¨Raised to the heavens, Mary remains for the human race an unconquered rampart, interceding for us before her Son and God.¨
– Theoteknos of Linas, 7th Century
Today I had the opportunity to visit Maria, Mater Misericordiae, an amazing art exhibition at the Muzeum Narodowy (National Museum) in Krakow. Planned in conjunction with World Youth Day and the Jubilee Year of Mercy, this special display showcases an eclectic assortment of medieval and early modern art collected from around Europe. The display was organized thematically, dividing the pieces into three main groups: one section focused on the Madonna nursing the Child Jesus (Galaktotrophousa) and Mary as Virgin of Tenderness (Theotokos Eleousa), a second area focused on images of Mary holding the body of Christ after the Crucifixion (Pieta), and a final section focused on Maria Orans, the assumed Mary in heaven who prays for her people and, in later medieval art, embraces us all under her mantle.
While I enjoyed the whole exhibit, I must admit that the second and third sections were the ones that resonated most strongly. Images of Madonna and Child have always somewhat problematic for me. Like many other women raised in the Catholic Church, I was taught from childhood that Mary is the feminine ideal on which I should model my own character. However, as I grew older, I found this model exceedingly hard to follow (it is, after all, exceedingly difficult for the vast majority of women to simultaneously be a virgin and mother). As the cult of Mary developed throughout the Middle Ages, theological discussions about the nature of Mary´s body abounded. Alas, it is hardly a normal female body. The medieval Mary is permitted to lactate and nurse but not to menstruate, and ultimately, the belief in the Assumption (which dates from at least the 4th century but was not dogmatically defined until 1950) exempts her from one of the most universal human physical characteristics: physical death. How am I, a physically embodied human woman, supposed to take Mary as a model for my life?
I know I am not the only Catholic woman to face this problem, but thankfully, contemporary Catholic theology of Mary has started to offer a solution. In Truly Our Sister, a book-length study of Mariology, theologian Elizabeth Johnson makes the case that the legacy of this medieval cult has led us to misunderstand the mother of Jesus. By embodying Mary with divine qualities and elevating her to the level of a mother goddess, we have succumbed to a confusion of categories. We have forgotten that God is essentially neither male or female; indeed, the Bible abounds with feminine images of God as well as masculine ones. By reminding ourselves of God´s nature – a nature that transcends gender – we can allow Mary to come down from her pedestal as an embodiment of the divine feminine. In this way, she is free to reclaim her place in the Communion of Saints.
If we look at Mary as she is portrayed in the Gospels, we see a figure who courageously risked public shame and even death when she said ¨yes¨ to the angel Gabriel´s offer to become the Mother of Jesus. She gave birth under very harsh conditions with only the poor for company, became a refugee in Africa when she learned that her son´s life was in danger, trusted in Jesus´ authority and urged him to begin his ministry at Cana; watched as he was publicly executed for crimes he had not committed, and then becoming one of the first leaders of his mission after the Resurrection.
Looking at this Mary, we see a woman who is faithful, brave, compassionate, authoritative, and thirsty for justice. In this light, her physical characteristics are not nearly as important as her spiritual ones – character traits which all of us, male and female, can seek to develop in our lives as Christians. And, it is clear that medieval artists, though eager to elevate Mary to a divine level, did not forget these divinely-given human characteristics. For me, Mary´s humanity became most evident in the Pieta images, which show Mary´s very human grief at losing her son (for what sorrow is greater than that of losing a child?)
But, ironically, it also became evident in the Maria Orans images, which of course are based not on Scipture but church tradition. As I looked at such images as Barnaba de Modena´s Madonna of Mercy (1375), Francisco de Zurbarán y Salazar´s The Rosary Madonna Adored by the Carthusians (1638-1639) and Albrecht Durer´s Life of the Virgin (1511), I was again and again presented with images of Mary as a compassionate, courageous member of the Communion of Saints. Though dwelling in heaven, she is consistently concerned for her people, holding them under her mantle and binding them together through the rosary – that beautiful prayer which is perhaps the greatest gift that Marian tradition has given us.
Over the past weeks, it feels like the world has been unravelling. With intermittent access to the news, I have heard only in passing of increased race-based tension and violence in the US, racist incidents in the UK following the Brexit decision, the Bastille Day terrorist attacks in France, and the attempted coup in Turkey. Hearing one horrible news story after another, I am even more convinced of the need to respond with mercy. Not too long ago, I was asked a very challenging question: ¨Are you driven more by love or fear?¨
Unfortunately, we inhabit a political and economic arena in which fear (coupled with greed and the desire for power) are the dominating factors, and the possibility of instant electronic communications makes it even easier to become overwhelmed by fear. The Polish National Museum´s Maria Mater Misericordiae exhibit is a reminder that this fear need not have the final say. For me, one of the most beautiful passages in the gospel is Mary´s ¨Magnificat,¨ in which she affirms the steadfast love of God and the belief that a better, more just world is possible. Let us not forget that Mary also lived in a harsh, violent reality– arguably much harsher than our own. Let us not forget that she listened to the angel´s order not to be afraid. And she responded with one of the bravest affirmations in history. Today, I would like to urge all of us to be guided by love rather than fear.
What if enmity itself is our foe?
What if love is why we are here?
What if victory means reconciliation?
What if God made us for each other?
What if there is no “them” but only “us?”
It was July 2002. I stared out the window in amazement as the airplane began its descent. Green, so much green. As far as the eye could see, there were hills, forests, rolling farmland. My heart raced with excitement. At 19 I was taking my first trip outside North America to a place I had always dreamed of visiting: Kraków, Poland. I would spend the next four weeks studying the language of my ancestors and immersing myself in a thousand-year-old history and culture of one of Europe´s most intriguing civilizations. I would follow a Holocaust survivor on a visit to the former Krakow ghetto; I would hear Polish Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz read from his work; I would take classes with passionate, erudite professors who would lead me to believe that maybe, just maybe, it would one day be possible for me to become a professor myself.
Now, it is July 2016. Two days ago, I again stared out the window as the plane descended into Kraków´s Pope John Paul II Airport. When I landed, I immediately noticed that the facilities had been renovated since my last visit. There was now a snazzy train connecting the terminal to the city. Taxi fare was a flat rate (unlike fourteen years ago, when drivers would size passengers up and charge as much as they thought they could get away with). There were new highways, new big chain stores. But as I dragged my oversized, book-laden suitcase up to the yellow, communist-era student hotel where I stayed fourteen years ago, I saw that very little had changed. After unpacking my bag, I left maps and smartphones behind and wandered toward the Old Town, trusting that my feet would remember the way. As familiar sites loomed before me – the old Town Hall, the opulent St. Mary´s Church, the statue of Poland´s national poet, Adam Mickiewicz – I nearly wept. I was home.
During the next three weeks, I will again take courses with the aim of relearning the Polish language (which I have studied intermittently over the past decade and a half). Then, at the end of this month, I will have the tremendous privilege of participating in an event that has always intrigued me: World Youth Day, when one and a half million young Catholics from around the globe are expected to converge on this city to hear Pope Francis speak.
¨Oh Jeannine,¨ sighed one of my oldest and dearest friends a few weeks ago when I told her my plans. ¨Can you really call yourself a youth?¨ At that I had to smile. In a culture where thirtieth birthdays are more often a cause for lamentation than joy, I suppose I cannot claim to be so youthful anymore. But most often, when I attend Mass in any North American city, I struggle to find others in my age group – particularly unmarried 20 and 30-somethings. Most of the congregation consists of older folks, or else parents with school-age children. But older millennials like me are somewhat more rare. Most of the people I attended Catholic schools with as a child and teenager no longer practise the religion of their upbringing; I am well aware that many have lost their faith, as I myself have come close to doing so many times. And so, I laughed at my friend´s question. ¨By the standards of the Catholic Church, I am most definitely a youth.¨
During these first days of my language program, I am already beginning to enjoy this hybrid status as both old and young. At thirty-three I am a tenure-track professor with a long and eclectic assortment of experiences, some twenty-year old friendships, and the bitter, truly adult awareness that I will imminently be the sole caregiver to my aging parents. On the other hand, I am unmarried with little money in the bank and even less interest in pursuing such culturally-sanctioned grown-up goals as buying a house and filling it with possessions (other than books, my perpetual downfall).
In a strange way this in-between state allows me to connect with people of many ages. During the past two days I have met a 40-something year old Englishman who is relocating to Warsaw for work, a Colombian woman my age who wants to be able to speak to her Polish husband´s family, and a retired German man who already speaks seven languages and thought it would be fun to learn one more. I am also meeting many young American university students who seem like carbon copies of the timid yet curious young girl I was fourteen years ago.
I can´t help but smile as I listen to theese 19-year-olds´ anxieties, which were exactly the same as mine when I first came to Poland in 2002.(¨Everyone is asking me what I plan to do with my English major once I finish university, and I hate having to tell them I don´t know!¨). It is fun to play mother hen and tell them not to worry, to assure them that in time they will find their place. At the same time, I realize that many of their fears – such as the growing political divisions in Europe and the US, widespread economic injustice, and the growing ecological crisis – are the same as mine. And unfortunately, these have no easy answers.
At the beginning of this century, when I was a senior in a Catholic high school, our campus minister asked one of my artistically talented classmates to create a large banner showcasing the words, ¨Embrace the World with Hope¨ – a tapestry that still hangs in the school´s chapel. Back in 2000 (that other Jubilee Year) it was hard to see hope amid the Balkan wars, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and society´s widespread disregard for the most vulnerable of its members. At 17 I never could have predicted that the coming years would bring even more seemingly hopeless realities: the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the many more that have followed; the declaration of a ¨war on terror¨ that arguably can never be won; the economic crisis of 2008; the eruption of war in many parts of the world; and the rise of divisive nationalism, racism and xenophobia throughout not insubstantial pockets of American and European society. Hope is more difficult and essential to maintain now than it ever was. And yet, hope is not enough. As Pope Francis has exhorted us throughout this Jubilee Year, we need to embrace our broken world with something that demands quite a lot of us: mercy.
I look forward to my first World Youth Day with no expectations but many desires. I yearn to be inspired by our spirit-filled pope to work for the coming of God´s kingdom in this world. I hope to gain insight into how I might bring mercy to those who need it most. And, above all else, I hope to meet Catholic ¨youth¨ – whether they be fifteen years old or fifty-five – and experience the solidarity of the global church. My mind is filled with questions for the many people I hope to meet. What does it mean to be a Catholic Christian in the 21st century? How are we called to respond to the rapidly changing realities that surround us? How are we to share the gospel message with an increasingly globalized and secularized world?
It is with excitement and joy that I raise these questions. And, if I get any answers, I will be even more excited to share them with you.
It’s an easy temptation, wherever the false doctrine of exceptionalism is rife, to treat national holidays as liturgical ones, especially when they happen to occur in proximity. So let us be reminded: today, the universal Church celebrates the feast of the body and blood of Christ. Not anything else.
The universality of the Church’s feasts, and of the Eucharist itself, is a necessary guard against the imperial tendency to think ourselves the center of the world, including the Church. Various countries may have their own particular days to memorialize those killed in war, but these stories are not the Church’s story. The Church’s story is the Christ-event, which continues in our Lord’s living presence to us at the Eucharistic table, celebrated today by millions of Catholics around the world. The Church’s memorial is to come to this table, and by so doing, to “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.
― Chris Hedges, Author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
If you’re going to have a military, especially one that is sent to fight as many wars as ours is, you need to desensitize soldiers to the value of human life, so that they will kill without hesitation or reflection.
But in attempting to form young men and women in that way, the military must work against something very powerful, very deeply ingrained in the human psyche. There is a very strong, intrinsically human revulsion to killing our fellow humans. You can talk all day about “it’s ok because it’s war” and “it was you or them” or any of the other lies Mother Culture tells you about killing in the particular instance of war, but unless you are a sociopath, the reality of what war actually is — hellish, brutal, murderous, senseless and soul-destroying — always trumps that, somewhere inside.
If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be impossible to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan and listen to the wails of their parents, we would not be able to repeat clichés we use to justify war. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining…
The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myths of glory, honor, patriotism, and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless.
Sending young men to commit warfare is a heart-breakingly awful thing to do, when you peel away the rationalizations, legalisms and veneer of nationalist triumphalism. It may, very occasionally, be unavoidable – the Civil War and Second World War being two consensus examples – but no less evil for that. War ought always to be undertaken with a heavy sense of failure.
I vividly remember watching a report on MTV (of all places) during the opening weeks of the Iraq War, and the correspondent interviewed a group of infantrymen on a desolate stretch of Iraqi highway, leaning against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a pause in the action. One soldier, a young private who looked to still be in his teens, said the following to her: “When you first kill someone in battle, a piece of your soul dies with him. I don’t think you ever get that back.”
There was a saying half a century ago in the protests against Vietnam: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, if you have the world’s most powerful military, then it will tend to be the card you reach for first: it seems your strongest suit.
I have a hard time with folks who try and wave off objections to war with some explanation like, “Well, what is one to do? In a fallen world, war will always be a fact of life.”
There is something to this – war is indeed a result of human brokenness – but I sometimes think that attitude lets us off way too easy.
What if war is there because we human beings in the world either support it, at least tacitly, or else we don’t do enough to stop it? What if it doesn’t have to be this way? Why can’t we Americans raise a generation who has no experience with losing friends in battle?
There is an important distinction between hope and optimism – hope being the belief that change for the better is possible, and optimism being the belief that change is inevitable. This Memorial Day weekend, as we ponder the 1.34 million American military men and women who have died in America’s wars through the centuries, maybe we can leaven our sadness with the hope that we can build a world where young men no longer have to experience a piece of their soul dying in battle. I think the men in battlefield cemeteries scattered across the globe would agree that this hope is a decent one to cherish.