Mary Mother of Socialism
Excerpts from Mary Mother of Socialism; a Jubilee Group Anthology, edited by Andy Delmege. Croydon, The Jubilee Group, ©1995.


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It is a century since Thomas Hancock seized on the centrality of Mary for Christian socialism by dubbing the Magnificat "the hymn of universal social revolution". We offer this pamphlet as part of our struggle to fulfil and critically expand this legacy. It examines Marian theology, politics and spirituality from the points of view of feminism, Marxism and the scrutiny and recovery of tradition. Of particular importance at this time is Sister Vandana's profound meditation on the unity of work and prayer from the perspective of Indian culture, informed by Hinduism. The pamphlet also contains creative writing and poetry, using alternative forms of discourse to relate the whole of our common human experience to our theology, struggle and celebration.

There is much distortion of Mary in the world at present, ranging from attempts to use Our Lady ofWalsingham to subjugate women to the use of Our Lady of Medjugorje to justify an ethnically cleansed Croatia. It is our hope that, by paying careful attention to what Mary actually says, this pamphlet will help in the struggle against this. There is much work to be done.

Our Lady of the Magnificat, Pray for us
Our Lady Mother of Socialism, Pray for us
Andy Delmege
November 1994

How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
(Luke 1,43)

Sue Dowell

We went to Rome last year. It was wonderful to wander and dream our way around that jewel-box city, to stumble upon its hidden treasures and find the familiar ones quite other than what we expected. It was not until it was nearly time to come home that I realised something was missing, something to do with Mary. Where was the Mary of the Magnificat? Why had so many of the city's great painters by":passed this wonderful scene?

Wondering if I had been particularly lazy or obtuse, I checked this out with an art historian friend on my return and was reliably informed that the Visitation is notably under-represented in Medieval and Renaissance art 1. How, I wondered, can a story so deeply woven into the Christian story and into our liturgy be so neglected? And what does this neglect signify in terms of mariology?

All kinds of circumstances combine to give some stories prominence over others. We first have to ask who was telling them, when and for what purpose? This question applies to the very roots of our faith for we know that each of the four gospels was told as it was for a particular purpose and a particular readership.

This makes life particularly difficult for women since there are far fewer women's stories anyway and it is, by and large, men who have done the telling, and till very recently the bulk of reflection upon what was told. It has specific and particular implications for mariology since Mary is more than a main player in the Christian story: she is the saint above all others, that Christians are required to love, venerate 2 and, in women's case particularly, emulate. But she has frequently been (re)presented in terms which make this nigh impossible. The painful sense of alienation many women experience has been addressed with consummate skill and eloquence by feminist scholars like Marina Warner, the title of whose widely acclaimed book Alone of All Her Sex neatly sums up the problem. How can one, wholly set apart from human femaleness, function as a model for female personhood?

So how has this isolation been perpetuated? 'Alone' holds two meanings -- unique, without peer (which, if we choose so to believe, Mary is) and quite simply 'unaccompanied' (which she was not). The degree to which both have been suggested by the church's version of Mary hit me for the first time in Rome.

As Warner and others have shown, the classic double bind has been conveyed as much through visual images as through written exposition. To understand, and hopefully overcome, the 'problem' Mary presents we need to ask what part art has played in conveying Christian truth. Does the wondrous treasury of Christian art give us a true reflection of the faith as it has developed down the ages?

This is a tough one on several counts. For one thing the visual arts run even theology a close second in male domination: from the cave wall to the rich sweeping canvasses of the Old Masters (sic) we can see their work as reflecting and affecting contemporary notions of female grace and beauty. Mary is not exempt from this -- as a short trip round any major art gallery will make clear -- but in portraying her the artist's brush has also been guided by the more rigorous demands of faith and theology. And patronage: the most gifted artist cannot survive without it. The materials are costly and a painting has to be situated somewhere -- a church or a private house at the express wish of whoever owns or is in charge of the same. Hence the artists' choice of subject matter can never have been entirely been their own.

These considerations did not weigh heavily upon the first Christians who expressed their wonder at God's work and world through word-images. But, given that all human societies have produced artists, given too the universal human curiosity about what people looked like, visual images were not ruled out altogether: one very early painting of Mary has been imputed to St Luke. However, the interaction of art and theology in Mary's early formation is hard to grasp because, such images as there were, have mostly been obliterated by the ravages of time, of war, and persecution as well as the deliberate destruction of the iconoclasts.

By the time a proper tradition of Christian art was established in fifth century Constantinople, it reflected a religious consciousness quite different to that of Christianity's origins in a persecuted Jewish sect. Important elements of mariology had already been laid ! down by this time; for example Mary's title Theotokos, God bearer, was established (amidst heated debate) in the 4th century. Byzantine art was both political and clerical, an instrument of state authority as well as a means towards religious discipline. Although there was no formal break in style between pagan and Christian art -- indeed such a break was strongly resisted by a church which wished to stress its place as the official religion of a a glorious and .ancient civilisation -- there was a distinct break in subject matter. The overriding purpose of Christian art was, as laid down by Gregory the Great, for the instruction for the illiterate in the Bible narrative. It was the story and the people in it that had to be told to a pagan world and this set important limits upon abstractions. It is interesting to note that the tradition of the hoary-headed, doddery old Joseph began during this period as the most effective way of demonstrating that he could not possibly have been the real dad!

It was not until the early 14th century that painted illustration swelled to a flood in the West covering much of the old with dazzling new images. The churches, chapels and museums of Europe today are filled with images of Mary in all the glory that she had gathered into her person over the preceding millennium. One would have to be the dourest ideologue or a philistine, or both, to deny the heart-stopping beauty and power of the paintings or indeed the mystic devotion Mary inspired in the church's most brilliant and holy men. But wonder is not the same thing as assent to what all these images, preached or painted 'say' to women. "Top that!" is how an agnostic friend put it the other day and there can be no doubt that these works speak ever more clearly of Mary's alone-ness, her isolation from other women. The message is, as always, inextricable from the medium. We have to ask who had charge over the creation of these great works of art and mysticism, under what social and political circumstances were they created?

The re-Christening of Europe after the Dark Ages had ensured the church's survival and attention could now be focussed upon increasing its cultural dominance and shoring up its own internal power structures.

As is well known it was her Virgin state that bound Mary ever more closely to the celibate elite who for centuries -- the most formative period of Christian spiritual language -- dictated the forms her worship took. Mary's virginity was subtly transformed from an affirmation that 'with God anything is possible' -- into a negative evaluation of the bodiliness to which all others of her sex remained bound -- a direction which the Eastern and Orthodox churches have by and large avoided.

Such an evaluation could only be made by screening out certain aspects of the scriptural narrative. For example, although the Gospel story implied that Mary, like all mothers needed to be purified after childbirth -- a practice which did not derive from any moral distaste for sexual .bodiliness -- the feast that commemorated it twisted the Jewish rite into a celebration of Mary's virgin purity, so separating her from her own spiritual tradition. The artistic under-representation of key biblical scenes, like the Visitation, further suggests a deepening disengagement with Mary the 'ordinary Jewish girl' with Jewish family ties and obligations.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that we cannot now speak of 'Christian art' or 'Christian culture' in the singular. The 12th-14th century saw a deepening separation between contemplative religion == located in the church's celibate elite -- and the piety practised by the ordinary faithful. One result of this is that devotional aids commissioned for use by the laity differed, markedly in both style and subject matter from that of their spiritual mentors and masters. The office of our Lady (founded in 1205) and the exquisite Books of Hours which became popular among the aristocracy from the mid-13th century, were biblically based and accorded great importance to the birth narratives. As did the Mystery and Miracle plays, written and performed by and for 'the common people' to exhort them to 'good devotion and wholesome doctrine, but also for the commonwealth of the City'. All these forms seem to have militated against Mary's theological isolation by taking a more down-to-earth, truly incarnational understanding of her past and present role than that held by their monastic mentors and masters. And it really is necessary to stress that we are speaking of a male, celibate elite for recent scholarship has revealed that the cult of Mary is distinctly less marked in the texts of their female counterparts.3

An increasingly 'open marriage' between scriptural narrative and 'higher' marian speculation was in evidence by the 13th century. Extra biblical traditions like the story of Mary's own parentage, moved to centre stage at this time. This is a casein particular point here since the Immaculate Conception frequently replaced the Visitation in the NativityCycles.4 '

As 12th Century humanism ripened into early Renaissance, this openness was gradually extended to purely secular themes ,and subjects. The newly-recovered classical world opened up new vistas for Mary's devotees; cosmology gave her new habitations -- the Moon at her head and the stars at her feet and she now took upon herself aspects and functions of the old goddesses. As intercessor, comforter and Queen she presided over the joys and afflictions of earthly life. With the rise of Romantic love in the later middle ages she also came to personify the goddesses' lighter aspect. Dr Pamela Tudor Craig gives a lovely example in her exposition of Botticelli's work 5. She pointed out how closely Venus, the Goddess of love of this artist's famous Primavera (and to a lesser extent his portrait of the same goddess in The Birth of Venus) resembles, both in gesture and expression, the conventional Virgin of the Annunciation.

The altogether more human face Mary came to show from 12th century is often cited as evidence of an improvement in women's status. But, as we know -- and feminism has been particularly concerned to demonstrate -the relationship between idealised womanhood and the value given to femaleness itself was ever a tenuous one. As Eleanor McLaughlin concludes, the 'roles' given to Mary in the divine plan by theologians, 'her actions, reactions and personality reflected the theologically supported popular misogynism of the medieval period' 6. In other words Mary's appropriation of both sacred and secular womanhood did little to transform either sphere for the rest of us.

Paradoxically perhaps this situation was reinforced by the full-blown Renaissance humanism of the 16th Century. This was a time when 'realism' came fully into its own; whereas the job of the medieval painter had always been to point beyond this world towards the glory -- or the perils -- of the world to come, it was now permissible to portray the theme of 'man in society'. The relationship between artist and patron took on a new significance in the new demand for portraiture -- likenesses -- to immortalise a particular individual, usually at a significant moment in his career. These were by no means secular works; such an idea was still unthinkable and the patron, now more likely to be an important layman than a cleric, would devoutly wish to record his devotion and gratitude to Mary. In Jan van Eyck's Madonna and the Chancellor Rolin for example, we see a full-size Chancellor kneeling, without any great distance between them, beside the Virgin telling her what he did in the office!

Again women, not having offices or great enterprises in the public world did not benefit from this more 'familiar' relationship. And we want and need to. She's Our Lady too, so why cannot we celebrate our own hidden experience of Mary , our sister and friend?

The time has clearly come to do this: we live in a culture in which women's friendships (and friendships in general) have been devalued, trivialised in all sorts of ways. As a Christian feminist I believe there are biblical resources to help us recover it. But before I come to that, a word on the story so far. As I see it, the most useful contribution feminism has made has been to expose the whole process by which mariology, along with other crucial elements of the faith have been made over by dualistic male-centred thought. As women in a male dominated world we have been on its underside; as a movement of educationally and socially privileged women we have been uniquely placed to observe and evaluate it. This is important because it is precisely the socially and historically mediated Mary that the church disregards or denies altogether. Right up until the present day each dogma about her has been presented as a 'discovery' of a great mystery only now -- surprise, surprise! -- 'revealed'.

But it is not enough to recognise the process; we need above all to change it. The real challenge for mariology is not to discern into which groups and causes she has been pressed into service -- and replace them with more worthy ones -- but to ask whether she should serve in this way at all. Mary was a woman who, we are told, pondered deeply on the events of her own life and so the way forward might be to let go our own needs and experience for a while and listen more attentively to hers. Which is what her biblical contemporaries did. Elizabeth, perhaps, above all. Just as the visitation has been under-represented by the artists so too is Elizabeth under-explored as a 'subject' of theology. But as the companion Mary herself sought out after the Annunciation, and as the first to see what God has wrought in her cousin, it is she, perhaps above all, who can help us make sense of Mary's awesome and real uniqueness: 'Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb'. At the same time Elizabeth can heal Mary's un-real, imposed alone-ness for her recognition, her affirmation changes Mary's own perception of what has happened: her 'Let it Be' now becomes, Magnificat! And it is a shared joy and re-assurance that gave rise to this great song of praise and hope. At the moment of greeting Mary, Elizabeth too becomes 'filled with the Holy Spirit' .This is not just a story of sisterly solidarity -- though it is most certainly that -- it is a model of the kind of mutual ministry the Gospel teaches and church officially believes in. Mary needed Elizabeth and travelled in great haste, over a distance (calculated as some 80 miles) to be with her and stay with her for three months. We've been so busy mythologising and de-mythologising her that we have lost sight of the Mary who, like her son, proclaims her own vulnerability, her need of others. It is to this Mary, not the spotless Queen of Heaven, that countless women have gone for aid -- and of all the fervent prayers for fruitfulness there must have been as many asking to be spared a scandalous or dangerous pregnancy.

And Elizabeth needed Mary. All the joys of womanhood, all that gave a woman any standing in her community had passed Elizabeth by. Who was going to even believe in her unlikely and highly dubious pregnancy? Lacking the benefit of hindsight or even of a compos mentis husband, it is no wonder that Elizabeth 'hid herself five months'. It is Mary who comes to her rescue. In Mary's presence, Elizabeth becomes joined to Hannah and all those prophet-bearing, miraculous birthing women of old and when these two are together past and present meet and the old song is taken up once more with a new strength, a new meaning. The child in Elizabeth's womb leaps at Mary's salutation and the new order begins.

And the context in which it does so really is important. When we detach the song from the singer, which we do in a number of ways from putting it in the mouths of sweet choirboys to treating Luke's birth narratives as a later addition and so surplus to requirements -- and modern critics are far more guilty of this than ancient ones -- we lose its subversive quality. We also lose something important about Mary herself. Many of the anti-feminists who evoke the aid of Mary in their arguments write as if she never said another word after her 'Fiat'. (An example which popped up at the time of writing: explaining her 'repellence' for women priests in particular and Christian feminism in general, Mary Tuck tells us, of her convent schooldays, 'We knew Our Lady was a girl when she spoke those words: "Be it done to me according to thy word", Tablet 18.6.94). The suggestion -- frequently made of late -- that Mary can be a 'model for men' is predicated upon the same idealisation of female passivity and submissiveness. The qualities have not changed, it is just the idea that men take them on. While there can be no argument against that, the ideal is more often used to console than challenge, as was demonstrated in a sermon preached at Walsingham in 1994.

As we come to understand more about the feminine, and as we seek to find its authentic expression in the Christian Church, there is nothing for us to fear. Marian devotion is the key to a right ordering of male and female. With Mary at the heart of the Church softening .the structure, harmonising where there is conflict, there is hope.
Hope for what? I do not myself discern much softening or harmonising among some Walsingham fathers. Nor, more importantly, in the Magnificat which speaks of changing the structures of power for ever, not upending them or modifying them to take in 'new insights'. Mary rejoices in her unique vocation because she can help reveal what kind of god it is she is bearing. Luther, that great de-mythologizer, was more honest than most in expressing grave doubts about Mary's sinlessness because in the Magnificat 'she seemed to vaunt herself in a way inappropriate for a good Christian and certainly a good Christian woman'. 7 And if this makes her guilty of 'inappropriate behaviour' then Elizabeth, alone among biblical women, is witness to and complicit in that guilt.

As the heroine of the nativity, then, we need Elizabeth as much as we need Mary Magdalene, the heroine of the resurrection, who seems to be gathering all the feminist honours at present. Quite naturally so, for it is this Mary's crucial role of public witness that women are struggling to reclaim today and the recent furore over women priests shows how bloody a battle this can be. But Mary Magdalene's role tends to be one of a counter-balance -- 'the other Mary'. The church has actively encouraged the contrast. A long tradition of Western art has given us the figure of a repentant, but still lovely whore kneeling in tears at Jesus' feet -- an image we now know to be false and to have somewhat obscured her significance as Jesus' friend and apostle to the apostles. But however beautifully and truthfully she is restored to it, her true place in the story must be that of younger, active discipleship.

Thus we need the Elizabeths, like the Annas (and Simeons) to represent those of us who are not destined to be a 'new woman-in-the church', who, like them are perhaps 'stricken in years' and whose 'authentic expression of the feminine' must be sought within the here and now of their own and the churches' life. This cannot mean standing quietly by and 'being like Mary' because Mary was not 'like' that. And the real Mary needs us all as companions and co-workers not as a 'counterbalance' .

The glory of the saints is that they are there for us at particular times in our lives, helping us weave our own stories into the story. We can seek their patronage in ways that are neither self -aggrandising, for it is their limitation we 'identify with': Thomas' doubts, Peter's impetuosity; nor subservient -- for we choose those who struggled with and overcame these same limitations and so inspire us to do the same. But our adoptions are bound to be gender-based to some degree. We do not have to believe that women are essentially different from men in order to see that their experience of the world has been different and hence their temptations will also differ. The Gospel record itself implies that Jesus' male followers' expectations were too high and of the wrong kind and that the women' s were often too timid. Like many young mothers, I once needed Martha's help to get my onerous housekeeping obligations in perspective. I need Elizabeth now for my own life as a menopausal middle age mum to be a means of grace and hope of glory. I need her in a way that I do not (yet?) need St Anne who has had honours of a rather different kind heaped on her throughout the ages.

I feel no Protestant fastidiousness towards the cult of St Anne: the interest in Mary's parentage which grew up around the 12th Century is eminently human (and at the time quite innocent of our modern impulse to absolutize the nuclear family). But there are important differences -- psychological, social and even spiritual -- between a cousinly and a parental relationship and these distinctions, these particularities of relationships are the very stuff of incarnation. So it will not do, particularly in the case of women' s stories of which there are few enough anyway, to substitute the one for the other. (That this really has happened is interestingly indicated by the disputed designation of Leonardo's famous cartoon in the National Gallery -- the one we fought to keep in Britain some years ago, 'The Virgin and Child with the Infant John and St Anne' is the official title, but not the artist's own. The older woman is indeed Elizabeth, and Leonardo, being an artistic genius, knew Anne's presence in this calm familial scene would make another picture altogether. It did, and the Anne version can be seen in the ,Louvre.)

It is in the heart of the Nazareth household that we most commonly find Mary today, a relocation which began as early as the 16th Century, with the breakdown of the celibate system and the rise of the bourgeois family. In the new Holy Family, which quickly became a favourite theme of the painters, Joseph is restored to youth and vigour again, befitting his new role as head of the household. But the idealised housewife is no more accessible to most of us than was the idealised autonomous Virgin and seeking to make her so is simply to perpetuate the old process, to honour the experience of one (culturally dominant) group by diminishing another's. It is also profoundly unbiblical. We know full well that Mary herself received dismissive answers when she tried to assert a mother's authority over her son, and to give her an identify she herself learned to disclaim seems to me a real betrayal. It has also exposed her to a host of kitsch-merchants who would have scandalised most Christians down the ages.

So how can the Mother of our Lord come to us today? The most robust enduring forms of marian devotion seem to be those which have stayed close to the biblical narrative. In Anglican evensong and the mysteries of the Rosary we daily remember one who is not unaccompanied and for whom no one group has privileged access (the whole tedious question of 'family values' is beautifully ie unsentimentally and realistically resolved in the Rosary's Fifth Joyful Mystery, the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple. As every mother knows 'finding the child' is what really matters!)

Sticking with the biblical Mary is not to cut her down to size, to reduce her to Protestant Sunday School pieties as is often suggested; for the Bible is a truly artful book that invites, nay requires speculation. Moreover the danger of re-mythologising Mary as a Goddess of one kind or another are considerable in this unbelieving age. As Warner points out, there are schools of thought that have nothing to do with the church but which happily accept the idea that 'the Virgin exists for all eternity. Under the influence of contemporary psychology, many people accept unquestioningly that the Virgin is an inevitable expression of the archetype of the Great Mother. Thus psychologists collude with and continue the church's operations on the mind' 8. But in a way that is emptied of any historical particularity.

An important resource in my own Marian speculation has been drama. I have twice taken part in a cycle of the Mystery plays and getting to grips with the dialogues over a period of several months has been a joyful and humbling experience. There is a matchless sweetness, humour and vibrancy in these archaic words. And a consistently instructive engagement with past forms has come through my yearly task of creating a Nativity play with my parish Sunday School for our Crib service on Christmas Eve. Because it formed part of the liturgy, we were freed from the usual constraints -- we did not have to provide the obligatory oohs and aahs for doting parents -- and were able to do our own theology like the townspeople of old. The biggest hurdle was, predictably and always, to cure the pious pose of the young girl overwhelmed with the honour of 'being Mary that year' (an honour we took care to ensure fell once upon each and everyone before she moved on from Sunday School). The Visitation helped enormously -- Elizabeth provided someone to hug, to dance with, to make eye contact with. (The Byzantine artists knew all about that, no downcast or heavenward raised eyes for them. Their icons' Saints -- painted to help people pray -- meet those of the pray-er in a truly awesome gaze.)

But the best way, the only way, to get it right was for us to see Mary as a woman who had said yes, yes to Gabriel when she could have said' No thanks'. (The Annunciation scene always improved immensely after playing out the no version!) And this is the key to Mary. She was a `woman who made a particular historical option, both at the Annunciation and at the end of her life too. 'And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart'. And after the sword's piercing, and out of all the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of her life came her decision to throw in her lot with the community gathered in the Upper Room. For this too she is 'blessed among women'.

And blessed too are all those who travel that road with her 'for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord' (Luke 1,45).

Sue Dowell is author of They Too Shall be One and co-author of Bread, Wine and Women and Disposessed Daughters of Eve.


Especial thanks to Dr. Pamela Tudor Craig (see below).

1. The Visitation is most commonly represented as part of a Nativity cycle. .These were used to decorate nave walls which, along with the stained glass windows of ancient churches and Cathedrals were the part of the building designated as the people's bible. Giotto's Nativity cycle in the arena Chapel, Padua contains one of the most vivid and moving images of this distinctly under-represented subject. Giotto was a friend and devotee of St. Francis whose devotion to the Nativity is well known and who did so much to bring back the human and earthy aspects of the story. A powerful image of Elizabeth, painted in the 8th or 9th Century (hence Eastern in influence) can be seen in a niche in S Maria Antica in Rome where she is placed, with the Infant John the Baptist in her arms one side of the Virgin and Child. On the other side is placed St Anne with the child Mary in her arms. Was it sexism or ageism that in later times deemed one 'older mother' quite sufficient! It is interesting to note that Elizabeth is only included in the calendar of Saints as wife to Zachary whose place is owed to a (disputed) tradition of his martyrdom under Herod. Elizabeth was joined to his cult and the feast of both is November 5th.

2. Mary is accorded a unique place of worship -- hyperdulia: a careful and useful distinction, Only God is owed latria (adoration) and the saints dulia (veneration).

3. See for example: Warner Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1985, p.181.

4. The story of Joachim and Anna is derived from a compilation of the Golden Legend (13th Century) and the (Apocryphal) Book of James (6th Century).

5. Pamela Tudor-Craig and Richard Foster. The Secret Life of Paintings Boydell J Press, 1986 (based on the BBC series screened in 1986, p.50. Dr Tudor Craig goes on to explain how this identification is derived from -- and justified by -- Plato's Symposium.

6. Eleanor McLaughlin "Women in Medieval Theology" in RR Ruether (ed) Religion and Sexism Simon and Schuster 1974. p.246.

7. RR Ruether Mary: The Feminine Face of the Church SCM Press 1979,p.3.

8. Marina Warner Alone of All her Sex: the Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1976. Quartet Books Ltd. 1978, p.335.