Michael Morton looks at the Protestant suppression of Mary, the rise of capitalism and the state we are now in.
From the annals of the Christian history of Rome there is a curious legend that on the night of the 4-5 August in the year 352 AD there was a totally unseasonable and therefore miraculous fall of snow on the Esquiline Hill. The snow fell in the vague outline of a basilica, and by order of the Christian senator who owned the land a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was constructed, the first in the West. This church is now known as Santa Maria Maggiore. It is one of the four major basilicas of Rome and yet not many pilgrims and visitors realise that its real dedication is Sancta Maria ad Nives, Our Lady of the Snows.
The story itself is evidence of a profound religious myth that could not be
repressed. That much was demonstrated at the Ecumenical Council held at Ephesus in 432 when Mary was declared to be the Mother of God. From a minor figure in the New Testament she was theologically transformed to became formally the Queen of Heaven (Regina Coeli) in the West and the All-Holy One (Panhagia) in the East. In other words she became divine, a goddess in all but name.
In virtually every culture in antiquity there appear to have been the same seven gods: a god of the earth, of the sky, the sun, the moon, fresh water and salt water (the sea) and of the storm. This pantheon of seven is found even amongst the Native Americans. It is the reason that seven is the divine number, and also the reason for there being seven days in a week, each one named for one of the ancient gods. The chief god of this pantheon might vary from culture to culture. Sometimes, as in Greece and Scandinavia, it was the storm god who was the supreme divinity, while in Babylon it was the sun-god Shamash. But a number of these deities were also generally female, particularly the moon goddess and the Earth-mother.
Surprisingly, and perhaps unconsciously, the Christian notion of God as a Holy Trinity appears to preserve an echo of this ancient tradition. The Father can be naturally understood as the God of the sky and the sun, whilst the Holy Spirit, whose symbols are fire and the desert wind, is easily recognised as a storm god. Christ is closely connected in the Gospel with water (see John 4:14) and with the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake, where much of his teaching takes place and where he has power even over its stormy waters.
But there is a feminine element missing, and a fourth divine or semi-divine figure was gradually introduced. Mary is associated with the crowned figure in the Apocalypse (Rev 12:1) standing on the moon. The idea of Mother also grew gradually from the Earth mother, to a second Eve, and thence to the mother of God and to the Mother of the Church, a title applied to her during Vatican II. The designation Star of the Sea also grew little by little as evidence of Mary becoming a guide in stormy seas and a protector of seafarers, real or symbolic. In the twelfth-century Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, ‘if the winds of temptation arise, or if you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation look to the star, call on Mary’. The same idea is still present in T.S. Eliot’s prayer to Mary in The Dry Salvages part IV from The Four Quartets. The concept of Mary as a guiding star for seafarers has led to a devotion to Our Lady, Star of the Sea in many Catholic coastal and fishing communities. Numerous churches, schools and colleges are also dedicated to Stella Maris.
But in 1976, Marina Warner wrote a book called Alone of All Her Sex. She argued the case from another angle, about how the figure of Mary has shaped and been shaped by changing social and historical circumstances and why, for all their beauty and power, the legends of Mary have condemned real women to perpetual inferiority. In spite of the elevation of Mary, later to be the basis for her Assumption into heaven, she was always scaled down to be portrayed as submissive, loving, obedient, self-effacing yet maternal figure around which the Church-sponsored ideal of feminine holiness was to be constructed.
It was said to be one of the points of disagreement for the theologians of the Reformation that the increasing Christological imperative and a Hebrew Bible inspired monotheism meant that any hint of the female divinity as contained in the devotion to the Regina Coeli had to be purged. But I think that there is something more. The history of Christian art shows a move away from the great themes of Mediaeval cosmic salvation like the Maestà of Duccio in Siena which persisted into the Renaissance paintings of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and the sublime frescoes of Rafaello di Sanzio. The perception and valuation of ordinary life had shifted during the Reformation when the ideal of a secluded, monastic existence – waiting for heaven and fleeing the world – gave way to a different view of how life should be. It came principally from the Low Countries and the Rhineland to appear in the paintings and interiors of artists such as the Bruegel brothers and Jan Vermeer. They found holiness and peace, that is a genuine and fulfilled life, in domesticity, marriage and a hallowing of ordinary time. The high valuation of chastity and virginity which had obsessed the Middle Ages was finally abandoned. Martin Luther’s own journey from enclosed, ascetic Augustine friar to marriage with Katharina von Bora and a family reflected this.
And at the same time the interior paintings of Vermeer, which appear so secretive and intimate, actually serve to open doors onto a rapidly expanding world. In his interesting book, Vermeer’s Hat, Canadian scholar Timothy Brook has shown how secondary objects in Vermeer’s paintings – a beaver hat, porcelain bowls, silver ornaments or a Turkish rug – are actually evidence of a growing web of trade that brought such luxuries to Holland from America, China, Peru and Asia. The Dutch East India Company – the VOC, as it was known – was to corporate capitalism what Benjamin Franklin’s kite was to electronics: the beginning of something momentous that could not have been predicted at the time. It also began to undermine the ordered society of the Middle Ages, where honest intentions or gentlemanly status did not necessarily have anything to do with success in a commercial economy.
Also during aftermath of the Reformation, with the religious wars of the seventeenth century and a revolution in science, theologians began to lose their certainties and the Church began to lose some of its confidence. So long as the populace in general were hemmed in by ignorance, political powerlessness and serfdom, they had nowhere else to look for guidance and comfort except to the Church. The Church had to make a great beacon of itself for the sake of the poor, by declaring its dogmas to be unchanging, its art rich and uplifting and itself infallible and necessary for salvation.
But what the Reformation and the Enlightenment did in the years from 1500 to 1800 was to offer another way. Some said a better way. Martin Luther’s original aim was not to reform the Church, it was to abolish it. In his account, the guide to personal salvation would come from un-mediated religion. It was to be found in the sacred scriptures and the insightful mind of the devout believer. In a similar fashion, a search for scientific truth would derive not from ancient authority but from the clear and distinct ideas proposed by Descartes and taken up in a scientific revolution.
The Latin antiphon to the Virgin Mary, Salve Regina, translated by John Lingard to become ‘Hail Queen of Heaven’ and the first vernacular Roman Catholic hymn tells a different story. It contains the line gementes et
We have to ask whether there is a possible link between some of these ideas and the thesis from Max Weber in his famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Written during 1904-5 as a series of essays, Weber shows that certain types of Protestantism favoured rational pursuit of economic gain because worldly activities had finally been given a positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was a by-product of the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them that encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain. Weber traced the origins of the Protestant ethic to the Reformation, because the Catholic Church had always assured salvation in heaven to individuals who accepted the sacraments and submitted to the clerical authority. But the Reformation had effectively removed such firm assurances. From a psychological viewpoint, this meant that redemption reversed direction and slowly became bound up with prosperity. It became possible for the individual to set to work and be able to make something of his life and talents through his own efforts and eventually build up a new society, a new Jerusalem in the present age.
For the Church of the Counter-Reformation, the idea of the kingdom was deferred into the future so that the Church could become a religious object in itself – a sanctifying presence in society and a challenge to its material values. It would continue until the end of time, so the faithful no longer prepared for Christ to come to them but waited to return to him. Life was to be spent in preparation for death, and everyone’s first concern was for personal salvation in the hereafter, to which the Church holds all the keys. (Keys became, and remain, the primary papal symbol). In this account, the world is devalued and remains insignificant, except as a testing ground. Which is why in Victorian hymnody it was eventually described in terms of an exile or that ‘vale of tears’. Even the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1854, was a sort of pooh-bah to modernity – something that was unfortunately a feature of his latter years. Through the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, one that caused great controversy even amongst Catholic theologians, Mary became almost trans-human or in a category all by herself. The associated doctrine of the Assumption, proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950, is a similar exaltation of the figure of Mary and maybe an unconscious statement of her semi-divinity through immortality. For Pius XII and Pope Paul VI later in the 1970s are deliberately vague when they come to discuss whether Mary ever died before being taken up into heaven. Paul VI contented himself with the enigmatic assertion that Mary was assumed to heaven ‘when her earthly life ended’.
We have moved slowly over the past century, but more quickly in recent decades, into a new phase of late capitalism wherein the supernatural has faded and even the ruggedness of a work-ethic has become a danger. The command from God in the Book of Genesis to multiply, fill the Earth and subdue it was fine until the scale of human activity began to grow too large, too oppressive for the planet. We lived a long time with a religion of sin and redemption, according to which humankind would gradually move forward from the Fall to an end time of peace, prosperity and harmony with God. But in such a religion of history, only God and ‘man’ are alive. Nature is dead, in that it only serves to be exploited as a quarry for petrochemicals and minerals and intensive agriculture which are means to build up human society and promote a near-universal consumerism.
As something of an antidote to all this, during the early 1970s, the Gaia thesis appeared, a notion that the Earth and the space very near to it is a living being, with all life on the surface being part of a single larger living whole. This theory has been growing in popularity since its conception and is often connected to many new age faiths. Research scientist James Lovelock came at the idea from the vantage point of envisioning a geo-biosphere which is self-regulating and self-sustaining. What he postulated is that every form of life and all of the systems that can be found on the planet Earth are in fact the subsystems of a larger single living organism, which includes not only the planet and all life on it, but all of the matter and material that is located in dose proximity to the planet, a singular being he calls Gaia. From this vantage point, all the barriers of race and culture become inventions of man, fragmenting ourselves from each other instead of looking at human life as a singular form of existence.
It might be that the symbol of an Earth-goddess is ready for a revival just as some theologians, like the Judaic writer Richard Rubenstein, look to a return to a green, folk religion of nature in Israel after the industrial horrors of the Shoah. Religious faith could be distinguished by a move to discover and declare the sacredness of everyday things and become a faith that loves the Earth. No longer looking up, or beyond the present reality but looking around. No doubt some populist Roman Catholics would probably howl in protest and Reformation churches, having lost touch, would not be able to make the connections. Yet the figure of Mary is endlessly malleable, and endlessly symbolic. It might well be time for her to leave the heavens, so to say, and return to the Earth. For we recognise that in its evolution, Mary’s symbolic figure touches and illuminates a variety of meanings of heaven and Earth and could be a sign of their eventual conjunction and possible harmony.
Michael Morton is the Catholic parish priest of St Winefrides Presbytery in Sandbach, Cheshire and a former SoF trustee.