instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, April 23, 2004

Marian ressourcement

I recently read TAN Books' reprint of The Life and Glories of Saint Joseph, first published in 1888. It's basically a comendium of every pious thought anyone had ever had about St. Joseph. I found the book by turns inspiring and irritating: inspiring when it gave insight into the nature of the role of the spouse of the Mother of God and real (though not natural) father of God Himself; irritating when it strayed too far into what I regard as groundless exaggeration and over-reliance on reported visions.

This book, plus a few unrelated conversations I've had over the past month or so, leads me to the following thoughts:

Marian piety in the Roman Catholic Church can be thought of as a tree, whose roots are in Scripture, whose trunk is in Tradition, whose branches are in dogma, and whose leaves, flowers, and fruits are in pious imagination, devotions, and visions. (Yes, yes, a tad overwrought as metaphors go. Bear with me, please. At least it's seasonally appropriate.)

Too often, all that is passed on are the leaves, flowers and fruits. That's fine for those whose own pious imagination and devotions would produce the same results, but it's offputting for the rest of us.

What I've called the "glow-in-the-dark Mary," who before the Annunciation floated through life with her eyes demurely cast down and who after the Nativity floated through life with her eyes demurely cast upon her Son; the Mary who had more angels scurrying about helping her in her daily chores than Cinderella had mice; the Mary who had the Law and the Prophets memorized, and who could probably quote the New Testament before it was written... this is an understanding of the Mother of God that makes sense to some people but cannot simply be handed to others with the words, "Behold your mother."

Personally, I don't care for the way Nineteenth Century Catholic piety moves from "it is not contrary to dogma to believe," through "we may piously hold," to "who would dare deny," without a critical pause. I would dare to deny a lot of what may be piously held; I can imagine that this or that circumstance could be otherwise. To pick just one example from the St. Joseph book, I don't particularly require that the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of King David be a comely man with noble bearing, simply because his ancestors were kings.

What I think is needed is a Marian ressourcement, a return to the sources of devotion to Mary, which as I mentioned above lie ultimately in Scripture. From what the Bible says of her, through what the Fathers and councils say of her, we begin to get a picture of her that may not align perfectly with the holy card images of her from the 1890s. And that's fine, because the picture of her will be the one we make, and we'll understand why the elements it contains are there. Mary is Ever-Virgin, not because a bunch of women-hating priests couldn't stand her any other way, but because... well, because that's how God wanted her to be, but that's my answer and you'll have to find yours on your own.

The risk of not doing this critical pruning is that Marian piety will become more of a ghetto for those with Victorian sensibilities, and increasingly incomprehensible to those without. The benefit is that those who find Marian piety, or even Marian dogma, to be at best an eccentricity and at worst a crock will, instead, find their mother.