Friday, February 15, 2013

Meditations: A Critical Essay on Meditations on Mary

El Greco
The Annunciation
When a book like Meditations on Mary by Kathleen Norris contains fifty three works of art, and over half of the text-bearing pages are the Marian passages of the New Testament, while less than a third is original text by the author, it is incumbent upon us to respond with meditation. The most proper response is to prop the book up and gaze at the paintings. Paul’s  epistle instructs believers that ‘whatever is true... whatever is pure... whatever is lovely,.. think on these things” (Philippians 4:8 NAS). When a canonical epistle requires us to meditate upon purity, beauty and truth, it is because they are conduits and channels to the mysteries, to God, mystery most unknowable. After all, the dogmas of Mary are mysteries, pointing believers towards some understanding of what is hardest to know.
Norris and her publishers set up the book to compel readers to meditation, but even though meditation is in the very title I tend to treat meditation like so many other luxuries and commodities. I shelf it, store it up for when I have time, then I plan to dig in, really. But to be confessional, I never slow down. I fail at stillness, silence, reflection and prayer, so it is no surprise that I used Meditations on Mary as a coffee table decoration after I first read it ten years ago. I picked it up after reading Norris’ The Cloister Walk and had a fantasy about cloistering myself. I bought it for her essays, and because, just as Mary should be transforming into one of my spiritual companions, I felt myself distancing from her. I read the essays. I perused the familiar King James passages, texts that should be included in any serious reflection or hermeneutic on Marian doctrines.
Ecce Ancilla Domini

I glanced at the El Greco’s, Da Vincis, Carravagios, Titians, Rosettis, all beautifully rendered on a heavy glossy paper. My initial treatment of the book was more like my first pass a the religious paintings we appreciated during my undergraduate fine arts course. I breezed past Pietas and Passions in the Art Institute of Chicago, huffing at our our stout professor whenever she made us slow down to attend to details: the dimensions of Christ from Mary’s sacred heart, the color of her cloak, the pathos in her face, or the spirits, extra hands, the poetic anomilies of Rennaissance and Medieval painters. I failed then and even now to appreciate them. If I gazed, truly noticed not just skillful brush strokes, the preparation of the canvas, the tinctures of the inks and human renderings of the forms, if I looked at the mysteries folded into the forms, the spirits and extra hands that haunt or bolster, I would find dogma within these.
The first time I whistle-stopped through the religious art galleries, I remember thinking, as we were taught to think, at least these religious paintings are three-dimensional. At least these paintings have emotion, and pathos. I failed then, as now, to meditate, and it took learning the dogma of two-dimensional icons, of whom Mary is the first and most prevalent, to learn there is an act of prayer in this gazing. It is as if these pictures, like the Scriptures, and even Norris’ select essays, cloy and slow us down. They keep us from gulping the information and hurrying on. If nothing else, we keep a book like this around because someone cared enough to choose such fine paper, reproduce such greats of art, and render a fine tome.
But, treating the book as coffee table decor cheapens the relationship between ourselves and beauty. Beauty, it turns out, is a gateway to belief. Norris writes in “Dogma,” “At its best, the sights and sounds of worship, its stories, poems, hymns, and liturgical actions, are beautiful in the sense of ‘good, fitting, becoming’” (44).  What is dogma, but that which is “good, fitting, becoming,” she reminds us. Its Greek root mean this, and dogma, now defined as Jaroslav Pelikan, Yale historian and theologian writer, does “ as the official public teaching of the community of faith” (Pelikan) may be distilled to its root usage: “acceptance, or consensus, what people could agree on” (Norris 43). How did the people come to consensus when almost everyone was illiterate, from commonfolk to the uppercrust? By imagery. By the family crest, the sign, the icon, the painting. They named a family, identified a business, revealed a truth, and taught a story. When there are no words, there is still beauty, and in it truth, and in that meditation, and in that prayer, and in prayer, belief. Or maybe that is not the linear order. But then, when it comes to the mystery of belief, linear order often fails us. Norris speaks to that as well:
If I get caught up in fretting over one of the mysteries of the faith that is expressed as a dogma, it’s usually a sign that something else is wrong, something I need sit to with for a while and pray over so that I can see the problem clearly. When dogma is in its proper place, as beauty, it appeals to my poetic sensibility, rather than to my more linear intelligence. (44)
I have confused mysteries with dogmatism much of my life, probably out of what evangelical writer Scot McKnight calls “reaction formation” (5). Instead of being proper for prayer and instruction, Scripture served as the exegetical authority to build arguments and doctrines for every void in culture and faith. No wonder I fretted rather than prayed. This problem is exacerbated around the Marian mysteries and that is why she repelled and attracted me from the first days I worshipped with the Orthodox Christians.  We evangelicals sharpened our wit with anti-Marian hermeneutics. Now I was being asked to meditate her ever-virginity and purity, to call her all-Holy, ask her to pray to God for me, and to believe she ascended to heaven visibly. Ponder and treasure this woman, for that is what meditation does. Norris calls Mary “mother of lectio” (41), as in lectio divina, the practice of meditating and praying Scripture. This is the opposite of expounding doctrines. I longed for this stripping away, which is how I ended up pledging myself to this confession. For its 2000 years of dust and smoke, very little in Orthodox Christianity is dogma. What is not canonized Scripture is in the Creed, and it’s all supposed to be practiced, in consensus in the Liturgy and traditions of the Church.
Because my name is Maria, Latin for Mary, everyone asks if I assumed the Mother of God as my patron saint. I’ve said “Nope” as many times as flight attendant says “Bu-bye” hoping it will deter follow-up inquiries. I didn’t select her because of those doctrines, and associations that Protestants make to the Immaculate Conception, sinlessness, and that she did not die. Becoming Orthodox Christian was hard enough for me. I did not care to entangle myself in more defenses of dogmatisms that the Eastern Church does not call doctrine.
The purpose of my patron saint was to be a partner and pointer, when I was too weak to go faith alone. I chose a different patron with the name Mary. In spite of this, my monastic father confessor keeps telling me to ask Mary about this or that. Maybe it’s because most of the sins I confess are about how easily angered I am with my kids. But I suspect he wants me to slow down. He wants me to meditate. He wants me to meditate on Mary, and to contemplate her qualities as a mother. She’s as close to mystery as it gets.
Softener of Evil Hearts
For this reason, I needed to pick up Meditations on Mary and gaze longingly on the varied, lovely renditions of her. Pedro Antonio Fresquis’ Our Lady of Guadelupe shows glory emanating like daggers from behind her. It conjures the image of the icon we found a few years ago at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City, PA, a women’s monastery. Mary has seven daggers splayed out of her folded hands, holding them like a card shark holds his deck, close to his heart. We call that icon “Softener of Evil Hearts” because of the swords piercing her. This two-dimensional icon, one I would have dismissed for poor artistry in college, is a teaching on the Mary who stood at the foot of the Cross. She was one of the sources of Luke’s gospel. It’s believed that Luke painted the oldest icon we have of Mary. Icons, like those El Greco The Annunciation (33) with the dove descending as the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, or the Rosetti Ecce Ancilla Domini (29) with the timorous virgin shown with her scarlett weaving-- tradition holds she wove the veil for the Temple-- are images of dogma, expressed in beauty. The Eastern Tradition maintains two-dimensional versions, wherein the subject looks past the viewer, as its own dogma, one where saints gaze out as if looking through windows from heaven. We can see them. We are reminded they had physicality, but there is a pane there between us and them. We are called to meditate before them on whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is true.
That Luke’s icon of Mary was first is important to me, because it helps unwind some of this confusing imagery, beauty and mystery.Inasmuch as Norris describes herself as a “garden variety” Christian-- Presbyterian who has been an oblate in Roman Catholic Benedictine monastery-- I too am an American-salad bowl in faith formation. She writes that “Once Marian imagery has truly been absorbed by a church or a culture, things are never simple. Who is this Mary?... I used to feel the dissonance whenever I heard Mary described as both Virgin and Mother; she seemed to set an impossible standard for any woman” (22). That is the Mary I contend with. I have some pretty unpious thoughts if I get real with myself. “Miss perfect virgin” now wants me to be “perfect mother” because she was. I sometimes want to ask my father confessor why I need to pray, to meditate, to contemplate the Virgin Mother. She always seems far aloft in those citadels of heaven. Will I ever close the distances?
What I need most besides forcing some long gazes on these Pietas, is to let Norris’ own epiphanies about the Christological Mary sink in: “What Mary does is to show me how I indeed can be both virgin and mother. Virgin to the extent that I remain “one-in-myself,” able to come to things with newness of heart; mother to the extent that I forget myself in the nurture and service of others, embracing the ripeness of maturity that this requires” (22). The reason I need to read this and to gaze upon the plethora of paintings in this book is that remaining “one-in-myself” means living in the moment. In the moment there is always a person needing nurturing and service. I need to read the literal words, be in awe of Norris’ reflection in words, called to reflect in words the same way, and snagged and slowed down enough by these complex paintings, old and requiring a discipline gaze to meditate, to steer away from checklists and be present. To see beauty in them, then beauty in the faces of “my people” as Langston Hughes writes. To gaze upon what beauty occurs in the strange and sometimes gruesome realities around me. For beauty and suffering have not yet be separated, as Mary herself knew.


“Holy Bible NIV Philippians 4:8." Bible Suite. Bible Suite, n.d. Web. 15 Feb 2013.
McKnight, Scot. The Real Mary: Why Evangelicals Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus.
Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2007. 5. Print.
Norris, Kathleen. Meditations on Mary. New York: Penguin Press, 1999
Pelikan, Jaroslav. "The Will to Believe and the Need for Creed." On Being With Krista
Tippett. On Being: PRI, n.d. Web. 10 Feb 2013.

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