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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Dirty Mary

Sometimes I wonder why, as a woman in the church, I have any religious faith at all.

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?
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.
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.

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;
Who reignest in splendor with Jesus our King.
Ave, ave, ave, Maria! Ave, ave, Maria!
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.

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.


June Butler said...

And St Bonaventure!

Thanks for your post which is a trip down memory lane for me, Elizabeth. Today I was thinking about the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and what a big deal it was for us growing up.

I may write a bit about my thoughts today, about my difficulties with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, about original sin, about being conceived in concupiscence (which for some reason makes me laugh), and the dissenters to the doctrine from within the church, which thought sent me to Google, which is how I knew about Bonaventure.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, I have such memories of this day - hoping and praying that the white dress bought for me (on sale) to celebrate Mary's Assumption in August and still fit for her birthday in September but barely fit for her presentation in November would still fit me for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception! Oh, and my white shoes and gloves. (My mother said I was "growing like a weed". My grandmother said I was "growing like a lovely Day Lily").

We also had vanilla cupcakes with white and blue frosting. And, we wore our white and blue Marion scapula (do you remember those?).

One of my favorite words in the whole world is "concupiescence". No spell check I've ever known recognizes it. Which makes ME laugh.

Yes, and St. Bonaventure, and I think St. Jerome, but I was too lazy to look it up. I wrote this piece this morning in the waiting room of the car dealership while my car was being service for its regular 35K check up. I was the only woman in the room of six men, with various salesmen and service men passing through.

I giggled the whole time.

it's margaret said...

Well... I am a Christian because of Mary.... One night long ago I was yelling and screaming at God and I told God that Jesus had it easy --all he had to do was die --it was the living of it all that was so hard (I was quite young) --and in the middle of the night, Mary came in the window on a moon beam... spoke to me of surviving the death of her greatest work of art through love. Love. Love. And all that that means.

I was hooked. Eyes wide open.
Thanks be to God.

I think vanilla cupcakes, parades and plastic statues might have been much more fun!

Bill said...

Now you know I can't touch this topic in two or three sentences. I'll get back to this after dinner.

But I should tell you that in the First Grade at Sts Peter & Paul in the Bronx, I received a little plastic statue of Mary and I still have it.

Bill said...

Ok, I’m back. Mary was always a favorite of mine. As a young boy my reasoning was based in pure logic. If you wanted a favor from the son, you asked Mom. I mentioned it before but I still have these little plastic statues from the 1st, 2nd & 3rd grade. One was the Child Jesus but the other two were of Mary. The 2nd grade Mary was very matronly looking but the 3rd grade Mary had some figure, let me tell you.
I remember so much from Catholic school. Let’s face it, the nuns were my moms. My real mom had to work to support us so in reality, we had more quality time with the nuns. These days, parents take a more active role in raising their children. In the fifties, raising the children was left to the nuns and they ruled with an iron hand.
Some years ago, I needed to put some of my memories about those years into a poem which I’ll tack onto the end of this. I remember being in the basement of Sts Peter and Paul’s school (St. Petes). It was either the 1st or 2nd grade. They had us playing “A tisket a tasket” and since I never watched where I was walking, I slammed into a concrete pillar. I actually managed to knock myself out. I remember looking up into the face of the nun. I thought I was dead.
The nuns had to walk up this monstrous hill right passed my house to get to the convent. Later I would confuse convent with coven, a legitimate mistake. They had to make that walk every school day and Sunday in all kinds of weather. The priests only had to walk about 100 feet from the rectory to the church; and they had cars. It was good to be male in the Catholic Church.
When we moved to the North Bronx, we enrolled in St Martin of Tours School and Church. It was great. They had this really nifty stained glass window of St Martin on a horse. He carried a sword and wore armor. Now this was more like it for a nine year old boy. He seemed to be wearing a skirt, but he carried it off. At St. Martin’s, we had Dominican Nuns, the original prototype penguins. My education continued and we started to get into religious instruction aka the Baltimore Catechism. We learned all about sin, that day and every day thereafter. If you hadn’t sinned today, you may as well pray and ask forgiveness, because eventually you would sin.
When we made first confession it was kind of cool until the nuns told us we had to go every Saturday. They must have thought we were really terrible sinners. In Church we would always check out which priest was in what confessional. It was like Goldilocks. One was too strict, one asked too many questions and one couldn’t speak English. So we all lined up at Father Monteleones confessional.
Our classrooms were co-ed. We wouldn’t be separated until High School when our hormones would go into overdrive. The girls were ordered not to wear patent leather shoes. There was great fear that the boys would look at the reflection in the shoes and see up the girls skirts. It never worked, I tried. Here I am almost 60 years later, and afraid to wear patent leather with my kilt.
Boys and girls were molded into the expectations of the Church. Boys were not supposed to ever cry. It was ok for girls to cry. Boys wore pants and girls wore skirts. Boys were supposed to have short haircuts and girls were taught how to braid. Boys were taught that someday they would have to serve their country – usually just after the Pledge of Allegiance. The girls were taught that they were expected to grow up, marry, and have babies, just like the Blessed Mother.
The girls by unanimous decision decided that the Blessed Mother was theirs. I decided they were wrong and have always kept Mary in a special place in my heart. You can’t recite two million Hail Mary’s and think it won’t have an effect. I even had to learn it in Latin. Last week at Evensong, I found myself singing along with the Ave Maria. I was getting some odd looks because there was no sheet music provided. It was from the deep recesses of memory..

Bill said...

Ok, enough of memory lane, here’s the poem:

Black and White

I remember the first grade
Drawings of block letters
Around the room, above the blackboard
Small letters – a,b,c,d and
Big letters – E,F,G,H
Learned by rote from women
In black and white.

We’d draw them over and over again
With stubby pencils
Or erase them until there
Were holes in the paper
Until they were perfect
Images on ruled paper
In black and white

We learned how to go from place to place
Two by two, hand in hand, smallest to largest
No talking on the stairs
No pushing, no shoving.
Everything was good or bad, right or wrong
All the lessons learned ,
Were In black and white.

And now things are not so simple
The maybes and what ifs pull at the mind
The grays and hues cloud our thoughts
Where once we acted decisively
Now we grind to a halt, and think, and ponder,
And yearn for the days when everything was -
In Black and white.

WHS, April 28, 2003

So you see, I can write a whole lot more after I've eaten supper. The system made me publish this in two parts..too many words.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Bill, Thanks so much for this walk with you down Memory Lane. I've been having several "offline" conversations with men and women who grew up in the RC Church. Some of the memories are silly but all of them are significant.

I have lots of gratitude in my heart.

Caminante said...

As a cradle Episcopalian, I missed out on all this, but having spent fourteen years as rector of a congregation that bore the name of Saint Mary, I grew to love her even more than I had in the 1980s as I was discovering liberation theology from a Latin American perspective where the Magnificat is a foundation of so much that followed and then feminist theology who turned Mary from the door mat to the feisty woman. There is much more than that, but I do love her... have a small plaque from La Palma Semillas de Dios taller I bought in March that is of a walking woman with a dove and the sun, 'La Virgen Caminante.' Next to her is Guadeloupe. During the past three years, Trinity heard about Mary but I suspect with my departure, she will disappear from the prayers.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Mary is my favorite too. But my memories are a bit different than your memories of the Catholic school. This maybe because I attended school after Vatican II. At our church girls were allowed to be alter girls just like the boys. Was that because there were too few boys and I just didn't know it? Or were we in a run away liberal parish in the middle of no where?
But, somethings were the same. The sisters were the ones that cared for us, brushed our hair, fed us (spiritually and physically), and loved us. A priest was well a person we saw for an hour or so on Sunday. The sisters were Benedictines, some wore habits and others were more modern. But they all cared about us.
The one thing that really bothered me as a little girl was why we needed to pray for more boys to go into the priesthood; but, we were not asked to pray for girls to go anywhere, i.e. the sisterhood or the priesthood. This maybe the reason that there are fewer sisters than ever. No need for an investigation into the women religious on that one. Oh I digress.
Thanks for the memories even if my post Vatican II ones from the SW are a bit different.