Tuesday, 18 September 2012


Giovanni da Gaeta, Mater Misericordiae (1448)

Mary, Mother of God and Model of a Pilgrim People

This is the title of a lecture I was due to give in Clifton Cathedral this evening, which has unfortunately been cancelled. I was going to talk on Lumen Gentium and Mary in the Church. In a nutshell, I would have said that the Second Vatican Council was not an event but the beginning of a process. Inevitably, that process involves a painful birthing of new ways of being in the world, a letting go of old familiar practices and habits, and an opening up to the God of the future who is always coming to meet us just ahead of where we are.

My lecture will be published along with others in the series in a forthcoming book, but I offer here some passing ideas and reflections which I thought I might use in my talk.

The Council opened the windows of the Church to let a fresh wind blow through the dusty corridors and neglected corners of this ancient tradition, but we are still on a journey of discovery. We need wisdom, prayer and patience if we are to know what needs to be kept and what needs to be renewed. Today, we might compare what's happening to the experience of a family moving into a Victorian house which was renovated in the 1960s: the corniced ceilings were removed, the fireplaces were ripped out, the sash windows were replaced with plastic double-glazing. This family might want to restore the beauty and interest of some of these features which were prey to excessive modernising enthusiasm, but in the task of restoring the house, surely they will keep the modern plumbing and the central heating? 

We need discernment to know what to keep and what to restore, in order to make the Church fit for human habitation. The doctrines of our faith are like the structure and architecture of that old house. They mark out our space of existence and offer us room in which to live together as a community which shares certain fundamental bonds, but we face challenging questions about how to interpret these doctrinal bonds in the context of our lives and experiences. This is particularly true for those of us living in modern western democracies, where the Christian world view is fragmenting and changing, and we have to ask what it means to be Catholic in the context of the debates and issues of our time.

In the Council, the Church embraced her vocation to read the signs of the times and to incarnate the eternal truths entrusted to her in ways that would be relevant to the different contexts and cultures within which she finds herself. She refused to be an other-worldly ghetto for pure souls, but rather sought to become a space of messy encounter between the transcendent and eternal wisdom of God, and the embodied realities of the human condition in all its complexity, grace and muddle. This is the meaning of incarnation and sacramentality. At its best, this is what the Catholic tradition has always been. It offers a harmonious vision of a graced creation in which revelation and reason, grace and nature, theology and philosophy, inform one another and help us to deepen our understanding and application of the truths we profess. This reasoning capacity for dialogue and engagement with those outside our own religious and cultural boundaries is and always has been a vital aspect of what it means to be Catholic. This means that we are called to climb down from our sacred pedestals into the messy ditch of politics, ethics and social engagement and debate, in order to tend to the wounded and abandoned, to make visible the invisible, to speak for the silenced, to include the excluded, to welcome the stranger, to resist the politics of domination, exploitation and violence.

All this was enshrined in the documents of the Council and embraced by many thousands of Catholics as a new way of living their faith in the modern world. Making their own that ringing cry for justice which forms the opening paragraph of Gaudium et Spes, this was a generation of Catholics who worked tirelessly and often without recognition to incarnate Christ among those who are excluded, trampled upon and abused in the name of progress, economic growth and the politics of envy, greed and consumption. Many of them passed their faith onto their children, so that young Catholics who might never have heard of Vatican II, who might have drifted away from the Church because they find many of its teachings irrelevant or incoherent in the context of their lives, nevertheless continue to feel a deep sense of passion for justice and care for God's creation.

Yet there was loss as well as gain in the changes that the Council brought about. Justice and peace are central to the Christian vision of the Kingdom of God, but what was lost in the Council was what Peter Berger refers to as 'the sacred canopy'. This is the sheltering world of symbols, sacraments and mysteries within which we discover dimensions of being beyond the rational, the political and the moral. When people yearn for a return to the Latin rite, when they express a deep sense of mourning and sometimes of rage for all that was sacrificed in the name of modernity, they are expressing a sense of heartache for the lost consolation and the forgotten mysteries afforded by the sacred canopy of the mystical, Marian Church. ­

The late Archbishop Derek Worlock once asked if the Council's abandonment of the language of Holy Mother Church in favour of the more democratising language of the pilgrim people of God entailed the loss of some vital dimension of the Catholic faith. People across the Catholic spectrum are beginning to ask themselves the same question. We are heirs to an enduring mystery that has inspired some of the greatest art, music and devotional expressiveness of western culture, and this mystery struggles to find expression in the context of the more rationalised and pared-down rites and devotions of the postconcilar Church. The challenge that presses upon us with ever greater urgency and conflict is how to nurture anew that sense of mystery and mysticism, allowing it to re-emerge without diminishing the vocation to reasoned debate about ethics and politics, and without neglecting the call to participate in society and culture which is part of responsible citizenship and enshrined within the social teachings of the Church. 

I believe that this renewal can come about through a rediscovery of the maternal, Marian Church, but there is a risk that this will become an exercise in nostalgia and infantilization. Mother Church can too easily offer a retreat from the world into a romantic and highly stereotypical view of a maternal feminine ideal which alienates rather than accommodates many modern people, particularly many women. This has already begun to happen in some of the more flamboyant Marian devotions and enthusiasms that have emerged in recent years, which are often closely associated with defending a particular brand of Catholicism that invites no debate, dialogue or philosophical reflection on questions of the Church's social teachings and moral theology. Such devotions which produce closed minds and angry hearts are expressions of mystification rather than mysticism. Mysticism invites. Mystification bullies. Mysticism says yes. Mystification says no. Mysticism is about silence. Mystification is about silencing.

The revitalization of Holy Mother Church through reflection on Mary can bring about a reconciliation between the ethos of the Council and the liturgical, mystical life of the Church. Many women theologians and ethicists today write about maternal ethics. One of these is the psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, who was invited to share a platform with Pope Benedict XVI and to speak on behalf of the world’s non-religious people at the last Interfaith Gathering in Assisi in 2011. A maternal Church would be a Church in which the profound mystery of the human condition, revealed to us in the relationship between Mary and her Son, would draw us beyond the rationalisations and justifications of politics and ethics into a deeper encounter with what it truly means to be human. This in turn might translate into a maternal ethos modelled on the mothering relationship, in which women and men together would ask what it means for the Church’s social teaching to challenge the combative, violent and aggressive politics of modern neo-liberalism with a nurturing ethos of care and attentiveness to the joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, of all the human and non-human aspects of God’s creation. This vision of a maternal ethos permeated some of Pope John Paul II's finest elucidations of Catholic social teaching.

In modernity, Mary has lost her ability to communicate the visceral potency and materiality of the incarnation. She has become sanitised and romanticised, an expression of an eternal feminine ideal that has far more to do with modern romanticism than with incarnational Catholicism. She drifts into heaven as a young girl remote from all the reality of human experience, lacking even the child in her arms to root her in the fleshy mystery of the incarnate God. She is an object of mystification rather than an opening into mystery.

Yet there is much to be retrieved from the forgotten riches of the Marian tradition which would enable us to restore a lost dimension of mysticism to the postconciliar Church, without sacrificing all the many gains that the Council achieved. Ultimately, mysticism is not a disembodied romance with an imagined ideal. It is a fully human encounter with the fully divine and fully human Christ who is recognized and served among the material realities of creation. If we look back at some of the neglected aspects of the Marian tradition, we see a vivid and compelling revelation of what it means to say yes to the incarnate God. Reflection on Mary reminds us that our faith is of the very essence of what it means to be human, defined not by the law-abiding and morally upright member of society but by Jesus of Nazareth who was born and died outside the law, and whose mother was herself willing to step outside all the laws of society and nature, in order to say 'yes' to God. I've chosen a few paintings which might enable us to reflect on the mystery within which we discover Mary anew as the Mother of God and model of a pilgrim people:

Adriaen Isenbrandt, Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows (1518-1535)
Here, Mary shows us the vocation of the maternal Church in every era. She is called to be the thinking heart in the centre of the unfolding story of Christ in different times and places, to be the reflective presence in the eye of the storms of history, and to meditate upon how the joys and sufferings of the incarnate Christ reveal themselves to every generation, as we seek to live anew this timeless story within the times and contexts of our own existence.

Piero della Francesco, Annunciation (1452-1466)
From a distance, Piero della Francesco's Annunciation seems suffused with serenity and peace. Yet if we look more closely we see that Mary's face - the paint cracked and ravaged by time - reflects her profound realization of the awesome nature of what is being asked of her. For every woman who conceives a child, however much that child is loved and wanted, there is an experience of loss as well as of gain, of sorrow as well as of joy. An immense future opens up, pregnant with possibility but also with all the vulnerability and sorrow of love. The old 'me' is lost forever. Life will never be the same again. This new being will forever be part of me, and I will never be free of the joy and the anguish of loving this person. We know what that would ultimately mean for Mary, and in her tenderness, hope, compassion and grief, we see something of the joy and suffering of every endeavour of love. 

French Book of Hours, Mary Reading (15th Century)
Joseph is the man who agrees to become the father of the fatherless child. He is the model for every man who is willing to let go of all the old patriarchal hierarchies and dominations in order to enter into vulnerable relationships of love and tenderness, in which fatherhood is not a question of biology and insemination but of care, compassion and wonder in the face of the child who asks to be loved. It is this response to the child's need that makes Joseph his father, and it is his response to Mary's trust and faith that makes him her husband. This marriage is not defined in terms of sex and procreation, but in terms of mutual fidelity to God and to one another, and of each helping the other to become who he or she is called to be in the unique vocation that God offers to every human being. Here, Joseph cradles the infant Christ and gazes on his face in wonder and love, while Mary reads a book in bed!

Rogier van der Weyden, Virgin and Child (after 1454)
Mary holds her baby in the most tender of maternal embraces, but her face tells us of the fragility and woundedness of love as well as its grace and joy. Like every mother, she knows that her love must be a process of letting go, of learning to be there without control or domination, without determining the future of this child she has borne. Every loving relationship needs to learn this combination of tender holding and letting go, of being there for the other but also creating space for the other to be, whatever the cost.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Deposition (1435)
Rogier van der Weyden shows us the elegant symmetry of the bodies of Mary and Christ as a theological insight into the nature of the incarnation. In the birth, life and death of Christ, Mary is intimately one with him, sharing in every aspect of the incarnation through her maternal body and through her faithful love. But again, the artist does not simply show us a transcendent mystery. Once again, if we focus on Mary's face, we see the face of every human being who has experienced tragedy, loss and mourning. The incarnation does not alienate us from the human condition but reveals it to us more fully, more richly, more truthfully.

The Rohan Hours (1430-1435)

This is an astonishing picture. Mary collapses in despair over the body of her Son, held up by the arms of the beloved disciple who turns to God in confusion and maybe even in accusation. God appears remote and almost indifferent, peering down from heaven at a scene in which he seems to play no part. But if we want to see God, we must recognize that the body of wounded love at the feet of Mary is where God is to be found. The bearded man in the sky is a fiction and a fantasy of a God who is absolutely other than the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Here, in the crucified God laid out upon the earth which he himself created, we see how far love is willing to go in order to convince us that God is with us, not up there and gazing down in tyrannical indifference, but intimately united with us in the suffering of Christ and the desolation of his Mother. In the space between heaven and earth, angels throng unseen, vividly depicted here in blue and gold, weaving together heaven and earth on the loom of hope.

Roettgen Pieta (14th century)

 The Roettgen Pieta is too visceral for our modern religious sensibilities. It comes to us from a distant time when the incarnation was the very stuff of human life. Beyond the ordered liturgies and rituals of the official Church, people expressed a profound identification with the lives of Mary and Jesus through popular devotions and artistic forms of expression which are eloquent testimony to the full range of human experience. We can still see, in images such as these, the relevance of the presence of Christ even in the most god-forsaken depths of the human heart.

Piero della Francesca, The Madonna of Mercy (c. 1460)

Piero della Francesco's Mater Misericordia is a vast maternal presence, the Church opening her arms to all who seek shelter within her sacred canopy. Here we find the hooded hangman and the loose-haired prostitute as well as the respectable citizens and patrons of the institutional church. Here there is a space of welcome which remains open to all, with no borders or divisions, no exclusions or condemnations. Our eyes are drawn to the empty space above the heads of the kneeling people, and that space is an invitation to each and every one of us. There will always be space for more, for this canopy is a mystery draped over eternity. Mary here is the Holy Mother of the cosmic Christ, holding the world within her embrace.

If you would like to reflect on these images to music (Alma Redemptoris Mater), please click here.
This blog is for reflection, understanding and healing, not for debate and correction. I am not posting any comments.