I think it may be due to something about Mary. And today, of course, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Well, on some calendars, anyway.
My earliest memories of Christian education were lessons from the something called "The Baltimore Catechism" which we dutifully memorized.
I can still recall the first few questions:
Q: Who made you?The Catechism didn't actually say "only" through the (Roman) Catholic Church, but that was understood. Absolutely. No question. Because, of course, questions were not allowed.
A: God made me.
Q: Why did God make us?
A: God made us to show forth His goodness and to share with us His everlasting happiness in heaven.
Q: What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven?
A: To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.
Q: From whom do we learn to know, love, and serve God?
A: We learn to know, love, and serve God from Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who teaches us through the Catholic Church.
Obedience was expected. Demanded. Required. Absolutely.
My other early memories of the lessons I learned in the Roman Catholic Church did not come from the Baltimore Catechism but remain burned even more deeply into my memory.
That's because these things were not only taught by the nuns and priests but modeled for us in their behavior - and in the statues that were all around the church.
It had to do with the "natural order" of God's creation wherein it was understood that women were inferior to men. We were the "weaker sex" - in all ways - not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually and morally.
Two women - Eve and Mary - stood as sentinels at the Gateway of Good and Evil and served as reminders of how to behave as girls and young women - and, the consequences of our behavior.
Eve had been disobedient to God's will and tempted Adam to sin, causing "The Fall of Man", the destruction of Paradise and opened the world to pain and suffering.
Mary had been obedient and "submissive" to God's will and gave birth to Jesus, becoming the vehicle of the redemption of the world. Indeed, some insist she is the Co-Redemptrix.
The sins of Adam were redeemed by Jesus.
The sins of Eve were redeemed by Mary.
The logic was so neat and tidy it could hardly be denied.
"Neat and tidy" were "outward and visible" signs of acceptance of "God's will for us" and our obedience to "the Natural Law of God". Indeed, things around the church and convent and rectory were described as being "immaculate" - a standard my mother always tried to have us aspire to achieve in our own homes and in our own lives.
She wanted her house "immaculate". Our rooms "immaculate". Our clothing and shoes "immaculate". Our hair and nails "immaculate".
Because..............? Well, because Mary, of course, was "immaculate". She was the "Virgin Mother" and she was "meek and mild". A "handmaiden of the Lord" who "was obedient" to God.
And, she was, in every way "Immaculate" - which was somehow vaguely connected to sex (The nuns of my youth taught: "Sex is dirty and disgusting. Save it for someone you love".) but especially connected to gender (As Mary Daley taught, "If God is male then male is god").
I remember spending hours in the church, praying in front of a bank of votive candles which flickered at the base of the statue of Mary. She also had several incarnations in statues around my grandmother's house - on her bedroom bureau, on an end table in the living room, in an outdoor shrine in the garden - with plastic or fabric or paper flowers at her feet and votive candles which whispered secret petitions for her to intercede with her son for prompt answers to our prayers.
My prayers were always, "Please make me more like you." That was a sincere prayer from the innocence of my child's heart. It took me years to figure out why that prayer was never answered, and to understand that I was supposed to grow in who God made me (See also: The Baltimore Catechism - "God made me because God loves me" - as Mr. Rogers used to say - "just the way I am".)
The Feast of the Immaculate Conception was always a Very Big Deal in my grandmother's house. It was even bigger than the Feast of St. Nicholas a few days before wherein we got gold foil wrapped chocolate coins left in our shoes.
No, this was much, MUCH bigger than St. Nicholas. For the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the boys had to dress in their blue uniforms, but the girls got to wear white dresses and crowns of holly, ivy and poinsettia and process inside the church singing,
Immaculate Mary, thy praises we sing;Honoring Mary was the only time I can remember that girls got to feel really special in church. We so looked forward to Mary's Birthday on September 8th, her Presentation on November 21st, and the Assumption of Mary on August 15th - wherein she was "assumed" bodily into heaven - not that anything was "assumed" about her or that she just grew up and always simply "assumed" that she would one day be the Mother of God.
Who reignest in splendor with Jesus our King.
Ave, ave, ave, Maria! Ave, ave, Maria!
On those Marian days, we girls were special and simultaneously honored for being "good girls" while being warned about the consequences of being "bad girls" - mainly, that if the boys did anything wrong, it was, somehow, the girl's fault.
Other than than, we were considered "unclean" to even cross the altar rail or get anywhere near the altar. Only proven, trusted, faithful - and, menopausal - women could be on the Altar Guild, allowed to "do the dishes" for Jesus.
But, on the Feast of The Immaculate Conception, girls took center stage. Awards were given, according to age and grade. The girl in each class who had earned the highest grade so far was given a special award. So, too, the girl in each class who had "perfect" attendance.
The girl in each class who had written the best essay entitled, "Why I want to be more like Mary" was also given a special award. I was the recipient of that award. Twice. Hence, my long hours of prayers before the statue of Mary.
These "awards" consisted of a piece of immaculately white paper that announced "Award" and our name in immaculate hand calligraphy which had been done by one of the ancient nuns who lived in the immaculate convent next door and had been perfectly rolled up and tied in white and blue ribbon.
That was accompanied by either a pair of plastic rosary beads, a laminated prayer card with Marian prayers, or a plastic, glow-in-the-dark statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I came to later understand that these were just cheap plastic tchotchke, but, at the time, when we won one of them, we thought we had died and gone to heaven.
It has taken me years to get over Mary. Well, not Mary but what the church has done to her over the centuries.
The logic of her supposed "immaculate conception" may be nice and tidy, but it really doesn't resolve the problem of "original sin". And, if Mary was conceived by her parents, Anne and Joaquin, without sin, how could she be redeemed by the crucifixion and death of Jesus?
I'm hardly the first to highlight the problem. Critics of this particular piece of dogma include Saints Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas.
You see the problems. Except, of course, for the Roman Catholic Church which operates on the doctrine of "truth by blatant assertion".
In 2008, the Roman-Anglican Dialogues reported, " "The question arises for Anglicans, however, as to whether these doctrines concerning Mary are revealed by God in a way which must be held by believers as a matter of faith".
So, you'll excuse me if, today, I celebrate The Feast of Dirty Mary.
Not Mary "meek and mild" but strong and feisty.
Courageous enough to hear the voice of God and not go mad or allow herself to be considered crazy, having had a spiritual audition.
Bold enough to insist on being considered worthy, having been judged as having broken the laws of purity and propriety for a young virginal woman of her day.
Strong enough to journey alone to the Hill Country to spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth and be present for the birth of Elizabeth and Zacharia's son, John, who would become known as The Baptizer, who prepared the world for the life of the child in her womb.
Feisty enough to have raised a son whom she taught - by the lessons of Torah and by her very life - to love mercy, do justice, and walk attentively with God.
That is the difficult, sacrificial, messy work of many women throughout the ages.
Graham Greene, the English novelist, said the most serious heresy threatening the modern world is the unimportance of the individual. Mary's life and experiences - such as we know them - give us a different message than that of the world and some parts of the church: all is sacred, all creation is redeemed, all is a reflection of the glory of God.
Perhaps the church needs to dress her in white and blue, and foist her on stone grottoes, and shield her behind glass or plastic or wrought iron fences, and shower her feet with plastic or silk or paper flowers.
Not me. I like my Mary dirty. Real. Human. A woman like me who knows something about human pain and suffering, prejudice and oppression and yet never loses touch with the Divine who created her nor the spark of divinity within her.
Just like I want to grow up to be, one day.