Oh, White Lady: Faith as a Struggle
Faith has always been a struggle for me. Indeed, throughout my forty-six years of life, very rarely have I ever felt comfortable for any stretch of time with my religion or my religious practices.
I readily and rather gleefully abandoned almost any faith and religious observance during my teenage years. I’m not totally sure what I embraced as a substitute, but it certainly wasn’t any form of orthodoxy. I rather prided myself on “being good” without needing what I considered as a handicap, religion. I also thought that if God existed, he must be one of the most evil beings ever to exist.
The stories of the Old Testament—plagues and wars—horrified me, God the Father looking little better than Stalin or Hitler. The story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac sickened me. To the much younger me, Abraham’s duty was to call God a tyrant and defy his commands, even if unto Hell itself.
That God the Father allowed his only son to die on the cross made him even worse in my eyes. I admired Jesus (and still do—even if only a person; though, I accept orthodoxy on this issue. Not always easily, however), but I thought God the Father downright evil. If he gave over his son, wouldn’t he give anyone of us over to the enemy at any moment?
There was, to my mind, no trusting him. I never liked King David, either. Anyone who would betray his wife and his friend (Uriah) could never be a hero. And, that God forgave him and that Solomon came from his illicit relationship (I’ve always loved Solomon) confused me even more.
My childhood Catholicism was such a paradox. I saw so many truly good and wholesome and often saint-like persons who were deeply Catholic. But, I also saw so much hypocrisy—in and out of my church. I saw neglect of what was beautiful as well, and I became convinced that all modern Catholicism (and all faith) was a sham, a slowly dying relic, murdered by degrees by its own adherents. At least, murdered by the young adults of that time. So much religious worship and religious study seemed to be little more than kiddie time, dumbed down sap, precious moments for idiots.
I craved real answers to ponder, not platitudes to memorize and parrot.
Outside of Catholicism and Judaism (over which I was rather obsessed throughout my teen years; its rituals and its history, ancient and modern), I thought Protestant Christianity even more a sham. My image of Protestant Christianity was of entrepreneurial, plastic televangelists. The Tammy Fay Bakers of the world seemed rather normal in this non-Catholic scheme of things. They sickened me then, and they still sicken me today. As self-righteous as Bono was—“My God isn’t short of cash, Mr.”—he was right. What a lot of hypocrites they all seemed to me in my teenage years.
Yet, again—the personal witness of my maternal grandparents, of a great-aunt and a great-uncle, and even of my hero, J.R.R. Tolkien, all caused me to pause and rethink my own childhood (childish?) dislike of Catholicism. These people really did lead holy and loving lives, they really believed in the teachings of the Church (though, all were a bit freaked out by post-Vatican II culture and changes). And, of course, there was also John Paul II. No one in their right mind could dislike him, then or now.
For a variety of reasons—too many to go into here—I re-found my faith in Christianity (Catholicism) in the deserts of North Africa in February 1988 and after innumerable talks with my ceaselessly patient roommate and friend, Kevin McCormick, now a beloved and well-known classical guitarist and composer. A Basque theologian in the spring semester of 1988 (at the University of Innsbruck, Austria) helped immensely as well.
Of those I admired most—that is, the Catholics who bore witness to all of the love and best of Christianity—they each held a special devotion to the holy Eucharist and to Jesus’ mother. These two devotions have always impressed me. While I certainly thought and think some Catholics take their love of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, too far and into dangerous territory (but, really, who am I to judge?), I have always found those who didn’t love Mary far more perplexing.
In my own life, I have flirted with a number of other religions, both east and west. But, what held me back from becoming Protestant has always been what seems to be the unreality of ignoring or, at best, neglecting Mary. I’m fairly certain that if I ever left Catholicism, it would be toward the East, not the West. Toward Constantinople, not Geneva.
With the Mr. Wilson, I can easily sing: “God only knows what I’d be without you.” With Mr. McCartney, “Mother Mary, comfort me.”
Really, who couldn’t love Mary, the young woman who so gladly and joyously accepted the message of the archangel, who bore the burden of pregnancy, who raised a God-boy, and who stood with him as the Romans drove nails into his flesh, his entire body dripping with blood and seared with wounds? What parent cannot put him or herself in the place of this mother? Whatever one thinks of the theology of Mary, she was one of the most amazing persons in all of world history.
Additionally, Mary plays such a critical role—if only historically, leaving aside theology for a moment—in the development of post-Christian (meaning, post-Jesus) culture. The love, the admiration, and the respect afforded women has come best from Christianity because of the role Mary has played.
I also firmly believe (again, historically if not always theologically) that no western culture or church can embrace and understand the deepest levels of culture and beauty without Mary. She is the symbol of all that is good, holy, and pure. Not a single one of us will ever be Jesus. We will never be fully God and fully man (leaving aside questions of sanctification and Christification), but we can certainly attain (or come very close to it) the status of Mary.
Think about her words: “My soul doth magnify The Lord.” In other words, Mary states quite clearly, she is not God, but she will do—in full obedience—what God wills for her. Her will becomes God’s will. I think I can state, even as a pathetic excuse for a Christian, that no person can attain anything higher in this world.
Theologically, I also believe that Mary is the woman of the Apocalypse (Revelation 12), the woman about to be devoured by the dragon. But, this belief is incidental to this article.
Everything listed above is true, objectively, at least to my mind, without this last statement of faith.
Being influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, I’m also not surprised by how often Marian figures appear in history, pre and post Mary’s actual life on this earth.
In Crito, Socrates revealed that a woman in white appeared to him in a dream, assuring him that in three days he would dwell in the Realm of Pythia. To an astounded Crito, Socrates assured his friend that all would be well.
Venus found her troubled son in a glade. There she handed him weapons of divine making. With them, he remade the Tiber and the West.
Far to the north and a millennium later, the Lady of the Lake, approached a young Celt and offered him the sword to unite all peoples in a kingdom dedicated to spring and humane flourishing. He accepted.
In the Central Valley of northern New Spain, a pregnant woman in the form of an Aztec goddess appeared to an Indian peasant, asking him to pray for, advocate, and protect the innocent. He delivered the message to a skeptical world.
Not long after the storming of the Vatican by armed revolutionaries, a tender French girl found a spring that offered the health of the heavens.
Across the ocean at the same moment rode a black-robed Belgian Jesuit across the northern Great Plains, armed only with his breviary and his high, shimmering flag of the Virgin Mary. To the natives, he proclaimed peace, justice, and love, and they, in turned, admired Father Peter-Jean DeSmet like no other.
They must have thought as well that the woman he so cherished seemed much like the ancient law giver, the White Buffalo Woman, who appeared to two Lakota warriors in ancient time, teaching them how to live honorably and well.
The Mother of God revealed herself to King Alfred the Great, promising him right but not comfort if he chooses the path of truth. “Out of the mouth of the Mother of God, go I,” the once and future king proclaimed. At least, this is what a man named Gilbert claimed.
On the eve of Lenin’s victory against the third Rome, a beautiful woman descended from the sky and told three Iberian children of a devastation that would come upon the earth for a century. Those who doubted and those who believed witnessed the falling of the sun. Thousands proclaimed it.
“Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.” This day was Ash Wednesday. “She honors the Virgin in meditation; we shine in brightness.” Old Tom saw it all.
Somewhere in a hell on earth, a small farmer who possessed no confidence but an overabundance of loyalty, found himself in prayer to Elbereth, Queen of the Heavens. He prayed in a language he did not know and was given the vision of a white star, which he beheld with all of the hope that has ever existed on this side of eternity. Well, so an Oxford don reported.
An image of Jesus’ mom turned a pope’s head and torso, preventing an assassin’s bullet—by a mere millimeter—from killing the greatest of twentieth-century Polish knights. You do know that the Poles exist to remind the rest of us of what can be endured in this world of sorrow.
It was a fate season, the spring of 1981, when a man named Karol barely lived.
Only a few days later, the fortieth president of the United States opened his war of rhetoric against Soviet communism in South Bend, Indiana, under a golden dome and under a golden statue, indeed, under the patronage of Our Lady of the Lakes, Notre Dame du Lac. I was there, and I can confirm what I write.
This man, too, had faced an assassin. He soon laughed about it, but he offered pity and forgiveness for the one who harm him. As an Armenian nun later told him, he simply had too much to accomplish to fall victim to such evils.
Eight short years later, he won. So did we all.
Whoever said Excalibur is a myth? What a fool.
Visions Abound: We Only Have to Open Our Eyes. And, souls.
Of course, I’ve never seen a white woman descend from the sky or the sun dance. The Mother of my Lord has never appeared to me and offered me a helmet of piety or a sword of unity, or divine or mundane origins. She’s never given me visions of demons of ideology ravaging the face of the earth.
But, I have seen Mary many times, and, most likely, you have as well. I have seen her in the embrace of my grandmother. I have seen her in the wisdom of my wife. And, I have seen her in the love of my daughters.
A broken stone, inscribed with runic sagacity, sits upon a little rose. That little rose bears a profound name: Cecilia. She spends her days and nights honoring the Lady. She does so through song, dance, and incessant giggling.
In proper theology, Catholics believe that Mary always—and must always—point to her son.
I’m not here to prove or disprove this, to affirm or to deny. But, as a historian, as a grandson, as a husband, and as a father, I can state the following without hesitation or trepidation. Our Lady is the symbol of everything that is pure, true, good, and beautiful in this world.
Even in my own sinfulness, my ambition, and my doubt, Mary continues to call to me.
Come home. Meet my son.
I’m trying, Mary. I promise.
Oh, Mother Mary, we beg you, “pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.”
By Bradley J. Birzer