Corona Virginis

Back in October 2019, I imagined that I would be spending this week in March writing a paper on Mary as “Queen of Angels” which I was planning to present at the 95th Annual Meeting of Medieval Academy of America as part of a panel on “Heaven.” My theme was to be the way in which Mary’s role as Queen of Angels defined medieval Christians’ understanding of heaven, its court, and its relationship to God, as per the abstract I submitted when I was invited to participate in the panel by one of my junior colleagues in the field. The conference was to be held at the University of California, Berkeley, in conjunction with annual meetings of certain other medieval associations, to one of which our panel had been submitted and accepted in the usual course of conference planning last spring. I was, of course, delighted to be invited to participate in the panel, given the pariah status I had been accorded over the past few years, but I was even more excited by the theme: Heaven. I was going to be able to talk about something Good, True, and Beautiful, and the way in which devotion to the Virgin Mother of God helped medieval Christians understand the relationship between Mary, their souls, and God. Even better, I was going to be able to talk about how Mary punched demons.

It was not to be. On March 9, 2020, the Medieval Academy announced its “painful decision” to cancel the Annual Meeting out of concerns over the spread of the novel Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19)—but our panel on “Heaven” had already been cancelled months before out of concerns that to sponsor the panel would cause cascading difficulties for the organizers with their own association as well as with the Medieval Academy at large. The letter cancelling the panel is dated 15 October 2019, but I only received it in November—by snail mail, with five signatures, and no return addresses, snail mail or otherwise. It speaks of “many rounds of internal discussion” and consultations with the “host site organizing committee” leading to the decision to cancel the panel. It warns of the possibility of “marginalization” of the host organization, “potential boycotts” of other panels and the withdrawal of other speakers from panels and roundtables if the panel were to go ahead. And it projects that to host such a panel “would be viewed as deeply problematic by a significant constituency within [the association’s] own membership, including among its Officers, Council, and members at large.” Allowing the panel to appear in the program would, the Officers concluded, have “seriously compromised” their association’s “operational viability and its standing in the wider academic community,” thus their decision to cancel it. It is almost as if they feared our panel would somehow infect the whole conference. But with what?


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Why were my colleagues in academia so afraid of a panel on Heaven? I refuse to believe that it has anything to do with me personally, otherwise surely they would have said. (Certainly, they have not been shy about doing so these past several years.) The association cancelled the whole panel, not just my paper, so it must have had something to do with the theme. I have not seen the abstracts for the other papers in the session, so I can only speculate on the basis of mine, but I know that one of the things my academic colleagues have criticized me for over the years has been my insistence on writing not just as an academic, but as a woman of faith. Even as an academic, I write as if Christian doctrine were not only plausible, but good, true, and beautiful. Something I am happy to believe. A joy that I would like to share with my readers, both academic and lay. I make my position clear both in my teaching and in my academic writing, even as I distinguish my faith from my academic frame: I am a Christian standing on the border between intellect and affect, between the desire to understand the mystery of creation and the longing for the gaze of the Beloved. It is my deepest desire to follow Mary in her contemplation of God, piercing the veil dividing heaven from earth so as to gaze upon the countenance of her Son, even as she willingly participated in the joy of his birth on earth, the sorrow of his death, and the ecstasy of his rebirth into heaven.

We are not, in academia, allowed to believe such things. We are not allowed to believe that there is such a thing as heaven except in our imaginations—or in other people’s delusions. We are not allowed to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was anything other than a social construct, even as a historical person. We are not allowed to long for communion with the divine as a product of our academic work or to criticize ourselves for failing to behave in ways which would facilitate this communion; less prosaically, we are not allowed to believe either in the glory of God or in sin. As academics, we are not allowed to speak in terms of “Our Lord Jesus Christ” or “Our Lady,” the pronoun (“Our”) being equally offensive as the privilege (“Lord,” “Lady”). We are not allowed to believe in heaven or hell, not to mention angels and demons, and certainly not in the Creator of Heaven and earth, never mind his Mother. What nonsense to think that it would be possible, not to mention worthwhile to consider (as I proposed in my abstract) what it meant for medieval Christians to sing about how Mary had been “exalted above the angels” after her death so as to reign in heaven as Queen! Academics should not concern themselves with such non-entities, however much they may have influenced the development of our own culture in the Christian West—itself an equally imaginary construct, up there with fantasies about the Good, the Beautiful, and the True.

I don’t believe it. You don’t believe it. And I rather suspect not a few of my academic colleagues don’t believe it, they just don’t want to say it out loud. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all that is, seen and unseen—including angels—and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God who for us men and for our salvation...came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. What I do not believe is that it is wrong for me as an academic to believe in God or his incarnation from the Virgin Mary, any more than it would be wrong for me as an academic to insist that all religions teach the same thing (News flash: They don’t) or that all religions are equally delusional (Ditto: They aren’t). The problem is not that I believe in things many of my colleagues do not (e.g. heaven, angels, Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven and exaltation above all the angelic choirs). The problem is that academia has declared “closed” questions which it has declared itself incapable of answering—almost as if we are meant to accept academia’s own (non-) answers on faith. More to the point, almost as if there were a creed to which all academics must subscribe lest they be declared anathema, doomed to academic Hell for opposing its tenets of belief.

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The Academics’ Creed
I believe only in the world perceived by our senses, and not even in that since our senses can deceive. I believe this world came into being by accident without purpose or meaning, but that human beings should recognize each other as having an intrinsic dignity except when they are in the womb, at which point they are only a clump of cells or a parasite on their mothers. I believe that women should be accorded the same dignity as men, except when men have done something to earn the respect of other men by their actions, at which point women are to be accorded greater dignity for being women. I believe in protecting the most vulnerable members of our society (except in the womb), particularly those vulnerable in body (except in the womb). I believe all beliefs should be given equal credibility in the academy, except for the belief that there is such a thing as truth, goodness, or beauty. I believe in my lived experience as a basis for academic analysis, except when my lived experience points me to faith in Christ. 
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As I write, it is not only the Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America that has been cancelled. All over the world, society is shutting down. Parades, festivals, concerts and sporting events, all public gatherings with more than 50 people have been cancelled; universities, schools, libraries, museums, theaters, restaurants, bars, and other public spaces have been closed. Even churches have shut their doors to the faithful, citing concerns over spreading the coronavirus. To save our bodies, we are commanded to live as if we have no bodies, conducting classes online, distancing ourselves physically as much as we possibly can from other human beings. Articles make the rounds on the internet, predicting the end of the world as we know it. Stores sell out of toilet paper as people panic over the thought of being trapped at home with no way to clean themselves of their bodily filth. How petty it seems to be worrying over who gets to speak on what panel at a conference that now nobody gets to attend! In the Middle Ages, Christians would have been praying for dead, even as they attempted to quarantine themselves off from the plague. They would have been gathering in small groups of friends—or so Boccaccio imagined in the frame story for his Decameron—to tell stories of whimsy and mirth as well as morality and judgment. And they would have been preparing themselves to meet their Maker in Heaven—those who did not so prepare being, of course, expected to end up with the demons in Hell.

As medieval Christians understood her, Mary was not only Queen of Heaven exalted above all the choirs of the angels; she was also Empress of Hell, the one whom the demons most feared after her Son. I have spent a fair amount of time these past several months meditating on demons, their habits and tactics, far more than I have spent thinking about angels, although they share certain important characteristics. For one, neither angels nor demons have bodies. They are purely creatures of intellect, invisible precisely because they are bodiless. While the angels focus their intellect, will, and love on God, however, the demons focus only on themselves, envying their Creator rather than glorifying him. Unlike the angels happy in their hierarchies, demons are obsessed with status. It is the reason for their Fall: they hate the fact of their creation; they want to believe themselves supreme, not mere creatures of God. But they hate even more the fact that human beings—creatures of both body and soul—are given preference by God, so much so that God deigned to become one of them in order that human beings might become like God in whose image and likeness they were made. This Incarnation gives the demons especial reason to hate Mary, the creature through whom the Creator took on flesh, for in becoming incarnate through her, the Son of God exalted her above all other creatures, even the cherubim and seraphim who surround his heavenly throne.

Philosopher Thomas Nagel wondered what it would like to be a bat. These past several months on Telegram have made me thoughtful about what it would be like to be a demon—for, in truth, the Internet is demonic, just ask Milo. Chat rooms on platforms like reddit and Telegram are filled with demons. How do I know? Because they have no bodies, only voices, voices with which they do almost nothing but lie. They lie about themselves, about each other, about the world, about their likes and dislikes, about their emotions. They lie and they lie and they lie and they lie—and then excuse themselves because, after all, they were only making a joke or a pun. They are never accountable for anything that they say because even the names that they use are lies, not to mention the masks that they wear. Change their name and their mask (a.k.a. profile pic) and—violà!—a brand-new demon, impossible to trace. (Okay, I know that there are Internet autists who are able to track down the demons, but the majority of them wear masks, too. Set a demon to catch a demon? Whom can you trust?) Milo would say that this demonic dimension of the Internet is the reason women should all log off. We find it too upsetting to have to cope with so many tricksters and fiends, but of course, women make some of the most vicious demons to other women—except, of course, that demons have no sex, only gender. If they were women, they would at least have bodies like women—meaning, the potential to give birth. Being demons, they have no interest in children, except to eat them.

Am I being too hard on the chat rooms? Consider this description of Hell, identified by Christian literary critic and professor Louise Cowan as one of three possible regions of the “comic terrain” (Purgatory and Heaven are the other two):
Infernal comedy...is a state in which grace is utterly absent and where selfishness and malice prevail. The community has accepted its fallen condition and cynically attributes its corruption to “the way of the world.” Love cannot dwell in such a society; everyone is fundamentally alone, though hypocrisy and self-serving may give the appearance of friendship. None of the virtues is present: only a sinister “double” of each prevails. The style of a comedy portraying this darkness may be light and witty; nevertheless grotesque and bestial forces are not far underneath its surface—and may, in some comedies, be openly present, testifying to the deformation of forms and the hideousness of the soul when it attempts to establish itself as autonomous....
In the infernal state the pretty girl, who is one of the chief identifying marks of comedy, is either absent or, if she does enter the boundaries of this dark region, victimized. Lust, avarice, hypocrisy, and treachery are the vices most prevalent in this doleful city. Irony and wit govern the utterance of its characters. The intellect is supreme in its own self-love. The body is debased, ill, deformed, or totally ignored in favor of abstract and over-systematic rationality. Natural pleasure, such as feasting and love-making, is diseased or distorted. The comic hero...—the rogue who puts survival above all else and whose inventiveness is constantly turned to that end—becomes, in this realm, really wicked...or naughty...; if he is good-hearted, he is either willing to compromise with the world...or he finds escape as quickly as possible.... He cannot, while remaining in this region, win the lovely lady. For marriage, ordinarily the goal of all comedy and its chief good, is maligned in dark comedy: old husbands tyrannize young wives, spouses are unfaithful, maidens are linked by opportunism to unsuitable mates: society has allowed its codes to degenerate to the falsest of conventions.
Deception and disguise, characterizing marks of comedy, are used in infernal society for the purpose of gaining advantage, usually to the harm of others. Even the guardians, those figures of disinterested benevolence who manifest themselves from time to time within the comic tradition, realize their helplessness to change the general situation and either withdraw...or concentrate their efforts on the rescue of the feminine victim.... The wicked are in control of the city, though frequently in the end they are outwitted by someone even more tricky than they.... The biter bit, the gull gulled—these eventualities are often the outcome of infernal comedy, since wickedness multiplies incrementally and gives the appearance of infinite resource. Yet there is usually a reckoning, in which the community is reaffirmed, even if in the sternest way possible; justice is meted out to offenders, and the innocent are vindicated.
This is the realm of dirty jokes, of harmful trickery, of cruel deceit. The Greeks were only imperfectly aware it as a human possibility, the Old Testament portrays it but seldom, for it is less the world of sin than of abomination—Sodom and Gomorrah, the false prophets in Pharaoh’s court, Jezebel, the Tower of Babel. But the medieval world, fully aware of its implications, found it in daily experience.
Did I say I was talking about the chat rooms? Sorry, I suddenly had the impression I was sitting listening to a panel at one of my academic conferences, basking in the purity of the intellectual abstraction and systematic rationality, oblivious to the possibilities of love or marriage or virtue or joy. I felt myself so suddenly alone, bereft of laughter and delight, doubting the sincerity of everyone talking to me, unsure what lay behind their well-crafted masks. Everyone seemed to be having so much fun, but at a price. What place did loyalty have in such interactions? What place courage or fortitude or humility? Perhaps justice will come, but it will be joyless, merciless, individualized and cruel. Everyone was jockeying for advantage, but in a competition without a goal, for what goal could there be without beauty, goodness, or truth?

How different the comic terrains of Purgatory and Heaven! In Purgatory, the characters may be imperfect and weak, but if they disguise themselves, it is not out of malice, but only out of the desire “to make bad situations work out better.” They yearn for the pretty girl, even though they cannot yet possess her. There is mercy, but only muted joy. Paradise, on the other hand, is defined by joy:
Here grace and forgiveness supplant even mercy. Man is lifted up into a realm beyond himself, one that he has not gained by his own effort...  Its mood is merriment and joy, its motive pleasure and freedom. Deception and disguise are revealed to be what they are in reality: magic, grace, art. Here love is supreme; one is not required by one’s own efforts to save the day—the natural tendency of things is upward. The pretty girl has become the vessel of reality and grace.
Cowan cites Dante’s Paradiso as perhaps the only literary work that takes place entirely within this paradisal realm, with its movement beyond romantic love to the universal love to which the love of the pretty girl bears witness, but this realm is of course the ordinary realm of the liturgy: the place in which the angelic choirs sing their praises of God.

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This is the realm into which, according to the ancient and medieval tradition, Mary was bodily assumed, exalted above the choirs of the angels to be seated at the right hand of her Son. “Who is this,” the medieval choirs sang at the feast of her Assumption, “who ascends like the rising dawn, beautiful as the moon, chosen as the sun, terrible as the ordered ranks of the army?” (Song of Songs 6:9). Mary is, above all, the pretty girl, the one who is all beautiful, chosen by her Beloved before all others, one in her perfection to be possessed by her Beloved. She is marked out physically as well as spiritually by her beauty (a.k.a. immaculate), described in loving detail in the liturgy through generous quotations from the Song of Songs:
You are all beautiful, my love, and there is no spot in you (Song 4:7); your lips are as a dripping honeycomb, honey and milk are under your tongue (Song 4:11), the sweet smell of your ointments above all aromatical spices (Song 4:10); for winter is now passed, the rain is over and gone, the flowers have appeared in our land (Song 2:11-12), the vines in flower yield their sweet smell (Song 2:13), and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land (Song 2:12): rise, hasten, my beloved (Song 2:10): come from Lebanon, come, you will be crowned (coronaberis) (Song 4:8). 
—Antiphon for the feast of the Assumption Tota pulchra es
Modern feminists have found such exuberant praises of the Virgin offensive—how dare she be described as “alone of all her sex”?! For medieval Christians—to judge from the liturgies for Mary’s feasts as well as the great cathedrals built for their celebration, as well as the altarpieces and statues and books of Hours and other works of devotional art designed to help focus the attention on Mary—it was impossible to praise Mary enough, for in praising her, her beauty and love of God, medieval Christians sought to lift their own minds and hearts to the praise of the Creator who took flesh from her womb.  “O Lady,” Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) prayed to Mary in the most famous of his three great prayers to the Virgin, “to be wondered at for your unparalleled virginity; to be venerated for a holiness beyond all reckoning—you showed to the world its Lord and its God whom it had not known. You showed to the sight of all the world its Creator whom it had not seen.” Mary made God the Creator of Heaven and earth visible as a baby she carried in her womb. She wore no mask, needed no disguise because her face (as Dante put it) was the face “most like Christ’s.” As it says in the book of Wisdom, she is the “unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness” (Wisdom 7:26) because in her love of God she reflected him perfectly in her mind even as she gave birth to him in the flesh. She was all good, all true, and all beautiful not as a reproach to all other women (as modern feminists claim), but as the image and likeness of what they, modeling themselves on her, might become: Christians, that is, “little Christlike ones.” To be Christian is to wear the image and likeness of Christ, whom his Mother made visible by giving birth to him in the flesh.

No wonder the demons hate her. Mary, as the theologians put it, guarantees the truth of the Incarnation. Why was it necessary for God to become man? Because through giving birth to God, Mary confounds the demons and their lies. The demons wear many masks, none of which represents their true being. Christ wears the face reflected by his Mother, the True Image of God. Theologically, it is the reason that Christians are able to make art without falling into idolatry; epistemologically, it means that Christ has proven himself to be the way, the truth, and the life—because the body, unlike the voice, cannot lie. Bodies make us honest in a way words never can. The demons of the Internet can lie and lie and lie and lie without apparent consequence because nothing binds their words to their actual bodies (presuming, of course, that the demons of the Internet are merely human beings with IP addresses and data plans). To be sure, it is possible to make lying images of our bodies (see Instagram), but as we are learning with the coronavirus, it is not possible to lie about our physical selves in the same way we can make lies with our tongues. Our voices may misrepresent our souls in all sorts of ways, but our bodies keep only accurate accounts. “Sins of the flesh,” we call them. Sins rather that we inflict upon our flesh in an effort to escape from our embodiedness, only to learn over and over again the lesson of Dorian Gray.

Bodies make us honest in a way words never can. No wonder women find the Internet so challenging: we are “our bodies, ourselves” in a way men are not—at least, that is what my academic colleagues have been insisting for the past thirty or forty years, even as they claimed women were no different from men. I notice it in Milo’s chat in the desire that women have to post photos of themselves, even as the men seem content to remain disembodied voices (with, I should note, the notable exception of the furries). Well, most of the men—not Milo! And not, as Christians believe, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who entered into the world in the flesh, lived and died in the flesh, and rose again in the flesh in order to save humanity from its sins. “Come forth,” the Song of Songs called the daughters of Jerusalem, “and see King Solomon in the crown—that is, the flesh—with which his mother crowned him on the day of his betrothal, in the day of the joy of his heart.” Egredimini et videte, filiae Sion, regem Salomonem in diademate quo coronavit illum mater sua in die desponsationis illius, et in die laetitiae cordis ejius (Song of Songs 3:11).


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My academic colleagues cancelled the panel on which I was invited to speak because they feared encountering me and my fellow panelists talking about the mysteries of Heaven in the flesh. How apropos that the virus which cancelled the entire conference should bear the name of Mary’s crown. 

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Images: The Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, completed before 1432

References: Louise Cowan, “Introduction: The Terrain of Comedy,” in The Terrain of Comedy (Dallas: The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984), 1-18. On the Marian use of the Song of Songs, see Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

For my continuing adventures training in virtue with Milo, see The MILO Chronicles: Telegram Diaries (from August 2019). For my adventures in academia as a Christian, see MedievalGate. For my continuing quest for the Lady and her Son, see The Lady and the Logos.

Comments

  1. Love your last observation re. Corona. Interesting. And your analysis of the internet. ..I couldn't agree more. As always, spectacular observations and insight.

    ReplyDelete
  2. “...but I know that one of the things my academic colleagues have criticized me for over the years has been my insistence on writing not just as an academic, but as a woman of faith.”

    Such a damning indictment of the current state of academia, this notion that faith and intellect or academic work of quality are somehow mutually exclusive.

    And I’d really love to hear more about Mary punching demons!

    ReplyDelete
  3. R.F.B-- This is your best post yet. It drips with all of the right insight, all of the right passion--for the transcendent, for the beauty in the immanent.

    You pull no punches. You possess no facades. I revel with you that you delight in your love and graced hyper-dulia of the Mother of God! Your voice needs to resound throughout the Church, so weakened by irenicism.

    Hope you have time to check out my blog--I suspect you'll find in edifying especially now: https://hoth2ohistory.com/category/extraordinary-history-current-events-blog/

    God bless.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Have you had the chance to ever hear (or read) the Greek Orthodox Salutations to the Theotokos service? We celebrate it every Friday night during Lent and since I started reading your work, I've added a prayer for you and your fight each evening.

    Here's the text of a service book from the 2nd week of Lent: http://www.orthodoxservices.org/2_Friday_Salutations.pdf

    I love it when you write posts like this!

    and here's the full English translation of the Salutations by St. Romanos the Melodist:
    https://www.greekorthodoxmonastery.org/salutations-to-the-most-holy-theotokos

    (We sing 4 stanzas each week)


    ReplyDelete
  5. That image of Mary from the Ghent altarpiece is my all-time favorite. I cannot believe an actual person wrote that holding a panel on Heaven would threaten the entire organization's “operational viability and its standing in the wider academic community." That was penned by someone with a functioning brain. Amazing. It reminds me of a friend of mine who graduated from college in 1987 or 88 and was in the Navy, and who wanted to study military history. Every school he applied to told him that the subject was no longer of academic interest, and enough work had been done on it FOREVER. I was young then and thought it was odd. Now I would be incensed. No longer of academic interest -- when now there are entire DEPARTMENTS studying fictitious "orientations" and making up multiple "genders." We know everything there is to know about military history! The mind boggles.

    ReplyDelete

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Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!

F.B.

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