Why I Study Mary


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UPDATE as of April 30, 2018: The First Things link has expired. Here was my original text.

What has motivated you to study Mary as a scholar?

I grew up in the Presbyterian church, which has no tradition of devotion to the Virgin Mary. I first encountered the medieval devotion to Mary through a course I took in college on women in the Middle Ages. At the time, I was also reading a good deal of feminist theology, which seemed to me at odds with the image of the Virgin that I encountered in the medieval sources. My goal as a scholar has been to recover an appreciation for the way in which medieval Christians prayed to Mary in the liturgy and imagined her through their reading of Scripture. Without Mary, I have become convinced, there can be no Christianity. I want to help modern Christians appreciate why Mary is necessary both theologically and devotionally to our understanding and experience of God.

How do you teach college students about the Virgin Mary in a classroom setting? What do you want them to learn?

I have taught my "Mary and Mariology" course twice now (http://maryandmariology.blogspot.com). As with all my courses, I focus on teaching the students to grapple with the primary sources from the tradition. Almost every modern study of the Virgin Mary (including the feminists') has been implicated in contemporary confessional arguments, making it difficult to see the ancient and medieval tradition of devotion in its own terms. My goal in the course is to introduce students to this ancient and medieval understanding of Mary and to contrast it with the way in which Marian devotion has developed since the reevaluation of Scripture in the early modern period. For their final projects, I let the students choose between making a work of devotion (prayer, hymn, meditation, image, poem, play, narrative, comic book, or whatever the Virgin inspires them to create) or writing a research paper, as I also want them to appreciate how devotion inspires both creative response and intellectual engagement.

Are Christian sects that lack a devotion to Mary missing anything?

Yes, but those that lack an understanding of the ancient and medieval tradition of the way in which Mary appears in Scripture are also lacking. I have often wondered why Mary chose me, a cradle Presbyterian, for the work of recovering the medieval understanding of her role in making God visible to the world. While I did not grow up with a devotion to Mary, I did grow up with a devotion to the Word. My work on the medieval devotion to Mary has concentrated on the way in which medieval Christians discovered her and her relationship to God in Scripture and performed this devotion to her through the liturgy, particularly her Hours. I do not think that I would have paid the attention I have to her place in Scripture if I had not grown up Presbyterian.

Do you have a personal Marian devotion?

Yes and no. Perhaps it is my inherent Presbyterianism, but I have a hard time thinking of either Mary or Jesus as a personal presence. I experience Mary rather as the motivating force for my scholarship, as Wisdom, the magistra of the language arts. She is the frame for all the work that I have done as a medievalist. Whenever I have tried to move into some other topic of analysis, whether the study of Scripture, the practice of prayer, the disciplining of the individual soul in virtue, or the origins of the city as place of creativity and commerce, I find her at the center, guiding me. I serve her because it is through her that I realize the questions I need to ask. I would dearly love to have some more personal experience of her, but that does not seem to be the way in which she interacts with me. What I know is that my work flourishes only when I take her as my star.

Sarah Jane Boss, Mary, New Century Theology (London: Continuum, 2003)

Like me, Sarah Jane Boss trained as a medievalist, but she writes as a contemporary theologian rather than an historian. Like me, she tends to see Mary primarily as she appears in the medieval sources, as the place or vessel through whom God became visible to the world. While I focus more on Mary's role as Wisdom in giving birth to the Word, Boss focuses rather on her role as the elemental matrix or chaos out of which God created the world, although in truth these are both aspects of Mary's role as Mother of God. Boss is particularly concerned to show the way in which seeing Mary as "present in all physical things as their foundation" enables us to understand the Incarnation as salvific and creation as glorified through her. While arguing as a theologian, Boss writes as something of a poet. Like the medieval and early modern theologians on whose works she draws, she thinks in ravishing images and tropes. If, in Boss's words, Mary is the "dark water" through whom God entered into his creation, Christ is the "fiery light" to whom Mary gave birth.

Margaret Barker, The Mother of the Lord. Volume 1: The Lady in the Temple (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)

Margaret Barker is an Old Testament scholar, Methodist preacher, and author of seventeen books in which she attempts to recover what she has called the temple tradition. While Boss thinks primarily in terms of Mary's relationship to the cosmos, Barker is concerned to show the way in which Mary points to the ancient worship of the Lord as he was believed to have become present in his temple. In this tradition, the Lady, too, was present in the temple as the tree of life and as the ark on which the Lord was enthroned. This is the same ark which John saw in heaven at the opening of the temple, the woman clothed with the sun, the moon at her feet, and a crown of stars on her head (Revelation 11:19-12:1). For my own part, I find this reading of the relationship between the Old Testament images by which Mary is traditionally imaged (temple, ark, tree) and her role as Mother of God in the New Testament extremely exciting. Far from an attempt to make Mary into "simply" a goddess, it is an effort to understand how Christianity depends on her for the recognition of Jesus as the Christ. In Barker's reading, the Lady was the one who anointed her Son at his enthronement (Psalm 109/110:3-4) because it was she who was associated most closely with Wisdom, the one who opens the eyes and gives sight to the blind.

Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, Mystical City of God, trans. Fiscar Marison (George Blatter), 8 books in 4 vols. (Chicago: Theopolitan Company, 1914)

Sor María was a Franciscan Conceptionist nun and abbess of her family convent at Ágreda in northern Spain. She is famous in the American Southwest as "the Lady in Blue," said to have appeared to the Jumanos of northern Texas, whom she encouraged to convert. Her Mystical City of God is a masterpiece of Marian devotion, hailed at its posthumous publication in 1680 as a great work of theology containing "deep insight into sacred scripture." A hundred years later, the Italian adventurer Casanova was somewhat less impressed. In her book he read "the wild conceptions of a Spanish nun, devout to superstition, melancholy, shut in by convent walls, and swayed by the ignorance and bigotry of her confessors." The Mystical City is remarkable to most modern readers for the intimate details Sor María relates of Mary's relationship with her Son. From my perspective, it is far more remarkable as a witness to the continuity of the tradition Barker and Boss describe, in which Mary is seen above all as the Lady of the Temple through whom God entered into his creation. This is the tradition which I hope to make visible through my own work on the medieval interpretation of Mary through the Scriptures, most particularly the psalms.

Many Christians don't know or fail to appreciate that the Christological debates of the 5th century originated in disputes about Mary's status as theotokos. Maybe you could illumine their logic for us. What do you mean when you say that Mary "enables us to understand the Incarnation"?

I talk about this logic at length in my forthcoming book on the way in which medieval Christians prayed to Mary through the cycle of antiphons and psalms at the core of her Hours, which many Christians still pray as "The Little Office of the Virgin." For example, the first antiphon in the hour of Matins in the Roman Use is Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. This antiphon is sung as a frame, as it were, for the psalm O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is your name in all the earth (Psalm 8), celebrating the Lord's work of creation. Likewise, Mary as the woman who gave birth to the God-man Jesus Christ is the frame through which God made himself visible to the world as the Creator. In the Akathistos hymn that Orthodox Christians have sung to her since the 5th century, she is hailed in exactly this way, as the "container of the uncontainable God," "tabernacle of God and the Word...greater than the Holy of Holies." The mystery is how the Creator of heaven and earth could enter into his creation. The answer is an even greater mystery: through Mary.

Is this idea that the Old Testament anticipates Mary as Mother of God, just like it anticipates Jesus as the Christ, also a theme in ancient and medieval Christian thought?

Yes, it runs throughout the tradition both in Orthodoxy and in the West up through the seventeenth century, after which it is obscured by new methods of Scriptural interpretation. It is still implicit in the structure of even Protestant liturgies, in the readings from the Old Testament, most particularly the psalms, but most modern Christians with whom I am familiar (Presbyterians, Episcopalians) do not understand that the reason we sing the psalms at all is because the ancient and medieval Christians believed that the Lord of the psalms (Yahweh, pronounced Adonai, in Greek Kyrios, in Latin Dominus) had become incarnate as Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 22:41-46). In ancient and medieval Christian thought, Mary is present in the psalms as the mother of the king (Psalm 44/45), the tabernacle which he sanctified as his habitation (Psalm 45/46:5-6), and the glorious city of God (Psalm 86/87:3), to give but a few of her many names. Late medieval Christians wrote whole "psalters" of titles that they found for her in the Old Testament. Just as she gave birth to the Creator, so all creation sings her praise.

How do you think the Venerable Sor María—or other Christian women you study—would respond to today's secular feminists, who reject Christianity on grounds that it has contributed to the oppression of women?

I think they would be dumbfounded. It would make no sense to them to claim that Mary, through whom the fault of Eve became the source of our salvation, had done anything other than elevate women as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. One of Sor María's favorite images of Mary is as a mirror in which she saw herself reflected. In Sor María's words (as translated by Marilyn Fedewa): "Sometimes when we look into a mirror, we may observe something new. When we look at Mary--as into a mirror--we know the Most Holy Mother participated in our redemption by taking the flesh of the Son of God into her womb. We also know that God is said to have created man in his image and likeness. In partaking of man's redemption, it seemed to me that the Most Holy Mary helped to restore man's resemblance to God, and in doing so by virtue of her own immaculate purity, she acts as a mirror in producing the most genuine likeness of God." Unlike today's secular feminists, the women I study talk about Mary not as an image of "woman," but as the human being most like God, the mirror of his majesty and the image of his goodness (Wisdom 7:26), filled with the knowledge of creation in her capacity as Mother of the Word. In Sor María's telling, this knowledge included the whole of the arts and sciences, including astronomy, geology, biology, botany, zoology, and medicine, not to mention the liberal arts--arts and sciences in which, on Mary's model, Sor María herself excelled.

Do you have a favorite work of Marian art?

My current favorite is a twelfth- or thirteenth-century ivory which I saw last winter at the Walters Art Museum about the time I was finishing my book. It is a triptych in the form of an opening statue of Mary as the Throne of Wisdom (http://art.thewalters.org/detail/36652/opening-madonna-triptych/). Closed, it shows Mary holding the Son in her lap, not as a Child but as Christ in Majesty. Open, it shows scenes from the Passion and Resurrection in the frame of Mary's body, while Christ sits in majesty holding a book in her head. At the base of the image, Mary lies prone on her couch with the baby in the manger tucked in behind her. This image encapsulates perfectly the mystery of the Incarnation through Mary as a making visible of God, suffering in body in his humanity, but held throughout Mary's life in contemplation in her mind.


Rachel Fulton Brown is Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago. Her Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought is forthcoming from Columbia University Press in November 2017.

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