Sunday, August 19, 2012

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation ... or, Our Mother In Heaven

This is the shrine in the north transept of the Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The image of the Blessed Virgin, the visitor is told, is much older than the cathedral itself (which is from the late 1800s), having been brought to Santa Fe from Spain during the earliest Franciscan missionary endeavors in that region (1ate 1500s/early 1600s).

Brenda and I are just back from a week in Santa Fe. It has not been our ordinary custom to take "destination" vacations--we've tended toward touring, with no more than two nights in the same place--but with the amount of "touring" I now do in my working life, it seemed the year to go to one place and stay put for a while. So we did, and it was great. Santa Fe has long been on my "to go" list, so everything just came together beautifully, and we are very grateful for the experience we had.

At the very helpful suggestion of a neighbor, I picked up a copy of Willa Cather's classic 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, starting it a few days before the trip and finishing it on the plane four days ago while en route home. I can't imagine a better preparation for visiting northern New Mexico than reading this "episodic, nearly plotless" (per Cliff's Notes!) literary treasure. It certainly heightened my spiritual sensitivity as we visited some of the same places that are mentioned in the novel (Bernalillo, Pecos, Chimayo, and Taos, in addition to Santa Fe itself).

One of the tucked away places we were glad we stumbled on was a shrine called El Sanctuario de Chimayo, just off the "high road" between Santa Fe and Taos. Its history and reputation rest on the on the healing ministry of our Lord made quasi-sacramentally available to the faithful in ... of all things ... its dirt. A very elegant (by comparison) Walsingham has its water, and a rather more humble ("folky" might be apt, though not "folksy") Chimayo has its dirt. The whole place, from the architecture of the shrine church to the demeanor of the gift shop clerks, breathes a spirit of holiness and uncomplicated piety. We were there as barely-more-than-accidental tourists, but Chimayo is a place of pilgrimage--like Walsingham, and Lourdes, and Compostela, and many other places. And, like Lourdes, the heart's desire of the pilgrim is relief from suffering.

We all suffer, of course. Even the most privileged and comfortable in this world face the certainty of their own mortality, and wealth is no guarantor of an easy exit when the time comes. Even the fabled "1%" are disappointed and betrayed by loved ones, and have their cherished dreams dashed on the rocks of reality on a regular basis. Yet, there is an added dimension in the suffering of those who are, by any standard, poor, those who are (or were) physically incapacitated and have (or had) no therapeutic recourse simply by virtue of where (or when) they were born. It is the vocation of places like El Sanctuario de Chimayo to absorb that sort of suffering, to take it in like a holy black hole, and, in fact, to retain enough of it to allow the suffering pilgrim to go on living a while longer. These are mysterious places (an unbeliever would deem them fraudulent). Not everybody--the great majority, in fact--gets immediately and miraculously healed as a result of their visit. But some do. And so I think that places like Chimayo and Walsingham and Lourdes have a role in the redemptive economy of God. On this side of Eternity, we don't know precisely what that role is. Or perhaps those of a more "uncomplicated piety" see it more readily. But, in any case, it will become clear bye and bye.

Chimayo, unlike Walsingham and Lourdes, is not the site of a Marian apparition, and it was not my impression that the piety there is heavily Marian. Nonetheless, in any place where the Spanish influence has ever been dominant (New Mexico was part of the Spanish empire from the late 1500s until 1821), it's fairly safe to say that deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin is simply a default part of the religious fabric. So, as I was visiting Chimayo, I was able to make a ready connection with some material from Death Comes... that does focus on Mary. After an unexpected and intense episode of pastoral care for a woman long deprived of the comforts of her religion, the main character, Bishop Latour (a surrogate for the real Bishop Lamy), reflects on his experience:
He was able to feel, kneeling beside her, the preciousness of the things of the altar to her who was without possessions; the tapers, the image of the Virgin, the figures of the saints, the cross that took away the indignity of suffering and made pain and poverty a means of fellowship with Christ. Kneeling beside the much enduring bond-woman, he experienced those holy mysteries as he had in his young manhood. He seemed able to feel all that it meant to her to know that there was a Kind Woman in Heaven, though there were such cruel ones on earth. Old people, who have felt blows and toil and know the world's hard hand, need, even more than children do, a woman's tenderness. Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer. (p. 216)
The Anglican religious culture that I inhabit is pretty Mary-friendly. There is a Marian shrine in the rear of the cathedral nave in Springfield to which I have become quite attached. A parish in the diocese does a splendid annual Our Lady of Walsingham festival, in which a number of local Roman Catholics participate. I pray the Angelus twice daily as part of my regular devotions, and the Rosary on a regular basis. All that said, I cannot but acknowledge that devotion to the Theotokos (as distinguished from acknowledgement of the objective theological significance of Mary herself, her auxiliary role in the economy of salvation betokened by her "Fiat mihi" to Gabriel's message) is pretty much seen as adiaphora, optional. We find it more natural to honor Mary with our intellects than with our affections.

This is, I would suggest, much to be pitied, and not so much for what it deprives us of (though it deprives us of much), but for what it leaves us vulnerable to. Human beings have an instinctive need to connect with the Transcendent Feminine. In short, we need a Cosmic Mother. We are wired such that we will seek out a Cosmic Mother as surely as water will seek the most efficient route downhill. Our pagan ancestors made this connection by way of various goddesses; indeed, with Gaia, Mother Nature herself. More recently, theologians, liturgists, and others within the Christian tradition have sought assiduously to dilute, or, often, to simply eliminate and replace, the traditional language for God that casts God in masculine terms (causing language lovers to cringe because it makes it impossible to use pronouns for God, which results in really clunky diction). Terms such as "Father," "Lord," and "Almighty" are banned. Are they not patriarchal and therefore oppressive to half the human race? Any new liturgical materials produced by my own church since around 1990 thoroughly reflect this perspective. See here (from a post-evangelical who still professes Christianity) and here (from a post-Christian) for some very recent arguments in that vein from what we might call an "ordinary laypersons's" perspective (i.e. they are not formally theologically trained). The next step, of course--a step many have advocated and taken--is to adopt feminine pronouns and imagery when speaking of God. Father and Mother are deemed equivalent and interchangeable references to a Divine Parent who is beyond gender.

Now, this is completely understandable. There is some biblical interpretation out there that is, in my opinion, just plain wrong-headed, and sometimes thinly-veiled misogyny. There are male Christian leaders who have engaged in patterns of serious emotional and spiritual abuse, particularly toward women, and attempted to support that abuse by citing scripture. I don't demean the experience of those who have emerged from that sort of environment feeling wounded, and a bit angry. However, reactivity rarely yields good theology. Anyone with an investment in creedal orthodoxy (which, as a Catholic Christian, I have; those from free church evangelicalism, not so much) and/or the normative character of biblical language (evangelicals back on board now) is going to find the various attempts to "correct"  the tradition with respect to God-language highly problematic.

If we base our theologizing even partly on the notion that what we know about God we know because God has revealed that information to us, not because we reasoned our way to it or just made it up because it felt good, then we have to take seriously the terms in which that revelation is cast. We can't just toss it aside if we're uncomfortable with it. It is something given and something received. We may not always like or appreciate the gift, but there it is, nonetheless. We have to at least wrestle with it, and integrate it into our thinking and devotion somehow on its own terms. And what we are faced with pretty clearly is that, in the Christian dispensation, God is revealed to us in masculine terms. God is masculine in gender. With so much attention being paid now to fine distinctions between "sex" and "gender," it seems apposite to add: not male in sex. God is not a male. But God is masculine. God can be mother-like (the passage where Jesus ascribes to himself the qualities of a mother hen is oft cited), even as I, as a male and a father, am capable of being mother-like, and women are capable, when life demands it, of being father-like. But I can never actually be a mother. God is our Father. God is not our Mother.

Still, we do need a mother. When we are young, that need is quite concrete and literal, and, in most cases, it is satisfied by the woman who gave us birth. As we age, the need becomes more spiritual and metaphorical. As I averred above, we need--indeed, we yearn for--not just "a mother" but Mother, the Transcendent Feminine. This drive has led some--erroneously, I believe--to look for Mom in the wrong place, in the Godhead itself. Wrong, as I said, but not by much. As Bishop Latour observed after his nocturnal encounter with a slave woman in his own church, there is a Kind Woman in Heaven. She is indeed Regina Coeli--Queen of Heaven, "higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim" (Hymnal 1982, #618, v.2). One can rightly quibble, of course, with his attribution of "divine" status to the Blessed Mother, but one can also rightly quibble with the large portion of the Christian world that declines to see itself among the "all generations" in Mary's own rhapsodic outburst that would "call [her] blessed" (Luke 1:48).

Many among whom I live and move and have my being in Christian discipleship and church leadership form part of the gender-bending point of the spear in the evolution of the language the Church uses about God. I honor their passion and the integrity of what they understand as a witness for justice. But I believe they are mistaken. And I suspect that one of the reasons they have chosen the path they are on is because everyone has encouraged them to give Mary an affectionate pat on the head on the Fourth Sunday of Advent and a polite wave on the Annunciation (March 25), the Visitation (May 31), and her own feast day (Assumption for Roman Catholics, Dormition for Eastern Orthodox, August 15), instead of regularly singing her praises and importunately seeking her intercession on their behalf. We have neglected Our Mother in Heaven, and we are paying the price.


Richard Tribe said...

Beautiful your grace. Absoutly beautiful!
We pray for a increase of devotion and honor to our Blessed Mother in our parishes, the dioscese, and the church as a whole.
Salve Regina!

Fr. Michael LaRue said...

This is very good!

The formula which has occurred to me is that while God is the source of motherly qualities, relationally he is our Father, but he shows a motherly love to us through his women saints, and especially in the mother of His Son.

silvercityrev said...

You have hit on something profoundly important to this generation!! We need our Mother. An old Eric Clapton song says it well - "Motherless children have a hard time when their mother is gone." All of God's children have a mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary - Theotokas! Blessed Mary pray for us!