(St. Luke Displaying a Painting of the Virgin, Guercino Barbieri, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
"I used to feel the dissonance whenever I heard Mary described as both Virgin and Mother; she seemed to set an impossible standard for any woman. But this was narrow-minded on my part. What Mary does is to show me how I indeed can be both virgin and mother. Virgin to the extent that I remain "one-in-myself," able to come to things with newness of heart; mother to the extent that I forget myself in the nurture and service of others, embracing the ripeness of maturity that this requires. This Mary is a gender-bender; she could do the same for any man."
--Kathleen Norris, "Meditations on Mary," p. 22
We've heard it thousands of times. The Blessed Virgin Mary, or "the BVM," for short. We say it in that same way we roar through the Lord's Prayer, almost a mumble. "Theblessedvirginmary." We literally call her name by rote, yet we Episcopalians have a hard time figuring out where to put Mary in our minds and hearts.
She is more than the wholly Protestant version of Mary to us, yet she's not quite the same as the Roman Catholic version of her, In a way, she defies categorization.
I totally hear where Kathleen Norris is coming from. It's been decades since I've been a virgin, and I'd say my chances as a mother these days are slim and none. Historically, I had always been, at the least, troubled by Mary. For one thing, from the moment I found out what a virgin was, I was pretty sure "perpetual virginity" was an awful lot to ask for. Oh, sure, it's possible, but it's not exactly a high finite number. The "motherhood" thing has always been lost on me, not being a mother. Yet she is a revered figure in our church, and not to be treated trivially.
I couldn't imagine her as statuary and art shows her--the eternally youthful, eternally demure, eternally beatific beautiful young woman. (As much as I love Michelangelo's Pieta, I still look at that statue and think, "You are way too young looking to have a 33 year old son.") I can't figure out as much from the Bible about her as I'd like. She speaks volumes in the Magnificat, but then she pretty much clams up from then on, Biblically speaking. We hear about her more or less in the third person from that point on.
So how do I learn to render my own picture of Mary, when I have so little fact to go on, and so much cultural iconography?
One way I do this is think of her as the theotokos--the God-bearer. But that doesn't help so much in terms of really exploring that virgin business and this mother business, and what that means to me. This is where Norris' words are the most helpful thing I've seen yet.
Hmmm. Virgin as "being able to start over again and again with newness of heart." Now, at first glance, I am not Little Miss Newness of Heart. Most of the time, I am a little on the jaded and skeptical side. Not very good Mary-like qualities.
However, the longer I sit with Mary (or more accurately, with images of her in front of me,) the more I come to realize I am selling myself short on my abilities to have newness of heart. I do that more than I let on. I try starting over with a sense of awe, in the possibility that all things are made new.
When I believe all things can be made new in the Realm of God, I find I become more forgiving of myself. Mary calls us to be open to the possibility of change within ourselves and to be receptive to that change. When these changes are new, they take on a timelessness to them. Mary calls for us to be a part of that timeliness. To enter into that timeliness brings a sense of naivete with it. In that sense, we all can be made new We can be part of helping others be made new, through our changed lives. The seemingly impossible can happen. In that sense, we can begin to believe in miracles again.
But what about that "mother" business?
I think of what is common to all of us when we take care of babies. We become so engrossed, so attuned to that baby's needs, and so understanding of its helplessness, that we literally lose ourselves in the process. Any perceived danger, any untoward noise, we are all over it. Our needs become less important and the baby's become sacrosanct.
How often do we ever lose ourselves in anything else, in quite that way?
To become like Mary is to lose ourselves that deeply, where we don't even notice and it doesn't even matter. This is far different from being a "helicopter parent," a codependent, or an enabler. An infant is truly helpless and vulnerable, and needs our care. Helicopter parents hover over children who need to experience things on their own. Codependents need other people to fulfill their needs in the name of giving themselves to that other person, and desire to control another person who doesn't always need our care and should be caring for themselves. Enablers always stop people before they are about to learn a life lesson. No one wants to stop a baby from growing, or rolling over, or crawling or walking.
Becoming a mother in the Mary sense means to give ourselves away without fear, expectations, resentment, or guilt.
I discover when I can trust God to handle the time frame and the process, when I can give myself away to a true need in a broken world, I begin to "get" Mary--her iconic visage begins to flesh out and grow real skin and have real expression on her face--but the minute I get away from that place, she ceases to be a real person in my mind and slowly morphs back to the painted statue with the beatific wooden smile, whom I can never be like because I'm simply not good enough. She's like trying to tune in a distant TV station by twisting the antenna. Yet I discover the longer I can hold my focus on her as a reality, the easier it becomes, and the further I lose myself in the art of finding Heaven on Earth, the easier it becomes to depict Mary as real.