I've never been very good at beginnings, first impressions, knowing what to say when I meet somebody for the first time. I want to use this blog to share with you some of the things that I have learned from my research about devotion to the Virgin Mother of God, but part of me would insist that I really have no business trying to say anything about her.
"But," a little voice inside of me cries, "you've been thinking about her for the better part of twenty-five years, ever since you took that course in college and started to wonder why so much of the scholarship left you feeling so cold. The Virgin as Goddess, the Virgin as insult to all other women: you knew then that there was more than that to her cult. You've been acting in her service ever since, trying to express that something more. How can you have nothing to say?"
"Oh," I answer, "I didn't say that I have nothing to say. Rather, I feel like nothing I say could ever be anything but provisional. Yes, I've been thinking about Mary, researching the medieval Christian--particularly the monastic--devotion to her for all these years, but still I feel like I know nothing, that nothing I could say in her honor would ever be sufficient. Plus, in the years since I started my research, so many of my colleagues in history and religious studies have published such excellent studies of her cult, it's all I can do to keep up with them. I feel like nothing I could say would add anything really new."
"But surely," the little voice encourages me, "it is nevertheless worthwhile to gather up some of the things that you have thought about and put them together as a sort of offering to her, whether or not there is strictly speaking anything new about what it is that you want to say. Why, after all, do you expect to have anything new to say about the Virgin that has not been said over the past two thousand or so years? Devotion is not about novelty; it is about love. Don't you love Our Lady?"
"Ah, but that's just it," I reply. "I'm not sure that I do. I have just as much trouble with many of the more popular devotional books about Mary as I do with the more modern or secularizing criticisms of her cult. I want to love her, I really do. But part of me always holds back, not wanting to become one of those Christians. You know, the rosary-saying oddballs who don't seem to appreciate that it is not just a little weird to spend all of your time imagining that some poor Palestinian woman who may even have been raped is up there bodily in heaven listening to our prayers. I mean, it's hard enough believing everything else that even Protestants say about her: that she was the Mother of the God-man Jesus Christ, that she conceived her son through the power of the Holy Ghost, that even after spending years taking care of him as a child she still believed he was God."
"Now, now, you're being a bit hard on yourself, aren't you? You aren't nearly as skeptical as all that. I've seen all of the images that you have of her in your office and even in your home. You love her, you do. And you believe that there is something in all of those prayers that her devotees have offered her over the years, even if you have a hard time praying them yourself. So maybe you can't quite figure out how to say the rosary, you still want to, otherwise why would you keep buying all those prayer cards and beads? So what if your efforts at saying the Little Office of the Virgin have fallen a bit flat, you still carry it around, hoping that one day the inspiration will strike and you will know how to pray to her in love."
"But that's just it," I cry. "I'm a fraud. Sure, I have the images and the prayer cards and the rosaries, but I don't use them. Maybe it's better that way; heaven forbid that as an academic I actually participate in the culture I am attempting to describe. But even I don't really think that that is true. I want to look along the beam of light, not just at it; I want to experience myself the devotion that I can see in the sources that I study, if at the moment only from the outside. Sure, I worry sometimes that a more devotional position might create problems for me within the academy, but I also know that objectivity (i.e. looking at the beam) is itself an illusion. Or, rather, that looking along the beam (as C.S. Lewis would put it) is no more illusory than standing outside of an experience and insisting that what one sees is more real than what those standing within describe. I'm sorry, I know that I am speaking elliptically here, but that is another problem that I have: to whom am I speaking when I want to write about the Virgin Mary? Fellow devotees? Fellow skeptics? Fellow seekers?"
"Perhaps all of the above?"
"Perhaps. But I still worry. I'm not sure that Catholics and others who actually pray to Mary will want to listen to my more academic and, at times, doubtful explorations of her cult. Likewise, I am worried that most Protestants and non-Christians will simply see what I say as championing outmoded or ridiculous beliefs. I can't tell you the number of times I've been asked whether, quote unquote, they (meaning medieval but also some modern Christians) 'really believed' in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. As if it were possible to believe that Jesus was God incarnate while at the same time insisting that Joseph was actually his father. Of course, not everyone believes that Jesus was God incarnate. Many would prefer to believe that he was simply Joseph's son. 'Sure,' they would argue, 'he had a few good ideas and seems to have preached something that we can recognize as social justice, but God incarnate, pull the other one, it's got bells on.' For such readers, it will always be easier to believe that Mary as Christians pray to her is simply a (pagan) goddess in disguise or an invention of the patriarchy to oppress women or, I don't know, anything other than the historical Mother of God."
"See, you do have something to say, at least, something that you think is worth saying even if others disagree with you. You don't think that it is right to reduce (or elevate) Mary to the status of a divinity, nor do you think it is right to reduce (or elevate) her to the status of a dimly glimpsed historical figure around whom a rather elaborate mythology has been woven. You think that it is worth thinking about her as the Church teaches: as the Virgin in whose womb the Son of God became flesh, with all of the privileges that that status entails."
"Yes, well, if you put it that way, I suppose that I do have something that I want to say, but I do wish that I could find more poetic or contemplative or devotional ways to say it. Everything that I say about Mary seems so clumsy, neither properly academic nor properly art. Like this blog: is it intended as a way to publish some of my more academic musings about the meaning of her cult or as an outlet for more, shall we say, creative expressions? Won't the one cancel out the other, the more academic I get, the less I seem to be helping others come to her in devotion; while the more artistic I get, the less I can teach about the way in which her cult has actually developed?"
"Again, why can't you do both?"
"Oh," and by this point I know that my protestations are rather feeble. "I'm worried that nobody will listen to me, the academics because I am too touchy-feely, the devotees because I am too dry."
"So you want everyone to love you, when even the Virgin has had her critics over the years? She who had the courage to stand next to her son even as he was executed for blasphemy and sedition. Some devotee you are."
"Okay, okay. You've convinced me. I'll start the blog. But it's not going to be easy."
"Nobody ever said it was. But surely it's worth it, at the risk of discovering your true devotion to her beauty, wisdom and love."
"Indeed. So let's begin: 'Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.'"