Friday, 23 May 2014

Being Like Mary

Once you understand how prevalent sin is, the less you mind people observing that we're all sinners. Every movement away from God is a sin, and hardliner St. Augustine thought even stuff you do in your dreams is a sin, depending on how much your will is engaged in it. But not-so-serious sins, like (according to Augustine) that sexy dream, are called venial sins, and I was not happy when one of my BC professors declared that he didn't think there were such things as venial sins. Hmm.... So, I don't know, eating a slice of pizza you don't need is a morally neutral act? Or expressing your dislike for your daughter's outfit in imprudent terms is a mortal sin that drives a wedge between you and God, removable only by the sacrament of reconciliation? I don't think so.

Venial sins are almost inevitable in this wicked world, but fortunately they are wiped off your slate at Mass. Mortal sins, though, are not inevitable, and St. Maria Goretti took her parish priest very seriously when he said it would be better to die than to commit one. That said, there are legions of people, including in positions of trust in Catholic institutions, who will tell you that God's injunction against this mortal sin or that is merely "a man-made law." So far, I have heard this only about sins against purity. Nobody has yet told me that "Honour your father and mother" is a man-made law.

Anyway, not to be complacent about it, but if someone said, "Seraphic, you are a miserable sinner," I would have to say, "Damn straight." I would try not to get all humphy or say, "So are you, chum!"

But speaking as a married lady, I used to hate being told "Try to be like Our Lady" and "Try to be a good wife like Our Lady" and "Ask Our Lady's intercession that you might become more like her." First of all, Our Lady was spared from Original Sin. And then there is her perpetual virginity. I forget if I ever said flat out to whichever priest, "To be a good wife like Our Lady, I would have to ban my husband from my bed. Stop with the platitudes. Most married women can't be like Our Lady. The Holy Family is not like any other family in history, and it is tantamount to blasphemy to say that it is." Occasionally I argue with priests in the confessional, but actually I think I left this one alone. And I am glad, for actually the priests have been right.

To be a good wife like Our Lady does not mean literally to live a life of chastity-in-continence. It means living, thinking, speaking and acting in a manner consistent to what God has called you to be. Our Lady was called to be mother of Our Lord, and she dedicated her life to life to that task. Naturally, she did this as a woman, and at a time when society considered women most definitely second-rate. Mary always chose to do God's will, and Mary composed the great Magnificat. The more you really think about MARY, and not about her perpetual virginity and how unusual it was for a married lady, the more you see how she is to be emulated.

There has been a lot of writing on Mary through the ages. I didn't read much about her in theology school, however, as she had gone right out of fashion. I do not remember a single course in Mariology on offer. And really I hadn't much thought about Mary since that terrible afternoon years ago when, crushed by unhappiness as an unhappy wife, I desperately prayed the Memorare and then doubted the Blessed VIRGIN Mary could possibly understand what I was going through. Of course, the problem was not with Mary but my previously having identified with her status as a virgin. Poor young Seraphic.

Polish readers would be appalled to know how little Canadian and American Catholics are trained to think of Mary, and unless we had devoutly Marian parents or grandparents, our primary example of Marian devotion was John Paul II. It blew minds that "Totus Tuus" meant all Mary's, not all God's. What must the Protestants think?!?!? Oh woe, what a throwback to the Bad Old Days, grumble grumble. But as we didn't really focus on popes in my home, and I was defeated by JP's incomprehensible "Letter to the Youth of the World", I never understood what his Marian devotion was all about. As a pro-life activist, I prayed night rosaries, but without much Marian devotion. For me, the rosary was all about her Son.

But then, as an adult, I sat down and read Mulieris Dignitatem. I realized, first of all, that one reason why JP2 is so hard to read is that he thought in Polish, which has an entirely different sentence structure from English, and we have all been at the mercy of translators assuring whomever that they are fully bilingual in Polish and Latin, or Polish and English, etc. But more importantly, I really grasped the importance of Mary for all humanity. As I lectured in Kraków in 2012:

The text begins with Mary, who had such a crucial part to play in the most important moment of human history, the salvific event of the incarnation. Jan Paweł notes that Saint Paul, in saying that “God sent forth his son, born of a woman”(Gal 4:4), does not name Mary but underscores she was a woman (3). It is a woman at the centre of the salvific event. It is a woman who takes part in the dialogue of the Annunciation. It is a woman who “attains a union with God that exceeds all the expectations of the human spirit” (3). Never before had a human being been supernaturally elevated to union with God in Jesus Christ. And as the first person in such close union with God, Mary represents the humanity that belongs to all human beings, both men and women. But at the same time, of course, the union is between her own individual self and Jesus Christ, the union between mother and son.

And as for women, Mary dethrones Eve as the archetypal woman. Death came into the world through Eve, and women were not allowed to forget this, as if we were all carbon copies of Eve, capable of bringing disaster if we said boo to a goose. Mary, though, is the New Eve, as Christ is the New Adam; her "Yes" to God leads to the cancelling out of Eve's "No" when her Son redeems the world.

So now we women have a choice of models. Saint Edith Stein suggests choice is to between becoming a Temptress like Eve or a Mother like Mary. And this challenged me because I used to examine passport applications-- and applicants---and marvel at how differently 40+ women dealt with the ravages of time. In my youthful and 117 lb arrogance, I mentally divided them into the Hockey Moms, who had given up the battle, and the Glamour Queens, who were glorying in the fight. It was short hair vs bottle blonde, parka versus leopard print, soap and water versus maquillage. I knew which path I wanted to take, thanks very much. "La guerre? Yes sir!"

And as it happens, I am still on the side of looking your best and fighting a lazy tendency towards dowdiness. However, I am not on the side of Perpetual Sexiness and Being Found Desirable By All Men Possible. At least, I think it is wrong to belong to that side. I think it is a terrible temptation that needs to be resisted, especially in our current culture of infidelity and divorce. Once upon a time in the UK, working-class married women completely ostracized other working-class married women who tried to look sexy. Now.... Oh dear. I never really understood the expression mutton dressed as lamb until... La, la, la... Okay, I'll say it. Scottish hairdressers are really talented and don't charge a lot. They can give anyone the hair of a Swedish 20 year old. And so the busses and streets of Edinburgh a full of what look like Swedish 20 year olds until they turn around and you see that they are 50+ grandmothers with terrible skin and alcoholic noses.

Oh dear. How did I get there? Well, let's just say that it would never have occurred to Our Lady to try to look like a Swedish 20 year old. She would never have acknowledged there was any need for it. Her dignity as a woman was being the beloved daughter of God and her dignity as Mary of Nazareth was her call to be the Mother of God.

To be like Mary, then, is to recognize your own dignity as a woman, first as the daughter of God, and then according to your call to be what God has called you in particular to be. For my friend Lily that is to focus on her vocation as a wife and mother of two. For my friend Sister Berenike that is to strive to grow in holiness as a Benedictine novice. For my retired Single friend that is probably to grow in holiness as a good friend and example to others. For women in study, it is probably as Christian women called to study, in poverty, chastity and obedience to God. We are all called to the Evangelical Counsels, but they apply differently to different people, according to our states in life.

So if you do, don't get mad when a confessor hears your sexual sins and exhorts you to be more like Mary. He's not saying you are capable of her spotless purity; he's saying that she's a great model of feminine dignity and attentiveness to God. Go home and give Mulieris Dignitatem a read, and see if you can find "Woman" by Saint Edith Stein.


Sarah said...

If this post was inspired by my saying in the last combox how frustrating it is to be told to be like Mary in our chastity, I was not saying it's a bad or bothersome thing itself, but that that's usually the *extent* to which female purity is discussed.

People still feel like they can't or don't need to talk in-depth about female purity, so merely being to be like Mary is super unhelpful if they don't give you real-life, detailed advice about HOW to be like Mary.

Chastity talks usually go like this:

You're a beautiful daughter of God blahblahblah Help your brothers in Christ blahblahblah Save yourself for your future husband blahblahblah Don't wear revealing clothes; men are visual creatures! blahblahblah Just be like Mary.

Stellamaris said...

LOL Sarah! You're right, that's what they sound like.

I went back to read the comments I'd missed, including yours. I've lived in perpetual fear that a priest would make such a comment to me some day as you received, and it makes certain things harder to bring up. I tend to mention it as briefly and vaguely as I honestly can. No point going into details - I feel I also have to consider the poor priest and what thoughts I put into his head.

I personally suspect many women have the fear that they will be considered somehow a particularly heinous sinner for admitting to what is supposed to be a typically masculine weakness, and so just never bring it up in the confessional. I didn't for years (until I learned that made all my previous confessions invalid and that I'd been receiving communion improperly basically since I was a child - yes, it started that early). Even now I have to work myself up to it.

Finally, though I'm not going to get into the discussion of who has it worse, men or women, I think the perception of women's sexuality is skewed by generations of arranged marriages. Unenthusiastic wives married to (much older) husbands probably went with the "headache" or "feminine complaint" excuse as often as they could get away with it, and probably were happy to send their husbands off to mistresses once they had dutifully produced the requisite male heir.

Meanwhile, Victoria and Albert! Nine children! Whooeee.

Bee said...

Oh, this was an excellent post, and very much what I needed to read right now. But the line about St. Maria is really niggling at me. A dear friend, a former pastoral ministry director, and I share a big sigh whenever anyone presents St. Maria as choosing death over mortal sin. Because the implication of that "reading" of the event is that being raped after saying no and not being able to do much against a knife would have been some kind of wrong on her part. Do we really want to risk women inferring from such adulation of St. Maria that if they don't do everything they can to rather die than to be raped, they are somehow complicit in the attacker's sin? Or that because death was not an option (and it's not like the guy really gave her one) before or during the attack, they can't be the same paragon of purity? Sometimes purity is physical, but when you are attacked and forced to do something, your will is not involved, and your spiritual state choosing purity. It's why I would never say a person who's been raped has had virginity stolen. Virgins are people who haven't had sex. People who are raped have not had sex--they have been attacked; that the weapon was a part of the anatomy should not affect how she views her chastity.

Rather, my friend and I see St. Maria's virtue primarily in her forgiveness and the miracle of the attacker's conversion and repentance after her death. Which ties into your overall point--that we can look beyond the sexual purity virtue of a person to discover what God is calling us to.

Sheila said...

I think the virtue of St. Maria Goretti lies in two things: first, that she was brave enough to make an *actual choice* at a moment that must have been terrifying; and second that she chose what she saw as the more generous choice, trying to save her attacker from sin. Of course that didn't work, since he committed the sin of murder instead of the sin of rape, but she loved him so much -- even though he didn't deserve it at all -- that she wanted to save *him.*

She would have committed no sin at all if she had made a different choice. Women who choose to be raped rather than resist to the death commit no sin. They don't consent to it, they didn't DO it .... and they don't need to get themselves killed to prove it. If someone points a gun at me and says "take off your clothes" -- I don't think I'd be sinning if I did it, because there is no real consent of my will.

Anyway. Mary. She isn't always the world's greatest example, simply because she couldn't possibly have faced ALL the challenges we do. I mean, what would she have done if her Son had looked in her eye and said "I hate you, Mama"? Who knows? (I wound up saying "No you don't" and moving on. Five minutes later my kid was crying to get onto my lap and hug me. Go figure.) Her general virtue is still worth imitating. But we need more models than just her, and thank goodness there are so many female saints. I also have women in my life and in fiction that I see as models. It makes a big difference to have someone to look up to.

I am joining the dowdy brigade, as far as looks go. Or, as I think of it, I am rebelling against the idea that only my looks matter, or that I lose value or humanity when I get old. Anyway I always preferred graceful old ladies with white hair in buns to ladies with dyed permed hair. I look forward to going gray.

Sarah said...

Hmm. Okay, no one villify me for saying this, but I have never liked St. Maria Goretti as an example of purity.

In my mind, she was resisting rape, which any woman would do, even those okay with extramarital sex. Many women are killed doing so.

Of course, a very comendable and brave action, and I don't want to minimize it, but she's not someone I feel like I can look to as an example for every day temptations against purity.

Please, if someone has a better perspective on this, I would love to hear it.

Bee said...

Thanks for your reply, Sheila. The distinction of her not wanting him to commit the sin has been left out of most of the biographies I've read. And the construction of the sentence here, and other ways I've seen it presented, to me implied that if she had been raped she would have committed a sin, or at the very least, by not trying to stop his sin, she still would have been guilty of something. And I don't really see her reaction as a choice, so much as a reaction--a very courageously worded reaction, but people intent on assaulting (because rape is more about domination than sex), are in control and there is no real *choice*. Hence why pastoral minister friend and I always try to advocate for nuance with this story and emphasize the forgiveness aspect. Frankly, my personal paragon of chastity is someone who's managed to live in this world and daily resist the temptations of the world and her own nature, not knowing if marriage will come. *THAT* is hard.

Sarah said...

Oh, I didn't see Sheila's response. I guess she answered the question, but I'm still somewhat unconvinced and agree with Bee when she says:

"Frankly, my personal paragon of chastity is someone who's managed to live in this world and daily resist the temptations of the world and her own nature, not knowing if marriage will come. *THAT* is hard."

Kels said...

I feel a bit silly saying this, but honestly I'm a bit surprised when people don't have some sort of Marian devotion. My ancestry does happen to be Polish, so maybe?…
As a child my family was deeply involved with Marian groups, which I appreciate more now as I get older. Partly because as my relationship with my own mother has fallen apart for various reasons, it is a comfort to have Our Lady take her place.
In regards to Mary not having every experience of motherhood. During her time on earth, probably not, afterwards, perhaps? In my own mind I've generally thought that because Mary was given to the Church to be our mother and as she is a real person; Mary has probably heard many of us tell her that we hate her or worse.

Jam said...

The saints are primarily and essentially *people* - not prescriptive narratives that dictate particular ways of life. Thinking of them primarily as Saint Stories is, I think, a mistake, although entirely common (and dare I say rather less weird and challenging than engaging with them as people). I've gleaned this lesson from listening to very holy religious, but I think it also comes across in books like To Know Christ Jesus and the essays in (the poorly titled) Saints Are Not Sad (both Frank Sheed, I think). There is also The Truth About Therese, by Henri Gheon, in which the author comes to terms with a saint he doesn't like.

I'm trying not to come across as too critical because I struggle with this kind of thing myself all the time. There are lots of saints I don't particularly like and whom I suspect I don't approve of. But they are people, and like other people I don't always appreciate them right away. Sometimes it takes time to realize what you should have been learning from that boss, or what that roommate was such a good model of. Except with the saints it's not so much of a regret about the past, because they are in eternity and you can pick up a relationship with them whenever.

I love Our Lady; I don't begin to understand how her sinlessness could have "worked" but in spite of that and my own very-far-from-sinlessness I do get something out of thinking of her as an example. I was just reflecting last night how she must have had some plan for her life and it definitely wasn't to have one son who grew up and was executed, much less any other details we might add to that. And yet I'm sure she never stormed about missing out on her dreams the way I fume and fuss and wail about even the slightest disappointment. Mary is so pure without even inquiring into anything physical; she is pure because her heart and mind were always given to God. "Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it."

Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick said...

This is really beautiful, thank you.

Seraphic said...

Yes, I used to be terribly disturbed by the story of St. Maria Goretti. However, Christian doctrine on the subject of sin and consent has been consistent since St. Augustine's defense of rape survivors and condemnation of Lucretia's suicide. If Maria had been raped, she would not have incurred sin. Her spiritual virginity would have been preserved. And her rapist would have been damned to hell--unless he fully repented, of course. And he might not have. He might have told himself and all his friends that it was her fault, she asked for it, etc, etc, and then died an old man (or during either world war) and to his great shock found himself in eternal agony.

Maria was canonized not for resisting rape but for having forgiven he murderer on her deathbed. She can't be blamed for ham-fisted interpretations of her story, poor sweet. I mentioned her only in the context of a child who understood what a mortal sin was and the importance of not committing them.
Her answer to Alessandro, a fellow Catholic she had known for some time, was "No! It is a sin! God does not want it!" and reminding him he would go to hell if he raped her. She was only eleven. Eleven! The icons always make her look like a teenager, but she was a CHILD.

Nobody knows what she herself would do in that situation: angry older boy whose obscene suggestions she had already ignored, knife. One does what one does. Maria's reaction was to fight back shouting. She may have
been more angry than scared. Other children or women in her situation might be simply too frightened to resist. That's not their fault, and sadly they sometimes feel guilty anyway.

In St Maria Goretti's case, as in the situation of Our Lady, we have to look BEYOND their virginity to the real lessons they have for us. Virginity was just what was appropriate for their calling in life--Maria as an eleven-year-old child, Our Lady as the Mother of God--not their reason for being. The point is that at eleven Maria knew her attacker was risking hell, told him so, and then forgave him when he murdered her. And the lesson of Our Lady is that her life completely revolved around God, that her Son received His humanity from her (in a biological sense) and therefore we can aspire to her dignity--not necessarily as a perpetual virgin or as a biological mother, and certainly not as the Mother of God--but as a human woman attending always to the will of God.