Hot Flashes

They started a few months ago, gently at first.

I would be practicing my fiddle and suddenly feel a bit warm.

“This isn’t so bad,” I would think. “Nothing like the raging sweats I have heard about.”

Now I know.

Now I know what it is like not to be able to sleep through the night without waking up covered in sweat, only to be hit by the chills as soon as I throw the covers off.

Now I know what it is like not to be able to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time without my thoughts going fuzzy and my motivation draining out of me like water.

Now I know what it is like to feel overcome with rage, only to be dropped the next moment into apathy because what difference does it make anyway, now that I can no longer conceive?

Now I know what it is like to be a woman—because, of course, I am no longer one, not in the way that really matters.

I wish I were talking about menopause.

“How have you been? I haven’t seen you for weeks,” one of the older women who serves as greeter at Mass said to me this past Sunday.

“I have been having a hard month or so,” I replied. “But it’s these hot flashes that are really getting to me.”

“You’re young,” she replied in her beautiful Nigerian accent. “This is just part of being a woman. Don’t worry about it, you will be fine.”

But will I?

The first scholarly review of my book came out last month. Appropriately, a friend posted it to Facebook the Thursday before Friday the 13th, with threats to cancel his subscription to the journal in which it appeared.

The reviewer’s takeaway? I failed:
Rachel Fulton Brown presents her work as an experiment. And most experiments fail. To my mind, she reveals a medieval devotion to Mary, not the medieval devotion. In all likelihood, only a minority revered Mary in the way Fulton Brown depicts.
I should say that the author of the review counts himself as a friend, too. With friends like these.... 

The editors of the journal have invited me to reply, and my friends on Facebook assure me that they are enjoying reading my book.

I am less sanguine about getting my academic colleagues to understand the argument in my book.

I had a fun moment at our International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo a couple weeks ago. I was standing by the table where my book was on display, talking with two of my senior colleagues. I turned around—and there he was! The junior colleague who christened my wonderful Facebook friends “Random Laypersons”!

I smiled and begged him to take a photo together.

Alas, he declined.

(To his credit: he was magnanimous enough to call on me the next day when I put my hand up during the Q&A at a session that he organized. It was a good session, I learned a great deal, and my question was sincere. He gets snaps both for organizing the session and calling on me. Fencing Bear salutes.)

In contrast to my academic colleagues, however, my first reviewer for Amazon seems to understand!
Fantastic scholarly book that explains to the layperson how Mary became such a central part of medieval prayer and hence modern Catholic prayer. The book explains the history of how Mary became increasingly popular beginning around the year 1100 as elaborate books [dedicated] to her appear throughout Europe (the Book of Hours) and services in praise of her become routine. 
In addition to an analysis of historical records and devotional material, the author also examines the practice of medieval prayer and how it likely differed from modern concepts of prayer. Finally, the author explains the specific appeal that Mary would have had for those attending a church service during this age. You will never think about prayer in the same way after reading this book! —boab, May 16, 2018
Do you see what I mean about the hot flashes? I think I may faint with joy. Somebody gets it!

And then I remember what my academic colleague writing for First Things said.

I am trying not to let it get to me.

And, for the record, it is not just the First Things review. I have had other reviews, less public, no less scathing, to which I have not been invited to give an answer. Thus the rage.

I wish I were Milo and could laugh it off.

What is going on? I knew that I was taking a risk in writing the kind of book that I did. It is a sort of hybrid, just as the Amazon reviewer says.

It is a scholarly book—just look at the 1,611 footnotes, not to mention the 41-page bibliography!

And, of course, there is the academic price tag ($69.67, if you buy new on Amazon).

But my book is also intended to appeal to laypersons who want to learn how to pray, if not like a medieval Christian, nevertheless as Christians mindful of the rich tradition of devotion to the Mother of God.

Call me naive, but I really thought my academic colleagues had more of a sense of fun.

My First Things reviewer again:
According to Fulton Brown, critics of Marian devotion misinterpret the cult because the standard methodologies of religious history are bad. Historians privilege external explanations based on psychology and economics over internal explanations founded on the experience of worshippers. Fulton Brown insists that we can understand religious practice only by “allowing ourselves to look along devotion”: that is to say, by imagining that we participate in the devotional experience “in an exercise of empathy or, if you will, make-believe.” 
Medieval devotional writers often press readers to imagine themselves at the Passion or the Annunciation. Fulton Brown attempts the same. She begins each chapter with pages of narration written in the second person—like a “choose your own adventure”—casting the reader in the role of a thirteenth-century French choir monk who is praying the Hours and reflecting on their meaning. She urges her reader to feel, for a moment, what the practice of such devotion may have been like.
He is right—I do invite the reader to “imagine the scene”! Although not in the role of a thirteenth-century French choir monk. My source for the way in which the Office of the Virgin was performed is the fourteenth-century customary of the abbey of St. Mary at York in England (see chapter 2, footnote 1).

Nor do I claim that the only way to understand religious practice is to “look along devotion.” Again, I explain in the Invitatory (a.k.a. Introduction), following C.S. Lewis: Academics typically only credit looking at such practices from the vantage of the scientist or social scientist, imagining themselves thereby to have access to the only “valid” or “true” explanation of religious experience.

The problem is not the looking at. The problem is the browbeating that would insist there is no point in looking along—the metaphor here being that of a beam of light by which one sees. Ideally, according to Lewis (cited p. xxviii), “‘[one] must look both along and at everything,’ otherwise we condemn ourselves before we have even started to the idiocy that there is no such thing as thought, only movements of the gray matter in our brains, for ‘if the outside vision were the only correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless.’”

In my own words (p. xxix):
For too long, our scholarship has privileged those [who would] look at devotion as something to be explained from the outside, rather than allowing ourselves to look along devotion to see what the devout might see. We have looked at prayer as a practice rather than along prayer to its object, seeing only the beam (“religious experience”) rather than the sun (“God”). 
So convinced, indeed, have we become that what those who are looking along the beam see cannot be valid or true that we...have persuaded ourselves that what they see can only be a figment of their imagination, something made up rather than something held in the mind with attention; an artifact of their own making rather than, as they experience it, the light by which they see.... 
[As Philip Cary has argued, even] those who consider themselves Christians often spend more time looking at the beam than along it, worrying more about “experiencing” Christ than about Christ, as if their experience of itself could prove the truth of their faith when, in fact, what they are doing is standing outside of the very beam into which Christ invites them to step so that they might see him as the truth and the light by which they live.
I know! Academics are not supposed to say things like this. We are not supposed to credit faith with any probative value; we are supposed to be skeptical, gesture towards neurobiology and evolution or social structures and power, not the symbolic structure of myth, as the basis of what we describe. We are not supposed to imagine that it is the world that is blind to the reality that the faithful describe, rather than the reverse. “Blind faith,” after all, is blind. It is only those who are not blinded by faith who see the world as it really is.

Or so we are told.

I knew my academic colleagues would find such an invitation challenging. I had hoped they would be more willing to play, if not with the reality of faith, at the very least with the perspective. They talk about it all the time, after all, about needing to have empathy for the Other.

Unless it is Christian.

Unless it challenges the reality of their world.

Last Sunday was Pentecost, the feast of the descent of the Holy Spirit. The second reading at Mass was from the Acts of the Apostles, describing the moment at which the Spirit descended and sat upon the apostles in tongues of fire:
And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost: and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak... [And all those who heard them speak] were astonished, and wondered, saying one to another: What meaneth this? But others mocking, said: These men are full of new wine. —Acts 2:4, 12-13
A hot flash hit me just as the lesson was being read. There I was, filled yet again with heat. No longer a fertile woman—but still very much alive. No longer able to conceive a child—but still able to speak.

I have been living in horror these past several weeks, the whole ground of my reality as a scholar rocked by the thought that my colleagues will not understand what I have tried to show them. They think me drunk. Unscholarly. More concerned with appealing to every Random Layperson than to my academic peers.

“So this,” I thought to myself as the heat flashed through me, “is what it means to be on fire.”

It is time to speak. Time to get real.

How did the Virgin Mary put it when the angel told her she was about to conceive?

Let it be unto me according to your word.


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