So, some friends linked to this article the other day and I had some thoughts. Fair warning, if you liked this article, you probably won’t like my response, because quite frankly, this article was repulsive.
On Facebook yesterday, a number of Catholic friends were sharing around an image of Mary the Mother of Jesus, modeled after the famous Polish icon, Our Lady of Czestochowa. While the art style may not be to everyone’s taste, what I liked about the image was that Mary is presented as strong, cool – possibly staring down an opponent, certainly keeping her thoughts to herself, while holding her baby close. All we see of the face of baby Jesus is that he is looking up at his mother and protector. It’s an expression I wish I could emulate, any time I feel I need to take a stand to protect my family. And insofar as I have a devotion to Mary as Mother, there is reassurance in knowing that she might be facing down my enemies, too.
Starts out reasonable enough: nothing to speak of in the first paragraph.
Mary of Nazareth bore her child into uncertain political and economic circumstances, a poor young woman in a marginalized group oppressed by Imperial powers. That she had to travel long miles while pregnant to register for Augustus’ census is a reminder of the cruelty and heartlessness of such imperial regimes, the disdain for the poor, for mothers and children. The indifference to families unless they are “good Roman families” such as Augustus liked to praise.
Okay, this is where things start to move in a bad direction. I do not like the sight of the scare quotes around “good Roman Families,” or the accusation of indifference of ‘other kind of families.’ This is insinuation, so responding to it would necessarily involve interpretation (which is why I don’t like insinuation tactics: people can always claim you’re reading too much into it, or that they didn’t mean what you thought they meant). I have ideas of what she meant, based on the rest of the essay and based on my knowledge of my own society, but since she doesn’t actually come out and say it, I’ll let it pass lest I get bogged down in fighting suppositions. Trust me, there are plenty of more solid targets to come.
All I will say is that we’re definitely getting a bad vibe so far.
She bore her child in a stable, and shortly after had to flee as a refugee from state-sanctioned violence, into a foreign land. She may have saved her child, but what about all the other babies who were killed? This might be one of the things Mary pondered in her heart: why the others couldn’t have been saved. Why she was singled out. What would it feel like, returning to Nazareth and raising a child among women whose sons of the same age had been slaughtered?
Small issue: the slaughter of the innocents took place in Bethlehem, not Nazareth. I would also point out that Egypt was not exactly a foreign land, being part of the same Empire and with a large Jewish population of its own, but that’s a quibble. In any case, I really wish she wouldn’t try to impose modern political categories onto the Roman Empire.
It makes sense to portray Mary, at this point in her young life, as angry or defensive. If Jesus could fly into a rage and kick over tables because of economic injustice, why shouldn’t his mother be able to rage against the injustice of a violent regime? Maybe it was a family trait.
The crime that enraged Our Lord to the point of violence was not economic injustice but sacrilege: He was angry that the sellers were using the Temple as a marketplace. He’s very clear on that point: “‘Take these things hence, and make not the house of my Father a house of traffic.’ And his disciples remembered, that it was written: The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up.” (John 2:16-17). Your re-interpretation is another troubling tonal sign.
I’m all in favor of an angry Mary, if done well and reverently. One of my favorite pieces of religious art is M. Bouguereau’s Pieta, which shows a tearful Mary clutching the dead Christ to her chest while staring accusingly at the viewer.
But the commentary on this image, mostly from males of a more conservative background, was hugely negative. She doesn’t look meek was the most common response. Or, she doesn’t look humble, she doesn’t look loving. Even: her neckline is immodest. Or, worst of all, she looks like a whore.
I couldn’t find the image in question (the link she provided no longer worked and a subsequent search was unsuccessful), so I can’t tell how appropriate this criticism is. For our purposes, though, it doesn’t really matter. People like what they like, and it may be that people thought the image was inappropriate. Since it’s the internet I’m sure some people probably overreacted or were crass about it, but you’ll excuse me if I don’t absolutely take your word for it, as you’ve already shown a degree of prejudice and will be showing much more before we’re done.
Forget about the fact that in the history of art we often see Mary with her breast completely bare, nursing Jesus. Or even squirting milk into the mouth of a male saint. Yes, that’s right. St. Bernard of Clairvaux had a vision in which Mary appeared, lactating, and squirted milk from her breast into his mouth: thus, the story goes, he acquired his great eloquence. Okay, Bernard.
Here’s the problem, though; the images of Mary nurturing Christ and the Saints from her breasts come from a very different cultural context: one that had a different view of sexuality and the body. The same image coming out of our culture might have connotations that it would not coming out of just about any previous culture.
Again, the image that prompted this essay may be a perfectly acceptable and reverent image of Our Lady, or it may not, or it may be one that people may disagree over. But one’s reaction to a modern image will necessarily be different from one’s reaction to a historical image simply because it is using a different cultural language. It is the responsibility of the artist to understand and work with that (e.g. a swastika would have vastly different connotations in an image made in modern Europe than it would in one made in medieval India).
Forget about the fact that we have images of Jesus in which he is more like a judgmental Apollo than gentle Messiah. Why is it acceptable to portray different facets of Jesus, but not of Mary? If Mary is indeed supposed to be “queen of heaven” and the “woman clothed with the sun” who strikes at the serpent, we should see her fierce side, too. She herself sang the revolutionary Magnificat, rejoicing in the casting down of the mighty from their thrones.
There is also a problem with this: though, as I say, I’m up for an angry Madonna, there are certain conceptual issues with it. Mary’s role in salvation history is not that of judge. She bears Christ to the world, which by its very nature implies a gentler, kindlier mission. There simply is no basis for comparing her with Christ in the final judgment. Though again, Our Lady of Victory as a stern queen, or bearing the sword, or other powerful images are fairly common depictions of her in religious art, ones I’ve never heard anyone not-Protestant complain of.
The description of the Magnificat as ‘revolutionary’ is highly unfortunate, turning what is a religious exultation into a political one. That, frankly, seems to be a major problem with the essay as a whole.
The men who object to Mary’s representation as other than the meek, pink-and-white maiden of countless kitschy holy cards seem to be objecting not out of an adherence to Biblical accuracy or artistic tradition. They’re objecting because this is not “their” Mary, the Mary they are willing to venerate. Theirs is an idealized image of the feminine, not even a real woman anymore, but an airy Platonic ideal. Pure, meek, humble.
And you plunge right down the straw man slope: you are first setting up a false dichotomy, that either you like this particular image or all you want is “the meek, pink-and-white maiden of kitschy holy cards.” Somehow, I doubt all the men who objected to this image also had the same objections to Our Lady of Victory presiding over Lepanto, or to the aforementioned Pieta, or to the stern, Queenly images of Mary from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Then you start ascribing them motives, which you have no rational basis to do (why do you need to deduce anything beyond the reasons they cited?) and which seem to correspond more to your own personal prejudices than to anything you could reasonably deduce from what you’ve described: that men are only willing to venerate an “idealized, meek, and humble” Mary who presents an airy, idealized image of the feminine (by the way, what’s with women objecting to idealized femininity?).
Giving birth to her baby through her ear.
Oh for goodness sakes! For one thing, the image is of Mary conceiving through her ear, not that she gave birth through the ear, and it is a way of expressing that she conceived through receiving Christ, who is the Word of God, through the Holy Spirit conveyed by the voice of the angel. It is a means of conveying an inexpressible spiritual truth, incorporating rich, complex notions of the transference of ideas and the efficacy of words, implications regarding the nature of the Second Person of the Trinity, as well as incorporating allusions to Genesis and the Psalms. Like so many works of ancient and medieval art, it is a fantastically rich image.
So, naturally, you boil the whole thing down to men being squeamish about women’s bodies.
By the way, finding that took all of two minutes of Googling. The fact that you didn’t even bother to try to uncover either the actual image or its meaning is telling.
Usually silent, unless she says “obey him” – or appears to chastise children about immodest clothing, or not praying enough.
Again, you’re putting words into their mouths: are you really going to suggest that the men who disliked this image (by the why, why does a single image inspire so much vehemence on your part?) also discount Lourdes, Fatima, Lepanto, The Ballad of the White Horse, St. Dominic, basically every work of art to come out of the Middle Ages, St. Alphonso de Liguori, St. John Paul the Great, and so on? That is, every piece of Christian heritage in which Mary plays an active role and speaks with authority?
I would also take issue with your sneering comment about “appears to chastise children about immodest clothing or not praying enough,” as if those were insulting matters of no real importance. Especially with the matter of “not praying enough,” since that is quite literally what Mary has actually told people time and again.
But Mary was not an ideal.
Depends on what you mean by an idea. She is held up as an ideal to follow, as is Christ, and as is every Saint, in the sense that we are to look on her with reverence and seek to imitate her in our own lives. That doesn’t mean a bloodless mental image.
She is portrayed in Scripture as a real woman, and one with quite a bit to say, in the few scenes where we see her. She questions an angel, sings revolutionary hymns, sets off on journeys alone, even chastises her son when he slips away from them.
Please stop calling the Magnificat a ‘revolutionary hymn.’ Mary had much more important things on her mind than the iniquities of the Roman Empire or political revolt, and you are demeaning her by referring to it as such. The saving work of God is far greater than any mere political agenda.
Also, when in Scripture did Mary set off on journeys alone? St. Joseph was with her in the journeys to Bethlehem and Egypt, and she accompanied her son to Jerusalem for the Passion. He explicitly entrusts her to the care of St. John, implying that she’d been living with Him and the apostles. There isn’t the slightest suggestion that she travelled alone, and given the time period, we may reasonably assume she didn’t. The story of the Good Samaritan gives a hint as to why this would be, and I cannot imagine either Our Lord or St. Ann and St. Joachim being so irresponsible as to require her to travel anywhere alone.
As to Mary being a real woman, who on Earth said anything different? As far as I can tell, and as far as you have indicated, they simply didn’t like a particular image that you did because they thought it made Mary look too angry, immodest, or proud. Whether or not they showed good taste in doing so, that doesn’t imply any of the things you’ve been ascribing to them.
If, as the teaching says, she was devoid of sin, being devoid of sin does not mean being confined to just a few virtues, the ones that men have deemed “feminine.”
Yes, there are particularly feminine virtues, just as there are particularly masculine virtues: virtues that especially exhibit and coincide with a feminine nature. Men have ‘deemed’ them such because they saw by reason that they were so. If you disagree with their assessment, you have to show why they are not: you can’t just make a sneering insinuation. But regardless, once again, no one ever said being devoid of sin means being confined to a few key virtues. You are choosing to ascribe to people views that they have never expressed and then blaming them for it. Please stop.
And obedience to God does not mean obedience to men, or to the laws of men.
“For love of the Lord, then, bow to every kind of human authority;” (1 Peter 2:13) “Every soul must be submissive to its lawful superiors; authority comes from God only, and all authorities that hold sway are of his ordinance,” (Romans 13:1) “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt 22:21). This is one point on which you are simply wrong on fact: obedience to God means obedience to lawful human authority. Both Scripture and Tradition are very clear on that.
Usually, in the lives of memorable women, it means quite the reverse.
Ah, the “well-behaved women have never made history” deal. Well, One, as Christians our goal is to be virtuous, loving, and God-fearing, not to be ‘memorable.’ Pagans sought to be remembered as their only reward: we have something better. Two, to the extent that this is true it’s largely because modern tastes consider being ‘disobedient’ as one of the chief qualification for being remembered. Three, Queen Victoria, Empress Maria Theresa, Queen Isabella, Abigail Adams, Martha Washington, Jane Austen, and nearly every female Saint would disagree with you on the point. And finally, you could say the exact same thing about men (“well behaved men have rarely made history”) and it would be just as accurate and just as false.
And they suffer for it. They don’t emerge looking pink and docile, until after those who rewrite their stories have rendered them fit for a holy card.
Many artists choose to render Our Lady looking, as you so contemptuously describe it, “pink and docile” because they wish to emphasize her gentleness, kindness, and welcoming nature. Other artists who wish to emphasize other aspects of her show her differently. Our Lady of Czestochowa does not look in the least ‘pink and docile,’ nor do the images of Mary Queen of Heaven or Our Lady of Victory. Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ depicted her as a poor workingwoman filled with intense emotions and quiet dignity. The point is, different artists have different goals. You can discuss whether those goals are good or bad and whether they are realized well or poorly, but you seem to simply be holding up your preferred image as the best one because it speaks to you, while ascribing evil motives to everyone who doesn’t like its. You are insulting and attacking people on an incredibly flimsy pretext.
Back in 2016, I wrote about the fact that, whenever we object to sexism in the church, someone is sure to remind us that “we have Mary. So what are you complaining about?” We’ve elevated a woman as queen of heaven; a woman was chosen to bear God in the world – so, move on, no sexism here!
That is quite a legitimate response. As is the fact that Christian civilization has pretty much from the get-go given women greater autonomy, respect, and scope for development than just about any other (though such things vary over time and place, of course). Among her female Saints the Church includes Queens, soldiers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, and theologians. Abbesses in the Medieval era often wielded enormous power and influence, almost akin to modern CEOs. St. Catherine had the clout to publicly criticize the Pope and have him listen to her. These things are all highly relevant when discussing the Church’s historical attitude towards women in general.
The real question is what you consider ‘sexism,’ because all too often it is apt to mean anything you happen to dislike or anything that acknowledges a real difference between men and women (the fact that you considered your mistaken idea that Mary ‘journeyed alone’ as an example of her independence is an example of where your particular ideas of this subject might mislead you). If you want a real discussion of these issues, you need to define your terms and stop making unfounded insinuations and gratuitous insults.
Some of the views I expressed in that earlier piece have changed since then, but I still stand by this assertion: that until women are the ones leading the conversation about sex, gender, and equality in the church, we don’t “have” Mary. Men do.
Due respect to a lady forbids me to write my full reaction to this. Let me start by saying, as a minor point, that if it’s a conversation of equality, why ought women lead and not men? Wouldn’t the whole idea be each equally taking part?
Saying that unless “women are the ones leading the conversation about sex, gender, and equality in the church” that means women don’t ‘have’ Mary is so wrong, so unutterably ridiculous and foul that I hardly know what to say. What is this nonsense about who “has” Mary? Do you think Mary is some kind of prize? Some kind of baton of power that can be passed back and forth? Do you think she is in any way dependent upon how you think of her? You are talking about her as if she were some kind of tool to be subordinated to your own political and social ideas, or a mascot to be used for cheering on one preferred side or another.
Mary belongs to the Church entire, not to either men or women, and that’s only because Christ gave her to us out of love. You already have her in any meaningful sense of the word, and you have her by sheer gift, as you have everything from God. You want to own that gift? Go pray a Rosary and stop trying to make the Mother of God into a political prop.
As for your talk of a conversation about ‘sex, gender, and equality,” I won’t get into that nonsense here, except that your setting that up as a condition for “having” Mary says quite a bit more about you than you probably meant it to.
Or, rather, they have an idealized, fetishized image of her, one they can comfortably put on pedestals – or even fantasize about suckling from – without feeling guilt, or feeling obligated to give a space to real, living, inferior women at all.
Once again, my outdated chivalry forbids me from saying what I think of you right now. Where the heck did this Freudian nonsense come from? Who are you to throw out these kinds of insults and insinuations against men whom you don’t even know? You have given absolutely no justification for this kind of conclusion: you are simply scattering attacks wholesale and seem to feel justified in doing so because they’re directed against men. This is not analysis: this is bigotry.
Also, now you’re objecting to the image of St. Bernard? Weren’t you just holding it up as an example of depicting Mary as a ‘real woman’? Or did you mean it as somehow an example of how men have ‘used’ Mary in the past? If so, that shows an extraordinarily narrow and ignorant point of view; one that means you have no business speaking about religious art.
And again, all this is coming out of your head; men saying they didn’t like a particular image of Mary doesn’t even come close to justifying this nightmare of an amateur psychoanalysis. You are being needlessly insulting towards your audience and offensive towards our Lady by suggesting that men’s devotion to her is based on some kind of psycho-sexual dominance fantasy. Not to mention that, in all this, your focus has been entirely on fashionable political and social issues: not faith, not Christ, not salvation. It’s all about your personal response.
They’ve parceled off the virtues, designating any that might be associated with obedience of subordination as “feminine” and assigning those to the mother of God.
Obedience is a virtue for both sexes and always has been. “For Christ was obedient even unto Death.” “Slaves be subject to your master.” “I too am a man subject to authority and with soldiers subject to me.” Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Socrates submitting to the laws of Athens. The knight obedient to his lord. “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
On the other hand, traditional feminine virtues include circumspection, good sense, kindness, purity, temperance, and prudence, none of which have anything to do with subordination to men. Once again, you are simply wrong on fact.
In this cultural context, seeing Mary as representing emotions or virtues that have been reserved for select males – white males, the ones who call the shots – is an affront to their authority, specifically their authority to define and limit women.
Oh, throw a little racism in: nice (we had a Black President for eight years; stop pretending ‘white men’ rule our culture). Again, you are basing all of this on the fact that some men didn’t like a particular picture that you did and extrapolating from that into a nonsensical Marxist/Freudian fantasy that cherry-picks or ignores everything to do with Marian spirituality for the past two thousand years.
Note the conspiracy theory that men, especially white men, seek to maintain their “authority to define and limit women” through the virtues in general and Mary in particular. Do I even have to explain how asinine and paranoid this is? Sure thing: St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Francis de Sales, Dr. Johnson, John Henry Newman, they all had as their first priority keeping women down, because that is absolutely how pre-modern minds worked. No disinterested desire to know the truth, no honest piety, not even any good-will or love towards the women in their lives: just raw, unthinking urge to power for power’s sake relative to the opposite sex.
Do you even hear yourself?
To tell us how we must dress, lest we lead them astray.
“Let us cease, then, to lay down rules for one another, and make this rule for ourselves instead, not to trip up or entangle a brother’s conscience” (Romans 14:13). Trying to avoid being an occasion of sin for someone else is part of charity, and it’s one the most basic aspects of the Christian faith. The fact that you apparently feel insulted by it is telling.
To tell us what to think, since they are the ones attuned to the voice of God.
No one has ever said that. Even discounting the Blessed Mother and St. Mary Magdalene, just consider St. Catherine of Alexandria (Patron of Philosophers), St. Monica, St. Teresa of Avilla, St. Catherine of Sienna, St. Terese of Lisieux. No one has ever said that women cannot be attuned to the voice of God. You’re not even cherry picking your examples at this point: you are simply making up your own opponents to argue with.
And judging by your essay, “telling us what to think” in this context means “trying to tell you that you sound insane.”
To tell us how to use our bodies.
It’s called ‘virtue’ and ‘ethics’ and it applies to men and women. Nearly all moral laws revolve around what you do with your body, because the body is how you enact your will. You are not exempt from the moral law because you are a woman: if you were, that would be an insult and statement of inferiority.
We’re allowed to stand very, very still on pedestals or in holy cards, and only speak when echoing.
You are simply saying nonsense right now: extrapolating an absurd cartoon fantasy based on half-remembered half-truths about attitudes that have been dead for a century and applying it wholesale to everyone who disagrees with you, even in the most unimportant of matters.
If Mary looks angry in the painting, she has every right to be. Look at what she lived through. Look at what Christians have done in her son’s name – and what men have done with her, too, turning her into a weapon to be used against her daughters.
Look at people like you, insulting her, trying to claim her for your particular political views, and slandering those who honor her. Oh, yes; she has a lot to be angry about, but she is merciful and kind. Maybe instead of trying to co-opt her for your own purposes, you should listen to what she actually has to say. Such as:
“Do not offend the Lord our God any more, because He is already so much offended.”
“Pray, pray very much, and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to hell, because there are none to sacrifice themselves and pray for them.”
“Are you suffering a great deal? Don’t lose heart. I will never forsake you. My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead you to God.”
“I do not promise you happiness in this world, but in the next.”
“Pray for sinners.”
“Kiss the ground as a penance for sinners.”
“I am truly your merciful Mother, yours and all the people who live united in this land and of all the other people of different ancestries, my lovers, who love me, those who seek me, those who trust in me. Here I will hear their weeping, their complaints and heal all their sorrows, hardships and sufferings.”
“Do whatever He tells you.”
These are things she has actually said. You, on the other hand, are ascribing to her your own particular grievances, frustrations, and hatreds.
In other words, you are assuming that, as a woman, the Blessed Mother has one role and one purpose: to speak with your voice and attend to your needs, while ignoring or dismissing what she actually says (remember the sneering contempt for “admonish children to pray more”). You are literally doing exactly what you are accusing men of doing, except that I have never known a man so presumptuous as to try that game with the Queen of Heaven.
Here at the beginning of 2018, when a megalomaniacal demagogue – elected with the wild approval of right-wing American “family value” Christians
Nice gratuitous swipe at Trump supporters. Couldn’t see that coming. Note the scare quotes on “family value” Christians; one more nasty insinuation for the road to reinforce the image she creates of herself as someone who really hates people who disagree with her.
– is tweeting nuclear violence at another megalomaniac on the other side of the globe, I fear for my children, and the world they will have to navigate. Looking at the face of a mother who is also a protector is encouraging. Okay, I say to her. You’re with me. We’re in this together.
This essay was frankly disgusting. A fairly innocuous incident is blown completely out of proportion, straw-manned into next week and then ineptly psycho-analyzed to work out into the worst possible interpretation: a hyperbole inside of a fallacy wrapped in an insult. She paints a huge number of people with the worst possible brush, dismisses their faith out of hand with completely uncalled-for suppositions, and treats the Blessed Mother as a pawn in a petty political game. There is not the slightest attempt at logic, reason, charity (which, since this is supposed to be a Christian site you’d think she would at least give a gesture towards), or even basic facts. It is pure, venomous accusation and insinuation.
Now because it is written by a woman and for women, I suspect that someone will read my response and accuse me of being anti-woman, or insulting towards women, or even say that, as I am a man, I have no right to speak on such things and should only listen. To which I would answer: I am treating this lady like a rational human being who has written a terrible and disgusting essay. I have attempted to show why and how I think it fails from a logical, moral, and religious standpoint. If you disagree with me, then show me how I was wrong. No one, man or woman, gets to plead exemption from criticism based on either their sex or their subject matter.
This is what being treated on an equal footing looks like. You want equality? You’ve got it. And everything that goes with it, including being called out when you spew hateful nonsense like this.
In conclusion, if you want an image of Our Lady that is not soft and white and pink, let me offer you one. This comes from a man who lived a hundred years ago and who despised feminism (even before it went mad) precisely because he loved women.
“One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly –
But she was a queen of men.
“Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand
Her eyes were sad withouten art,
And seven swords were in her heart –
But one was in her hand.”
-The Ballad of the White Horse, Book VII