Between the Baskets, Mary and Me

One of my new friends, Paul, who is himself a convert to Catholicism, has been asking me whether I have ever been drawn to convert, given my devotion to the Virgin Mary. Presbyterians, after all, are not particularly famous for their devotion to the Virgin Mary, and even the Episcopalians with whom I now worship have proven amazingly resistant to my pleas that we pay more attention in our liturgy to the Mother of God. Wouldn't I be happier in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox church where Mary is given her appropriate due?

You would think, and I often have wondered why Mary chose me, someone who has never even come close to being a Catholic, as her particular servant. Wondered, that is, until this past summer when I realized that I actually was, in spirit, a Presbyterian, and suddenly her great wisdom in choosing me became clear. (I am not trying to be boastful here, she did choose me and will not let me go, even when I have tried to define my academic work in other ways so as not to seem "narrow.") What, after all, is the one thing that Presbyterians are famous for, other than being stuffy? Okay, having elders in charge of their congregations, which gives us the Scots model of representative democracy (or vice versa, not quite sure about this here). But, no, not that. Okay, they are big on the sovereignty of God (I am reading the Wikipedia entry now). Which is definitely a feature of my thinking. But let's get to item number three in the Wikipedia description: their focus on the authority of the Scriptures. Ah.

If there is one thing that I have struggled with throughout the years that I have been working on the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary it is the expectation that what I was looking at ought or should or must have something to do with "popular" devotion, more particularly, the devotion of women. And the one thing that everybody knows about popular devotion in the Middle Ages is that it was illiterate. (Everybody is wrong, but that isn't quite my point here. See that book that I keep promising is going to be forthcoming.) Which means it must have had very little to do with Scripture. You get this all the time in our scholarship. How is it, my colleagues ask, that so much attention could be paid to the Virgin Mary when there is so little about her in Scripture? Well, because they are wrong here, too. It all depends on how you read.

Which has been the whole burden of all of the scholarship that I have ever written on devotion to the Virgin Mary, although until recently I kept trying to disguise it as something else because even I couldn't see that what Mary really wanted me to write about was right in front of me all the time: how she was figured in the Song of Songs (the subject of my dissertation), how the descriptions of her in the Song of Songs were at the heart of the development of ideas about her compassion for her Son (the overarching theme of my first book), how all of the psalms in her Office were really about her relationship to God, how to understand the power that she has had in Christianity we need to learn how to read the Scriptures as medieval Christians read them--as filled to the brim with references to her (the argument of my present book, which I plan to spend this next year revising, but of which you can get a preview here).

Ironically, of course, that Mary even needs me to make this argument is thanks above all to Protestants like the Presbyterians, who in their insistence on sola scriptura managed to erase a whole tradition of reading with one fell swoop of the pen: "Medieval Catholics were making it up." Do you see how very clever Our Lady is? If I were a Catholic insisting that we should revisit this interpretive tradition, I could simply be accused of not being sufficiently aware of how modern exegetes have rejected this devotional tradition or, conversely, of having confessional motives for trying to reintroduce it, as did Henri de Lubac with the four senses of Scripture. But here I am, a Protestant, and a Presbyterian at that, suggesting that maybe, just maybe the medieval exegetes knew what they were up to.

Of course, one could tell the story another way: I was drawn to the commentaries on the Song of Songs as the subject of my dissertation precisely because, as a Presbyterian born and bred, I was already attracted to the problem of how to read Scripture. And there is truth in that. Much of my formation as a scholar, not just a Christian, I credit to the courses that I took in New Testament as an undergraduate with Professor Werner Kelber at Rice, who taught us how to read the Gospels not just as collections of stories, but as works with particular narrative structures written to particular audiences with particular arguments in mind. This is the way in which I suggested we should read the commentaries, too, which (as I argue in my first book) is how the twelfth-century Marian commentators were reading the Song of Songs: as a kind of drama or narrative of Mary's relationship with her Son.

Would I have come to this way of reading the Scriptures about Mary if I had not been raised a Presbyterian, convinced that all the secrets of divinity lay hidden in the Book? Would I have taken the thirteenth-century Augustinian canon Richard of St. Laurent seriously when he insisted that Mary is the Book in which it is possible to read all the mysteries of God, if I did not already believe it were possible to find the whole of God's plan for creation therein? Would I have paid proper attention to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Servasanctus of Faenza when he said that Mary is the book of life containing all the creatures of Creation, who herself promises, speaking as Wisdom: "They that explain me shall have life everlasting" (Ecclesiasticus 24:31), if I were not already seeking Wisdom in the Word? Would I have noticed the twelfth-century Cistercian Amadeus of Lausanne insisting that Mary is the key to the mystery, the one standing between the two golden baskets filled with the flowers of the Old Testament and the fruits of the New (he is commenting on Song of Songs 2:5: "Support me with blossoms. Stay me with apples, for I am sick with love"), if I had not been attending to the way in which he commented on the Song of Songs? As Amadeus tells it, one basket stands on the left of Mary and one on the right, while Mary is seen standing in the middle, mediating between the promise and the fulfillment, and "like the tree planted in the midst of paradise, she raises her head to the height of heaven and, conceiving by the heavenly dew, brings forth the fruit of salvation, the fruit of glory, the fruit of life, and he who eats of it will live forever."*

Standing in the middle between the two baskets. That, I realized this past summer, is what I have been doing my whole life. Growing up in Greater Appalachia where, let's be frank, it was not easy being the (one of the) smartest one(s) in the class.** Going to graduate school in England as an American, then in New York City as definitely not an Eastcoaster. Spending my career in a discipline which, again, let's be frank, is not exactly a bastion of traditionalist thinking, although things are better for us ::cough::conservatives::cough:: in history than for colleagues in social psychology or anthropology. (My new friend Paul is an historian, too.) Competing as a woman in what is still a rather masculine sport (you should see some of my women friends flinch when I show them my foils). Being an academic watching reality shows about tattooing unironically, without however wanting to show off my ink. 

No wonder Mary chose me! Just like her, I am caught between worlds, called by her to be the one who mediates between the old and the new, between the medieval reading of the Scriptures and modern scholarly suspicion. Between devotion and understanding. Between affect and intellect. Between academia and faith. I might have had my doubts over the years, but she clearly knew what she was doing. She needed me standing between the baskets just as God needed her: to be the one standing in the shadows so that the light might shine. I suppose if she could do it no matter how hard it sometimes got, so can I.

*Amadeus of Lausanne, Eight Homilies in Praise of Blessed Mary, trans. Grace Perigo (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1979), p. 2.
**My sixth grade self wept over all of the entries in her yearbook: "To the Brain." I wanted to be pretty, sweet, somebody's best friend. Nope. I was the Brain.

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