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Colleen DulleMay 12, 2023
a statue of mary with baby jesus in front of a blue backgroundPhoto via iStock.

My relationship with Mary, like that of many women, is complicated.

Mary embodies some of my most deeply held values. As a young, poor woman from Galilee, she represents how God chose to enter into human existence in the most radically humble way. Her “Magnificat” is one of the most powerful passages in the Gospels. And her own “yes” to God is, of course, the ultimate model of how a human being should relate to God.

These lessons, though, often become muddled when Mary is presented only as a model for women. As the theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote in her book on Mary, Truly Our Sister, Mary is often seen as “the ideal embodiment of feminine essence.” She continues,

Whether her perfection then serves to disparage other women or to inspire them, her obedient, responsive, maternal image is at play in the community as the norm for women in contrast to men. When combined with an understanding of God and Christ as essentially masculine, the result reproduces in theology, spirituality and church polity nothing less than the patriarchal order of the world, now with divine sanction.

When viewed through this lens, Mary represents an impossible double standard. The poet Mary Szybist told me that encountering Mary this way damaged her own sense of self-worth: “The message is that [as a woman] you are valued for your virginity and you are valued for being a mother. To grow up to be neither a virgin nor a mother leaves the puzzle, under that kind of pressure of imagination, how does one value oneself?” Mothers, too, struggle with how to relate to Mary’s virginity and the emphasis the church places on it. No one, after all, is both a virgin and a mother.

I tried to separate the liberating images of Mary from the oppressive ones, but I never could.

It was that double standard and the way Mary was invoked as “divine sanction” for the “patriarchal order of the world,” that led me to keep her at arm’s length through much of my life. I often told people that, intellectually, I just didn’t understand the appeal of Marian devotion. What it was about Mary that, for example, led some of the most progressive Catholics I knew to pray the Rosary every day.

Mary, despite my hesitations, has always been present to me. At times it feels I have been haunted by her, to borrow a phrase Dorothy Day used to speak about God. Perhaps it is my many years of Catholic school, or my teenage habit of praying a Rosary on my morning drive every day, but I have always found myself reflexively reciting Hail Marys in life’s liminal moments: washing my hands, waiting for a red light to change, watching hot coffee drip into the carafe. Without ever really thinking about it, I am always talking to her, always in the same words, echoing the Annunciation (“Hail Mary, full of grace…”), and finally asking her to remember me now and at the hour of my death.

My mental hangups with Mary, though, kept me from talking to her beyond these almost unconscious recitations. I tried to separate the liberating images of Mary from the oppressive ones, but I never could. I found that the figure of Mary was too entangled in arguments that did not resonate with me or my understanding of myself as a woman.

Then I became pregnant, and my struggling relationship with Mary became impossible to ignore.

My friend Sarah and I were both nine months pregnant when we waddled into Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We had both anticipated the kind of justice-oriented, inclusive-language liturgies our parish usually holds. But that day our celebration was combined with that of another community with different liturgical tastes, and so the Mass included no fewer than four male altar servers in cassocks crammed into the basement chapel’s tiny sanctuary. Incense wafted up a meager few feet to reach the drop ceiling. And the homily focused more on Mary’s own virginity than her being born without original sin—that is, more on virginity than on the actual Immaculate Conception. We had hoped the liturgy would help us feel connected to Mary as mothers, but instead the prayers and preaching made us feel embarrassed of our bellies. One friend summed the message up well when she jokingly greeted us after Mass, “Hello, defiled women!”

Daily life with my son is a living midrash, a fleshing-out of the scripture stories, that gives me a glimpse into the “hidden life” of Jesus with his parents.

Sarah and I sat in the chapel for a long time after the congregation had dispersed and the cassocks had been hung up. Some Sundays after Mass, people had seen us together and said we looked like an icon of the Visitation. That day, we felt the opposite. Instead of feeling like icons of Mary, we felt our bodies were public reminders that we would never measure up to Mary’s feminine ideal. It was not lost on us that this was a message delivered to us exclusively by men.

We needed something stronger than a competing theological argument to be reminded of our dignity. Ultimately, God delivered, in the way God always does—in incarnation, in flesh and blood.

Sarah and I gave birth one week apart, in the same hospital room. This was her second child and my first. For me, it was a revelation; I had never felt so connected to God, or to Mary, than in the months that surrounded this time. To spend nine months vomiting and aching while feeling such an intense creative drive—sometimes dismissed as a “nesting instinct,” though it applies far beyond nursery decorations—made me understand in my body how it feels to create new life out of love, and why our creation story includes God resting on the seventh day. Daily life with my son is a living midrash, a fleshing-out of the scripture stories, that gives me a glimpse into the “hidden life” of Jesus with his parents. And the pain and difficulty and, yes, beauty, of labor and breastfeeding have given me a new understanding of the words “This is my body, given up for you”—one that no priest can understand, but Mary can.

Mary still haunts me, now in a comforting way, as a friend who is there when I struggle to put my baby to the breast at 3 a.m., as someone who understands when I am exhausted and at my wit’s end and yet could still cry out of love just from looking at my baby. Mary gets it. She understands, in her own flesh and blood, broken and given for our sake. Now, in my own flesh and blood, I begin to understand her, too.

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