Editor’s note: Monday, August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. With this in mind we offer this two part series on Mary.
She’s called everything from Our Lady of Peace to the Mother of God to the New Eve. She smiles at us from Christmas cards and gazes serenely from Renaissance paintings. There’s no question that Mary is one of the most recognizable women in the world. Her significance in the Catholic tradition is indisputable.
But what is her significance in the lives of women today? How does this iconic figure speak to the twenty-first century female experience? Curious about Mary’s impact on modern women, I surveyed Catholic women from their early thirties to early forties – both lapsed and practicing — and invited them to share their reflections on the Mother of God. Though their responses defy easy generalizations, one thing was certain: despite the simple beauty of most traditional depictions of Mary, her influence on women’s lives is astonishingly complex. I found that in sharing their thoughts on Mary, these women were addressing some of the most essential issues in their lives: motherhood, sexuality, prayer, and the power of having a strong female model of faith.
Whether it’s a Christmas card scene of Christ’s birth or Michelangelo’s Pieta, the image of Mary and her child is one that speaks powerfully to Catholics of both genders. Not surprisingly, women connect with this symbolic image in a particularly personal way. Many of the women I interviewed found that motherhood was the catalyst for a deeper relationship with Mary. Marjie, a teacher, recalls what it was like to be pregnant with her daughter around Christmas. “That holiday season seemed so much more rich and textured than I ever had experienced. I am still touched during that time of year with the idea of Mary’s motherhood, the thought of a baby growing to do such wonderful things.”
Maria, a teacher-turned-stay-at-home-mom, explains that although Mary is not someone she has a special devotion to or is even mindful of daily, being a mother has given her a profound insight into Mary’s life. “One Easter after my first child was born, I probably had the experience which brought me closest to Mary. My daughter had had a few seizures and so I had some idea of what it was like to hold your own child’s lifeless body. When reflecting on Christ’s passion and resurrection that year, I really saw the events from Mary’s perspective.”
Even women who are not yet mothers find that Mary’s maternal nature can be a powerful means of connection. Amy, a marketing executive who has traditionally never had a strong devotion to Mary, finds that her relationship with the Mother of Jesus has been growing of late. “I attribute it to the idea of being closer to the possibility of becoming a mother myself” she said.
Kim, a land use planner, offers another perspective. “As my yoga teacher put it a few weeks back, all women, whether mothers or not, have the nurturing abilities and comforting qualities that make them ‘motherly’ to others – so that part of me can relate to Mary as a nurturing, caring person.”
Though Mary’s role as mother is dominant in Catholic art and prayer, Lisa, a stay-at-home-mom, shared an epiphany that came when she thought of Mary as a daughter, not a parent. While pregnant with her second child, Lisa was working at a Catholic college, and happened to take a lunchtime walk through the chapel. “I saw the most beautiful statue of Mary and her mother, Anne, who was combing her hair. Anne and Mary were so simple, so innocent and graceful. It made me think about how our lives are often not that way. But what a lofty goal for us to follow.” She and her husband ended up naming their daughter Anne, in part because of that statue and the reflection that it inspired. Thinking back on her own childhood, Lisa explains that Mary helped her cope with the rocky relationship she had with her own mother. “I always felt that Mary stood in for the mother I didn’t have – not physically, but emotionally. By praying to her I felt stronger, safer, more whole.” Her story indicates that whether we identify with the mother who gives affection or the child who receives it, the figure of Mary taps into our deepest human longings: to love and to be loved.
The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was a virgin not only at the time of Christ’s conception, but throughout her entire life. For several of the women I interviewed, this teaching seemed not only incongruous, but damaging to women’s sense of their own sexuality. Some interpret the emphasis on Mary’s purity as a way for the Church to perpetuate an insidious sexual double standard. “I have never felt any connection to Mary as a woman – only resentment and possibly anger at her role in the Church,” said Jennifer, an attorney. “My experience of her was always this really sad, doting, passive mother who has been glorified because of her virginity – another example of the Church making sex dirty and bad and women who have sex dirty. When does the Church make a big deal out of a man’s virginity?”
Caroline, a teacher, echoed this response. “I understand trying to make the point that God the Father was the father of Jesus, but [focusing on Mary’s virginity] seems to further the misconception that sex is a bad thing, and that we glorify Mary in her virginity. I have a hard time with that – it takes away the very human and real aspect of Mary. “
Although Mary’s perpetual virginity is clearly an obstacle for many women on a personal level, others object to its historical truth. “What I find hard to believe is that Mary and Joseph, after the birth of Jesus, would have no marital relations and would not increase their family” said Janine, a retail manager. “This idea seems contrary to every bit of historical evidence about the Hebrew people I have read or heard. Why should we not hold open the possibility that Jesus’ parents had other children after him? Who would care for them in their old age, especially as Jesus knew he would not be there?”
Sarah, a musician and adult convert to Catholicism, explains how she gradually came to terms with her reservations about Mary. Growing up outside of the Catholic Church, she always felt that the traditional image of the Virgin Mary was harmful to women. “I originally had this idea that most Catholic men saw women either as the kind of girl they wanted to marry (i.e., a pure, submissive virgin like Mary) or as the kind of woman they would seek their pleasure from (i.e., a whore). In other words, I did not feel that the idealized image of Mary helped the women’s cause in being seen and treated as equal human beings, but rather served to further objectify them.” In recent years, however, she explains that Mary’s virginity has taken a back seat to other, more compelling qualities. “Since becoming Catholic and developing a relationship with Mary through the rosary…The descriptive adjectives I have come to know her by are more like powerful, strong, courageous, nurturing, loving, compassionate, peaceful and constant.”
These stories are evidence of the hunger many women have for Mary to be presented in a way that emphasizes the full complexity of her experience as a woman. There is a transformative value for them in shifting the spotlight away from Mary’s purity and highlighting qualities that all women, virgin or not, can emulate.