by Fr Martin Sirju, Vicar General
Mary, as we popularly understand her, is decontextualised, desexualised and deromanticised. Decontextulised as she is removed from her context of history; desexualised as she is seen as an asexual being; and deromanticised as if she knew nothing of the human experience of romance.
When we look more closely at the Mary of history, we see she was very much in touch with the sexual as far as she was able to as a young Palestinian peasant girl who knew what the village expected of her.
Robert P Maloney writing in America in 2005 notes: “In Palestine at that time, women ordinarily married at about 13 years of age in order to maximise childbearing and to guarantee their virginity, so it is likely that Mary’s espousal to Joseph (Matt 1:18) and the birth of Jesus occurred when she was very young.”
Here we have a young girl, perhaps as young as 14 or 15 years of age, thinking of what most girls would have thought of were it not for this auditory vision (the Lucan narrative doesn’t tell us if she “saw” anything, though popular art and piety presume it) of the angel Gabriel.
The Bible tells us nothing about the actual circumstance of Mary’s giving birth. In dealing with the messiness of giving birth Mary would have confronted her own sexuality—the pain, the blood, the “butterflies in the stomach” occasioned by her touching her newborn son and his tiny, tender fingers pressing against her cheeks. Breastfeeding was another way in which Mary confronted her sexuality—perhaps the only aspect of her sexuality the Christian tradition felt comfortable dealing with.
There is the Maria Lactans tradition—art and spirituality concerning Mary’s breast milk from the 13th to 15th centuries. Former Oxford professor of literature Dame Marina Warner explores this in her classic Alone of All Her Sex in a chapter entitled ‘The Milk of Paradise’.
Nothing is said in the Bible about this but the Book of James (not the canonical text) says simply—“and it [the child] went and took the breast of his mother Mary”.
This nursing Madonna became a multivalent symbol in the Middle Ages with mystical meanings attached to it: “That he, on whom all creation hangs, should hang from the breast of his human mother.”
Then there is the 13th century story of a monk dying from a rotting mouth and whose nose and lips were eaten away by ulcers. He reproved Mary for not taking care of him when he took care of her by calling her name every day in prayer. Moved with compassion Our Lady, the story goes, sprinkled him with her breast milk and all was made well again.
The very title ‘Our Lady’ has a curious history. According to Warner there was a confluence of two currents. One was the intense personal devotion to Mary of the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century, France) that resulted in her being ‘Our Lady’—“the inspirer of love and joy, the private sweetheart of monks and sinners”.
But there was another current, that of courtly love, among the feudal aristocrats. It was a forbidden love among persons of different social status, the latter emerging between, say, a soldier and his higher aristocratic lady. This was the Europe of arranged marriages, of unhappy nuptial accommodations.
This courtly love was generally adulterous in intent if not in fact, producing its own ‘my lady’ and contained all the joy, anguish and longing of romantic love, often unattainable.
It had its own band of poets, the troubadours, who would sing of this illicit love. Later on this poetry morphed into an unattainable love, a love too pure for their ‘lady’ to reciprocate.
What eventually emerged was the fusing of the joy of courtly love with the ancient ethic of chastity. This kind of joy was not for this world, this world of flesh, but the next, where Mary exists as ‘Our Lady’, an object of pure, desexualised, deromanticised love.
This perspective needs to be revisited. We have already seen how we can speak about aspects of the sexual regarding Mary. Can we speak of romance as well? The thought may not be as far-fetched as it seems.
In the writings of St Bernard of Clairvaux, as Warner points out, there is an affinity in his meditations on the Song of Songs among the Virgin, the Church and the human soul.
The Song of Songs is the most sexual and romantic text in the Bible. It is striking that this text is used in relation to Mary as if to suggest she knows something about romance.
It seems quite likely to me that when Joseph saw his young beautiful wife thoughts of romance crossed his mind. Surely that was implied in their marriage. How did Mary deal with this in a one-roomed house—typical of the inhabitants of Nazareth—where space was tight? Did he massage her hands at the end of a hard day’s work or help dry her hair, when he came back from work at Sepphoris?
A comparison may help. Women often come to Siparia seeking La Divin’s help for a husband, and sometimes men seeking a wife. I remember one of the prayers, written by a man, in which he asked La Divin to make him handsome and desirable, to help him have a nice body that would be attractive to women. He brought the sexual and the romantic to Mary. We should too.