In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol

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9780345382467: In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol
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Mary--relic of the religious past or beacon of the future?
Mary is more alive today than she was in the early Christian church, surfacing in art and worship in almost every culture on earth. Her appeal bridges the gap between the devotional and the secular, the uneducated and the sophisticated. But who is Mary and what exactly does she symbolize? How did a humble Jewish girl become the most honored woman in human history? Why is there so little about Mary in the Bible and so much about her in the art and history of Christianity, East and West? And why, in an age dominated by science and technology, does devotion to Mary persist?
In Search of Mary is Sally Cunneen's provocative response to these questions. As Cunneen eloquently points out, in order to see Mary whole, it is important to look at all the different visions and versions of her, revisiting history through the eyes of a present day searcher. Including the latest findings by historians, anthropologists, and psychologists, as well as art historians and religious scholars, In Search of Mary reveals what we know about the life of Mary, follows the history and development of her image over the last two thousand years, and explores the different ways that Mary has transformed the lives of people today.

As we struggle for greater unity in a divided world, In Search of Mary shows us a woman who can touch all people, regardless of their backgrounds. She is a profound reminder of the presence of the holy in ordinary life.

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About the Author:

Sally Cunneen was the author of Sex: Female Religion: Catholic; Mother Church: What the Experience of Women Is Teaching Her; and A Contemporary Meditation on the Everyday God. She is also cofounder of the interreligious quarterly Cross Currents. She was professor emeritus at Rockland Community College (SUNY). She died in 2009.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION
 
REDISCOVERING MARY
 
 
 
IF THIS BOOK HAD APPEARED FORTY YEARS AGO, YOU MIGHT well have assumed it was a pious work intended only for Catholics. Today no such assumption is warranted; Mary has entered mainstream discussion at the same time that Catholics themselves, particularly women, are divided in their attitudes to the mother of Jesus.
 
In fact, people have so many ideas of what a book about Mary should be that I feel I ought to give readers an early warning about what they will find here. This book represents the results of a personal search to piece together the images of Mary that have been important to me but whose meaning has changed considerably over the course of my life. I did not start out with a thesis, but with questions. Nor did I confine my research and thinking to my own experience, for Mary is a communal symbol that has been shaped over the centuries.
 
In my search for Mary, I looked for connections between the heavenly mother I turned to as a child and the woman in the New Testament I have been discovering with the eagerness of a Bible-deprived Catholic. But I also came to see that it is not possible to understand Mary adequately without seeing how her image has been shaped by all kinds of people in different eras. She has been a powerful and changing presence for millions of men and women for two thousand years. Simple and unchangeable as the image of mother and child may seem, Mary is far more complex than either those who pray to her or those who think of her as outdated might suspect.
 
When Marian devotions waned after the considerable reforms introduced by the church at the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) in 1962–1965, I more or less forgot about Mary except at Christmas and in times of panic. I put my rosary away in the back of a drawer with other mementos of childhood. But as I dealt with the complications of raising children and later of teaching college students about styles of parental communication, unexpected memories of Gospel stories gave me an adult appreciation of Mary’s parenting of Jesus. I took my rosary out again and placed it next to my bed. Tentatively I felt the beads, trying to see if I could relate my new questions to the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious mysteries on which I used to meditate.
 
Why, I asked myself, does devotion to the Virgin Mother persist in this era of science and technology? Why do I still want to pray to her? Is it possible to find continuity between the strong, simple Jewish girl of two thousand years ago and the woman saluted as the mother of the Messiah? Do the theological affirmations that have been made about her in Christian tradition, including the papal definitions of her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, help or hinder those seeking a connection with the feminine divine? Can Mary still be the sign of hope and mercy she has been for so many centuries, a meaningful symbol even for non-European cultures? Can we see her whole, this heroine of a thousand faces, by revisiting earlier cultures with the eyes of the present? The mystery of Mary’s continuing power calls out to our minds as well as our hearts; trying to see if the pieces fit together can be an education in understanding ourselves.
 
It has been just such an education for me. As the image of Mary slowly moved from the edges of my consciousness to its center, it became obvious that I had to understand her better if I wanted to integrate myself. Facing the difficult questions she raised helped me relate the strands of belief and critical thinking that formed my own upbringing. Our situation today is quite different from that of European Christians in the Middle Ages. Then, kings and peasants, clerics and housewives looked to this merciful mother as Queen of Heaven, and their belief was reinforced by the art that surrounded them in their churches. Our world, in contrast, is more attuned to jet planes and satellites than to angelic visitations, though angels have made a comeback in recent years. A world that accepts the scientific story of evolution and development does not quite know what to think about traditional descriptions of Mary, however. And neither did I.
 
To see how Mary’s role developed over the last two thousand years, I had to look at how she functioned as a symbol in earlier cultures. It has been a daunting task, but one not completely unfamiliar to me. As a teacher of literature I was accustomed to dealing with symbols, keeping in mind that their many potential meanings depend on who is viewing and interpreting them. In Mary’s appearances in legends and works of art over two millennia, as well as in her apparitions, she has been almost infinitely malleable. Sometimes the roles ascribed to her, like virgin and mother, model of goodness and refuge of sinners, seem so contradictory that it is hard to believe they coexist in one figure. But they do: Mary remains a living presence for enormously varied individuals and even for nations that have long been enemies.
 
Conflicting images, however, are neither alarming nor surprising. For example, many people’s imaginations are captured by Marian apparitions, which hold little appeal for me. Nevertheless, in studying the details of their origins, I have come to see both that the church shares my caution and that these appearances often function as the creative theology of those who feel marginalized. It has also been rewarding to discover that many of my reflective contemporaries are beginning to take a fresh look at Mary. In addition to reading many books in the endless library that has accumulated about her, I interviewed a considerable range of people and reviewed over two hundred responses to a questionnaire I devised about Mary’s place in their lives.
 
The image of Mary as mother holding the child on her lap is probably the most palpable expression of Christian theology’s insistence on God’s incarnation in our world; it also serves as a compact symbolic description of humanity itself. At the same time, the image today leads many to reflect on other considerations—the still widespread cultural mandate that women be defined by motherhood, the possible coexistence of femaleness and discipleship. Despite entrenched opinion to the contrary, bringing such issues to the surface has always been one of Mary’s functions. I have found that she stimulates thinking about what it means to be human, as well as about the real meaning of the good news that she helped bring into our world.
 
When I began this project I went first to the New Testament as understood by contemporary scholarship in order to discover Mary’s place in the early church. To get a better sense of what she became in history, I not only reviewed church doctrine and liturgy but also looked at the art, prayer, poetry, and stories of those who have found her significant throughout the ages. Fortunately, the right climate and the resources necessary to explore the meaning of Mary with greater objectivity are widely available today. History, anthropology, and science are all on better terms with religion than they were in my childhood. Catholicism and Protestantism are no longer locked in acrimonious debate, and both are making important strides in overcoming centuries-old negative teachings about Judaism. Not only is there a healthier interreligious atmosphere, but in the last hundred years, many of the pieces needed for a study of Mary have become widely available for the first time, including apocryphal texts, many Eastern icons, and some little-known medieval art. In the last three or four decades the ability to decipher ancient texts, the growing body of archaeological evidence, and the wider knowledge of literary forms have also made it possible for interreligious teams of scholars to produce new and more reliable translations of the entire Bible.
 
Whether we are believers or nonbelievers, it is worthwhile to think about Mary today if only to clarify our attitude to religion in general. Surely I am not alone in the haphazard way I formed my beliefs, relying too much on unexamined sources, leaving some questions not only unanswered but unasked. Growing up, I accepted certain things too quickly from defensive Catholic sources; I was neither able nor willing to distinguish between fundamental beliefs and polemical additions. It has surprised me to discover, for instance, that neither Luther nor Calvin challenged Mary’s perpetual virginity, and that Islam greatly honors Mary.
 
Bringing our thinking about religion into contact with our lives and with the rest of what we know is a challenge we all should accept. Mary is a good place to start. Since the beginning of Christianity, she has been a central figure in attempts to define a religion which claims that God became human. She has taken on an exalted role in history, devotion, and theology, but this should never prevent us from seeing her as a Jewish woman of her era, someone whose experience relates her to men and women everywhere. Following the thread she represents in the tapestry of Western culture, I have learned a great deal about how people create and respond to symbols that represent their deepest needs and beliefs. I have come to see her as the representative figure she is in the Gospels—a living presence incorporating not only the hopes but also the differences and fragmentation inherent in humanity itself.
 
To share the different and sometimes opposing views of her I have woven together a long tapestry from relevant threads of Scripture, history, art, and human experience. In the first chapter I present further reasons why a search for Mary is necessary today, and indicate some guidelines and critical questions I have tried to keep in mind. Chapter two examines Mary in the New Testament, our chief source of information about her, and then adds personal interpretations of the stories that deepen our understanding of her as a woman. Chapter three looks at the role of Mary in the struggling church of the early centuries and finds theological reticence and ambivalence about her, along with strong popular devotion. Chapter four describes how the post-Constantinian church, despite the dualism and misogyny of the wider culture, hailed the emergence of the feminine symbol of Mary, declaring her Theotokos, or God-Bearer. Chapter five evokes the effects of Marian devotion on the art, architecture, history, and spirituality of twelfth-century Europe. Chapter six deals with the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, in which opposed attitudes to Mary among Reformation and Counter-Reformation leaders reflected broader differences of belief at the dawn of European nationalism. My discussion then follows Mary overseas on Spanish military banners to Mexico, where she is transformed into Our Lady of Guadalupe, a dark madonna who cares about the conquered as well as the conquistadors. Chapter seven outlines the nineteenth-century explosion of Marian apparitions and devotions in an anxiously defensive Catholic Europe, at the same time that convert John Henry Newman used historical scholarship to reveal Mary as the representative of a developing faith. That chapter also discusses some Protestant women writers who began to appropriate Mary as a useful feminine symbol to dignify women’s spirituality and to elevate their public position. In chapter eight, which brings us to the present, men and women who have wrestled with traditional interpretations of Mary share fresh discoveries that have implications for their own lives and thoughts. The final chapter affirms and extends this revisionary thinking in the work and words of contemporary artists who see Mary in a surprisingly current, cosmological context.
 
There is far more diversity even in our supposedly “traditional” understanding of Mary than I suspected at the outset. Yet I have also found patterns that repeat themselves: Mary has almost always and everywhere been both a comforter of the oppressed and a challenge to thought. As the most flexible of symbols, she has been able to escape constraint. At each turn in human history, Mary has taken on a different appearance and significance. It is a tribute to her remarkable power that she transcends cultural and religious bounds and speaks to perennial human need.
 
One final way to speak about what I am doing in this book might be to say that I am attempting a kind of midrash on Mary. In the Jewish tradition, midrash means a sustained searching of the biblical texts to bring out their hidden meaning in new words. My model is Rabbi Ben ‘Azzai, who sat and expounded upon the words of the Torah and the prophets until fire flashed all around him. When Rabbi Akiba asked him the cause of this fire, he explained that the words were rejoicing as they met one another.
 
I have brought together into my midrash on Mary not only theological insights and art from earlier eras, but also interpretations and creations by contemporary viewers. My hope is that this encounter of old and new will make it possible for others to rediscover the woman who has so long served to connect the human and the natural with the divine. For me, this search has been a journey to new perception. I hope it is one on which you can accompany me for a time as part of your own journey.

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