There is a picture by the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich called “The Mother of the World.” First executed in 1924 and then painted again in 1937, the image shows a haloed woman enthroned on some sort of mountaintop, wearing a blue mantle with a veil or hood that covers the upper half of her face. Feminine imagery abounds. There is a full moon behind the figure that almost seems to sneak up on and envelop her, and a river runs right before her feet. To either side of her stretches a night sky that is an only slightly darker shade of blue than her clothing. This sky is studded with whitish-gold stars that are shaped vaguely like adoring saints or bodhisattvas.
Roerich was a man of many talents and of somewhat crankish ideological and theological instincts. Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second Vice President, was dropped from the ticket in 1944 and replaced with Harry Truman partly due to his relationship with Roerich. Many of Roerich’s paintings were executed in India and Central Asia and display influences from the Dharmic religions; H.P. Lovecraft refers to these paintings as “strange and disturbing” in At the Mountains of Madness. “The Mother of the World” is one such painting, probably representing a Hindu goddess such as Shakti or Kali. Goddesses or otherwise divine or transcendent female figures were a preoccupation of Roerich’s, who also painted them in somewhat more restrained form in works like “She Who Leads” and “Madonna Laboris.”
There is an undeniable temptation to a Roerichian goddess-worship tendency in many Catholics’ attitudes towards the Blessed Virgin Mary. Indeed, some Protestant commentators accuse Catholics of worshipping Mary tout court and see Marian theology as an obstacle to Christian unity. Meanwhile, Marian devotion also attracts the (arguably sounder and better-supported) feminist criticism that it actually denigrates the personalities and achievements of women other than Mary by creating an impossible standard. Due to these criticisms and others, Marian veneration is often accorded a less prominent place in Catholicism today than it was in previous generations. And yet it is still present, and—according to the teaching of the Church—still an indispensable element of Catholic belief and practice. Why is this?
Eduard Schillebeeckx, a liberal theologian influential at the Second Vatican Council but who fell out of favor after it, defined Mary as “Mother of the Redeemer” in his book of the same title. Pope St. Paul VI, giving her a bit more to do, defined her as “Mother of the Church,” and Pope Francis added a feast by this title to the Roman Calendar in 2018. (The feast is the day after Pentecost; it is a public holiday in many Catholic countries. Acts 1:14 describes Mary as having been present for the Pentecost, and some artistic depictions of the event, such as El Greco’s, place her front and center.)
Various other newer titles, such as those Pope Francis has added to the Litany of Loreto—“Mother of Mercy,” “Mother of Hope,” and “Solace of Migrants”—stress both Mary’s motherhood and the relational aspect of devotion to her. Somebody leaving his or her home country due to violence or oppression might look to the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and cultivate a relationship with Mary based on mutual empathy or compassion for how it feels to flee one’s home. That relationship would then presumably take on a nurturing and maternal aspect; after all, most mothers share empathy or compassion with their children. The Church’s insistence on the continued relevance of Marian theology might be possible to interpret as informed by the importance of such relationships in a hectic, abrasive modern age.
But does not this itself indicate a highly stylized and dated perception of women and mothers? What exactly about Marian veneration fulfills the need for a nurturing and compassionate relationship that could not be fulfilled through a similarly-approached relationship with Jesus, or even with St. Joseph? We are now in the Year of St. Joseph. Pope Francis’s apostolic letter Patris Corde proclaiming this year attributes to Joseph virtues such as tenderness, obedience, and acceptance—“feminine” virtues in many cultures—along with traditionally “masculine” virtues like creativity, courage, and hard work. We live in an age in which the generic certainties about men and women that gave us the “Mary, gentle woman” of past generations have given way to a more complex and individualized understanding of relationships between men, women, parents, children, spouses, and families. And yet Marian devotion is still with us and, for both the leadership of the Church and many rank-and-file Catholics, just as essential as ever.
Taking a purely psychological approach to explaining the necessity of Marian devotion for Catholics today, the explanation is simple, even banal. Many people do associate their mothers, and mothers in general, with these nurturing qualities, and so they associate these qualities in turn with Mary as Mother of God. This is a fine explanation as far as it goes. Anecdotally, I have noticed that both people with atypically close relationships with their mothers and people with badly broken relationships with their mothers are drawn to Mary. In much the same way, people with either remarkably good or remarkably bad relationships with their fathers are drawn to God the Father. A Marian devotion inspired by this psychological insight might actually encourage people to see the women and mothers they themselves know through new eyes. We might be inspired to see what is already “Marylike” in the life and work of the women we know, rather than using Mary to set an impossible standard and then seeking to hold other women to it. Indeed, Mary as described in scripture is in some senses very ordinary indeed; she struggles with money (she sacrifices a pair of pigeons in Luke 2:24, the “poor person’s” sacrifice prescribed in Leviticus 12) and worries about her Son and his well-being.
What might be a theological basis for this? We should not seek to pursue new trends in Catholic devotional practice merely because of an understanding of human psychology. An understanding of God must underpin any perspective on religious subjects, since God does not behave at our convenience or exist to meet our needs. (Indeed, the medieval theologians would have it that God does not exist for any reason at all; He simply is, as He tells Moses in Exodus 3:14, and must be either accepted or rejected on His own terms.) And so we find ourselves needing to understand what exactly Mary’s motherhood means to God and whether that can inform what it means or ought to mean to us.
With apologies to Roerich, none of the Marian titles listed above constitutes being “Mother of the World” exactly. God created and sustains the world without Mary’s help. However, there are typological interpretations—that is, interpretations of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments—in which Mary is associated with the Wisdom of the Books of Proverbs and Sirach. This Wisdom is the organizing principle through which and with which God created the universe, along the lines of the Logos of John 1. Some of these interpretations seem strained. Claiming that Mary is Wisdom, for example, would be an inadmissible position given the obvious connections between Wisdom and Logos and Logos’s explicit scriptural identification with Christ. Instead, the traditional Marian title that connects Mary to Wisdom is “Seat of Wisdom,” the visual representation of which is Mary with the Christ Child sitting on her lap. It is through Mary that Wisdom, the true “Mother of the World” if indeed there is one, enters into the world in whose creation it has participated, in the person of Jesus.
Thus Mary is a key point of interface or connection between God and His creation. The Ark of the Covenant was housed within the Tabernacle and later within the Temple, an axis mundi that, either literally or symbolically, connected heaven and earth. Many of the Church Fathers, beginning with St. Gregory Thaumaturgus and also including SS. Augustine, Ephrem, and Ambrose, describe Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant. Presumably she then plays a similar role connecting heaven and earth, the moral and the immortal, to that once played by the Temple. Through Mary God enters the world at the Annunciation and then at Christmas; it thus stands to reason that through Mary we can approach God in return.
Can this support a view of Mary that at the same time inspires us to view other women and mothers more positively rather than holding them to this exalted, sacred, or quasi-sacred standard? I believe that it can. The key point when it comes to a connection between heaven and earth is that the connection exists on earth too. “To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,” the “Alma Redemptoris Mater” says of Mary; St. Bernard of Clairvaux describes creation waiting with bated breath for Mary to agree to participate in the Incarnation when she is visited by Gabriel. Nature “wonders” at Mary because Mary comes from nature and is a part of nature. Mary is an exalted human being, not a celestial being come down to earth as some sort of favor to us. Mary becoming Mother of God is, first and foremost, God’s gift of sacred significance to a poor girl from the Middle East, not a Roerichian goddess descending from the sky to bless the little people with her presence.
Image: Carving of Mary as “Seat of Wisdom” at the Church of Santa María la Real, Olite, Spain. From Wikimedia Commons.
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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.