St Bernard of Clairvaux in a remarkable homily on the Blessed Virgin Mary,wrote:
‘Behold! The Desired of all nations is outside, knocking at your door. Oh! If by your delay he should pass by, and again in sorrow you should have to begin to seek for him whom your soul loves! Arise, then, run and open. Arise, by faith; run by the devotion of your heart; open by your word.
‘And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done unto me according to your word.’
From the Gospels, one sentence above all seems to me to convey the essential wisdom of this young woman: ‘and Mary kept all these things in her heart and pondered on them.’ It is the silence of Mary that resonates and has so much to tell us. She it is who from the start is told that a sword will pierce her heart, and who had to learn how to let her son go.
It was not until the 12th century, however, that Mary came to be seen as being more than the mother of Jesus. Suddenly she became the Queen of Heaven, the new Eve, Mother of us all, intercessor on our behalf with her Son. Soon images were depicted of Mary crowned in Heaven, alongside God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. As the great evening hymn of the Catholic Church expresses it in the Salve Regina: Hail, Holy Queen, hail our life, our sweetness and our hope’h
the power of mary today is best illustrated by what was one of padre pio’s favourite stories:
one day jesus was walking in the courts of heaven with st. peter when he saw all these disreputable people lurching around and turning to st peter he said, ‘how on earth did they get in?!’ and
peter said, ‘it’s no good looking at me, lord. when my back is turned, your mother opens the gates and lets them all in!!’
In order to understand why mary became so elevated we have to look deeper than history and realise that, in psychological terms, Mary represents the archetype of the Eternal Mother, which is embedded deep in the collective unconscious of mankind, Long before mankind worshipped a male God, it was the Goddess who reigned, she who represented fertility, Mother Earth, Mother Nature, but the Jewish people chose to fashion God in a male image, and this patriarchal influence has continued until today. While the Catholic Church from the 12the century elevated Mary to a God like position, seated next to the Trinity, in the process, however, it has all too often,
sentimentalised Mary, thereby neutering the power of the Great Mother. We have only to look at the sickly sentimental statues of Mary in so many churches, a world away from those images of her as the Black Madonna.
There is however an ancient tension between the male and the female, and many men have a deep fear of the feminine. Yet each of us, as Jung taught, has within us the animus, the male principle, and the anima, the female principle. A man has to learn how to come to terms with his anima, just as a woman has to come to terms with the animus within her.
And there is a dramatic example of this process in the story of that remarkable Benedictine monk, Father Bede Griffiths, who founded an ashram in India which sought to integrate the spiritual teachings of Christianity with those of the Upanishads and other writings for India as a civilisation is older than Egypt, and rich in spiritual wisdom./
It was in 1990 that Father Bede suffered a major stroke and was unconscious for a week. During that time he heard repeatedly the words ‘Surrender to the Mother!’ and with these words he experienced over=whelming waves of love flowing into him. ‘It was, psychologically, an extraordinary experience,’ he said later. ‘I think it was the break through to the feminine.’
Until then he had been very masculine and patriarchal, but now the right brain, the feminine side, the intuitive, the earth power, came to hit him, opening up the whole dimension of the feminine. ‘I think that the Mother is gradually revealing herself to me and taking over’ he said. ‘But it is not the Mother only, it is the Mother and the Father, the male and the female, the yin and the yang. The whole is becoming integrated.’
Which is, of course, the life task for each one of us!
It is significant that the Aramaic word which starts the Lord’s prayer: Abba, and which is usually transl;ated as ‘Our Father’ means not just ‘father’ but both parents. Indeed, one cannot have a father without a mother! In addition, because the Aramaic language, rather like Chinese ideograms, carries several meanings, it also means divine parentage, source and origin of all things. So sometimes, when I am saying the Lord’s Prayer, I begin:
Abba, source and origin of all things, hallowed be Thy name!
In other words God, who is infinitely all things, is both Mother and Father, and it is interesting that Pope John Paul 1, shortly before his sudden and unexpected death, speaking about God at a Sunday Angelus blessing in St Peter’s Square, said, ‘God is Father but even more God is Mother’ so that we need also to learn to say ‘Our Mother who art in Heaven.’
Once, when I was directing in Paris, I used to attend the American Episcopelian church,.and it was there that Canon Cindy Taylor told me of the occasion when one of her congregation was to marry a French Catholic girl, and the marriage was to take place in her country church. Cindy Taylor was invited to take part and assumed she would, as is usual on such occasions, b e asked simply to give a blessing at the end,. But the old cure insisted she con-celebrate the Nuptial Mass with him , saying to the congregation, ‘Canon Cindy Taylor and I are going to concelebrate the Mass, man and woman, standing side by side and, as such we represent the Church of the future.’
I recall of my many conversations with Sister Meinrad Craighead when she was a member of the Benedictine community of Stanbrook Abbey at Worcester, and who, in her work as an artist, has always emphasised God as Mother, in discussing the ordination of women she would argue strongly that women should be called ‘priestess’ rather than priest for
Women bring to the priestly vocation different qualities to those that men bring,. I was made aware of this one Sunday in Paris at the American Episcopelian church. In front of me, in the packed congregation, was a woman who kept stroking her back and who preceded me up to the altar rail for Communion. I observed Canon Cindy Taylor stoop to whisper something in the woman’s ear, who nodded and burst into tears. In the follown g week I asked Cindy Taylor what had happened and she replied, ‘I noticed that the woman was pregnant and so I asked her if she would like me to pray for her child.’- and I thought, how wonderful! Many male clergy would not have noticed or, if they did., would have said nothing for a variety of reasons. And so, if this was women’s ministry, I thought, let us have more of it!
We are celebrating the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and we need to reflect how, for centuries, the Jewish people, wandering in exile, dreamed of the coming of a Messiah, a great teacher, sent by God. We can imagine the ceaseless stream of prayers, night and day, year after year, century by century, of devout Jewish women praying for the coming of such a Messiah so that, psychologically, it was inevitable that in time one of these women would become the mother of the Messiah.
I do not doubt that, given Mary’s song of the Magnificat, that it was she who most profoundly inspired her son.
It is significant that this song contains no nationalistic attack on Gentiles, just as Jesus never displays any antagonism towards Gentiles. The Magnificat presents us with a woman of boundless compassion for the oppressed, along with a clear vision for the lifting of that oppression. It is not the Gentiles who are opposed but the mighty and the arrogant. St Luke in his Gospel leads us to understand that Jesus was raised by an extraordinary mother who must have had enormous influence on his attitude to women. Just as Jesus exhibits no hostility against Gentiles, it is also significant that in all the Gospels Jesus treats women with respect and compassion, and even more that his company of disciples who travel with him includes a number of women disciples, and in all his teaching stories he fashiones them to include women as as men, drawing from domestic examples, as well as from farming and more masculine activities.
It is important to remember that this was a period when no self-respecting rabbi would talk to his wife in a public place, while the great Jewish scholar Ben Sirach wrote, ‘ Women are res[ponsible for sin coming into the world. Daughters are a disaster’ and we read also ‘Do not sit down with women – women give rise to shame and depravity.’
ALL THE MORE REMARKABLE THEREFORE IS THE STORY OF JESUS AT THE WELL WITH THE WOMAN OF SAMARIA WHEN HE CHOSE TO IGNORE THE 500 YEARS HOSTILITY BETWEEN JEWS AND SAMARITANS, AND HE KNOWS THAT SHE HAS HAD SEVERAL HUSBANDS, AND YET HE CHOOSES HER TO BE AN EVANGELIST IN HER OWN COMMUNITY .
AND SO WE READ IN ST JOHN HOW MANY SAMARITANS FROM THAT CITY BELIEVED IN HIM BECAUSE OF THE WOMAN’S TESTIMONY. SO WHEN THEY CAME TO HIM THEY ASKED HIM TO STAY WITH THEM AND HE STAYED TWO DAYS. AND MANY MORE BELIEVED BECAUSE OF HIS WORD. THEY SAID TO THE WOMAN, ‘IT IS NO LONGER BECAUSE OF YOUR WORDS THAST WE BELIEVE FOR WE HAVE NOW HEARD FOR OURSELVES AND WE KNOW THAT THIS IS INDEED THE SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD.’
Whether Jesus is sitting with Mary, while Martha prepares a meal, or he is talking with the woman of Samaria at the well side, Jesus’ relationship to women was indeed a radical departure. WE TEND TO FORGET THIS! ESPECIALLY ON OCCASIONS WHEN, ONE I WITNESSED, CANON LUCY WINKLETT WAS CELEBRATING THE EUCHARIST IN ST PAUL’S, AND THE MALE CANON WHO PREACHED THE SERMON OSTENTATIOUSLY WALKED OUT IMMEDIATELY AFTER PREACHING, REFUSING TO BE PRESENT WHILE A WOMAN CELEBRATED THE EUCHARIST.
Finally, as we know, while at his crucifixion, his male disciples desert him, it is the women who witness the resurrection . It is the marginal femalers who recognise that something dramatically new and different has happened. They feel among them the presence of Jesus in a way that far exceeded what they had known in his physical presence. Initially this is not a pleasurable experience and the gospels emphasise the fear they feel, as well as their confusion. But the men don’t believe for the patriarchal mind set will always resist change because it means letting go of control!
Whether an angel actually appeared to Mary is a matter of conjecture- and I believe profoundly in angels – but I do not doubt that , intuitively, Mary realised that the child she was carrying was special. And I find it curious that in the season of Advent, the Church overlooks the nine month journey this child took in his mother’s womb, a journey that each one of us takes. What happens in those months is crucial to the child’s development for, as that other holy monk of India, Father Henri le Saux, better known as Abhishiktananda, wrote, ‘ Who will ever know the secret of the mutual communion between the mother and the child that nestles in her womb?’
Today, in celebrating the Nativity of the birth of Mary, we have yet another lesson to learn, one that makes a Christmas of every day in the year. Each of us is called to be the mother of God for, as Meister Eckhart wrote, ‘ God is waiting eternally to be born in each one of us. Each of us is called to be a Christ-bearer like Mary. God is manifest in you and in me, in each one of us if, like Mary we can say ‘yes’ to life.
‘Behold! The Desired of all nations is outside, knocking at your door. Oh! If by your delay he should pass by, and again in sorrow you should have to begin to seek for him whom your soul loves! Arise, then, run and open. Arise by faith; run by the devotion of your heart; open by your word.
‘And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done unto me according to your word.”
I would like now to suggest that, as a form of meditation or prayer, we close our eyes and sing three words from the chorus of the famous Lourdes hymn. A single voice from the choir will start singing ‘Ave, ave Maria!’ and then the choir and you will take it up softly, letting it swell, over several minutes, as a form of devotion, offering, prayer, to the Eternal Mother, and then slowly it will fade away, and we will then end with a few words. But by keeping our eyes closed we can focus more on the singing as a meditation.
Hail Mary, full of grace…
The Lord is with thee…
Blessed art thou amongst women…
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us now,
And at the time of our dying.