August 15, 2014 by lucieromarin
Happy Feast! Between today and the Feast of the Immaculate Heart I’m going to write a lot about Our Lady. There are many good reasons that people struggle with devotion to her. Others get worn down by the ill-mannered or ignorant things said about her, and it’s easy to start believing that the world is full of bigots. In fact, there’s often nothing more to it than competing definitions of evidence, and that’s nobody’s fault. It’s simply the consequence of different inheritances. It would be nice if people tried to understand us by trying to think as we think, but before we cry “Satanic freemason!” at everyone who’s written a ghastly book, we should do the same thing. And that’s the topic for today (sort of.) Here goes!
I overheard this conversation in a staffroom:
Person 1: I like medieval Catholicism best, because it embraced all that paganism and interesting things. Not like Protestantism.
Person 2: Ugh – yeah… where you couldn’t be open to anything…everything had to be purely Christian.
Well, by the time I’d recovered from my seizure, the speakers were long gone, but, for the first time, I saw how completely the Protestantised idea of Christianity had conquered the modern mind, to the extent even that persons outside of Christianity use it as their framework for historical or theological investigation, without even questioning it as a first principle. The idea that Christianity must be completely unlike other religions is a Protestant idea, but it has become the default idea for almost everybody. The only thing that feminist historians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelically-inclined Anglican bishops and Joseph Campbell have in common is the belief that Catholicism is in some way a pagan-Christian mash-up, a corruption of ‘pure Christianity’, so they are all busy trying to discover our motives for said corruption, never considering the possibility that there never was any corruption in the first place.
Now, in fairness, every age has its syncretists, its superstitious folk, its shallow or confused converts, and its imprudent or tasteless missionaries. I don’t think people can be blamed for holding a false impression of Catholicism if that impression has been handed to them on a plastic, glow-in-the-dark plate. If you’ve not much experience of Catholicism, and you’re accosted by someone who hands you a piece of brown cloth and tells you it will keep you out of Hell, your first reaction is not going to be, “Oh, well, that sounds like the Gospels to me.” However, while this certainly proves that human weakness does not evaporate at Baptism, none of it is the same as the idea that the Church had at any point a deliberate agenda to alter Christianity by the importing of pagan practices. Similarly, I can quite see how a statue decked with flowers might bring to mind the May Queen, but the fact remains that resemblance does not always signify relationship. I was once taken for a Reformed Presbyterian because of my outfit. I can assure you I’m not one.
The difference between the Protestant and the Catholic idea of Pure Christianity is very interesting and impossible to deal with justly in a paragraph, so, for now, we’ll just have to settle for acknowledging that it exists, because today is the Feast of the Assumption, and I want to think about these ideas in relation to Our Lady. So, if we assume that not everyone who disagrees with us is an agent of Satan out to destroy the Church, I think there are four general reasons why people think that the veneration of Our Lady is some kind of borrowed paganism, rather than the natural response to Our Lord’s divinity.
1) They’re not thinking about Our Lord’s divinity.
I don’t think I need to elaborate on this one. Just ask yourself how you’d treat your neighbour if you found out she was giving birth to God.
2) The limitations of secular enquiry aren’t always acknowledged.
There are statues of Isis breastfeeding, and she’s called ‘The Queen of Heaven.’ There are statues of Our Lady breastfeeding, and she’s called ‘The Queen of Heaven.’ Therefore Our Lady is Isis, yes?
Er – no. In fairness to the secular historian, the statue of Isis was carved first, so you can see why he’d take Catholicism to be the plagiarist. But the reason he thinks there must be plagiarism at all is because he’s absorbed the abovementioned Protestant idea without even knowing it. And why would he know it, since everyone he knows has absorbed it, too?
Meanwhile, the reason Catholics don’t go to pieces when someone tells us that other people had resurrecting gods and heroes too because this is exactly what we’d expect to find. We don’t think that Christianity has always to look unlike everything else in order to be true. We believe all men were made for the same thing, so it doesn’t surprise us to find that the most gifted and intuitive members of other religions created stories that resembled ours. At the same time, we’re not limited by human chronology; we can see that, if there was some sinister plagiarism at work, it was because Screwtape knew what was coming, and got in first, with his distorted, competing version of the truth. It shouldn’t really tax the religious mind to suppose that there might be a true Queen of Heaven and a false one. Neither does it stretch credulity to suppose that a false religion might resemble a true one. This alone does not prove that Our Lady is that true Queen. However, if a man asks, “Why do Catholics say that Mary is the Queen of Heaven? I’m going to find out!” while simultaneously refusing to ask, “Might there be a true Queen of Heaven, as they say there is?” and “Might she really be that Queen, as they say she is?” then he can never say that he investigated her role in light of all the possible explanations for it. His discovery of corrupt motives for this veneration isn’t really a discovery at all, because he was forced to his conclusion by the limitations of his philosophy. (He’s like the man who emailed me to ask me whether my column for the Catholic Weekly was plaigarised from the Pope or from St Thomas, because he was open to every possibility other than that I really was the writer I claimed to be [true story.])
3) Almost everyone has forgotten almost everything that people once knew about Judaism.
It happens with the issue of sacred liturgy, too. The destruction of the Second Temple changed Jewish liturgy; as a result, everyone’s forgotten that it included incense, chant, bells, the tabernacle, the lamp, candles, liturgical fabrics and colours, and all those things which are now assumed to be the property of paganism, simply because Protestants don’t use them. Our liturgy is interpreted as paganised Christianity, when, in fact, it’s a Christianised Judaism. Now, you may wish to argue that we made a mistake by keeping this inheritance, and that Our Lord wanted it to end with the Old Covenant. What you can’t say is that we got it from somewhere else.
The same can be said of Our Lady. The examples of femininity presumed to have been imported from paganism are, in fact, the inheritance of Judaism. There was no need for Christians, early or late, to bring in Warrior Woman, or Queen Mother, or Prophetess, or Intercessor, because she was already there. Christians of Jewish heritage had the example of Esther as the Queen whose intercession saved a nation. They had the example of Judith, who did likewise by slaying the nation’s enemy. They had the example of Deborah as the prophetess and Judge who marshalled an army, and without whom the soldiers refused to go into battle. The Gebirah, the Queen Mother, was long-venerated: you will remember that the penalty for touching the Ark of the Covenant was death; the Queen Mother alone was allowed to sit on the same seat upon which the Shekinah (the glory-cloud) rested, with cherubim either side of her – yes, they used statues even then – and when she asked something of King Solomon, his response to her was, “How can I refuse you, as you are my mother?”
This continues in Catholic devotion today. Those mysterious titles in the Litany – House of Gold, Seat of Wisdom, Tower of Ivory, Ark of the Covenant – are all direct references to the Old Testament, to places or objects upon which the Holy Spirit rested. They’re not poetical things that we made up because we corrupted Christianity; they’re part of our vision of the passage from the Old Covenant to the New. Again, a Protestant may wish to argue that these honours were meant to pass away with the Old Covenant, and that Christians make a mistake by continuing them in the New, but the point remains is that they are drawn from the Old Covenant, and not from something outside it. Meanwhile, there is nothing intrinsically incoherent or inconsistent about reasoning thus: if the kingship of David or Solomon reflected glory upon their mothers, then the greater Kingship of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, reflects a greater glory upon a greater mother. So we know what we have to do.
4) Not accounting for Our Lady’s ongoing intervention in history, or, at least, for the possibility of it.
I don’t think it hurts to admit that if the casual inquirer cast a glance over our list of Feast Days or Marian shrines, it would look as though we’d crammed our liturgical space full of…well, clutter. It is true that the first Christians did not sit about having Bible studies as Protestants recognise then. It is also true that they did not celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on August 22. So why do we?
First, it’s important to realise that some questions or possibilities are essentially banned from non-Catholic thought. Those trained to see the Bible as the sole source of authority cannot ask if this is an artificial standard; those trained to close their minds to any possibility of supernatural or preternatural activity will never be allowed to ask if any report might actually be true; modernity privileges literacy over orality, so the modern mind, unpractised at the use of oral tradition, must believe that a crabby remark preserved on parchment is more representative of Catholicism than is the testimony of a peasant girl, despite the fact that no Catholic on the planet is reading the parchment, while millions of Catholics are travelling to the girl’s shrine. The tragedy is that this training reinforces the standards that feminists rightly deplore; those most opposed to male tyranny or the suppression of the voices of the poor, are the very people who will not ask, even for one moment, if that peasant girl might have been telling the truth. Have you seen the name of Gilberte Voisin or Benoite Rencurel in the index of any work of secular, feminist history? I thought not.
That the Catholic understanding is unlike all of this does not immediately make it the truth; it does, however, mean that it can’t be thoroughly examined if some questions are banned from the examination. I really don’t think there’s anything intrinsically incredible in the idea that God might give someone other than a bishop something important to do. If someone is point-blank totally closed to the possibility that the Mother of Jesus Christ might choose nuns, children, or peasants in order to deliver messages to the Church, it’s because of a pre-existing belief about God (i.e. there’s no God, or Jesus wasn’t God, or He was, but He didn’t found the Catholic Church) or about literacy (ancient books are authoritative; ancient legends are not); or about women, children, and the poor (they must be lying or delusional; God wouldn’t choose them). And that belief should be examined first, before it is superimposed upon an examination of ours.
Even if you don’t believe that Our Lady has been acting in human history since Pentecost, the point is that no one can understand our love for her without understanding that we believe she has been active throughout history. Our feast days and titles for her aren’t just a sort of accumulation of baggage; they’re our response to Our Lady’s own words and actions in incidents that we can’t explain any other way than to say that it was her. But we could hardly respond to these things before they’d happened. Her feast day in honour of her intercession at the Battle of Lepanto, for example, obviously couldn’t be introduced before the battle had been fought! We couldn’t build a shrine in Lourdes before her apparitions there. And so on.
Well, in the end, we all have our own minds; maybe others don’t want to ask our questions, and that, in the end, is their privilege. But to understand what we do, it’s necessary to understand what we ask ourselves, so here, for the record, are some of those questions:
- “I shall put enmity between thee and the woman, and she shall crush your head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” Who is the woman?
- “How have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This Lord, is he God?
- “Then the dragon went to make war on the woman and the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of Christ…” Who is the woman?
- Is Jesus Christ a King? If so, what is His Mother? Is Jesus Christ God? If so, what is His Mother?
- Our Lord calls himself the ‘New Adam.’ Who is the New Eve? Or are we to suppose there isn’t one, despite the prophecy in question 1?
- Our Lady was the only person to be present at Our Lord’s conception, birth, commencement of His public ministry, Crucifixion, and at the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. Her role was prophesied by Isaiah, and she is the only person in history to be overshadowed by the Holy Ghost. Er… even if we eschew 1950s- style holy cards, doesn’t this make her at least a little bit interesting?
- Christians have been using relics since the days of the Apostles (you’ll remember that the Book of Acts describes the use of the handkerchiefs of St Paul for healing.) Every year, on the feast of the Assumption, we ask, why have there never been any first class relics of Our Lady, not even fake ones?
- The canon of Scripture was authorised by the Council of Carthage in 397. The oldest known extant hymn to Our Lady predates this by more than a century. How, then, can we say that this veneration postdates a purely Bible-only Christianity?
- The Liturgy of St James, which also predates the Council of Carthage, refers to Our Lady explicitly as ‘The Mother of God.’ See above question!
- The oldest known image of Our Lady predates the conversion of Constantine by at least a century. What is it doing in the catacomb? Why is it there?
- What were the Boxer rebels firing at in Dong Lu?
- How was an illiterate nine-year-old girl who spent all her days in a field with only two younger children for company able to predict the Second World War and the emergence of Russia as a superpower?
- How and why has the body of St Bernadette of Lourdes remained incorrupt?
- Why does Lourdes water work? Don’t give me ‘the power of auto-suggestion’ – it’s one thing to psychosomatically cure your own stress headache with pious thoughts, but how do people cure broken legs, paralysis and cancer this way? Have we discovered the ultimate placebo?
- And how, how, how, was 16th century peasant able to fake this?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to prepare my basket of apples and roses for tonight’s blessing!