My Mondays with Mary

As I’ve shared before, I spend my Mondays in the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, which I call the basilica for short. I haven’t known exactly what to think about the dozen or so statues of Mary that are in the various chapels surrounding both the cathedral sanctuary and the crypt. In a different phase of my life, I would count them as proof of the idolatry of Roman Catholicism and a blatant violation of the second commandment, but I’ve decided not to judge what I don’t understand. I know that I feel the Holy Spirit’s presence quite strongly in the basilica. Something is going on in that place. Very devout Christians in the past have somehow had an experience of the Spirit that caused them to develop the ideas about Mary that the Church has today. So I decided to talk to Mary. Not pray to her, just to say hello.

What I said was something along the lines of this: “I know that you’re there because I believe that people with eternal life don’t really die when their earthly bodies stop working. I don’t mind talking to you, but if that’s supposed to be part of what I do each day, then reveal yourself to me and help me understand why.” It hit me that one of the main reasons talking to Mary doesn’t make sense to Protestants like me is because we don’t take our belief in life after death very seriously (or perhaps we think that those who live with God or in a heaven that’s far far away as opposed to existing among us in heavenly form). Life after death is on the list of ideas that we’re supposed to say yes to, but thinking that there is actually a Mary who’s floating around making appearances on hillsides and causing statues to cry and bleed and all that crazy stuff…. doesn’t that seems like a bunch of pre-modern superstitious nonsense that only uneducated peasants would buy into? And yet, what does life after death look like if not that?

I’ve often had the same kind of skepticism about the canonization process as I have of the faith-healing of televangelist Benny Hinn, who smacks people on the forehead and casts demons out of them. Why can’t the saints just be people who were thoroughly holy in their lifetimes? Why do they have to cause multiple miracles to happen? Of course, the part that offends me without my realizing it is the literalness with which both Catholics and Orthodox understand the ongoing living presence of their saints. It’s all good when we talk about being “surrounded by a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) as a word of comfort to people who are grieving loss, but speaking directly to those witnesses seems a little weird (and pre-modern). It requires actually taking our belief in their presence seriously.

I don’t think I’ll ever talk to saints on a regular basis. An Eastern Orthodox priest told me I would change my mind about this after reading Vladimir Lossky’s The Meaning of Icons, which I do plan on checking out after I finish some other books. I guess it’s been challenging enough to make time for daily conversation with God; I can’t imagine trying to carve out time for Maximus and Gregory and Basil and Augustine and the rest. What would be more appropriate to say to them than to say to God directly? That’s where it doesn’t make sense to me.

At the same time, I had a very interesting and even spooky encounter on my way out of the noon mass. I stopped at one of the Mary statues and on the wall behind it was the quote from Jesus talking to his mother from the cross: “Woman, here is your son,” and saying to His beloved disciple, “Here is your mother.” I had never thought before about interpreting Jesus’ words to the disciple as being directed at me. But somehow at that moment in time He was talking to me: here is your mother. And so I thought, what do I do with this? I don’t need another mother. I’ve got an amazing mother. And I’ve also had a lot of surrogate mothers who have been loving, nurturing mentors throughout my journey. But then the thought came into my head: what if the mother of God has somehow been present in and through my own mother and all the nurturers I’ve had in my journey?

I’m not sure what to make of that. I’m used to saying that God Himself has been present in my nurturers and mentors. Is it making Mary into a goddess to attribute that presence to her instead? Theologically I cannot accept the formula “through Mary to Jesus” because God’s intermediary doesn’t need an intermediary Himself. Also, the doctrine of the immaculate conception seems to suffer from the Docetist need for the flesh that Jesus became not to be normal flesh. Part of the 100% humanness of Jesus was that he had a “mother and brothers and sisters” who tried to shut down His ministry because they thought He was crazy (Mark 3:31-35). It doesn’t make sense to me to make Jesus’ brothers and sisters into his “cousins” through an irregular translation of the Greek adelphoi just to defend the papal infallibility of whichever pope came up with the unfortunate idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

So I’m still trying to figure Mary out. I’m not going to make her my goddess. I just know that God talks to me most intimately each week in a building where there are statues of her everywhere. I won’t judge what I don’t understand. Maybe one day I will understand.

24 thoughts on “My Mondays with Mary

  1. Morgan,

    I love comment #10 above.

    I have been to the basilica two times and wish I could go many more. Happy to hear you enjoy Mondays with Mary!

    A priest once told me he overheard my Italian grandmother praying in front of a statue of Mary outloud in church and asking Mary to grant the request she was asking by saying “tell your papa”. The priest thought it was funny because she thought she was in the church alone. My grandmother said many “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” in her lifetime.

    The “Our Father” is the greatest prayer! Another powerful prayer is the “Memorare”:
    Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
    Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.

    Next time you go, please pray for our family!

    May God love you, Morgan!

  2. Morgan,
    I don’t know where God is calling you, but I thank Him for your witness to His transforming power in your life. As a lifelong Catholic and an RCIA Catechist in our parish I feel more “in union” with you than with many who purport to be Catholic. I truly appreciate your openness to the Catholic faith, and I believe that you provide a tremendous service to the Holy Spirit in sharing your experiences in the Catholic Church. If we can all begin to see one another as seekers of the the truth and share our struggles in living the faith we are that much closer to the kingdom. Thanks again my brother.

  3. “What would be more appropriate to say to them than to say to God directly? That’s where it doesn’t make sense to me.”

    We should, of course, pray directly to God, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a good thing to ask other to pray for us as well. Taking your thought to its logical extreme, why should we ever ask any Christian, in heaven or on earth, to pray for us when we can talk directly to God?

    We pray for each other because Jesus told us to do so, and not only for those who asked us to do so (Matt. 5:44). In 1 Timothy 2:1-4, Paul strongly encouraged Christians to intercede for many different things. Elsewhere, Paul directly asks others to pray for him (Rom. 15:30–32, Eph. 6:18–20, Col. 4:3, 1 Thess. 5:25, 2 Thess. 3:1), and he assured them that he was praying for them as well (2 Thess. 1:11).

    The practice of asking others to pray for us is so highly recommended in Scripture that we cannot regard it as superfluous simply because we could go directly to God with our petitions. The NT would not encourage it if there was no benefit. One such benefit is that the faith and devotion of the saints can support our own weaknesses and supply what is lacking in our own faith and devotion. Jesus regularly supplied for one person based on another person’s faith (e.g., Matt. 8:13, 15:28, 17:15–18, Mark 9:17–29, Luke 8:49–55). It goes without saying that those in heaven, being free of the body and the distractions of this life, have even greater confidence and devotion to God than anyone on earth.

    Also, God may take particular consideration of the prayers of the righteous. James declares: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit” (Jas. 5:16–18). Yet those Christians in heaven are more righteous, since they have been made perfect to stand in God’s presence (Heb. 12:22-23), than anyone on earth, meaning their prayers would be even more efficacious.

    Having others praying for us thus is a good thing. Of course, we should pray directly to God (John 14:13-14), and the prayers of the Mass are all directed to God and Jesus, not the saints, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t also ask our fellow Christians, including those in heaven, to pray with us.

    • I knew I was going to get a long response from you, Dan. 🙂 If I ever discover that I’m not actually called to ordained ministry and my wife isn’t either, then maybe you’ll see me enter into full communion with Rome or the East though the East would be more likely. Until then I will continue to be an ecumenical sacramental evangelical grateful for the grace of God wherever I find it.

      • There are married Latin Rite priests too! They’re all former Protestant ministers.

        There are many ministeries for women within Catholicism. In the Eastern rite, it is understood that the wife of the priest serves a special ministry, so she is given a special title. It’s “Presvetera” in Greek, if I recall correctly; I forget what it is in Arabic.

        • These are all things that we’ve discussed. As God reveals, I will follow. But it may be that my role is to be more of a bridge anyway. Can a Catholic conceive of unity without hegemony or does it have to always be come to us so we can have unity?

          • A Catholic can, but not this Protestant convert, maybe. ^_^

            It’s not about hegemony, but unity through unity of belief/dogma. The Magisterium doesn’t keep Catholics on a short leash, as evidenced by the news pretty much every week. It’s a big tent, containing a wide diversity of practice and tradition. Unity comes from our shared dogma, and it’s the Magisterium’s job to shepherd those who wander off from the truth.

      • Dan, RE: Eastern Rite presbyteras;

        In Arabic it is called Khouria.

        It doesn’t really matter, though, as most GC leadership is in open theological rebellion against Rome, while schizophrenically believing themselves to be in communion with Rome. They’re in a tough spot.

  4. There are about ten instances in the New Testament where “brothers” and “sisters” of the Lord are mentioned: Matt. 12:46; Matt. 13:55; Mark 3:31-34; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12, 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5

    The terms “brother” (Greek: adelphos), “brothers” (adelphoi), and “sister” (adelphe) have a wide meaning in the Bible and is not restricted to blood brothers and sisters, but rather are used Biblically to refer to any relative from whom you are not descended and who are not descended from you, kinsmen such as cousins (Deut. 23:7; Neh. 5:7; Jer. 34:9, as in the reference to the forty-two “brethren” of King Azariah in 2 Kgs. 10:13-14), those who are family members by marriage or law, and even friends or mere political allies (2 Sam. 1:26; Amos 1:9).

    Lot is called Abraham’s “brother” (Gen. 14:14), even though, being the son of Haran, Abraham’s brother (Gen. 11:26-28), he was actually Abraham’s nephew. Similarly, Jacob is called the “brother” of his uncle Laban (Gen. 29:15). Kish and Eleazar were the sons of Mahli. Kish had sons of his own, but Eleazar had no sons, only daughters, who married their “brethren,” the sons of Kish. These “brethren” were really their cousins (1 Chr. 23:21–22).

    Neither Hebrew nor Aramaic has a word for “cousin”, so you either used “brother” or “the son of my uncle”, which was awkward and so rarer. The writers of the NT, like the translators of the Septuagint a century or two before Christ’s birth, imported the Jewish idiom into the Greek, using “adelphos” for both “brother” and “cousin”, rather than using the Greek word for cousin, “anepsios”. (We see in the Septuagint that even actual cousins are called adelphos.)

    When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would conceive a son, she asked, “How can this be since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34). From the Church’s earliest days, as the Fathers interpreted this Bible passage, Mary’s question was taken to mean that she had made a vow of lifelong virginity, even in marriage. She did not say, “I have HAD no relations”, but rather, “I have no relations”. One traditional understanding, outlined in the Proto-evangelium of James (A.D. 125) records that Joseph was selected from a group of widowers to serve as the husband/protector of Mary, who was a virgin consecrated to God. When he was chosen, Joseph objected: “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl” (4:9).

    When Jesus was found in the Temple as a boy (Luke 2:41-51), there is no suggestion of any other children of Mary. Jesus is referred to by Nazarenes as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3), not as “a son of Mary.” Even when others are called Jesus’ “brethren”, they are never referred to as Mary’s sons.

    In Eastern cultures, older brothers were expected to advise their younger brothers, but the opposite would be regarded as disrespectful. We know that Jesus was the first born of Mary (Luke 2:7), yet Jesus’ “brethren” acted like his elders, advising him to quit Galilee for Judea (John 7:3-4) and restraining him (Mark 3:21).

    Dying on the cross, Jesus entrusts his mother to John (John 19:26–27), who is not one of the four so-called “brethren” of Jesus (James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude). There is no way that Jews would have disregarded family ties by entrusting her to John if she had other sons.

    Backing up the testimony of Scripture regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity is the testimony of the early Christian Church. Around 380, Helvidius first brought up the notion that the “brothers of the Lord” were children born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. The great Scripture scholar Jerome at first declined to comment on Helvidius’ remarks because they were a “novel, wicked, and a daring affront to the faith of the whole world.” At length, though, Jerome’s friends convinced him to write a reply, which turned out to be his treatise called On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary. He used not only the scriptural arguments given above, but cited earlier Christian writers, such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. Helvidius was unable to come up with a reply, and his theory remained in disrepute and was unheard of until more recent times.

  5. Be careful, Morgan; the last friend of mine who asked Mary for a sign had a heart attack soon after, during which Mary appeared to him. He’s Catholic now.

  6. “Also, the doctrine of the immaculate conception seems to suffer from the Docetist need for the flesh that Jesus became not to be normal flesh. Part of the 100% humanness of Jesus was that he had a “mother and brothers and sisters” who tried to shut down His ministry because they thought He was crazy (Mark 3:31-35). It doesn’t make sense to me to make Jesus’ brothers and sisters into his “cousins” through an irregular translation of the Greek adelphoi just to defend the papal infallibility of whichever pope came up with the unfortunate idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity.”

    I think you may be confused about what the immaculate conception is.

    The immaculate conception is not the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb. It has to do with the conception of Mary *herself* in the womb of her mother, Anna, by her father Joachim. The notion is [forgive me if I am erring here] that because you inherit the guilt of original sin through sexual propagation, specifically from the father’s sperm in some understandings (see: St. Augustine, Council of Trent Session V) the only way for Christ to have been born sinless is if original sin had been cleaned from Mary and the act of her conception through a particular act of Divine Grace.

    Eastern Orthodox agree with the Immaculate part, that Joachim and Anna had immaculate sex. We actually have icons of them by their marriage bed. Foolishness to the Greeks, and all that. And also that Mary is holy and pure because she is the Ark of the New Covenant. The way that original sin was formulated, and the original sin part of the teaching, that’s something we don’t agree with so much.

    In any case, hope that clears that up.

    As for Mary’s virginity; we really do believe that Christ was born from a virgin. Midrash or not, it’s a theological truth. I assume you’d agree. The belief in her virginity after Christ’s birth, also, is not the invention of some “infallible” bishop, but is rather a belief that appears in texts in the 100’s AD, and was surely part of an older oral tradition. In other words, it is an ancient Christian belief. The East has always viewed Joseph as an older man at his marriage to Mary, and that he had children from a previous marriage. I think this midrash is much more acceptable than “cousins”, but that’s just personal opinion.

    You might ask “why perpetual virgin at all?” But, I mean, then you could ask “why virgin birth at all”?

    For one, it’s part of some cool prophecies from Isaiah. Not just that a maiden will give birth. But the “untrodden gate” through which only God can enter.

    Anyway, hope that helps!

  7. I, too, am a Protestant Christian interacting with Catholic theology and worship. I received my training in spiritual direction through a group of charismatic Benedictines and I will be forever grateful for all that I have learned through those experiences. I think you’re right about the source of our discomfort – a lot of it is fear of idolatry, a lot of it is fear of superstition. But the underneath fear, the one that sort of feeds all the others, is our fear of what happens when we die. We don’t have the answers to all our questions, so we just don’t talk about it. Well, the whole idea of saints and maryology pushes us to think about things we’re uncomfortable with. I very much like your idea of the communion of saints. I came to believe, many years ago, that heaven was not someplace ‘up there,’ but rather it is a dimension ‘right here.’ We cannot see it with our earth-bound eyes – but I think there are ‘thin places,’ maybe even ‘thin experiences’ that allow glimpses. I wrote elsewhere yesterday about Madeleine L’Engle’s use of the verb re-member as an important part of the sacrament of communion – when we gather, we not only remember the sacrifice of our Lord, but we also re-member ourselves as his body…those gathered in the same space AND those gathered from the heavenly realms as we celebrate. Together. Thanks for this wondering aloud, Morgan. Your friend is right – your ideas are not fully formed yet. But speaking quite personally, I find that to be just fine. We all need encouragement to think more deeply about things and your willingness to put your thoughts out here does exactly that. So, thank you!

  8. Wow….you bring up so many interesting insights.
    Growing up Catholic, Mary had a huge influence in my life. I am named after her. One of the reasons I switched over to the Methodist faith was because of the confusing role of Mary as someone you could pray to, and you could pray to her “in case God was busy, She would relate your communication directly to Him”. I didn’t buy this. Some of my friends layer a wreath at the foot of a statue of Mary during their wedding vows. As you know, Catholics are big into statues, but I always wondered what these people look like. How could people of color relate to Jesus as a white man with a beard?
    I found Mary to be an example of a classy lady. I wanted to be like Her.
    The whole saint thing has always been weird to me. “St Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around. Something is lost and needs to be found”. I mean really.
    I have cherry picked through saints and used some as an example of how I want to live my life. For example, my son attended LaSalle University. I imagine you would know the story of this man …..the human, in the flesh guy. While at LaSalle he lived the EXAMPLE of St.. Francis de la Salle. When we first dropped Billy off at college, the parents were all herded into the theatre. The take away message from the President of the College, was that “we are about community”. Lifting each other up in prayer, helping our immediate neighborhood, and praying for all suffering in the world. In short, they walked the walk. I walked out of that place feeling like I got this right. This is where I wanted my son to grow.
    Saints are confusing, but I feel like I grew from having them in my life. The whole concept that a human, in the flesh person could canonize another human, in the flesh person a saint is just plain old messed up. I always felt priests were a total fraud.
    If there were such a thing as saints, the catholic church missed a whole bunch of people. But, as a little kid, sitting in a pew listening to some weird dude speak in Latin, my interpretation worked for me.

    • Cool. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I think my experience with Catholic spirituality is always going to be a Protestant one. It’s one thing to have surreal mystical experiences with the Holy Spirit that involve seeing a statue cry or a mysterious woman on a hillside. It’s another thing to turn that into infallible doctrine. I could never take the second step. And the whole “God is busy” idea goes completely against what I believe about God.

  9. A sincere, if not naive reaction. In my opinion, that is not good enough. Morgan, if I were you, I would thoroughly process this very important topic before ruminating on it in public out of respect for your calling as a teacher of the truth. Processing truth is like going through a pregnancy. There are nine months of incubation, during which time the child is not made public and the mother is very sensitive. When the baby is fully formed only then is it made public.

    • Thanks Michael. I respect your opinion and it’s helpful to my discernment. I guess in my understanding of what I’m supposed to be doing, I don’t see it as problematic for me to share my wrestling in process rather than waiting until I have a conclusive answer. I ask God every day whether I should even be writing a blog at all. It’s an ongoing conversation. I do recognize that I have a weakness for impulsiveness and exhibitionism. So I take your exhortation seriously. God bless.

    • On the contrary, Michael, a pregnant woman is visibly growing a child, and the (sometimes unpleasant) symptoms she experiences and shows are evidence of the potential life growing within. I think there’s nothing wrong with Morgan wrestling in public with his theology about Mary. It doesn’t mean he’s going to wind up worshiping every Mary statue and icon he finds. It means he’s truly struggling with, and internalizing, Mary’s significance to Christian faith.

  10. Morgan, I find this a fascinating post. I, too, have a complicated relationship with Mary and her meaning for us non-Catholic Christians. For example, as a member of the Order of Saint Luke, much of my personal spirituality stems from Luke’s account of Jesus, which places the greatest emphasis on Mary of all the gospels. Mary’s Magnificat, which draws on Hannah’s song of joy at Samuel’s birth, is for me one of the greatest feminine statements of the divine in the Holy Bible. “My soul gives glory to my God,” which is Sister Miriam Therese Winter’s contemporary interpretation of the first line of the Magnificat, is my OSL signature. So I, too, although a Wesleyan, am deeply rooted in Marian spirituality.

    However, I do not idolize or even venerate Mary in the way that Catholics do. I view her not as a goddess, but as the ultimate human being co-creating a future with God. I can’t remember the writer at the moment, but there’s a theologian who has supported the feminine nature of the Holy Spirit through Mary’s conception of Jesus. The phrase, “their wombs conjoined,” describes how it was possible for the Incarnation to occur, how Jesus could retain divinity at the same time he took on humanity.

    And of course, there is no doubt that Mary’s participation was crucial to the Incarnation. Kathleen Norris has a wonderful poem about this, “Mary said, ‘Yes!'” that describes both Mary’s willingness to welcome God as well as God’s respect of human free will (unlike other religious systems of the time in which so-called gods were regularly raping human women to produce demi-god offspring). As a woman who has suffered abuse in the past, I find this to be a powerful theology.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment. Clearly, you struck a chord with me. I envy your Mondays at the basilica, and I hope you have many more of them.

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