary: they are the least likely to be open to full participation of women in ecclesial public life and ministry.” (Johnson, p. 25)
The whole plot lies in construing the image of Mary with virtues and roles conducive to women’s subservience. In particular the handmaiden, the virgin, and the mother. Let’s look at each other.
When God invites Mary to be a part of the Divine plan, it is obvious to me and to many of us today, that she has a choice. She can choose to say no. And it’s her prerogative that she actually chooses YES, making her an empowered being in her own right. It’s not just us of today, however, that see it that way. For Luke, in his gospel this represents a powerful example of a young woman’s response to make a “radical free decision to risk her life on a messianic adventure” (Johnson, p. 26). However, patriarchal mariology interprets this “an act of feminine submissiveness to the will of God” (Johnson, p. 26).
To make things worse from the standpoint of women, this God, of course, is set in an image of and literally interpreted as a male authority figure. So, what follows is that she becomes a model for obedience and passivity, rather than a revolutionary who chooses a very different path from other young women of that time. Patriarchy has called on women to model Mary and so the obedient handmaid lands itself particularly well to claiming that women’s virtues lie in “being receptively obedient to the authority of males, be they divine or human, God, fathers, husbands, or priests” (Johnson, p. 26).
Now, how much does that suck? “be they divine or human, God, fathers, husbands, or priests”. Wow. How many women have been subjugated to abuse because of this?
The other, more subtle thing about this is that we love Mary and we want to be like her. But that puts us directly in opposition to who we are: women who have their own opinions, their own domain, their way of doing things… and not handmaidens as Mary has been portrayed to be. So, we either denounce Mary or ourselves, which sucks more than can even be understood.
But let’s keep going and tackle that second famous virtue attributed to Mary – virginity. As Christianity moved from its origins, it started to include traditions of cultures to which it spread. For example, the Greek philosophy had a strong view that there was a big divide between spirit and matter, with spirit being that awesome thing to strive for and the matter being, well, something to strive away from.
Then in about the fourth century, within Christianity a path of asceticism became all the rage. It included abstinence from sex, which was said to distract the soul from God as sex kept the soul focused on the earthly stuff. Men who aspired to God, placed women on the side of the flesh, mostly because of the whole pregnancy and childbirth thing, which was considered gross.
Early Christian literature represents a powerful, in Johnson’s words “torrent of misogyny against women and their bodies”. (Johnson, p. 28)
What to do with Mary then? Exalt her virginity, of course. She is not the disgusting one. She is “a virgin par excellence”. (Johnson, p. 28) And women should look to model her. If they really must have sex, they must do it only for having offspring. Jerome went so far to say that “marriage was good for one thing: it produces virgins, who could then avoid the fate of their pitiable mothers”. (in Johnson, p. 28) Interestingly, and sort of lost in the story, is that not all writers, thinkers, theologians of the day, argued the same thing, but those who did won. And so the era of shaming women for their bodies, anything to do with their bodies, and for having sex began in earnest.
A silver lining to this was that women (who in that time more or less belonged to men, had to marry young, have children, and take care of their husbands), could now opt out of that by dedicating themselves to Christ and vowing to virginity, which many did. However, this opened up the whole other can of worms, from creating an even bigger wedge between virgins and those women who had sex (feeding the madonna-whore syndrome even more, implying that virginity is closer to ideal, living a holier life and being more favored by God), with the sexually active women being considered lower forms of life, to suppressed sexuality on the part of those who chose to be virgins.
Wrapped together with the call to the handmaiden’s obedience, we have centuries of disempowered women who, often without their knowing so, repeat the vicious circle of submissiveness, silence, suffering through abuse, and lots more, born out of the feeling of low self-worth, and no connection to their own life force, i.e. sexual energy.
Interestingly, while Mary was exalted as a virgin and married women and mothers were looked down upon by those early Christian theologians who won the day and who, unfortunately, had a huge impact on men and women for centuries to come, the convenience of Mary’s motherhood gave another reason to subjugate women to the married life and their, more or less sole purpose in life, to be mothers.
Mary is praised for devoting herself to the needs of her children, “which precludes any idea that she might develop as an independent individual”. (Johnson, p. 33) Mary, as mother is also placed within a patriarchal construct of a family, with God the Father as the head, and Mary the Mother, as the heart who intercedes “on behalf of her children with the rather more distant father” (Johnson, p. 33), but who herself is not equal to the Father. I love this sentence from Johnson (p. 33): “While we have no adequate idea of heaven, however, we can be quite sure that since it is supposed to be a state of bliss, one thing it decidedly does not resemble is a patriarchal household.”
In addition, “Mary’s motherhood is construed in absolute separation from eroticism and sexual love, handing women a virtually celibate ideal even in their motherhood”. (Johnson, p. 33)
When I read all this, I was disgusted on the one hand and exalted on the other. It is not MY fault. It isn’t Mary’s either. When I stop to think about it, it isn’t even Tertullian’s, Jerome’s, early Christian fathers, subsequent popes’, and priests’ fault, about whose lives, heads, and motives I can only speculate. I don’t want to get caught in the blame game; it isn’t productive.
Sure, I am angry. But I want to use my anger, this fire of passion to do something about this today. The past is a strong teacher. And in this particular instance, I want to learn from it how NOT to do things. I want the past workings to give us the strength and conviction to say NO in the present. NO to being put down, to being compared, to being demanded to strive for the handmaiden, virgin, mother triangle that has caused us so much grief, but that supported patriarchy to have the power over.
Searching for Mary
Elucidating that the prevalent male theology about Mary serves and reinforces patriarchy, it is good to also know that there are many female theologians now putting forward ideas about Mary that are in many ways serving women on this path of liberation. Elizabeth Johnson talks about these and also points out where they could still be crippling to women.
Johnson in her book Truly Our Sister goes on to develop a mariology in which we “consider Mary as a genuine human being who acted according to the call of the Spirit in the particular circumstances of her own history… as a first-century Jewish woman living a hard-scrabble life in a land occupied by a foreign empire…” and situating her “within the communion of saints”. (Johnson, p.43)
But while I love this search for the historical Mary, a first-century Jewish woman, and am really curious about details of Mary’s actual life on Earth, I realize also that there is precious to no information about it. The four gospels weave “glimpses of her story into key moments of their proclamation of the good news of salvation” and are in no way focused on Mary’s life.
So, what we probably know is that she was a Jewish woman, married, a mother, living in Galilee for some part of her life in the decades before and after what we now call the common era began. Based on this, and following historical, anthropological, archaeological, and other social studies research of the period of time and place, Johnson makes suggestions about what her life could have looked like, making it a fascinating read!
When we know and understand what has been done, we can choose to liberate Mary and thus ourselves from these fake contruals, and to be free to discover Mary for ourselves, to build a relationship with her in any way we wish, and to be our own people, like I believe she was.
But let’s be clear, Mother Mary is free. There is no need to liberate her, but there is a need to liberate her in our minds, because it is in our minds that we are still repeating the handmaiden, virgin, mother story with all its disempowering and imprisoning influences. Liberating Mary from these roles in our minds, we can in so many ways liberate ourselves.
Book Cited (and from where other citations come from):
Elizabeth, Johnson. 2003. “Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints.” Continuum, New York, USA.