I took a little detour from Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God but picked it back up again recently to finish up the last few chapters. I enjoyed this one, Immaculate Mary: Perfection and Virginity.
This chapter focuses on the mystery of Mary’s virginity and how other women have used her purity as an example in their own lives. It is hard to pick out excerpts from this chapter because it all goes together but here are a few to intrigue you until you get the book and read it all together.
Ginny shares her primary education about Mary and her virginity.
“Thanks to the teachers at St. Simon Elementary School, I grew up knowing a tremendous amount about my Catholic faith…I also learned something that many Catholics never do: the true meaning of the Immaculate Conception. Lots of people think that this refers to Jesus, and how he was conceived without sin, but they’re wrong…It really refers to Mary. Because Jesus grew inside Mary’s womb, they explained, she too had to be sinless. As a result, God made sure that she was conceived without any mark of original sin. From the beginning of her life until the end, she was absolutely perfect.”
Ginny goes on to explain that this teaching was easy to accept as a child but became problematic as she grew older and started looking at Catholicism “with a critical eye”.
“I still believed that she had been conceived without sin, but that perfection created a barrier between her and me. Somehow, sinlessness equaled difference; sinlessness equaled judgment; sinlessness equaled a gap that I couldn’t bridge…She was above all of us, unreachable and unreal in her perfection.”
The rest of this chapter recounts other women’s awareness of Mary’s sinlessness and how it has affected their relationship with Mary.
“For some women, Mary’s perfection raises questions about how to approach her in prayer. What is the proper way to speak to a woman who is sinless? Do we need to mask our flawed selves and rough edges in order to communicate with her?
“For other women, Mary’s sinlessness gives rise to feelings of frustration and resentment. Throughout history, Catholic women have often been told, both directly and indirectly, to pattern themselves after Mary. Her status as the role model for female Catholics raises a host of questions. If she had the special privilege of being born without sin, many women think, then how can we possibly hope to emulate her? Why are we even told to try? To some, the message that they should be like Mary seems like a setup for failure, or a way for women to be made to feel guilty about their own imperfection. The fact that such messages have traditionally come from male clergy makes the issue all the more emotionally charged. As a result, many women have come to regard Mary as a kind of pawn, a figure used by men to keep women from getting too comfortable with themselves.”
I certainly related to that last paragraph. Ashamedly I admit that I often experience jealous feelings toward Mary even when she is innocently there to help me and pray for me. One time I confessed to my confessor this, that I was jealous of her since she was perfect and had the perfect baby and how on earth could she possibly understand what life is like for me—a very imperfect woman with similarly imperfect children. I remember that he laughed at me, which annoyed me at the time but then made me realize later how silly it is and so I laughed too. Then later, Mary seemed to say to me, “I may have had the perfect child, but I did also have to watch him suffer and die on a cross—for YOU.” (I wanted to disintegrate into the floor.)
Ginny also understands these feelings of resentment. “It’s similar to the resentment one might feel toward an older sibling who can do no wrong: The more you are told you should pattern yourself after someone perfect, the harder it is to develop an authentic relationship with that person. He or she becomes not a real human being but an impossible standard, a passive Goody Two-shoes. To many Catholics, Mary is more a plaster statue than a flesh-and-blood woman. How does one rescue her from this image? How can we understand and embrace her full humanity?
The rest of the chapter helps to answer these questions and settle these feelings of resentment or jealousy and trade those for a better understanding and feeling of Mary’s immaculate distinction. Have you ever experienced these feelings toward Mary? How have you dealt with them?