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.