Question: how does one describe a love for, and reliance on, the Blessed Virgin Mary without sounding hopelessly sentimental? Answer: I haven’t figured it out, exactly. But here’s a pretty good attempt from Eric Clapton. (Back in 1986, y’all, when our hair was big, our shoulders were padded, and yours truly wasn’t thinking about the Holy Mother one bit.)
Yesterday, I had the chance to hear a brief talk by Elisabeth Vasko (who teaches theology at Duquesne), here at Providence College: “Perfectionism and Moral Innocence: Re-examining White Christian Complicity in the 21st Century.” As someone who drank long (and early) at the well of the late Augustine, I can’t help but appreciate one of her central points. She noted that white folks tend to cling to a position of innocent ignorance with regard to race, and that claiming a certain expertise about race or race theory (rehearsing, for example, their own consciousness-raising experiences regarding race) can, ironically, be precisely as a way to do that.
The trouble with things like racism—when it’s understood not simply as the collected, unfortunate attitudes of certain individuals, but rather a systemic, sinful reality that we breathe like oxygen—is that there really is no climbing out. The way in which our history with race has shaped us goes to some of the most basic ways that we think and behave. As Prof. Vasko noted, even when we mean well, white folks can actually end up reinforcing a racist structure. Not that it is difficult to understand the impulse to establish one’s innocence, of course. Prof. Vasko noted that we live in a cultural moment when we all seem to be desperately seeking immunity from critique. (And, to be fair, after all, there’s a lot of it.)
(For you theology-types, by the way, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you buy, read, and grapple with the claims of the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings, who argues in his new book, The Christian Imagination, that our history with race has shaped our theological work, in particular.)
In the very last sentence of her talk, though, Professor Vasko spoke a hope-filled word that opens up new imaginative world: “repentance.” To repent means finally to give up all our delusions of innocence, to embrace the fact of our guilt. The very old-fashioned category of “true contrition” is captured in the prayer still repeated by penitents in the confessional: “My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.” This is real sorrow, the sorrow of knowing both the sin and its effects.
In the movement of Christian repentance, though, this real sorrow happens against a real horizon of hope. It is only in this way that it avoids another very serious sin, the sin of despair.
Just today, my students and I were reading the famous description given by Dante of the souls in Purgatorio:
And later you will see those who rejoice
while they are burning, for they have hope of coming,
whenever it may be, to join the blessed…
To know that we are far from what we should be is a painful suffering, a baptism by fire. But in the light of that greater hope, well, even we racists rejoice.
What is it, a smart and insightful friend asked recently, with blogging? He was, I believe, sniffing out some of the less savory dynamics that seem almost inevitably to accompany blogs, and the writing of them. An attachment grows. The checking of stats becomes compulsive. Readers can feel a growing love of the sound of the keys clicking out the writer’s opinions far and wide. And bloggers can grow harsh and fractious, which is to say, boring. Now, with the unexpected departure of one of the best practitioners of the form, more than one commentator has declared the blog dead.
Well, yes. And, maybe, no.
When I was eight years old, in 1975, I was given what was advertised as a “wordless book.” “In My Own Write,” said the cover.” Not just a diary, no, this was a book that would be about things other than just what happened that day. Insightful reflections, maybe? A poem or two? Anyone who knew me knew that what I wanted to be when I grew up was “an author.”
It is many years later. The Internet is not so beautiful and pristine. It is crowded, jumbled, very loud. Somehow, though, that is just what makes it possible for me to carve out a space. I thought that maybe now, I would write a few pages.
I do not check the stats on this blog. It is an offering. Take whatever you can, and, if you comment, or let me privately about some benefit to you, that will just be icing on the cake.
The blog is dead. Long live the blog.
The way of Mary, as we’ve seen, sometimes requires action, action that is simultaneously careful and daring, taken at just the right moment. Following in this way can never, though, be reduced to action. It can never be simply a matter of effort.
In Mary’s own story, a signal moment is offered to us in the gospel of John. The transformation of water to wine in the second chapter is often rightly noted as a turning point in the life of Christ: his first miracle and the start of his public ministry. We might also look, though, at the pattern modeled by Mary in this event. All of Jesus’ disciples are present with him at a wedding, but it is she who notices that the hosts are running short of wine. Preachers often draw our attention to the magnitude of this crisis in a traditional culture, but, really, anyone with experience as a host knows that this is a serious matter. (Should I add that even in my own house, a hapless husband may have been pressed into an emergency mission to *go buy more wine*?)
And Mary does act. Like the mothers of Israel before her, she responds quickly and decisively. Their actions were ones that embodied reference to God and a commitment to God’s purposes. Now, though, Mary speaks to God in the flesh, and so her actions refer to the matter to God in a way that is direct and personal. She does not recommend to Jesus any particular action, but she does bring the concern immediately to him: “They have no wine.”
There is a wordless agreement in the exchange that follows, an agreement beneath an exchange that seems initially to be disagreement. (And if that algorithm is a confusing one, well, it’s also one that will be immediately familiar to any mother of an adult child). In his initial response, Jesus seems to demur, and certainly gives no guarantee that he will act: “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” For her part, she does not press him, but even without any guarantee, she reaffirms the sense of having committed the matter to him. Indeed, she draws others into this act of handing-over: “His mother said to the servers, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’” And Jesus, too, in the end, does respond.
For us, the analogous action of committal is prayer, and this, I would argue, is the single most foundational practice of a Marian way. Our first task is an explicit, conscious committal of the difficult or dangerous situation we face to the Lord. And we, too, are called to refer the matter to God in the way Mary does, through Christ. This may be an individual action as was Mary’s, or it may be communal, in a way that returns us to the pattern of the Visitation. Every “prayer service for peace” is a form of this referral, but in a sense, every prayer and all prayer is, too. The great prayer of the Eucharist gathers up every act of committing-to-God. We do not dictate a plan of action, and we are not answered with any guarantee. We simply begin by acknowledging where the ultimate source of power to resolve the problem lies.
Like the servants in this account, we may well be called by God into a second form of action. It is, after all, only as they follow Jesus’ direction, filling large, empty jars with water, and then taking a small serving to the head waiter, that they find the wonder that has been performed. Here, though, having has passed through the process of committal to God, action has been transformed into obedience.
Without this element, responses to evil may be well-intentioned. They may be courageous and creatively nonviolent. They may even have some effect. But they will ultimately be an exercise in pelagianism—and in exhaustion. They are not Mary’s way.
News of terrible violence continues to swirl around us. And in the midst of anger, sadness, and fear, we continue to ask what we can do. The Way of Mary, I suggested in an earlier post, is a way forward. So what is that way, exactly? In the Mothers of Israel, we have begun to seen its outlines emerging. These women recognize the threat of violence around them, they turn to those who are most vulnerable, and they demonstrate a remarkable sort of holy poise. Even in the face of stomach-turning violence, they are focused enough to act decisively at the crucial moment, and ready to take on great risk.
The question, it seems to me, is what lies behind action of this kind. What sets the stage for this sort of courage, for this sort of creative, faithful, collaboration? Here, I’d propose that we shift our gaze to another meeting of two mothers of Israel—to Mary herself, to the “new Moses,” and to the most primal gospel encounter.
It is described for us in the first chapter of Luke.
39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah, 40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! 43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? 44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” (NET)
It is difficult to overestimate the importance of this meeting. It is, after all, the first gospel moment, the first of a familiar pattern in which an individual encounters the Lord Jesus and is transformed. The details of this encounter, I believe, also allow a defining glimpse of Mary’s way.
This encounter of the individual, John, with Christ, occurs in a profoundly communal phenomenon, one that is mediated in primal, bodily ways.
As I’ve noted elsewhere,
Mary greets Elizabeth, but it is Elizabeth’s unborn child who, hearing Mary’s greeting, reacts. Recognizing Mary as the bearer of Christ’s presence, John’s reaction is immediate and powerful: he leaps for joy. It is this wordless announcement that causes Elizabeth to cry out loudly in response, hailing both the mother and the child who is ultimately the source of joy. And, finally, in Elizabeth’s verbal response to her, Mary becomes aware of this singular chain of events, and as she does so, she herself is thus drawn into this communal event of encounter and joy.
The Way of Mary, I would argue, has its deep source here, in this embodied, communal joy, in a doxology both of speech and of bodily communion. It is this reality that will nourish and strengthen for what lies ahead. So, too, with us. The ability to act with creativity, courage, and vulnerability does not arise out of nothing. Nor is it nourished simply by strategy or calculation. It is rather grounded in a joy that knows itself to be drawn, together with others, into God’s presence and purposes. It draws its strength from celebration of the presence of the Lord, celebrations in which we know the Lord to be near and tell one another the good news with our mouths and our bodies. Those steeped in this joy can act with a kind of abandon that, though it may arise in desperate circumstances, is never simply an expression of desperation.
Mary gives articulation to this reality in the very next moment, as she sings:
My soul exalts the Lord,
and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call be blessed,
because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Now, this is a song filled with assurance. Even when pharaohs on their thrones seem an overwhelming threat, it proclaims a Mercy more powerful than any of them. It has known, and been known by, one who lifts up the humble and feeds those who are hungry.
As we shall see, however, Mary’s way is not best described as a triumphal one. Like Jochebed before here, she, too, must relinquish a son. In her case, however, he will find no quick rescue. She herself will witness his suffering, and, in this, hers will be the most terrible encounter with violence imaginable. With only a brief pause at one more moment in Mary’s story, we must move with her to that moment, to see what she can teach us there.
In a recent post, I asked about a third way between “fight” and “flight.” Is it possible to respond to violence in a way that chooses neither of these? Mary, I suggested, shows us a way, but we must begin with a tradition that precedes her. We begin as she herself began, in the way of the wise women, the mothers, of Israel.
Here, there is a great deal to consider. We could spend many hours telling each other the stories of Sarah and Rebekah, of Leah and Rachel. We could recall Miriam and Esther and Deborah, and dozens of others, named and unnamed. Although “systematic theologians” don’t often say so, a whole world of anthropological and moral theological reflection is waiting in their stories.
For now, consider just one: Jochebed. If her name isn’t familiar to you, her position will be. She is Moses’ mother. And if you know her only by that relation, that’s not really surprising. In the first chapters of Exodus, where she appears, she’s not the primary character, nor powerful. Indeed, she has nothing, it would seem, to resist the overwhelming act of violence that she faces. Pharaoh—who has grown fearful that his Hebrew slaves, increasing in number, may turn on him—has ordered the death of every boy born to them. He first instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill any boy at birth, and then, to be sure, gives orders to his own people that any such child, if discovered, must be thrown into the Nile. What can Jochebed, an enslaved Hebrew mother to a baby boy, possibly do?
Because “she could hide him no longer,” the text tells us, she acts, in a decision full of vulnerability and hope. She will leave him very much in the open, “among the reeds on the bank of the river.” The irony is clear. Technically, she has followed that command that the boy must go “in the river.” A conspiracy, though, has thus been set in motion. Jochebed gives her permission for her daughter Miriam to stay and watch.
And now, another crucial character, the daughter of Pharaoh, appears. Is this only a coincidence? Or does Jochebed know that she will appear just at that time? If so, Moses’ mother has engaged in a courageous gamble, specifically hoping that the daughter of Pharaoh will become her co-conspirator.
The child is crying when the daughter of Pharoah finds him, and her first reaction is one of compassion. Yet, immediately this compassion is challenged by a realization. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. We’re not told how she knows this, but the implication is clear: action on behalf of this child will constitute direct disobedience to the command issued by her father, the Pharaoh.
Miriam steps forward with a suggestion: “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And the question only sharpens the moment of decision. This child is very young; his survival depend on mother’s milk. The response of the daughter of Pharoah is only a brief “yes.” One word, though, constitutes an act of outrageous defiance. Not only does she rescue this Hebrew boy, she plans to bring him into her own household. Indeed, the etymology offered for the name his Egyptian mother gives him means that her defiant act is written into his very identity. He is “Moses,” the one whom she was commanded to “throw in,” but whose name means “draw out.”
Again, in a twist, she takes responsibility for this child precisely in the act of sending him back to his first mother. It is not entirely clear what she knows about the “nurse” to whom she sends the child, but Pharaoh’s daughter certainly knows the woman is a Hebrew, and in her payment of wages, she thus also makes this Hebrew woman aware of her illicit intent to mother the boy, widening the risk she is taking.
Later, when the boy is weaned and returned to his adoptive mother, we see Jochebed, too, acting in a new and deeper form of vulnerability. At that point, she delivers her son knowingly, consciously entrusting her son to Pharoah’s daughter, and sending him, in fact, into the very household that threatened his life.
One biblical scholar puts it this way: “The series of divine/human acts that accomplish the exodus does not begin with the call of Moses or with spectacular, violent trial of strength that occurs in the plague sequence, but with the solidarity of the women in preserving life and resisting death.”* The work of God—the work of resistance and liberation, we might say—begins earlier and more quietly than we have suspected.
And so, the outlines of this wise way begin to emerge. Jochebed begins with a commitment to life, with a concern for the one who is immediately threatened and vulnerable. She resists quietly; indeed, hers is almost a form of obedience. She draws in both the one closest to her—her own daughter—and also one who stands across enemy lines. In their conspiracy of compassion, Jochebed—and these other women she engages—offer a model of intimate, daring alliance. Each risks vulnerability to the other, and each responds to vulnerability with responsible, compassionate action. They reveal the hidden foundation of a prophetic, liberative moment, as Moses, the first and greatest of the prophets, is “drawn out.”
All of this, as we shall see, assists us to begin to understand the way of Mary, mother of the “new Moses,” and instructs us, if we, too, would “arise a mother in Israel” and follow this wise way.
*Francis Watson, in a work that I have lost track of and am waiting for a helpful co-conspirator to identify for us all.
Recent, painful headlines have raised anew in all of our minds a dark cloud. How do we understand violence, our complicity with it, our response to it? Caught between an urge to respond and a growing sense of futility, responses of anger, grief and exhaustion all start to sound like the same question: where is the way forward?
A passage in Robert Barron’s The Strangest Way often draws my students’ attention when we read the book together. In his discussion of nonviolence, Barron offers this explanation of the term:
In the gospel sense, nonviolence is a third way between or above the two classical responses to evil: fight and flight. In the face of opposition or attack, one can, according to common wisdom, either fight back or run away. In the first case, as history has unambiguously and sadly shown, violence simply increases, since vengeance begets vengeance; and in the second case, violence is allowed to thrive since it is not opposed. Gospel love is a third path–neither violent nor acquiescent. It actively and provocatively opposes violence, but not through more violence, fighting fire with fire, as it were. Rather, it opposes evil through compassionate and forgiving noncooperation; it refuses to live in the world favored by the violent person.
We look together at Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek.” “Notice,” I have to say, “that this is not what your parents taught you. They all gave you the same, very practical advice when the question of fistfights on the playground came up at the dinner table.” And when I point to them, the students respond, all together: “Just walk away…” But Jesus doesn’t give that option. To fully grasp how foreign, and how difficult, this teaching is, we have to see that he insists that his followers neither to fight nor to walk away.
“But,” my students ask, “what does that look like?”
Sometimes, we together talk about nonviolent, group-action protests, and the training that is required to engage in such protest successfully. Passive resistance and sit-ins, the strategies of Gandhi and King, give at least some concrete example. Going limp, refusing to fight back, however, continue to be forms of what-we-are-not-doing. What do we do?
My proposal, to be explored in posts to come, is that we have a rich account of remaining, and it is a Marian one.
Blessed Pope Urban V, I’ve suggested, might serve as a model to us in the practice of suffering surprise. There is, however, a danger here.
Those who are heavily secure–or at least perceive themselves to be–may be tempted to sentimentalize suffering and surprise. Relinquishing control can actually feel daring and romantic, if you feel you possess some control to begin with. As the growing study of trauma reminds us, though, not all surprises are good ones. Surely we ought to allow that what many people need most is a little consistency, a little quiet day-to-day routine, with no surprises at all, thank you very much.
Even those of us who feel the bite of vulnerability cannot resort to a barricaded life. We have to find some way to go forward unarmed, some way to close our eyes in contemplation, even when that prevents us from seeing possible danger.
In his great work, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis tells us the hard truth: choosing vulnerability is our only option if we seek to love.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
This is hard.
Guillaume de Grimoard was a Benedictine monk and renowned professor of canon law, but he was not a cardinal, much less a bishop, in the fall of 1362. He was traveling on an errand when he learned that the pope who sent him had died. Now, he was was asked to return to consult with the papal conclave. Only after he arrived did they tell him the truth: they had already elected him as the pope’s replacement, raising him to the most esteemed office of the universal church. Why? Because the person they really wanted said no. In fact, as it turned out, none of the members of the conclave had any interest in the position. Thus, Guillaume became Pope Urban V.
Too, you should know, Urban V rose to the position of Vicar of Christ in the midst of the most embarrassing moment in papal history: the “Avignon papacy,” (begun when a Frenchman elected pope declined to relocate, having decided that one could surely just as easily serve from the lovely French countryside). So, what would you do? Pope Urban effected the first of several crucial steps in righting the situation: he returned the papacy to Rome. He was known, beyond that, for a rigorous simplicity, repudiating the luxurious habits of the cardinals and bringing many kinds of reforms. He supported education, including founding the university of Hungary and singlehandedly saving school of music at Toulouse. He remained close to the people. He was always, it was said, available to anyone who sought his aid.
We live in an age in which choosing–and accomplishing what one has chosen–is everything. Maybe Pope Urban V, whose feast day is today, reminds of something else: the blessedness of the accidental. To choose is deeply appropriate to the dignity of the individual, to be sure, but here we’re reminded that choice so often take the form of what we do when we are caught be surprise. Let down, perhaps. Or informed we have been elected pope–at a moment when popes have become a laughingstock. Whether and how we give consent in such circumstances, how we suffer surprise, is so often the most important choice we make.
In his private life, Pope Urban always continued to live as a Benedictine monk. Maybe this was the source of his ability to respond, to be patient, to find a way, on that November day in 1362, to do as the Benedictines do, and begin again.
So, have a blessed feast of Blessed Pope Urban V. Burn the cake, perhaps. But suffer well. Think of Guillaume, and begin again.