Madonnas that Maim?

Christian Maturity and the Cult of the Virgin

Eamon Duffy



IN 1954, four years after the solemn definition of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, Pope Pius XII declared a Marian Year. With greater or lesser enthusiasm, Catholic Europe responded, and in my home town, on the east coast of Ireland, the response took spectacular form. The women were invited to donate jewellery, the men money, towards the creation of a solid gold crown for he statue of the Blessed Virgin in our parish church. It was a poor community, most of the men, like my father, working as labourers in the local railway works, or in one or other of the town’s shoe-factories. No one had much money to spare, there was a great deal of unemployment, and constant haemorrhage of the young to England in search of jobs. Yet the response to the appeal for the Virgin’s crown was remarkable, many of the women even donating their wedding-rings. The statue, an insipid life-sized plaster replica of Our Lady of Lourdes, white-robed, blue sashed, small busted, neither a recognisably maternal nor even a very convincingly human image, was duly decorated with a crown which would have paid several times over for any one of the houses in which most of the donors lived.

That characteristic gesture of Catholic Ireland, one of the last, I suppose, before the cultural deluge of the Council swept such gestures away altogether, has stayed with me. What was going on: what was being honoured with what might seem now the rather shocking sacrifice of treasured wedding-rings and hard earned savings? At an obvious level, the people of my town were celebrating one of the defining elements in a universal Catholic culture, making a gesture which linked our provincial backwater with Catholics everywhere: in holy Ireland, as in China and Peru, the image of the Virgin we honoured was first given cultural currency in France in the 1870s.

But there was more at stake than mere global culture. In honouring Mary we celebrated a particular vision of goodness, femininity emptied of danger and the shadow of the apple in Eden. At more or less the same time, in her posh upper-middle class English convent school, the future writer Marina Warner knelt before just the same statue, herself dressed in white with a blue ribbon sash, and offered candles to Our Lady of Lourdes. The white and blue were the symbols of a desire to emulate Mary in her idealised virtue – her chastity, her humility, her gentleness, the culmination of womanhood as the Church liked to imagine it. It was, as Warner’s agnostic father liked to remark, “a good religion for a girl”.1

Marina Warner was to go on to renounce her childhood Catholicism, but also to produce one of the most readable popular accounts in any language of the history and meaning of the cult of Mary. She called it Alone of all her Sex, and the title conveys the agenda of the book, which was to suggest that for all its power and beauty, the cult of Mary had been, on the whole, a damaging thing. Damaging above all for women, for in the Church’s idealisation of Mary, womanhood had been denigrated, not exalted: Mary, alone of all her sex, had pleased the Lord.2 The Church had been unable to cope with femininity. Woman was Eve, temptress and harlot, and only Mary, pure Virgin and perfect Mother, had escaped the blight of Eve. As a model for women she doomed them to be either sexless daughters or sexlessly maternal, thereby emptying the Christian world-view of any convincing place for female sexuality and more generally for eroticism, and reducing the likelihood of real and equal sexual relations between men and women.

This is now a familiar feminist argument, but the feminist angle is by no means the only account of the cult of the Virgin Mary which sees such devotion as a sign of something badly amiss in the communities and cultures which practice it. Warner herself saw the modern cult of Mary as an anti-intellectual retreat on glutinous religious simplicities, the Virgin appearing to poor people in out of the way places, clinging to an old way of life that has come under strain, and thereby providing proof that God, or at any rate his mother, have not quite hidden their faces.

This is a widely-held view. The North-American social scientist Michael Carroll has devoted two controversial books to tracing the roots of devotion to these “Madonnas that maim”. For him, popular devotion to Mary, not least the flourishing modern pilgrim devotions to Our Lady of Guadalupe (with 12,000,000 pilgrims a year) or Lourdes (4,000,000 pilgrims a year) are signs of a deep, and deeply repressed, desire for the Mother, a Freudian longing born especially of “father-ineffective” cultures of poverty. For Carroll, Mary is the Goddess Cybele under another name, and devotion to the Virgin is at root deeply masochistic. Whatever theological changes may take place within the Catholic church, he believes that the cult of Mary will continue to surface wherever poverty and psychic repression produce anxiety and longing for the mother in which infantile and sexual urges intertwine. His insistence that Marian piety is at root a form of masochism in fact forced Carroll into some fairly far-fetched readings of the phenomena of modern Marian devotion, which is not notably self-punitive. Carroll was therefore driven to the slightly absurd suggestion that the key to the whole matter lay in the wearing of the scapular, two square inches of itchy torment which, it would appear, only a sick psyche could impose upon itself! 3

Carroll’s account of the meaning of popular devotion to Mary is sometimes preposterous and always simplistic: like so many social scientists in pursuit of an hypothesis, his forays into history involve massive generalisations which will simply not stand close scrutiny. But one of the problematic characteristics of the cult of Mary is that it is impossible entirely to defend it against these sorts of attacks. For precisely because the cult of the Blessed Virgin is a hugely varied phenomenon, it has never been within the power of the theologians or the hierarchs to control it. If you go to the history of Marian piety in search of mother Goddesses, sexual repression, oppressive role-stereotyping for women, you will certainly find all these things. The cult of Mary has taken a thousand forms, not all of them helpful or even respectable, and many of them difficult to square with any mainstream Christian theology.

The decisive theological moment for the cult of Mary was the decision of the Council of Ephesus that she should be given the title Theotokos, God-bearer, softened in Western usage to Mater Dei, Mother of God. The title, of course, was designed to say something about Christ rather than Mary, to assert and protect the reality of the Incarnation by insisting on the absolute identity of the eternal Word of God with the man Jesus. To call Mary the God-bearer was to assert that humanity was not some temporary veil which the Logos had donned and then discarded, but that in her womb God had once and for all thrown his lot in with humanity, had joined us, holding nothing back. Mary was not a pipe through which divine spirit inserted itself into earthly matter, or a bag in which the precious spice of the Godhead was temporarily contained, but the intimate source of the human identity of God himself, giving to God Incarnate all that a mother gives to her children – blood, bone, nerve and personality. In her conceiving and child-bearing heaven and earth were wedded beyond any possibility of divorce: a stupendous miracle had occurred which raised human nature to heaven itself.

In the title Theotokos there was more than enough substance for all the future development of the cult of Mary,. Its effect, in both East and West, was a dramatic growth of interest in Mary herself, so that she came to loom larger than any other saint, eventually eclipsing in importance every figure in Christianity except her Son, and sometimes seeming to threaten even his centrality. The point I want to register here is that many of these later developments seem to take us a long way from what might seem to be the central core of the doctrine of the Theotokos, the intimate connection between Mary and her Child. This is particularly so in the West: Orthodoxy has stayed closer to Ephesus, and in Orthodox piety Mary is most often referred to as the Theotokos or the Panhagia, the All-Holy. In the West, by contrast, she is usually “the Blessed Virgin”, a title which subliminally shifts our perception of who she is and what she means, away from her role – giving human life to the Godhead – to her own condition and prerogatives, above all her chastity. The fundamental Christian image of Mary is, of course, the mother with a baby, an image which is at least as central to an understanding of the phenomenon of Christianity as is the crucifix. But consider the imagery of the modern cult of the Virgin – and by modern here I mean the popular devotion of the last three or four centuries. Our Lady of Guadalupe, our Lady of Lourdes, our Lady of Fatima, our Lady of Garabandal, our Lady of Medjugorje, are not mothers with babies, but young women, even girls, standing alone: these are not images of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, but of the Virgin Mary.

There are of course perfectly good reasons why this should be so – all these images are, for a start, based on what are believed to be appearances of Mary herself, in her risen humanity: and since her son’s risen humanity is that of an adult man, not an infant, she could hardly appear carrying him. But to descend to such rationalisings is to miss the point that the character of these apparitions reflects a striking and by no means inevitable development within the tradition: the risen humanity of Mary, for example, can hardly be that of the beautiful and refined young woman of so many modern visions.

And the character of much of the Marian piety of the last two centuries does indeed appear uncomfortably vulnerable to the accusations levelled against it by its critics. Michael Carroll sees the essence of the cult of Mary in anxiety and repressed longing: the love of Mary is for him the product of unhappy worldly circumstances, low self-esteem, psychological and social alienation. And these things have indeed been prominent in the modern cult of Mary. Reflect for a moment to the whole paraphernalia of secrets and warnings of impending judgement that have surrounded the apparitions at Fatima and elsewhere. But we need not go so far to find worrying signs of just such alienation. We need look no further than the Marian hymns in any one of the standard pre-Conciliar Catholic hymnals – the Westminster Hymnal, for example. That book had thirty or so hymns to Mary, a dozen or so translations of the Latin office hymns for the major Marian feasts, or versions of poems by medieval figures like Dante: as you might expect, these all had a fairly strong theological content and were emotionally low key and controlled. The bulk of the hymns to Mary, however, were emotional outpourings by Victorian writers like Father Faber, a man who regularly referred to the Blessed Virgin as “Mama”. What characterises most of these hymns was a picture of the world as dark and evil, society as hostile, and the devotee of Mary as steeped in sin. Mary alone is light where all else is gloom, she is pure where everything else is filthy, she can console all who are in misery and despair:

      O purest of creatures, sweet Mother, sweet maid,
      The one spotless womb wherein Jesus was laid!
      Dark night has come down on us Mother, and we
      Look out for thy shining, sweet Star of the Sea.

      Deep night has come down on this rough-spoken world
      And the banners of darkness are boldly unfurled
      And the tempest-tossed Church – all her eyes are on Thee,
      They look to thy shining, sweet Star of the Sea.

But it is not only the world that is dark and society sinful: the devotee him or herself is all darkness:

        See how, ungrateful sinners,
        We stand before thy Son;
        His loving heart upbraids us
        The evil we have done.
        But if thou wilt appease him
        Speak for us but one word,
        For thus thou can obtain us,
        The pardon of the Lord.

These hymns depended for their emotional force on the contrast between Mary and the ordinary Christian, the contrast between pure and defiled, good and evil. The sinner approaching Mary never did so as like approaching like, but always as the prodigal creeping shame-faced to a long-suffering, saintly and neglected protector

        See at they feet a sinner,
        Groaning and weeping sore
        Ah! throw they mantle o’er me
        And let me stray no more.

This sort of perception was of course by no means new in the nineteenth century, and it clearly reflected a vivid sense of the reality of sin. But it is one thing to acknowledge one’s sins, another to embrace a piety within which they are the chief focus of attention. The continual insistence in these hymns is on the contrast between the purity and beauty of Mary on the one hand, and the vileness and degradation of the sinner on the other (a vileness more or less explicitly associated with sexuality, since the focus of Mary’s spiritual beauty lay in her virginal chastity). This emphasis probably did help foster in those who used them a sense of alienation from self, a damaging loss of the sense of one’s human and Christian dignity and potential, which is worlds away from true repentance.

And that inner alienation was paralleled by a disengagement from external as well as inner reality. The client of Mary in these hymns was imagined as ill at ease in the world, an exile, lonely and at odds with all around.

        Ave Maria, the night shades are falling
        Softly our voices arise unto thee
        Earth’s lonely exiles for succour are calling
        Sinless and beautiful, Star of the Sea.

In all the religions of the Abrahamic tradition, of course, Jewish, Christian or Muslim, life is imagined as a pilgrimage, and the third eucharistic prayer speaks hauntingly of the Church as “periginantem in terra”, “wandering upon the earth”, but there is something else going on in these hymns, something both more and less than that venerable sense of earthly life as a pilgrimage : they encode a decidedly beleaguered sociology and politics. The world of these hymns, and of the Marian cult which nourished them, is one in which “the banners of darkness are boldly unfurled” against the “tempest-tossed Church”. In this world, the devotee of Mary is beset by enemies, who hate goodness and purity, who hate Mary and the Church.

        O teach me, holy Mary
        A loving song to frame.
        When wicked men blaspheme thee,
        To love and bless thy name.

The world in which these hymns were first sung, of course, really was one in which it seemed plausible to think that “wicked men blaspheme thee”, whether the wicked men were secularist soldiers in the French Revolution or the Italian Risorgimento, trampling the images and looting the churches, or the editors of anti-Catholic newspapers, or the other side in the faction fights between Catholic and Protestant, Green and Orange, in the streets of Victorian Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow.

But I think it is not unfair to sense behind this whole Marian piety a profounder alienation, a sense that in the modern world the Christian had no role except that of denunciation. These were hymns for people with no votes, or who disapproved of the states in which votes might be cast. Till the nineteenth-century the official church had often frowned on popular Marian devotion, the world of visions and apparitions, holy wells and spontaneous pilgrimage, as theologically suspect and prone to abuse. In the nineteenth century, however, for the first time the papacy threw its full weight behind all that: the apparitions at Lourdes and Knock and Marpingen and Fatima became a rallying-point for the Church against the world, simple faith against secular sophistication, the virginal softness of Mary against the hard aggression of modernity. The result was that Marian shrines and Marian devotion often took on a disturbingly anti-democratic dimension. And so the softness of the feminine could be harnessed in favour of hardness and strife: the Virgin of Fatima became a Cold Warrior, her message a fear-laden denunciation of Communism, laced with rumours of a terrifying end to history, and calls for a Rosary Crusade. The resulting political stance can nowadays look very strange. As a boy in Ireland in the 1950s, I recall reading a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet on Fatima which quite explicitly praised Franco and Salazar as Christian champions against an unbelieving secularism. That sort of fear, and prophecies of doom, have continued to characterise many of the Marian phenomena and prophecies of the twentieth century: in a recent article in Priests and People Fr Tony Philpot tells of a parishioner devoted to Medjugorje, who repeatedly and tensely urged him to preach the Virgin’s message: “It’s your last chance, Father”, she warned him: your last chance.

One of the most vivid and credible modern witnesses to the imaginative impact of this sort of Marian piety is the Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, arguably the best poet now writing in the English language, and certainly the first major poet of modern times to have had a devoutly Catholic upbringing saturated in the sort of Marian devotion I have been describing. Heaney would not now claim to be a practising Catholic, but some of his most interesting writing explores the way in which the Marian Catholicism of modern Ireland has shaped a people’s sensibility, and his own.

As you might expect, Heaney is acutely sensitive to the poetry of Marian devotion, the imaginative power of its unique and evocative symbolic world. Family prayers in his household, led by his mother every evening, included five decades of the rosary and the Litany of Loretto, and Heaney has testified to the role played by the Litany, with its magical catena of titles and petitions, in arousing his poetic imagination, his sense of the power of words and images. Mirror of justice, pray for us: Seat of Wisdom, pray for us: Cause of our joy, pray for us: Mystical Rose, pray for us: Tower of David, pray for us: Tower of Ivory, pray for us: House of Gold, pray for us: Ark of the Covenant, pray for us: Gate of heaven, pray for us: Morning Star, pray for us. Every one of those titles had a venerable scriptural and patristic pedigree, but such material was of course wholly outside the peasant world in which the litany was used in Heaney’s Ireland. It stood therefore as an exotic and baffling invocation in its own right, creating its own hermeneutic environment, its own chains of association and explanation, which might be a long way from the theological proprieties of orthodox Catholicism. Nor was Heaney the only Irish catholic poet to acknowledge this fertilising effect, as this extract from a poem by John Montague will demonstrate.

          Hinge of silence,
                  creak for us

          Rose of darkness
                  unfold for us

          Blue harebell
                  bend for us

          Moist fern
                  unfurl for us

          Springy moss
                  uphold us

          Branch of pleasure
                  lean on us

          Leaves of delight
                  murmur for us

          Evening dews
                  pearl for us

          Secret waterfall
                  pour for us

          Hidden cleft
                  speak to us

          Portal of delight
                  inflame us

          Hill of motherhood
                  wait for us

          Gate of birth
                  open for us.4

Montague’s poem clearly derives very directly from the Litany of Loretto: equally clearly it makes explicit the undertones of sexuality and fertility which are part of the complex resonance of Marian forms of Christianity: the poem is about the tender, primal and maternal power of nature, elements which, as we shall see in due course, the cult of Mary made room for within the order of grace.

Heaney has again and again suggested that this Marian folk-religion both moulds and expresses the deepest core of a people, Northern Irish Catholic sensibility. For him, Protestantism and Protestant ways of working, thinking and praying were masculine, active, hard, phallic: Catholicism, by contrast, yielding, maternal, the Catholic poet the practitioner of the “ancient feminine religion of Northern Europe, which offers him a lens through which he looks at a landscape which has become a memory, a piety, a loved mother”. His early writing is full of antinomies between English and Irish, Protestant and Catholic, lord and servant, masterful and adoring, possessing and possessed, male and female. The arrival of the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, and the slide towards armed confrontation with intransigent Unionism which followed, forced Heaney into ever more troubled reflection on the religious inheritance of Ulster. He was fascinated by the liquid, yielding character of the Irish language and of the Gaelic place-names of his home territory, which seemed to him to match the religion of his home and his tribe: Ireland, like its Catholicism, seemed to him yieldingly feminine, Britishness and Protestantism, aggressively male. The soft black earth of Heaney’s native bogland became for him a symbol of the ancient feminine religion of Europe, in Ireland translated into the supplicatory Catholicism of a subject race. Toned down, the polarity is harnessed in a poem about a Protestant neighbour, which does what it can to bridge the divide which was murderously opening in Ulster society, disrupting old decencies and the uneasy but cordial coexistence of Protestants and Catholics:

The Other side            


            Thigh-deep in sedge and marigolds
            a neighbour laid his shadow
            on the stream, vouching

            “It’s as poor as Lazarus, that ground”
            and brushed away
            among the shaken leafage:

            I lay where his lea sloped
            to meet our fallow,
            nested on moss and rushes,

            my ear swallowing
            his fabulous, biblical dismissal,
            that tongue of chosen people.

            When he would stand like that
            on the other side, white haired,
            swinging his blackthorn

            at the marsh weeds,
            he prophesied above our scraggy acres,
            then turned away

            towards his promised furrows
            on the hill, a wake of pollen
            drifting to our bank, next season’s tares.


... ... ...            


            Then sometimes when the rosary was dragging
            mournfully on in the kitchen
            we would hear his step round the gable

            though not until after the litany
            would the knock come to the door
            and the casual whistle strike up

            on the doorstep. “A right looking night,”
            he might say, “I was dandering by
            and says I, I might as well call.”

            But now I stand behind him
            in the dark yard, in the moan of prayers,
            He puts a hand in a pocket

            or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
            shyly, as if he were party to
            lovemaking or a stranger’s weeping.

            Should I slip away, I wonder,
            or go up and touch his shoulder
            and talk about the weather

            or the price of grass-seed? 5

Notice that the rosary here is “dragging mournfully”, the litany is a “moan of prayers”. As those phrases suggest, Heaney came to see all this as incapacitating, the soft, yielding religion of the Great Mother somehow emasculating her votaries, making them naturally subject: in a later poem he speaks of the bodies of dead relatives

            ... laid out

            In tainted rooms,
            their eyelids glistening,
            their dough-white hands
            shackled in rosary beads.6

In that devastating word “shackled”, the archetypal symbol of Catholic prayer and, in Northern Ireland, of Catholic identity, is characterised not merely as a form of religious and imaginative belonging and enablement, but also as a form of imprisonment. The feminine, submissive character of Catholicism, its female piety, its mournful emphasis on the Mother of Sorrows, had helped, Heaney thought, to shape a collusive, submissive mentality for the Northern Irish nationalist community: as he was to write in his book, Fieldwork,

            ... Everything in me
            Wanted to bow down, to offer up
            To go barefoot, foetal and penitential.

In another poem, on a sandstone pebble picked up from a beach under the watchtowers of McGilligan prison, Heaney takes the soft yielding stone as an emblem of his own and his people’s nature, and records the dismissive gaze of the prison guard on the poet bending to pick up the stone, someone clearly

            ... not about to set times wrong or right
            stooping along, one of the venerators.7

By now you might be forgiven for thinking that I have come here to present the case for the prosecution against the Blessed Virgin, and to endorse the claim of critics like Carroll that Marian apparitions really are “Madonnas that maim”. Clearly there are significant points of convergence between the hostile criticisms I have discussed in writers like Carroll and Warner, and Heaney’s sense of the subjugating effect of the Marian dimension in Irish Catholicism. But I have dwelt at some length on Heaney’s use of this material precisely because he, unlike Carroll, is alert not only to the problematic character of modern Marian piety, but to its poetic and religious power, its ability to sweeten existence, to awaken tenderness and sensitivity to nature and to language, the antidote it offers to an understanding of the transcendent as dominant and aggressively male. For Heaney, Christianity without the Marian dimension is an arid, abstract thing, like the brain of the Presbyterian neighbour, “a whitewashed kitchen, hung with texts, swept tidy as the body o’ the kirk”. The poetry of the Litany of Loretto goes to the heart of the Marian dimension of Christianity, for it provides a lodgement within Christian understanding for the feminine dimension of humanity and of the Godhead. I will not deal here in abstractions, but instead will illustrate what I mean by reference to one of the world’s minor masterpieces of Marian piety, the late medieval English poem, “I sing of a maiden”. It will be familiar to many of you from the wonderful musical setting by Benjamin Britten in A Ceremony of Carols:

            I sing of a maiden that is makeles
            King of all kings to her Son she ches

            He came all so still there his mother was
            As dew in April that falleth on the grass

            He came also still to his mother’s bower
            as dew in April that falleth on the flower.

            He came also still there his mother lay
            As dew in April that falleth on the spray,

            Mother and maiden was never none but she -
            Well may such a lady God’s mother be.8

This exquisite little meditation on the Incarnation is typical of a whole world of Marian devotion which explores the beauty and tenderness of the Incarnation. The Virgin here is imagined as the still earth, on which the life-giving dew falls, bringing growth, renewal and flowering. It is a Christmas poem, but it is set in April, the springtime of fertility. But the action of God in entering his world is not imagined as masterful, violent, domineering. Instead he comes silently as the dew on the petals of the rose. Mary is that rose, but she is also Christ’s lover – he comes silently to her bower, and the implication is of a lover’s meeting at night. Of course, the King of King’s lover here is also his mother, but it would be absurd to suggest that there are unhealthy Freudian implications here. The lover image is not pressed to its limits, it is merely one of a range of images designed to convey the tenderness and gentleness of God’s involvement with humankind. Notice too that Mary in this poem is emphatically receptive, but once again it would be crass to suggest that this is a poem about female passivity. And though the cult of Mary has been accused of denigrating human sexuality, this is certainly a poem which affirms and celebrates the erotic dimension of human life, for the lover’s assignation is presented as an image of the coming of God into his world, and the poem is saturated with the language of fertility.

This seems to me to be Marian devotion at its very best, expressing and bringing into focus dimensions of Christianity which could be expressed in no other way. It is also Marian devotion deeply in touch with the bible and the liturgy, for hovering in the background is the Patristic idea that Mary is Gideon’s fleece, which was dry when dew fell all around it, and soaked in dew when all the ground around it was dry: and, more obviously, the whole poem is built round one of the most familiar texts in the liturgy of Advent, the antiphon repeated throughout the whole season: “Rorate coeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum. Aperiatur terra et germinat Salvatorem” – “Let the skies drop down dew from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness, let the earth be opened and bring forth the Saviour”. In this tender and apparently artless lyric about Mary a biblical and liturgical convention is given unforgettable human reality.

It would be possible to perform much the same exercise with many other of the classic expressions of Marian devotion. Most of you will be familiar with the hymn Stabat Mater, a medieval Franciscan meditation on the grief of Mary under the Cross designed to encourage sorrow and compassion in the heart of the believer, and so move them to true contrition for their sins. If “I sing of a Maiden” expresses a type of Marian piety which derives from the infancy narratives in St Luke’s Gospel, the Stabat Mater focuses on a more Johannine picture of the grief-stricken mother on Calvary. At one level it is of course a poem about Mary herself, the agonising suffering of the Mother of God Incarnate as she watches that miraculous flesh tormented and drained of its life. But the whole point of the hymn is inclusive, not alienating: the devout Christian aspires to share Mary’s grief and so to share also something of her closeness to her Son:

            Eia Mater, fons amoris
            Me sentire vim doloris
            Fac ut tecum lugeam

            Fac me tecum pie flere
            Crucifixo condolere
            Donec ego vixero.

            Juxta crucem tecum stare
            Et me tibi sociare
            In planctu desidero.


“Ah, then, Mother, fountain of love, let me feel the force of your grief, so that I can mourn with you. Make me weep lovingly with you, make me feel the pains of the crucified, all my life through. I yearn to stand beside the cross with you, and to be your companion in your lamentation”.

In this hymn Mary becomes the enabler of real human feeling: our hard dry hearts, indifferent to the divine self-offering on the Cross, can be helped towards true tenderness, true compassion, by coming to feel as she feels. What is important about her is not that she is different from us, infinitely pure and remote, as in the nineteenth century hymns I looked at earlier, but that her humanity is seen here as the pattern of what ours can be, and her grief is a means by which we can learn something of an authentic human response to the God. Mary represents redeemed humanity under the Cross. And once again, this is a Marian poem deeply embedded in the Liturgy, this time of Holy Week: the grief of Mary is derived not from the Gospels, which never dwell on her grief, but from the Lamentations of Jeremiah read each day at Tenebrae – “O all you that pass by, attend and see, is any sorrow like my sorrow? Jerusalem, Jerusalem, be converted to the Lord your God, mourn, O my people as a Virgin”.9

It is only by setting aside generalities about the nature of Marian devotion and considering some specific and classic instances of it, such as these poems, that one begins to see what is wrong with the case against Marian piety made by critics like Carroll. His accusations hit real targets, but a single overriding explanation of the power and meaning of the cult of Mary – that it is all to do with social deprivation – all to do with hatred of sex – all to do with father – ineffective families – cannot possibly do justice to or make sense of a henomenon so deeply rooted over fifteen centuries of Christian history and so many cultures, and taking so many radically different cultural norms – Lourdes and Medjugorje, the Rosary and the Stabat Mater, Monteverdi’s vespers and the Akathistos hymn, the icon of Our Lady of Vladimir or an annunciation by Fra Angelico, a plaster wayside Madonna with plastic flowers, or the sophisticated Latin sermons of St Bernard. Some Madonnas do indeed maim, some Marian piety is indeed unhealthy, just as some ways of reading the bible can maim and are bad for the brain. I think it is true that much of the devotional literature devoted to Mary in the nineteenth and early twentieth century was born not only out of a narrow and restricted view of the world, but out of a narrow and suffocating conception of Christianity. Yet it seems to me that a Christianity without Mary somewhere near the centre of it is, quite literally, unimaginable.

But if Mariology is to hold a place somewhere near the centre of Christianity it must itself be not only imaginable, but imaginative. The Marian piety of recent centuries was vulnerable to the criticisms I have been discussing in this lecture because it had shrunk imaginatively. The sort of biblical richness and nuance which we have found in the two medieval devotional poems I have discussed is entirely absent from most of the Mariological material produced in the Catholic world between the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council. In the Patristic period and the Middle Ages, Mariology had been one of the principle forms in which Latin Christianity reflected on the nature of the Church. Medieval Christians understood perfectly well that in talking about Mary and her role in salvation they were talking about a unique individual with an unimaginably lofty destiny and dignity, certainly, but also, that she was a representative and inclusive figure: the glories of Mary were the glories of every Christian, and of the Church. In the eleventh of her revelations, the fourteenth-century English visionary Julian of Norwich saw the Blessed Virgin, and Christ revealed the “high, marvellous and singular love” he has for “this sweet Maiden, his blessed Mother”. But Julian immediately added that in Mary “our Lord speaks to all mankind that shall be saved as if it were all to one person, as if he said ‘Do you want to see in her how you are loved?’” And Julian adds in commentary that in contemplating the virtues of Mary – her truth, wisdom, and love “I may learn to know myself and reverently fear my God”.10

Julian’s emphasis here is on Mary as the icon or pattern of the Christian soul. An even more ecclesial understanding of Mary is shown by the English Cistercian writer Blessed Isaac de Stella, in a passage now read in the Breviary in the second week of Advent:

As the Head and the Body are one son and many sons, so Mary and the Church are one mother and many, one Virgin and many: Each is Mother, each is Virgin ... each is the mother of Christ, but neither without the other gives birth to the whole Christ. And so in the Scriptures, what is said in general of the Virgin Mother the Church, is said individually of the Virgin Mary, and what is said in the particular case of the Virgin Mother Mary, is rightly understood of the Virgin Mother Church universally: when mention is made of either, it is to be understood almost indifferently and conjointly of both.11

That resonant sense of the human and theological inclusiveness of the figure of Mary was largely lost in post-Reformation Mariology. Mary became no longer the icon of the Church, but an isolated supernatural figure, unimaginably great but standing outside, even over against, the Church. Catholics still paid lip-service to the notion of “Holy Mother Church”, but in practice the Church after Trent was an abrasively masculine entity, and ecclesiology was increasingly a bureaucratic and managerial exercise, authoritarian and impatient of nuance or ambiguity. The Church in that era had little space for the sort of Marian dimension which I have suggested lay behind the rich and multi-layered medieval texts I have discussed, even when they were in fact encoded in Marian texts in daily use, like the Litany of Loretto. The Marian tradition itself narrowed, captured too exclusively by forms of folk belief insufficiently anchored in the scriptural and patristic tradition, vacuously pietistic, and increasingly cut off even from the simple human biological reality of Mary’s child-bearing, from which all Mariology takes it rise. In this context, for example, I think it would be revealing to make a study of the rise and fall in Catholic tradition of devotion to and interest in Mary’s milk and her breast-feeding of Christ, for as belief in the Immaculate Conception grew, theologians became increasingly uneasy about the attribution to Mary of bodily processes like lactation or menstruation, aspects of human sexuality which they associated with the consequences of the Fall. 12

One of the most welcome aspects of the theology of Vatican II, therefore, was its drastic reorientation of the whole basis of Mariology, in an attempt to recover the richness and inclusiveness of the patristic and medieval inheritance. The Council Fathers momentously rejected the notion of a separate document on the privileges and place of Mary, thereby calling a halt to the doctrinal and devotional inflation which had been taking place in Mariology over the course of the previous century. Instead, they dealt with Marian themes within the framework of the Council’s greatest theological achievement, the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. The mere fact that the Council Fathers placed what they had to say on Mary within a treatment of the doctrine of the Church was itself a major theological breakthrough, for it reconnected Mariology to ecclesiology. The text itself presented Mary as the “type” of the Church, a representative figure whose story embodies the obedience of Israel, the eschatological destiny of the Church, and the pattern of individual Christian discipleship. Perhaps even more significantly, the Council Fathers refused to give Mary the title “Mater Ecclesiae”, Mother of the Church, for they felt that such a title would be a retrograde step, placing her once more above and outside the Church. There was consequently considerable unease and dissatisfaction when Pope Paul VI, perhaps anxious to conciliate those who clung to the Mariological tradition which had been dominant under Pius XII, took it upon himself to give this title to Mary.

The Council therefore provided a rich theological basis for the revival of a healthy Mariology, and opened the door for the recovery of an image of the Madonna which does not maim. Such a Mariology, however, has, as yet, rather conspicuously failed to materialise. The reasons for that failure are too complex and too uncertain for me to explore at the tail end of a lecture already too long, but they include a deep cultural unease with the virtue of chastity and the concept of Virginity, and a suspicion that somehow the image of Mary has been responsible for holding women down and trapping them within misogynistic stereotypes.

I suspect, however, that much post-Conciliar preaching and writing about Mary has been self-defeating. Most recent treatment of Mary has been relentlessly hortatory and moralistic. It has set aside most of the poetry of the Marian tradition, and instead has looked for immediate intelligibility and straightforward “relevance”. It has refocused disproportionately on the Lukan annunciation story, and has seen Mary as essentially a model of obedience to God, someone we should imitate. It is my strong conviction that any Mariology focused primarily on this aspect of her role is doomed from the start, for it is far too cerebral and abstract. This is dry stuff, the dust and ashes of moralism, and whatever the faults of older Mariologies, they were rarely dry.

We do of course need to celebrate Mary’s free co-operation with the will of God, but that is not the most important thing about her. The Marian tradition is rooted in something far more basic, far more concrete – in the simple fact of her child-bearing. What matters is not Mary’s obedience, but the fact that God took flesh in her womb, that she is the guarantor and anchor of God’s dwelling among humankind.

This is of course not to suggest that her child-bearing was a brute physical fact, divorced from Mary’s free co-operation with the will of God for her and all mankind: Christianity can never separate human child-bearing from human loving, and we cannot separate Mary’s womb from her heart and her will. But the Church after Vatican II has in fact been curiously coy about the material fact of Mary’s motherhood: Mary’s womb, like her milk, has become invisible. Hans Urs Von Balthasar believed that the post-Conciliar Church was unable to come to terms with the Marian dimension of Christianity because it was just as obsessed with structure as the Tridentine Church had been – it had become what he called Ecclesia photo-copians. For him the Marian dimension stood for a Church focused not on structures but on contemplativity and prayer. Von Balthasar’s disparagement of structures, of course, has been pressed into service by authoritarians, eager to maintain the old structures unquestioned. Nevertheless, he had a point. More even than the Tridentine Church, much post-Conciliar preaching about Mary has turned the complex and material poetry of the Theotokos into something barren and abstract, as if what most mattered about Mary was that she was obedient – like any other saint, only more so. We are moved, and humbled, and silenced by a Fra Angelico Annunciation not because it sketches out an example for us to follow, but because it captures the Mystery by which life and hope and meaning was given back to a world alienated from its Creator.

Fra Angelico, and the Ceremony of Carols, and the Litany of Loretto remind us that the figure of Mary is too complex, too rich, even too contradictory to be simplified and moralised into banality. A Madonna who is primarily an example is as oppressive and dispiriting and as life-denying as any of the projected Madonnas of the past. In the end what most matters about Mary is not what she did, but what she was. The Lord in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations, you recall, did not invite us to contemplate Mary in order “to see in her what [we] must do”, but “to see in her how [we] are loved.” Christians have never thought of Mary primarily as a good example or a role model. Rather, she has been loved as the principle miracle of God’s grace and power, and because she is the cause of our joy. We must learn again not to imitate but to celebrate the multiple glories of the Theotokos – the Ark of the Covenant within which the glory of God came to rest: the Rose of Sharon on which the dew of the Godhead descended: the Gate of Heaven, through which the light of life shone on humankind. Christians love the Mother of God not because she sets a standard they must imitate, but because, beyond all desire or deserving, she was made the Mother of God.


1. Marina Warner, Alone of all her sex: the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary (London 1979) pp. xix-xx.

2. The epigraph for the book was adapted (somewhat loosely) from a couplet by Caelius Sedulius, “Sola sine exemplo placuisti femina Christo”.

3. Michael P. Carroll, The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins (Princeton 1992); Madonnas that Maim: Popular Catholicism in Italy since the Fifteenth Century (Baltimore & London 1992).

4. Quoted in Seamus Heaney, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London 1980) p. 143.

5. Seamus Heaney, Open Ground: Poems 1966-1996 (London 1998) pp. 59-61.

6. Seamus Heaney, Open Ground p. 96.

7. Seamus Heaney, Open Ground pp. 149, 217.

8. I have modernised the Middle English text from M. S. Luria and R. L. Hoffman (eds) Middle English Lyrics, (New York & London 1974) p. 170. “Makeles” means both “matchless, without compare” and “mateless, without a mate”.

9. I have developed these ideas more fully in “Mater Dolorosa, Mater Misericordia”, New Blackfriars, May 1988, pp. 210-227.

10. My modernisation of the Middle English Text, Marion Glasgoe (ed) Julian of Norwich. A Revelation of Divine Love (University of Exeter 1976) p. 20.

11. Office of Readings, Second Sunday of Advent.

12. It seems appropriate in an Aquinas lecture to note that the Dominicans have an honourable record here, for they were among the chief promoters of devotions addressed to Mary’s milk – in part, of course, because they were on the losing side as opponents of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.