Onze Lieve Vrouw

Antwerp, Belgium
I'm back! Eight years ago plus a month or two, I stood before the doors of this very cathedral wondering what I was going to be able to say in praise of the Lady in whose honor it was built. I had a plan: write something about the way in which medieval Christians prayed the Hours of the Virgin. And I had the inklings of a methodology: commentary on the texts at the heart of her Hours, most particularly, the antiphons and psalms. In the first year that I had on leave to work on this project, I made elaborate Excel charts of all of the different versions of the Hours that I could find in published form, as well as charts of the psalms of many Uses for which I had only the templates provided by the late Erik Drigsdahl at his Center for Handskriftstudier i Denmark (now hosted by Peter Kidd at manuscripts.org.uk). And I was able to write two chapters, one on the history of the Hours of the Virgin, a second on the way in which medieval Christians said the Ave, Maria, the invitatory antiphon for the Hours. And then, as you all know, I hit a wall. For a whole year and a half after that summer, I could not write. Anything. Not a page, not a paragraph, not a sentence. I could teach, which was some relief, but I could not bring myself to write, except on this blog. Books that I had agreed to review had to be sent back to the journal editors with groveling apologies. Articles that I had promised to contribute to volumes of essays had to be withdrawn. I started to wonder whether I would ever write anything scholarly ever again.

And then I found Robert Boice and began to make my way back. At first, as these things necessarily go, slowly, mere paragraphs at a time. Gradually, as I practiced working in Brief Regular Sessions on my translation of John of Garland's Epithalamium, more substantively. According to my c.v. (no, even I can't remember these things off the top of my head), I managed my first scholarly book review since 2009 in February 2012; since then, I have done eleven, including one of the volumes from which I had had to withdraw. And then, thanks to Margaret Barker (have I told you about her before?), I discovered the key to the commentary that I had wanted to write, and somehow, over the next academic year that I had on leave (2012-2013), I managed to write a complete draft of my book. Which, as again I suspect you recall, I sent off to readers with a fair amount of anxiety; as it turned out, I was not wrong to be anxious. It took over a year to get the reader reports back from the press (it usually takes no more than six months). For those in the know: there were three. Editors usually only have to get two in order to convince an editorial board to go ahead with a book, but mine--thanks to the first, most detailed, and most scathing review I have ever seen, even about my own work (and there have been those)--took three.

I had what you might call a Goldilocks moment. The first reviewer said, in short: "There's no book here, maybe a few articles, but nothing that could interest a scholarly press." The second said (here I quote): "This is one of the most beautiful, well-argued, and exciting pieces of Marian scholarship that I have read." The third said (I paraphrase): "There is a book here, but it needs work." Lots of work, particularly in making the case for Barker's Old Testament scholarship as a window onto the medieval understanding of Mary. I spent a whole month in winter 2015 writing my response to my readers for my editor, and she spent the whole summer that same year arguing on behalf of my book with the editorial board, while I got down to business revising the first two chapters, about which the readers had had fewer concerns. It was (or so it felt from my perspective) touch-and-go the whole time, but I got the contract, got the word-count that I requested, and even got twenty-five plates (for a consideration, a.k.a. subvention). I am certain, without irony, that Our Lady had a hand in some, if not all of this. Including that scathing first review.

Yes, you read that right: including the reviewer who concluded (again, here I quote): "Much of what RFB wants to say is inappropriate for a book purporting to explain mediaeval devotion to academic historians, who simply won't read it." I remember the moment well. I was at our church on Maundy Thursday, having finished my response to the readers and sent it off with my fingers crossed and my heart in my throat, and I was regaling our assistant priest with my authorial travails. "This is the way my first reader started his or her review," I told him: "'I presume that Rachel Fulton Brown (RFB) is the married name of the former Rachel Fulton...'" (If only they knew.) My priest listened carefully, and then said: "This is your Devil's Advocate." And the scales fell from my eyes! It was! My scathing reviewer was not a threat, but a gift! (Okay, it took a little longer than that to get used to the idea, but not much.) This was the Opponent whom Our Lady had sent to force me to make my argument as strong (and as strongly) as I could.

You know what a Devil's Advocate is, right? The one who stands in at the process of canonization for a candidate for sainthood making all of the arguments that the Devil would make against recognizing that particular person as holy. But here's the thing: you don't want the Devil's Advocate to be weak. You want the Devil's Advocate to make the most scathing attack that he can because you want the candidate's sanctity to be put to the ultimate test. Did he or she actually produce miracles? Did he or she ever say anything that might be considered theologically suspect? Did he or she ever do anything that might suggest flaws in his or her character or failures of virtue? Is there anything that someone coming along later might say to suggest that maybe the Church got things wrong in recognizing a candidate as one of the blessed? (Methinks this might be a valuable exercise for most of our current political candidates to consider.) It is to nobody's benefit for the canonization to go forward if the Devil's Advocate has not done his job.

Onze Lieve Vrouw
Likewise, with my first reader for the press: I needed to be pushed to defend my argument. I needed to know where readers might find it less than persuasive. I needed to know when my efforts at inviting my readers to imagine themselves into the devotion I described tipped over into what some might read (in my Devil's Advocate's words) as attempts at conversion or confessional apology. (Thanks to the responses I got in person from some of my colleagues at our intellectual history seminar, I now know that one of the most difficult aspects of my approach was simply using the terms "Our Lady" and "Our Lord," never mind that in other languages, e.g. French [Notre Dame] or Dutch [Onze Lieve Vrouw] they just read like titles.) I needed my Devil's Advocate, otherwise how would I have ever known? (I have no idea whether my Devil's Advocate will find this thought comforting when he or she sees my book published next year; I hope so.) Accordingly, this has been my project this summer: to revise my argument and adapt my voice so as to show that the Devil's Advocate had a point, while at the same time standing firm in my use of Barker as a way of helping readers imagine an exegesis of the Scriptures which they have previously been unable to see, thanks to the many changes our Western culture has undergone over the centuries since it was normative to salute Mary as the one in whom God took on flesh as the Mediatrix of humankind.

It was, therefore, as I am sure you can imagine, with no little emotion that I stood in Our Lady's cathedral yesterday, thanking her for sending me on the journey there and back again that she has. Last time, I came, I now realize, asking for a sign, some hint that I was on the right path, some clue to what my journey was going to be like. I found many signs, many images of Our Lady, but no hint whatsoever of how hard a journey it was going to be. I have neared despair more than once, resigned myself over and over again to the likelihood of failure, told myself stories about how it would be fine if I never finished this book. But for some reason, I never quite believed them. Or, at least, looking back now, I can't remember if I did. Time is a great healer, but so is work. What I know now is that I cannot imagine having written the book that I have (all 300,000 words of it--yes, it is that long) without having risked what I have: professional stagnation, ostracism by my colleagues (at least with respect to my methodology), the utter failure of having my book rejected (which, you will realize, it wasn't--academic publishing is not nearly as competitive as the actual market). "No pain, no gain," as my high school swim coach liked to say. "No risk, no progress," as we might better put it in our national debates about capitalism. I think Our Lady knows all of this, which is why, in my next book, I am going to try to show how it is she who gave birth not just to Our Lord, but our whole modern world of artistic and commercial excellence.

But that is for my next journey. For the moment, it is good to be home.

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