Tricolor Mary: Encountering 3 Faces of the Divine Feminine

Mary in White

I always felt curiously distant from the figure of Mary. I always sensed that there is so much there and yet, I could never connect to it emotionally.

The foil to Eve, vessel of Love, suffering mother. I wanted to love her, I wanted to feel her, I wanted to feel drawn to the mystery of Marian devotion. But I felt alienated by the vision of the feminine that she seemed to project: the pure, immaculate, virginal, submissive, obedient, quietly suffering.

Most days, I feel like the opposite of every single one of those qualities. 

It's exactly the kind of feminine archetype I don't really relate to -- the kind of person about whom people say, "oh, she's really nice" as if yielding compliance and non-offensiveness are her primary attributes. The kind of woman who fades into the background, whose worth lies only in her utility to the patriarchal narrative.

Will Mary, with the white halo on her head, be accepting of my chaos, my non-virginity, my rejection of Victorian purity, my failure to suffer quietly (I like to kick and scream)? Am I not more a daughter of Eve, the one who says "yes" to darkness and temptation? 

If so, how can I make peace with Mary, let alone love her? How can I fully reconcile with an otherwise masculine-dominated vision of Christianity?

Earlier, I was reading a Camille Paglia interview, in which she contrasted the pagan floridness of Mediterranean Catholicism with the country club-politeness and blandness of what is seen in a lot of churches nowadays. Then it clicked with me.

Through most of the images I'd seen in my life, I only encountered "country club" versions of Mary -- squeaky-clean, wholesome, Doris Day. Nothing dark or mysterious or dangerous about her. No edge, no drama, no intrigue.

We form relationships with symbols, realms of the subconscious and the spiritual, through images. I have been sorely deprived of interesting images of Mary

Then I set out to explore, looking at very different visual representations of Mary. Indeed, artists and poets throughout the ages have imagined her in strikingly diverse ways. Through these images, we can reconsider our own ideas of womanhood, weaving together different threads of Jungian symbols. 

This is why we have art, yes? So that we can re-order what we know and how we know it through active seeing. (And I'd be remiss not to mention, if you're interested in active seeing, check out the book I recently reviewed for the National Book Review.)

Now, let's get to it.

1. Mary in White

Mary in White

This is very near the only image of Mary I grew up with. I had a small statuette of her in my room growing up, and saw aesthetically similar statues in the churches I grew up in in Korea and suburban California. 

Mary has pale skin, blandly pretty features, clad in flowy, fluid lines of white and sky blue. For our purposes, let's call her the White Mary.

I'll come out and say it, because I think this is what Paglia was alluding to: she's the Episcopalian country club Mary and does absolutely nothing for me. Very serviceable, polite, nice. She is kind and inviting without edges. Beautiful without any hint of threatening sexuality. She is stripped of any hint of Mediterranean pageantry; she's been "protestant-ized". 

Oh, of course, there's the serpent she is crushing under her foot. The serpent that lured Eve, the precursor to Original Sin. The snake under the foot always grossed me out when I was a child, but only slightly, because it's so easy to miss! You can barely see it. In these statuettes, the snakes are thin, anemic, rarely truly menacing. They're the most toothless representations of the Evil that she is symbolically crushing. 

She can overcome only an already weak and limp enemy. This is barely the tough, scrappy young woman who got off a donkey in a faraway land and gave birth in a dirty manger. This is not the mater dolorosa who stood by her bleeding, slowly dying son. 

If this country club Mary saw anything like that, she might politely turn away, ask for her smelling salts, and mutter something like, "oh, goodness, how unseemly!" 



2. Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey 

Chapel of Grace, Black Madonna, Einsiedeln Abbey

Now we're talking. Behold Schwartzmuttergottes (Black Mother of God).

She is the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, said to be 500-600 years old, and she lives in Switzerland. 

This is not the same Mary as above. Carved of wood and painted a gleaming black, she is resplendently clad in stiff, imposing regal attire. There is none of the gentle, pastel-colored fluidity of Country Club Mary's dress. She wields a majestic scepter, and golden rods of light and unfurling waves of cloud shoot out and explode from behind her. The curves and lines here look Greco-Roman to me, and carry the exuberant energy of that ancient, pagan era.

Her facial features are slightly harder to discern, but we can see enough to say that she isn't exactly in a "my dear, why don't you come over for a nice cup of tea and crumpets?" kind of a mood. She is queenly, slightly forboding, the smooth darkness of her face hard and pearl-like. Her blackness harkens to a kind of pre-cosmic source-energy.

Gazing upon the Black Madonna, we think of the other Indo-European mirror, the Hindu goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, whose name is synonymous with the color black. 


3. Viridissima Virga (A Green Mary)

Viridissima Virga

We have here not a picture, but a poem, which was written for a chant.

O Viridissima Virga (O Greenest Rod)

O branch of freshest green,
O hail! Within the windy gusts of saints
upon a quest you swayed and sprouted forth.

When it was time, you blossomed in your boughs—
“Hail, hail!” you heard, for in you seeped the sunlight’s warmth
like balsam’s sweet perfume.

For in you bloomed
so beautiful a flow’r, whose fragrance wakened
all the spices from their dried-out stupor.

They all appeared in full viridity.

Then rained the heavens dew upon the grass
and all the earth was cheered,
for from her womb she brought forth fruit
and for the birds up in the sky
have nests in her.

Then was prepared that food for humankind,
the greatest joy of feasts!
O Virgin sweet, in you can ne’er fail any joy.

All this Eve chose to scorn.

But now, let praise ring forth unto the Highest!

(Latin original)

Viridissima Virga

Look here, where it gets really interesting. In this song, composed by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), witchy polymath and Doctor of the Church, Mary is not white, not black, but freaking green. Okay?

Hildegard was an accomplished botanist and natural historian. She didn't quite get the ascetic early Christian memo about turning one's eye away from the physical world in pursuit of the heavenly kingdom. No, she has her sights fixed on the sensorily-rich fertility principle, imagining Mary as a kind of Aphrodite. 

I love this fulsome, pagan bounty of nature in this poem. Mary "seeped the sunlight's warmth / like balsam's sweet perfume." A flower bloomed in her, waking the "spices" that appear in "full viridity". Worship of Mary is a celebration, a softening into the cycle of nature, a vibrant catalogue of color and movement.

By the way (this is the kind of stuff that makes me explode with nerdy delight), I love the punny potential of the title, 'viridissima virga'.

'Virga' means 'stem', or 'rod' (teeheehee, 'rod' -- I am so twelve years old forever), but of course it is a single letter away from 'virgo', meaning 'virgin'. (Ohhhhhh!) 'Viridissima' is a fancy Latin word for 'very green', but change one letter again and we have 'virilissima', which means, well, 'very virile'.

So much that is suggestive and sexy in this poem: branch that "swayed and sprouted forth"; heavens raining "dew upon the grass," and "from her womb she brought forth fruit." 

Nope, there is none of the solemn meekness of a scriptural Mary. Instead, the Mother of God is the luxuriant queen of generativity, the creative center of a blooming, exultant earthly garden. (Aha, garden! Like the one once inhabited by Eve. So we circle back to Genesis.) 




Review of The Sparrow: Does God give a damn?

Warning: Don’t read this review if you want to read this book (which I cannot recommend more highly if beautifully crafted, humane stories about cosmic theology and intergalactic travel interest you), because spoiler alerts.

“The Sparrow” is a novel by Mary Doria Russell and was described as “a startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction” by the New York Times Book Review. My friend Stephanie who knows me well and has the best taste gifted me this book, so I knew it was going to be good.

I am an official Religion major, unofficial philosophy minor, seminary drop-out, a woman who is always feels a couple of weird events away from actually joining a novitiate. That is to say, this ain’t the first time I found myself exploring questions about the existence and nature of God, but the novel plunged me deep into the heart of the question as if for the first time.

Here’s what happens. (I’m serious, stop reading if you want to read the book!)

We are introduced to a certain Father Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, academic linguist, dark and handsome, Puerto Rican in origin. There are two storylines unfolding at the same time. We are introduced to his life, the sensitivity, devotion and human conflictedness with which he meets his various missions across the Americas and Africa, learning over a dozen languages along the way. We are introduced to the charming, fiercely intelligent, multi-talented, service-minded (and agnostic!) friends he picks up along the way, whom he brings to settles down for another mission in La Perla, the slums of San Juan. An astronomer in the crew makes a groundbreaking discovery of music (!!!) from another, distant planet. Long story short, Fr. Sandoz and his crew embark on a journey to find these music-making, sentient aliens, feeling encouraged by the very providence of God himself.

And then things go horribly wrong. Then some more things go horribly, horribly wrong. Then even more things go horribly, horribly wrong until you’re on the last page with your jaw dropped, stunned, devastated. At the end, we are left with a physically and spiritually ravished priest, who may have convinced himself that God — if He exists — lured him into this mission with sparks of divine possibility, inspiration and cosmic love, only to make him the punchline of an immeasurably cruel joke.

Mean, mean Mary Doria Russell!!

I’ll be honest; I had so wished that there was a happy ending. Well, okay, if not a happy ending, at least some kind of resolution, some tying-of-existential-loose-ends-together. How could I not? I felt so vulnerable at the end. Most days, I feel the awareness of God all around me and inside me. I am not young enough that I believe in a God who actively interferes in human affairs, rewarding the good and punishing the evil, but I thought I had deeply contended with a degree of suffering and absurdity inherent our lives. I had room enough in my soul to contain paradoxes. God’s vastness made it increasingly easy for me to accept His mysteriousness; the inevitable ebb and flow of life softened me to the reality of grace. I had lain it all down at the feet of Christ, the central agent of redemptive suffering, the reverser of Original Sin, divine love made bruising and vulnerable flesh.

After digesting the initial shock of finishing the book (and making a cup of tea, and staring at the wall blankly for an hour), it occurred to me that this is by no means the first time a story like that had been told. What is so different about Sandoz’s journey from those of early Christian martyrs, or even the Jesuits who sailed across the Atlantic for the first time to entirely foreign and possibly hostile lands to win souls for God? Many of whom, as the novel mentions, met violent and homicidal guests, were tortured, maimed and killed? (One such priest,we are told, made it out alive and made his way back to Europe, only to return out of his own volition.) What’s different about it from the countless stories of ordinary people and saints who went intrepidly in pursuit of discovery, a great knowledge of God’s creation, singing of the Creator’s glory, and met nothing but senseless tragedy? How many such stories have we told?

As Sandoz languished alone in his cell with a devastated faith, surrounded by jeering, skeptical colleagues, Jesus Christ hung on the Cross, asking, “God, why have you forsaken me?”

Not that my fate has ever challenged me with rape by aliens or a public execution, but countless times, I have thought the same thing in the privacy of my own sorrow. “I thought I was being good, I thought I was loving you. You created me soft, yielding, weak. Why punish me for the way I was made?”

In a little interview with the author who was included at the end of the book, it was revealed that Russell had, after a Catholic childhood and more years of searching, converted to Judaism. Ah, of course. Though she painted such a loving and meticulous portrait of Christian faith and the Jesuit tradition, the central question of the book to me seemed appropriately, rigorously Jewish: is there a God who, frankly, gives a damn about you? After the Holocaust, theologians and philosophers had to contend with the question of a loving God entirely in a new way.  It always seemed to me that the Jewish tradition is less preoccupied with answers than questions, a quality I’ve always admired.

There is no way to interpret the tragedies of our lives as a personal insult from God if we don’t also interpret the blessings as a sign of favor. As Anne Edwards, a physician in the book says, “you can’t thank God when all goes well, and blame the doctor when it doesn’t.”

When I used to work in a nonprofit surrounded by lots of Christians, it drove me up the wall when something good happened and people would profusely thank God. “NO,” I would think. “God is not responsible. The volunteers stayed up until an ungodly hour, forsaking their own priorities and families, and busted their asses making this happen. Don’t turn it to God — turn it to these selfless, loving individuals. Don’t pray for God’s providence, acknowledge and take care of the people around you.”

I always felt strange giving thanks to God for my health, material prosperity and intelligence without also thinking of those who were not granted them. Surely I am not more deserving of such good fortune than the literally billions on earth who have less than I? If it is not based on merit, then the fact of my good fortune is arbitrary. I can feel grateful  — and I do! — without feeling it was ordained.

So, perhaps Sandoz’s error was to have had the arrogance to believe his equal to God’s will. He felt miserably abandoned when he met an unexpectedly horrible fate, but perhaps, the fact is that God was never holding his hand in the first place. He interpreted the moments of mystical joy along the path as signs of approval and blessing.

This thought does not leave me comforted, however. Who would not? What man would not follow the trail of his noblest courage and curiosity and not be tempted to believe the path blessed by God?

When I was cradling my cup of tea and staring at the wall after having finished the book, my mom came over and asked me what’s up. I gave her a 15-second summary of the book, and told her that I am struck with the question of God as though for the first time.

She told me of a story that she read in the final days leading to her baptism at age 36. Was it from St. Thomas Aquinas? She couldn’t remember. But it was some saint who was struggling with trying to understand God. During a walk on the beach, he saw a child who had dug a little hole in the sand and was busy spooning the seawater into it, using the half shell of a clam. When asked what he was doing, the child replied, “I’m trying to get all the water in the sea in this hole.”

My mom said, “after that story, I let go of the compulsion to try to make sense of God in my mind. How could I, with my little brain, one among billions, an infinitesimally small part of creation, dare to try to contain the intelligence of God? To make sense of it, to understand it, to pick it apart? It’s impossible. That story gave me peace to live each day without such arrogance, give thanks for the small things and remain in the awareness of the mystery.”

My mom always says that maybe she ought have converted to Judaism instead. She loves an omniscient, omnipresent God but never had much conviction about the whole Jesus thing. Was there really a virgin birth? Were you there? Neither was I. Who can know, and who gives a damn? She has this faith in a Creator that is unwavering but comfortably agnostic — in the sense that she has more questions than answers, and is okay with that.

The only thing I know — which the Jewish people know — is the line that is repeated in the novel: God will not come and save you. At least, not from earthly dangers. You cannot ever know what will happen: it is very possible that neither the blessings nor the curses are personal, that you may encounter both in ways that are beyond comprehension. Jesus’ life teaches that God does weep with us in moments of tragedy and that, in enduring, boundless agape, our salvation is made whole.

Within the novel, it is very strongly implied that, if there were ever a candidate for sainthood, Fr. Sandoz was (supposed to be) it. It is also strongly implied at the end of the novel that his efforts of trying to understand alien life had not been in vain, that his science would be useful for the new generation of explorers.

It occurs to me that there might be a container for Fr. Sandoz that is bigger than his suffering; if he were indeed called to sainthood, God would know and love him even/especially in his desolation. As Jesus reconciled with his Father for having nailed him to the cross, perhaps Fr. Sandoz would reconcile with God.

For a novel that so loved its Catholic protagonist and the Jesuit environment around him, there was a curious absence of Christology, when the outlines were obvious to me. This is the unflinching complexity of religious faith, and never did the narrative voice waver away from the heart of paradox. Hats off to Ms. Mary Doria Russell.



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Gregorian chants: an entry point into eternity

I have had friends, who are not religious and do not ever intend to become religious, who say that entering a church always does something to them. That, despite their indifference or even antipathy toward organized traditional religion, they find something beautiful and soothing about the ceremony, quiet and solemnity of church.

When I had completely ‘divorced’ the idea of God and religion, it was the same thing that always made me feel rueful. Like being reminded of the enduring, irrefutable beauty of a former lover who had proved untrue and left me scorned. And such beauty it truly is, in all senses — the slow-moving incense, a ringing depth of bells, the glisten of a chalice against candlelight, the spell of centuries-old harmony, alternatingly sweet, soaring, sorrowful.

We respond to that because what we feel with our bodies and senses is an invitation, not an argument.

If we are all floating about, feeling fragmented, alone and afraid — and I suspect we mostly are, as I always feel I am — the balm may be something that can make us feel grounded, anchored, oriented. The awareness of that is pre-cognitive and post-verbal.

If you have even a single mystical bone in your body, the invitation is always there — not to a set of beliefs, not to an institution, but to an expanded awareness, the subtle registering of something of rare solidity and transcendent orderliness, something that sucks you out of the prison of solipcism and out into an infinitely vast space, into a sense of time without beginning or end.

You may have felt something like that during yoga, meditation, absorption in great art or nature. Entry points are many, because the Eternal hides them everywhere.

Gregorian chants are one of my favorite such entry points, and Veni Creator Spiritus is one of my favorite gregorian chants. If you are allergic to the idea of anything religion-related, you might instead connect to the pure and searching hearts of of all the women and men across generations who sang the same hymn.


In English:

Come Creator Spirit, visit the souls of Thy people,
Fill with grace from on high the hearts which Thou hast created.

Thou Who art called the Comforter, gift of the most high God,
Living fountain, fire, love and unction of souls.

Sevenfold in Thy gifts, finger of the Father’s right hand,
Thou promised truly by the Father, giving speech to tongues.

Inflame our senses with Thy light, pour Thy love into our hearts,
Strengthen our weak bodies with lasting power.

Drive far away the enemy, grant peace at all times:
So under Thy guidance may we avoid all evil.

Grant us by Thee to know the Father and to know the Son,
And Thee, Spirit of both, may we always believe.

To God the Father be glory, to the Son Who rose from the dead
And to the Comforter, for all ages. Amen.



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Why it matters that Mormon women don’t want to vote Trump


You are living in the most secular world that ever existed. Everyone still has an opinion about religion.

  • It’s an antiquated set of beliefs about a bearded man in the sky.
  • It’s a tool for bigots to push their misogynistic, homophobic, anti-science agenda forward.
  • It would be nice and comforting to believe in a religion if I could get past all the irrational stuff, and oh, all the hypocrisy.
  • Opiate of the masses.
  • It is enough, or preferable, to abide by your own morality.
  • There is no God, no Creator, no-pie-in-the-sky spiritual truth.
  • We make our judgments by empirical science and accept only the cold and mysterious reality of physics and biology.

Actually! I find every single one of the statements above highly defensible and compelling, each in considerable philosophical and moral weight. That said, there is something that really bother me about the current state of socially- sanctioned unreligiousness.

People often mistake the leadership for the religion itself. This happens all the time, and it’s tempting! After all, the leaders are the ones who make the rules for their adherents. Leaders are the ones who symbolically and practically speak on behalf of their church to the outside world. So yeah, it feels like a reasonable thing to do.

Except, it kind of is and it kind of isn’t.

Judging a religion by its leaders and public doctrine is kind of like judging a country by the actions of its government. Is that fair? Kind of, maybe, in some circumstances, depending on the situation? I think a lot of Americans I know would prefer not to be judged by, or held accountable for G. W. Bush’s decision to start the Iraq War. A lot of non-Americans who are pissed off about our involvement in the Middle East don’t have much sympathy about that. On the other hand, many believe that the German people deserve some of the responsibility for Hitler, having brought him to power and abetted his decisions.

In other words, it’s not so black and white to me.

Catholicism is often judged by the actions of the Vatican. It’s a little disingenuous to say that you totally shouldn’t do that, because Catholicism is an explicitly centralized, top-down religion, and the Vatican does kind of control everything. And unlike a nationality, strictly speaking, there is an element of choice in professing a religion. But also, there are one billion Catholics in the world, spread out across every continent. Damned if you think that Indian rural Catholics and Korean progressive Catholics and Peruvian indigenous Catholics and Brooklyn hipster Catholics are all fairly represented by the PR put forth by a small group of balding men wearing dresses in Rome. In fact, I’d wager to say that the vast majority of Catholics don’t keep up with, or don’t particularly care about whatever the hell is going on in Vatican, or what the New York Times thinks about it.

People live their lives, get together and spread mayo on sandwiches for the church picnic, argue about the correct way to dip Easter eggs in paint, raise funds to fix the rectory ceiling, hike to the faraway parish to get a newborn baptized on time. The mundane, trivial and profane goings-on of human lives everywhere intersect with communal sacred space where we find meaning, forgiveness and comfort.

The people make the church; not the other way around.

I just read this article: 7 Popular Mormon Bloggers on Why They Would Never Vote for Donald Trump, and it got me thinking about the tension between the official authority of a church (and perceptions thereof) and the lived experience of its adherents.

Statements like this:

On the night that Hillary got the nomination I was alone, because I didn’t know who in my community I could talk to about it. I was too nervous to reach out. […] But I’ve turned my daughters into Hillary fans, so now we’re all in it.”

I’m very engaged in some of the feminist movement in the church. Having a candidate that’s a female is something that’s really important and interesting to me, especially as a mother of two girls.

I have a few friends who are not plugging their nose while voting for Trump, and they’re really excited about it, which makes me nervous.

Abortion is a big issue for Mormons. Based on my research, Trump has never been particularly conservative or antiabortion. So I’m not sure why people are voting for him based solely on this important issue.

Sounds to me like evidence that Mormon women are — GASP!! — critically-thinking, modern women with a nuanced perspective on cultural norms that sometimes conflict with their private truths JUST LIKE MOST OTHER WOMEN EVERYWHERE FUCKING ELSE.

I wish this kind of a thing were less of a surprise for people. It’s very important to see the ways in which the people make the religion, not the other way around, and people are smart and resourceful and conflicted and grappling and kinda fucked up and courageous and inventive and dissonant wherever you go. At least, that has been my experience and I’ve lived in five countries in three continents.

Failing to realize this so puts us at risk of other-izing (to use the parlance of our times) entire groups of people. Religious people are not always fairly or adequately represented by their leaders. Even when the leaders claim otherwise. People, in the complexity and beautiful messiness of conducting human lives, make religious doctrine an living, adaptive animal. People imbue meaning and beauty into ritual, which would otherwise only be a mechanistic series of movements.

If you want to know a church, look not at their book but at the parisioners’ hands, broom closet, the way they crease bills before putting them in the collection basket, little baby fingers dipping in holy water and making the tiniest ripples, the after-service gossip, the preacher’s secret stash of anti-balding shampoo.

People is where you find their God.


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