Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Mary as Mother?

"Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it."
The first major book of Marian spirituality I read as a Catholic was St. Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort’s (d. 1716) True Devotion to Mary, a popular if hyperbolic work that set the stage of much Marian devotionalism to follow. Fr. de Montfort’s approach was to see Mary as a Lady in a sort of courtly or chivalric sense, as the mistress and commander of her loyal knights, who were to see themselves as her slaves: 
Moreover, if, as I have said, the Blessed Virgin is the Queen and Sovereign of heaven and earth, does she not then have as many subjects and slaves as there are creatures? (I.2.1)
This is all fair enough, and fairly straightforward, even if the courtly language is far removed from our modern frame of reference. Mary is Queen much as Jesus is King, and it is the duty of all subjects to pledge their allegiance to their proper rulers.

Contrast this with the approach of St. Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori (d. 1787) and his Glories of Mary, which heavily emphasized the role of Mary as the Christian’s spiritual mother rather than ruler. The title Mater Ecclesiae appeared only rarely before the 1700s, and it gained serious purchase in the twentieth century with the Vatican Council and recent popes. Bp. de’ Liguori’s language adjusts to his maternal focus:
O most tender Mary, most loving Mother! This is just what you desire. You want us to become children and call out to you in every danger. For you long to help and save us, as you have saved all your children who had recourse to you. (I.2)
While the call to become like little children is of course derived from the dominican aphorism of Matthew’s Gospel, its application within Marian devotionalism is rather more sentimental than one expects was originally intended. Popular Marian spirituality has followed St. Alphonsus over St. Louis, and we may very well be the poorer for it.

Icons and statuary of Our Lady used to be more dignified than they have become. Early icons depicted her both with great humility and great nobility, whether she be holding the infant Christ on her lap or bowing before Christ Pantocrator. The humanizing elements of post-medieval painters increased her tenderness, but it was during the Counter Reformation and in the mass production of devotional figurines that Mary became more fully sentimental. Gone was the sturdy matron of patristic times, and here was the soft, doe-eyed young mother always offering a hug. The more exalted eastern iconography of Mary is alien to western Marian devotees, and it’s no mistake that the only oriental icon that has garnered popularity in the west is “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” showing as it does Mary in a mildly comforting role.

Subjection to the Queen of Heaven need not be dripping with tender emotion. If that were required, how many people would find it impossible to bend the knee to the New Eve! Better, I think, to stir up feelings of awe and wonder at her holiness and exaltation. As the ancient akathist hymn sings:
It is truly meet to bless you, Theotokos, ever blessed and most pure, the Mother of our God. More honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!
c. AD 600


  1. I wholly share the sentiment (ha!).
    I didn't know how to express it in words before but now you did it for me.

    But yeah, i guess that the gist of it is that our devotion to the Mother of God has become rather sentimental and tender at expense of rational/reasonable and steady (i say at the expense of because there must be a place for sentiment and tenderness). It is no longer that "stoic" devotion and hyperrespect but a kind of girly smoochiness. Even the eroticism of the Song of Songs isn't what the devotions of counterreformation have become. Maybe it's just because i'm a man and not a woman...

    My favourite Marian prayers are Hail Mary, Hail holy Queen and in recent times Sub tuum praesidium (i've been adding it after Hail holy Queen in Rosary and the Office, recently). I do have the Perpetual help Icon and it is very pretty. While i prefer icons and images over statues, my favourite statue is the statue of our Lady of Walsingham.

    Also there's a beautiful kontakion to her and Cappella Romana does a stunning preformance:
    To you, the Champion Leader I, your city, dedicate a feast of victory and thanksgiving, as one rescued out of sufferings, o Mother of God. But as you have invincible might, set me free from every peril, that I may cry out to you: Hail, Bride unwedded.

    Τῇ ὑπερμάχῷ στρατηγῷ τὰ νικητὴρια, ὡς λυτρωθεῖσα τῶν δεινῶν εὐηαριστήρια, ἀναγράφω σοι ἡ Πόλις σου, Θεοτόκε. Ἀλλ' ὡς ἔχουσα τό κράτος ἀποσμάχητον, ἐκ παντοίων με κινδύνων ἐλευθέρωσον ἵνα κράζω σοι· Χαῖρε Νύμφη ἀνύμφευτε.

    Where the devotionalism has led can be observed in liturgical customs of Servites and their devotion of seven dolours. They would continue with those devotions after the Easter octave which is totally anti-liturgical. And the whole slavery thing just isn't my thing.
    I can only repeat after st. Paul that i am a servant of Christ Jesus, for servant is at least in the household of his master (or the other term, prisoner, who is at least in the cell of his master), while i see Mary as a sort of military leader, who is at our side leading us to victory against the devil. A sort of a hyper-Judith if you will, noble and strong. Servites gave the "servus" term an another meaning almost to the point of muslim notion of muslims being slaves of their allah.

    1. That kontakion is sung before the praises and also at the end during the Akathist to the Mother of God on the four Fridays before the Annunciation in the Byzantine rite. I remember it well and wish my little Ukrainian parish dd it.

    2. The parallel to Judith is on mark. It's not for nothing that the Church applies the praises of Judith to Mary: "Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the most high God, above all women upon the earth. Blessed be the Lord who made heaven and earth, who hath directed thee to the cutting off the head of the prince of our enemies."

    3. Ah my sensus whateverium didn't betray me on that one :)

    4. And is "on mark" pun intended? Cuz...mark, Marko... i'll see myself out :/ :D

  2. When in Rome - be sure to visit Santa Maria Antiqua (600 AD also). Icons are drawn not made in mosaic, that is just an artistic tool not necessary Roman specific iconography in Christianity.
    Saints Anna, Mary and Elisabeth:
    Scene of the Crucifixion (Christ's body is respectfully covered, a funky character quite perky looking :-) Longinus):
    Longinus there - yep, that seems specific to the Roman - what? they had every right to mention him, since they had Longinus there too and he wasn't really a bad guy.
    I would so like to pray there one day ...
    If God allows.

    1. Now that depiction of Crucifixion is something i would like to have painted on my wall!

  3. I have to wonder at the chivalric influence and the loss thereof. I know some complain about it, but I actually like this model in defining our relation to Mary - the tenderness and sentimentalism there is mitigated and oriented by a sense of duty and stoic devotion. Think less of the troubadours pining with unrequited love and more of a chaste Lancelot with Guinevere (or, better, an actually chaste Sir Gawain with Guinevere).

    With the loss of court culture, so went this relationship. Though, arguably, if we returned to a more Roman model of the mother, rather than the modern sentimental vision, you'd basically have that chivalric model - the noble matron ruling both by justice and charity over her domus, demanding duty and kindling devotion in her children. It's not Roman, but one is left thinking of the Spartan mother - "Return with your shield or on it". Am I going to far to have Mary commending us with "Live with your cross or be martyred upon it"?

    And if one is willing to indulge in some Sophiology, those Solomonic odes to Wisdom as applied to Mary bring forth some interesting ideas...

    1. Keep seeing. :-)
      The Roman devotion I don't find it sentimental, but honest. Like ..honest David, worthy of writing Psalms. Though David lately is a piece of paib for ne, he's a Saint in Orthodoxy for foreseeing the coming of Christ, he's worshipped in Judaism in evening prayers.
      I was forbidden to feel guilty towards him.. by an Israeli Jewish man. Ok not forbidden discouraged. A man who doesn't say Barch Hashem Echad for David. What do I know?
      Forbid I am not implying that humanity salvation is staked upon this or that Jewish man or woman. That is a huge cross to bear and Judaism hints to freedom even if it often alsi hints to chaos which is NOT freedom, whether Trotsky agrees or not.
      Solomon was a holier man when he was born than when he died. Our priests do say confirming Scriptures.
      We all fall on our own, Satan temps, the world tempts, but our sin is our own. Christ says so also. This is where I see the Cross - do not lie to one's self, accept accusation even if unfair. Christ did and Hell could not hold Him. And if we deny His second human nature, like moniphysitism and miaphyisitism do, we are lost. He died as a man, it's crucial to understand this even if He was, is, and always will be God. "Do not be afraid" He said to His Apostles after resurection. It's hard to not be afraid when there is no war, yet temptations keep on coming.
      Our allegiance is to Him, and so was and always will be Mary's. Even if her miracles are all forgiving, in the end she will not argue with Him. The Church is with her - son and Father, at the same time.