Mother Mary Comes to Me
Explorations in Process Mariology
*The first three images above come from a delightful source: The Episcopal Art Blog. They are Hopi Madonna by John Giuliani. Top: The Annunciation by Corinne Collymore Peters; Middle: The Black Madonna by Dick Adams; Bottom:
The images appear in the ECVA exhibition: "Mary, Mother Of Our Tribe." Words are attached to them by The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, Choctaw. I hope you will go to the cite and read Rt. Reverend Charleston's words. He is the author of Hope As Old As Fire — Read the complete Curator's Statement for the ECVA exhibition: "Mary, Mother Of Our Tribe," here.
Mothers of God
Are you a mother of God? I think that I am, too.
I don't know if I am a very good one, but I have met some good ones over the years whom I want to emulate: a wise grandmother, a gentle grandfather, a smiling store clerk, a fun-loving horsewoman, a gentle physician, a courageous cancer patient, a Zen master, a small boy who likes to garden. I think my high school basketball coach may have been a mother of God, too.
Actually, the more I think about it, I have met lots of mothers of God. Some have been Muslim and Jewish, some Buddhist and Hindu. Some have been spiritual but not religious. Indeed, some have even been Christian.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, would be proud of them, and I am, too. I want to grow in my capacities for motherhood, and I need all the mentors I can get.
Animals can be mentors, too. And plants. And landscapes. And music. Even times of suffering can be mentors. And silence. There are so many mentors helping us become mothers of God.
A mother of God is someone who helps give birth to God's presence in the world. God's presence consists of goodness and mercy, love and justice, peace and beauty, freedom of mind and freedom of spirit. It also takes the form of humor and a little frivolity, too. When we see a grandfather on his knees playing with his grandchildren, we see God being mothered into existence.
As the grandfather plays with his grandchildren, a certain kind of movement emerges which is playfully gorgeous: As Whitehead puts it, the "love in the world passes into the love in heaven and floods back into the world." (Whitehead, Process and Reality (351). This is what I mean by mothering. It is almost always moving in some way.
Of course in a certain way God is mothering, too. In process theology we think of God as a womb-like compassion in which the universe lives and moves and has its being, moment by moment. This womb is not located "here" or "there" but is instead everywhere like an ocean in which we are always swimming. This womb is not all powerful. Things can happen in the the life of God which are tragic for God, too. God does not make bad things happen to good people or, for that matter, to bad people. God is present to every person, every creature, as a comfort and a guide.
God mothers us into existence, moment by moment, by providing fresh possibilities for healing and wholeness, relative to the situation at hand. In a way, our relation to God is like that of one mother to another. Like two women sharing stories at a clothesline.
Most of us -- or at least people like me -- are inconsistent in our motherhood. We are mothers in one moment but not mothers in the next. We are mothers early in the morning, before anyone has gotten up; but we lose our motherhood as soon as we start interacting with people.
Saints are people who mother somewhat consistently. They develop the habit of God-mothering.
A really good mother of God knows that she needs to mother herself, too. God's presence comes into existence in terms of our relations with four realities: other people, the earth and other living beings, heaven, and ourselves.
Some people forget the fourth. They think mothering is only about helping others. They fall into the trap of thinking self-sacrificial love is the only good in life, forgetting that they cannot really love others unless they also love themselves.
They need to look into the mirror and see that the one looking back is as important as others: not more important but not less important, either.
Not for the Faint of Heart
In any case, our very calling in life is to become mothers of God. In this we can learn from a pediatrician turned Episcopal priest named Teri Daily. In an article she has written for JJB -- Mothers of God -- she tells us that we can all help give birth to God in the world, but also warns us, that it is not always easy:
Being Mary isn’t for the faint of heart, because to be Mary isn’t just to be some kind of passive vessel... It’s to live expectantly, knowing that our lives carry more significance than just our own individual destinies. It’s to claim our place in the cosmic story of God’s mercy and goodness, knowing that “we are all meant to be mothers of God.
And of course she is right. So often we lack courage to help bring God's presence into existence. In order to become mothers we need to relinquish all kinds of attachments we might otherwise cling to: fear of the unknown, fear of self-assertion, a fear of relationships. We have to be disarmed of our armor and enter into what, in another article for this website, she calls The Grittiness of Love.
Fortunately, toward this end, we have a very bold woman as our inspiration: namely Mary, the actual mother of Jesus. If she could sing a proud song, a Magnificat, in such an assertive and declarative way, then we can sing ours, too.
We do not know her very well, but, fortunately, there are communities all over the world who revere her, and some have even been visited by her in what are called "Marian apparitions."
Arguably, even Paul McCartney had one. Or at least he could imagine what it might be like for someone to have one.
When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be, let it be. And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be, let it be.
Was he right? Can Mary sometimes stand right in front of us, speaking words of wisdom?
Dancing in Heaven
I have to admit that, when I was younger, I didn't even imagine this kind of thing. I was lucky enough to have a very good mother who would stand by me, even in hours of darkness. She is ninety-five now, and still she speaks words of wisdom to me.
But I did not have an imaginal presence -- a living image in my imagination -- of the divine female. I was a Protestant Christian, and only had male images.
God was He, Jesus was He, and even the Holy Spirit was He. The Trinity was three men dancing together, like at a gay bar.
I have nothing against men dancing together, but women were left out of the picture. Women were dancing on the green earth but not in heaven. They were excluded from the bar.
For my part, I like dancing on the green earth and think we all ought to do more of it. But it seems to me a mistake to think that heaven consists only of male inhabitants dancing together. Surely there are some female dancers, too.
Perhaps this is part of what is afoot in Marian apparitions. In a well-known hadith, the prophet Muhammad teaches us that paradise lies at the feet of the mother. It seems right to admit that motherly feet can be heavenly, too. There's a need for female imaginal presences.
An imaginal presence is imaginal in that it presents itself to our imaginations. Of course there is some projection going on, too. There is, after all, the social construction of reality. But this is not the whole story. We do not just come to images, they come to us, too.
An imaginal presence is an image that comes to you. It can be individual or collective, as in the case of the Marian apparition in Portugal in 1017. Some people might see such apparitions as a collective hallucination, but the Whiteheadian in me makes me suspect otherwise. From a Whiteheadian perspective it is possible and even probable that individual persons -- including Mary, the mother of Jesus - continue to exist after they die. And it is certainly possible that they can visit us in dreams and visions: "standing right in front of me."
One of the wisest of process philosophers of religion, David Ray Griffin, presents evidence for this in Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration. He devotes an entire chapter (Chapter Seven) to apparitions.
If you read Griffin's book, I think he can convince you that apparitions truly occur and that it is a modernist prejudice to deny their possibility. He devotes an entire chapter to evidence from apparitions. Indeed, he will help you consider the possibility that relationships with many people can continue, and perhaps even improve, after death. At least so I propose in Can Relationships Improve After Death?
Apparitions, of Mary or anyone else, are forms of relationship. A relational theology that does not include relations with imaginal presences is not sufficiently relational.
Touches of Transcendence
Surely some apparitions can tell us a bit about God, too. We meet God in the Face of the Other, says the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He is thinking of living beings on earth, but by extension we might also speak of living beings in heaven.
Inasmuch as they reveal God's presence to us -- inasmuch as they are themselves mothering God to us - they become contexts through which we discover the divinity of goodness and mercy, love and justice, holy love and holy play. They provide us with what one theologian, Mayra Rivera Rivera, calls Touches of Transcendence.
Make no mistake. In her postcolonial theology, Mayra Rivera Rivera is primarily interested in ways that living beings on our green earth -- dancing women and dancing men -- reveal God to us. She is interested in how the landscapes and waterways, the plants and animals, do the same. Her book is one of the most important books written in Christian theology in three decades.
But it seems to me that imaginal presences have a kind of embodiedness, too, albeit imaginal embodiment; and that they, too, can be contexts for experiences divine touches.
Moreover, if, as process theologians propose, God is a sky-like womb in whose presence the universe lives and moves and has its being, it would not be surprising for the divine to appear in feminine form. It would be expected because, after all, God is womb-like.
What would be more suprising would be that God might also appear in male form: the young son of a loving father, for example, born to a strong, teenage mother. Perhaps this is a trick, on the part of the divine reality, to help men realize that they -- even they - can be recipients of divine guidance and conduits for its grace.
Buddhists propose that heavenly spirits take different forms -- they shift shapes -- in order to offer guidance for human beings. Perhaps the womb-like reality in whose heart the universe lives and moves and hast its being is a shape-shifter, too, but a bit more like a Goddess than a male God, all things considered.
In allowing humans freedom of imagination, She took a huge risk, not knowing that humans might render God into images of a divine Caesar or a Holy Warrior. She was -- and still is -- a Goddess who risks. Legend has it that once upon a time she did indeed send a young son who was, in his way, very Goddess and very human.
Is it Dangerous to Trust Mary?
Be that as it may, I don't think any of this would have made sense to me as a young boy growing up in Texas. Like I said, it was all about three men dancing together in heaven, one of them coming down to earth for a time, and the other taking his place when he died.
And later, when I went to a liberal Protestant seminary, I was taught by a few teachers that all images of the divine are mere projections, and that some among the images are damaging and dangerous. The image of Mother Mary was among the dangerous ones. The problem was not that she was female. The problem was that she was patriarchally defined. She was a goddess who had been domesticated by the male imagination. She was too passive, too nurturing, too receptive, too stereotypically female. She was also too pure, too unstained, too virginal.
They said that, when young girls are brought up with images of Mary in their imaginations, they carry in their minds idealized images of self-sacrificial love and purity that were hazardous to their health and to the health of society. I soon discovered that this was but one of many views about Mary in theological circles, and that some are more positive.**
I began to think about alternative images in other world religions. I edited a book called After Patriarchy in which women from different religious traditions imagined their religions after patriarchy, and one wise author - Lena Gupta -- explained that, for some women, the Hindu goddess Kali might be more helpful than Mary, because Kali was wild and free, fierce and self-defined. Kali had the spirit of a wise and strong woman; Mary seemed to be a patriarchally-defined woman, who surrendered her autonomy to a heavenly patriarch named "God."
Steps Toward a Process Mariology
For my part, I was never quite comfortable with this dismissal of Mary, because I had so many Catholic friends who felt close to her, women as well as men. And some of the women were as fiercely independent as they come. Influenced by Whitehead I believed that concrete human experience is always more than any generalities we might make, which means that there is something arrogant about the glib way in which liberal Protestants pontificate about healthy and unhealthy images of the divine, without first listening mindfully and generously to the people who find Mary important in their lives. I appreciated the fact that, for process and other relational theologians, all healthy reflection needs to begin, again and again, with deep listening, not with pontifications.
All of this made me wonder if process theology might offer an approach to Mary that might be useful for others, Christians and others. A process Mariology might begin in two places: (1) with respect for the way in which we can be mothers of God and (2) with respect for Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a source of comfort and guidance in life.
Was she a good mother to him? I think she was. She pondered his fate from the outset, guided him in his adolescent years as he grew in wisdom, watched him become a teenager with a mind of his own, witnessed the unfolding of healing ministry with all its crazy turns and, at the end, held him in her arms after his death.
She was probably very young, perhaps twelve or thirteen, when she had him. She was a teenage mother who eventually had other children, too. According to legend the birth of her beloved son Jesus was presaged by a dramatic moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to her and told her that she would give birth to a savior, which Christians call the Annunciation. This is the very angel who, some time later, came to prophet Muhammad and delivered words which became the Qur'an.
Christians and Muslims alike believe that the birth of her son was mysterious. Christians say that he was conceived in her womb through the agency of the Holy Spirit and Muslims say that she was conceived through the command of God. This is what is meant by the Virgin Birth.
Today many modernists doubt that she was a virgin and assume instead that the infant who emerged from her womb was, like all other infants, the soulful outcome of a union of human sperm and egg. They believe that Jesus grew into his role in human history, and that he became transparent to God, in certain moments of his life, but had to grow into them. He had to learn how to be a mother of God, too.
Additionally, some Christians today propose that the very idea of Mary's virginity has had a destructive effect in human history, because it highlights an ideal of purity which is in tentions with the intimacy and beauty of pleasurable, respectual sexuality. The idea is a form of mythic heightening, emerging in early Christian communities, promulgated by powerful men, as a way of valorizing a problematic ideal of purity, thus controlling women's sexuality.
Every Moment a Virgin Birth
I can make no judgments on these matters. However, what I do know is that, from a process perspective, every moment of our lives is a virgin birth of sorts. To be sure, moment by moment we emerge out of the womb of the past, mothered into existence by the joys and struggles, the pleasures and pains, of what has come before. In the language of Heidegger, we are always already in the present, finding ourselves with a past that has been thrown to us, and which we cannot change. And yet, at every moment, we can respond to what is given for us, sometimes fresh and free ways.
This response does not come from the past. It comes from a call deep within the present and from our own inner response to this call. We process thinkers speak of these callings as initial aims. They are the very spirit of God within us and we are, as it were, impregnated by them.
Our actions are born through the callings and through our responses to them. One partner is divine and one human. Sometimes our responses are pure and sometimes they are not. This means that some virgin births are better than others, more consonant with the callings of the sacred heart in which the universe unfolds.
These virgin births occur whenever we -- you and I - follow the advice of the Episcopal priest Teri Daily and "become Mary." In these moments we claim our place in a greater story.
Reverend Daily is right. It is not for the faint of heart. It can even involve carrying our loved ones in our arms as they die. It always involves the grittiness of love.
Don't worry. If you want to become Mary, you don't have to call it Becoming Mary. It is important to remember that Mary does not belong to the two religions that claim her name: Christianity and Islam.
Or if you are a bit turned off by all of this mothering talk, fearful that fathers will be left behind. change it all to becoming Joseph and fathering God in the world. Or becoming Moses and brothering God into the world. It is the spirit that counts, the willingness to be a carrier of divine love in the world.
Receiving this spirit involves taking your own life seriously enough to care about the well-being of others and your own well-being. Friends and family? Yes. Neighbors and strangers? Yes. People in other lands? Of course. Animals? Of course, too. Lots of love is needed.
It's not for the faint of heart, but it sure is worth pondering.
Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2: 19
Do you ever wake up to the sound of music? Do you ever hear gentle words of wisdom? Does she ever stand right in front of you?