Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

December 10, 2017: “Mother Mary”

Personal Reflection “Mother Mary” Keli Keyes

For those of you who don’t know the story of Mary. She was born without original sin so she was The Immaculate Conception, she gave birth while still a virgin, and the child she gave birth to was Jesus.

I grew up believing in the divinity of Mary. As a child, every May was Mary’s Month which ended with the crowning of Mary by the nicest girl in the school. The scent of lilacs every spring sends me back. Catholics sure know how to do ritual.

She was just there to help. Her divinity was different. While Jesus was God, she was … Mary. She was someone we could bring our tangled skein of yarn to and let HER untangle it.

I sort of grew up with Mary. After 12 years of catholic school, how could I not? I even went to a high school called Notre Dame – Our Lady. My mother went to a school at Euclid’s own Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine when it was a school for girls. Later, she belonged to a church group called the Legion of Mary.

At this time of the year, Mary’s story moves to the forefront and her divinity soars.

To me, if you take a pregnant woman, put her on top of a donkey, and travel across the desert, she MUST be divine.
Mary was described in one of my high school religion books as the ladder to paradise, the gate to heaven, the most true mediatrix between god and man. I didn’t even know what that meant.

As a high school student, I think students want something more relevant. I wanted to know more about the human Mary. It got me in a little hot water with the nuns. Probably because they didn’t have the answers.

There was not much to know. And it came from the bible. There’s the Nativity Story, the Jesus arguing with the rabbis story, the wine and the wedding story, and the crucifixion.

I was always free to use my imagination for how it might have been.
So imagine a young girl who probably cannot believe she is pregnant, who marries Joseph who probably can’t believe it either. Think of the scorn and suspicion she must have endured.

And according to the new testatment, Jesus talked with the teachers and rabbis in the Temple. Mary and Joseph couldn’t find him for three days. Since bullies have been with us always, don’t you think Jesus was likely pushed around a little? Come on, he was chatting with the rabbis in the temple when he was 12. 12. Mary must have been wringing her hands already anxious about his future.

The wedding they attended together in Cana — Where was Joseph, by the way? The story goes that Mary and Jesus attended a wedding. They ran out of wine. Mary encourages her son to change the water to wine. He declines at first. She encourages. He makes the wine. It is his first public miracle.

I have to wonder in my heart. Did Mary regret that exposure? Did that event open him to scrutiny? What a mother’s greatest heartbreak: knowing your action may have brought your son’s death.
The crucifixion. I can’t even imagine here what witnessing that torture was like for her. ***

As you can imagine, these stories became harder to live with.
When my mother died in 1977, Mary became my divine mother. I was 22. My prayers took shape as a plea. My favorite was the Memorare. It went like this:

“Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it
Known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy 
Help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided.”

The prayer like blackmail. Help me or I’m gonna tell. I will hand you my tangled skein of life or “fly unto thee,” and if you hand it back just as tangled, I will share this information far and wide.

I had nothing left – not even Mary. Nothing felt right. I wanted to believe but could not. My mother had died, leaving me with some pretty troubled siblings, and no answers.

It wasn’t until I came into this community for the first time and heard the words “roots hold me close, wings set me free” that it felt ok to look back.

It was here that I was pointed in the direction of a women’s group called Moon Lodge in the 1980s and 90s. It was an East Shore group of women – kind of like the small groups we have now — who met once or twice a month to sip wine, eat, and learn about earth-based women.

THIS group of strong women introduced me to Demeter, Hekate, Gaia, Oya and Yemiya, and the Ancient Mother. This was where I could put my Mary.

Now my prayer is still a plea to someone I don’t know. I’m not sure how our universes work nor what their secrets might be.
My more practical brain would like to say this is all storytelling.
My job keeps me from scrapping all of this. I have heard too many sacred stories bedside.

One lovely woman I had taken care of several days. She was alone in THIS world. She had reached the end of her journey and only had a few moments of clarity and only days left. During one of them she looked at me and said “Your mother likes what you’re doing.” It took my breath away. She could not talk beyond that. It was a gift. I was stunned.

My mother’s name was Betty. I still try to find a place for Mary.

Reading “The Nine Touchstones of Goddess Sprituality,” Keli Keyes
by Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ, a Yale-trained process theologian who specializes and feminist thealogies, offers what she calls “The Nine touchstones of Goddess Spirituality,” as an alternative to the Ten Commandments:

Nurture life.
Walk in love and beauty.
Trust the knowledge that comes through the body.
Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.
Take only what you need.
Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.
Approach the taking of life with great restraint.
Practice great generosity.
Repair the web.

Sermon “Where to Put Mary” Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

At last year’s service auction, a fundraiser for East Shore, I bid on the annual goddess lunch for Joe and myself, the subject being Mary, the Mother of Jesus. I knew that we’d be the only meant there. I also knew that it was on the morning of my birthday, so even though food was part of the price of admission, I baked a cake for the occasion. My favorite kind of cake: Princeton orange cake with orange butter cr�me frosting between the layers, and topped with dark chocolate ganache.

Keli and Ruth Troup facilitated the discussion that proved one thing to me: women raised in the Catholic Church have opinions about Mary, and usually a lot of baggage to go along with those opinions. Mary is huge in the Catholic Church, the person to whom the second most recited prayer is directed:

Hail Mary, full of Grace,
The Lord is with you.

Blessed are you, among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

For Catholics, Mary wields a lot of power. For everyone else, not so much. Mary is the young woman who gave birth to Jesus.

I was kind of surprised. I had thought women would see her as a source of strength. So I did what I usually do when I’m surprised. I called my mother.

“What do you think about Mary?” I asked.

“Mary who?” she asked. I could hear in her voice that she was going through her mental rolodex of every Mary she’s ever known.

“Mary. You know. The mother of Jesus. Mary.” I said.

She laughed. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about her. But my mother loved her, and prayed to her all the time. Your other grandmother, too. Just before she died, my mom told me that Mary had come to her 30 years earlier.”

“Really!?” I asked. “What happened?” I knew what she meant….the actual physical presence of Mary was there with her in real time. Not a dream. Not a silhouette burned in a piece of toast. Not a faint image in paint running down the side of a building. The physical, embodied Mary.

“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I didn’t ask. But I also didn’t tell her she’s crazy. I guess it’s possible that Mary really came to her.” She paused. “Come to think of it, my sister Diane really loves Mary, too. I’ll have to ask her about it.”

We talked for a bit and realized that all three of these women, my grandmothers and my aunt, had all lost young sons, and they all started calling upon Mary as a source of strength shortly after the deaths. My mother’s mother began her prayer relationship with Mary after losing a baby boy in birth when my mother was 14. The baby’s name, appropriately, was Joseph. Mary came to my grandmother after her oldest, another son, died at the age of 36.

I thought about a few other women I know – not one of whom is Catholic – who began identifying with Mary after the untimely death of a child.

It makes sense, when you think about.

Mary is a survivor. She survived a socially risky pregnancy, survived giving birth in a barn after crossing the desert, then survived witnessing the slow and brutal death by torture of that same child. She’s a good role model, and if she can get passed her own loss enough to pray for every single soul at the hour of their death, maybe even someone you want to emulate.

There’s got to be more to Mary though, so I went to literature. The first place I went was to a little book I found in my office, left behind by one of its previous inhabitants, called A Mary Christmas. Mary, is spelled M. A. R. Y.

The little book is published by Franciscan Media, a theologically liberal company, and its author, by Kathleen Carroll, described the qualities that make Mary a role model not just for women, but for everyone. When asked by the archangel Gabriel to bear Jesus, risk herself to public derision and maybe even death. She doesn’t make excuses, just operates on faith that everything will work out fine. And when she was told the incredible story of what would happen to her and her elderly cousin Elizabeth – who was herself bearing John the Baptist – Mary didn’t demand proof, she just accepted it. (1)

Mary’s best qualities, is seems, are that she does as she is told, doesn’t ask questions, and always thinks of others, and never of herself.

If you’re the kind of person who values critical thinking, questioning authority, and maintaining good boundaries, Mary’s qualities sound more like an indictment than an endorsement.

As I read, I looked up at my home altar and the spiritual giants represented there. I saw Hanuman, the Hindu monkey God, the symbol of strength and energy. I saw St. Francis, the “Fool for Christ” who took to an extreme Jesus’s directive to journey with outcasts and the oppressed. And I saw Mary, whom I’ve always seen as the epitome of selfless sacrifice for the greater good.

I used to have a small statue of Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, “she who hears the sound of crying in the universe,” but I replaced her with Mary. Their function to me is similar, and Mary feels like she’s part of my tradition, les like an object of cultural misappropriation than Kwan Yin.

Suddenly, Mary and Kwan Yin didn’t seem so interchangeable. While Kwan Yin only hears the sound of crying in the universe, as a kind of cosmic accompanist to pain, Mary absorbs the suffering of humanity, with all of the risks of motherhood and sacrifices of loss, and makes them her own, ultimately responsible for the well-being of everyone as they die.

My image of Mary became flat…two dimensional. Uninspired. Like Keli, I became profoundly ambivalent. About the male/female duality inherent in my old image of Mary, and her relationship to the divine. All I could think of was the mainstream narrative that women like cars that are practical, or cute and sporty, while men only like cars that are powerful. Some of us want something different, something responsible.

I needed a different understanding of Mary. Something responsible. Something inspiring.

So I turned to Carol P. Christ, a Yale-trained process theologian and leading scholar of the Goddess movement. In her book She Who Changes, she describes the traditional philosophy of religions as being concerned with rational, linear thinking, wherein one thought leads to the next logical thought, across generations, to form a cohesive worldview that is not influenced by emotional, ritualistic tendencies.

Christ and the early feminist theologians of her time began work in an era when women at Yale Divinity School were so new that her colleague Judith Plaskow says the administration’s idea of welcoming them was to put a gynecologist on their board and full-length mirrors in the restrooms. (2) For Christ and Plaskow and the other women, the old philosophy of religion was a problem because they found emotion, intuition and ritual to be extremely important. They wanted embodiment and to find wholeness. They wanted to discover the ways in which women worshiped and related to the divine helped them make sense of their world.

Christ describes the old philosophies of religion to be overtly individualistic. The men who created the dogma of western religions, made god in their own image, a distinctly male character, primarily concerned with power and emotionally distant from his creation, so above and beyond humanity as to be separate, without compassion, and uninfluenced by human need. (3)

For most of the male theologians of the last couple thousand years, power has been what mattered most, in the doctrines of omnipotence, omniscience and infallibility. If God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfect in everything he does, the means he allows suffering to happen. In order to do that, he’d have to distance himself from his own creation, because if he were to really love the world, it would limit his power.

It’s not a very kind image of God, is it? The old man who cares so little for people that he’ll allow unthinkable suffering in the form of natural disasters, disease and pestilence, war and genocide, without feeling the need to stop anything. This is the kind of disconnect between god and humans that has caused many Unitarian Universalists to turn away from the religion of the Abrahamic traditions.

While Christ doesn’t consider herself to be a deconstructionist per se, she sees the value in deconstructing and resynthesizing any philosophy that claims to have a corner on “the truth.” She wants to break it down, ask how particular tenets of belief came into being, who those tenets serve, and who they enslave.

Christ knows, as we all do, I think, that there is no one whole unified truth that is accessible to only those who subscribe to one particular doctrine. We each hold a piece of the truth, and those multiple, intersecting, ever-changing truths are all the results of our own experience and identity.

Obviously, the experiences of men and women are vastly different. Men have held power for most of history in the western hemisphere, especially in Europe and the middle east, using the tools of war and the power of wealth to maintain their autonomy. Women across the world have been the bearers of children, using the work of their bodies, and their bodies themselves, to form relationships and create and nurture life.

Women, according to Christ, need to make sense of the world by owning their experiences and making the most valuable relationships in their lives central to the work they do with their bodies. A detached, isolated God whose main purpose seems to be preserving his own power doesn’t work for feminists. Or most of us here, regardless of our gender.

So Christ has come up with some dramatic adaptations of traditional Christian doctrine, like the prayer I read at the end of our lighting of candles earlier.

Our Mother whose body is the Earth,
Blessed are you,
And blessed are all the fruits of your womb.
You give us this day our daily bread,
And we share it with others.
Our Mother whose body is the Earth,
We love you with all our hearts,
And our neighbors as ourselves.

Those of you who grew up in the Catholic Church will recognize it as a synthesis and adaptation of the two most commonly recited prayers of the faith, the Our Father and the Hail Mary, with responsibility to caring for one another and the earth at its core. It uses language embedded in the lived experience of the body.

Womb, heart. 
Bread, earth, neighbors. 
Bless, share, love.

My understanding of Mary is completely different now. She’s no longer a cosmic doormat, doing what she’s told and sacrificing herself and her son for the good of all. She’s an archetype of a fierce woman. Because of my interactions with Keli and Ruth, My mother and my grandmothers, Kathleen Carroll, Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, Mary become a symbol of the Goddess values of embodiment, an example of how to use the human body and its lived experiences to find connection with others, and mend the world through the nine touchstones of Goddess Spirituality.

Nurture life.
Walk in love and beauty.
Trust the knowledge that comes through the body.
Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.
Take only what we need.
Think about the consequences of our actions for seven generations.
Approach the taking of life with great restraint.
Practice great generosity.
And repair the web. (4)

My evolution of thought is a reminder not to become too attached to any spiritual symbol, lest it become atrophied, or worse, I discover that it’s destructive to a whole population of people different from myself. It’s another way of repairing the web in my own small way.

It’s kind of like that cake that I baked on my birthday, that was made from ingredients grown all over the world; shipped to plants in other regions to be processed and distributed to the grocers that sold them to me. We’ll never know the many hands that touched those ingredients en route to my kitchen, nor the lives of the people that developed the recipes and practices I used in baking it. And yet, their work and imagination combined with mine to make something that was shared, rather than consumed in isolation.

And here’s the thing about baking my own birthday cake. I wanted to. It felt like the best gift the people gathered could give me was to eat something I made. Not because I wanted to work on a day when I was supposed to be served, but because I wanted the connection. Ultimately, it’s all about connection.

(1) Kathleen M. Carroll. A Mary Christmas. 1989. Franciscan Media, Cincinnati OH.

(2) Judith Plaskow. Religion and the Feminist Movement Conference – Panel II.

(3) Carol P. Christ. She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World. 2003. Palgrave MacMillan, New York NY.

(4) Christ. She Who Changes.