Mommy Issues: How Richard Rohr Saves Marian Theology
If you grew up in organized religion, I’m sure you have at least one devotional practice you struggle with. Mine is the Rosary — -though probably not for the reasons you’d think.
One of the most persistent misconceptions about Catholicism is our alleged belief in the divinity of the Virgin Mary. No matter how many times I point out that I don’t worship her, people still insist on labelling me as a pantheist, declaring I’m an idolater who has assigned to her the status of a goddess. But the Catholic understanding of the role of Mary — and the saints too, for that matter — -is an intercessory one. We ask her (and them) to pray for us, in the same way you might ask your friend to pray for you (which I believe most non-Catholic Christians have no issue with. I guess if the person praying for you is alive, you get a pass on the “idolater” label). Essentially, Catholics believe in a universal body of Christ — -the visible church here on earth and the “invisible” one in the realm of spirit. We believe this connection is so powerful it transcends death, and that the beloved in heaven are just as concerned about us as the beloved here on earth. This is what we mean by the “communion” of saints. So, while we openly profess that Mary is holy and exemplary, we know she is not divine. Divinity is an attribute only God can claim.
That being said…
Even though I understand Mary’s role and understand in theory why devotion to her could be helpful, I have a confession to make.
I don’t care about her.
A Saga of Mommy Issues
Catholics claim that God bestowed upon Mary the grace of being free from original sin (the “Immaculate Conception” doctrine). This doesn’t mean she was never tempted, but that unlike the rest of us, Mary never gave into those temptations. Theologically speaking, it was impossible for Mary to “fall.” As you can imagine, this gives her a pretty a unique role in Catholic theology — -a fact emphasized by the shit-load of titles we assign to her. She is lauded as the New Eve, Queen of Apostles, Morning Star, Star of the Sea, Seat of Wisdom, Refuge of Sinners, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, Cause of Our Joy, and Better Than You In Every Way, You Lustful Piece of Walking Garbage. (I may have made one of those up.)
When I was little, I was told Mary was my spiritual mother. “To Jesus, through Mary,” as the mantra goes. It was so hard for me to love Jesus, the man who allegedly died thousands of years ago for sins I hadn’t even committed yet. Now I was supposed to love His mom, too? It felt overwhelming.
Still, I wanted to be a good Catholic. For years I tried to force a connection, clutching Rosary beads, chanting Novenas, and lighting candles beneath various Marian statues. Each time I came away feeling deflated, spiritually dry, and frustrated. What was my problem? Why couldn’t I foster any kind of genuine devotion? I had heard from saints and Catholic friends alike that if you didn’t have a bond with Mary, you didn’t really have a bond with Jesus — you know, the guy I owed big time due to the fact that he died thousands of years ago for sins I hadn’t even committed yet.
Cue my decade-long spiritual anxiety.
Can’t Touch This
During my mad pursuit of Mary, I found myself coming back to the same question: how could someone who never sinned relate to my humanity in any meaningful way? What do I even say to someone like that? How are they even human? Maybe the problem wasn’t me. Maybe it was Mary, and what seemed to me to be her utterly unapproachable nature.
Human beings spend their lives stumbling through the various shades of grey this world has to offer; we fall flat on our asses; we get back up and keep going. If Mary never never stumbled, fell, and learned from her moral weakness, how am I supposed to feel any affinity with her whatsoever? It’s like asking someone who was born over the finish line how they won the race.
The element that is supposed to make Mary so special — -her Immaculate Conception — -is the very thing that cripples my trust in her.
Harmony of Bone and Soul: Rohr and the Incarnations
It’s probably pretty obvious at this point that Marian dogma did nothing to advance my spiritual life. Instead, it generated a lot of unnecessary stress within an already elaborate religious system, placing too much emphasis on a specific relationship while simultaneously making that relationship intimidating and unattainable.
However, I’m not saying that we should get rid of Mary. I’m simply suggesting that perhaps Mary’s particular role as a sinless intermediary has overshadowed her universal role in salvation history. Perhaps our theologizing has done her a disservice. Perhaps we have turned her into a stumbling block. Perhaps — dare I say — -we’ve missed the point of Mary’s story by progressively shoving her into a series of theological definitions that have, over the years, become more significant to us than the actual woman, who she was, and what she offered.
In The Universal Christ, Father Richard Rohr (who is either a Franciscan priest or a heretic, depending on your point of view) elaborates on the Blessed Mother’s role by explaining how ancient people would have actually considered Christ to be a manifestation of the second Incarnation. The first Incarnation was Creation. For them, Mary represented the blending of both these realities:
“Mary…symbolizes the First Incarnation — -or Mother Earth, if you will allow me. (I am not saying Mary is the first incarnation, only that she became the natural archetype and symbol for it, particularly in art, which is perhaps why the Madonna is still the most painted subject in Western art.) I believe that Mary is the major feminine archetype for the Christ mystery…[she] became the Symbol of the First Universal Incarnation…Earth Mother presenting Spiritual Son, the two first stages of the Incarnation…Feminine Receptivity, handing on the fruit of her yes. And inviting us to offer our own yes.”
(Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. New York, Convergent Books, 2019, 123–24)
I would recommend picking up Rohr’s book if you can, because this meditation was a game-changer for me. Rohr’s Mary is so much more approachable because she is a Mary divorced from guilt. I’m not “obliged” to know this Mary in order to be a “good” Christian. Instead, I’m invited to reflect on what she symbolizes for all of creation. “The Mary symbol brought together the two disparate worlds of matter and spirit,” writes Rohr, “feminine mother and masculine child, earth and heaven.” (Ibid, 126)
I’ll go even further than Rohr here and suggest that Mary reminds us that we are all destined to be symbols of the First Incarnation. Her humble “yes” at the Annunciation shows us who we were meant to be: creatures of earth and spirit, working in harmony with the Creator to create heaven on earth.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ. New York, Convergent Books, 2019.