Story of the Virgin Mary is more relevant today than ever
My lifelong fascination with 'Our Lady' has taught me that without mercy, there's very little decent point to our existence, writes Miriam O'Callaghan
Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30
I have an "Indevilable" memory of school. Hands joined, we are walking two by two, in sunshine, Reverence and the cherry-blossom confetti of the convent garden. Sister Kieran, small and white like an edelweiss, heads up our singing crocodile, waving her arms as if wrestling the real thing. Yes, she is home from Africa. But today, she is holding a stick, not a reptile from the Zambesi. "Sing, cailini, sing. Let your voices float high into the air. Up, up to our Dear Blessed Mother".
Behind her and to the side, there's a hint of two women by the sandstone wall. Heads back, throats exposed, they watch our invisible notes rise at the command of Sr Kieran's wand. In the laundry, the penitents smell of starch and rosaries. Here in the garden, among rows of cabbages, that never held a human child, they smell of less than nothing. After the Angelus, intoxicated by fervour and the smell of hops from Murphy's Brewery at Ladyswell, we leave the garden with its Immaculate and broken hearts. Soon, our earthly mothers will come to the school gates, bring us home for our dinner; lightheaded, our coronation anthems all sung out. We have had our first May Procession.
Forty-five years on, I am no longer a Catholic, but I still believe in the Mother of God. The four dogmas of Divine Motherhood, Perpetual Virginity, Immaculate Conception and Assumption are not the articles of my faith; the minutiae of Mariology don't keep me up at night. If, at the end of a chat or a call, a friend says: "I'll say a prayer for you", I don't care whether it involves sanctioned veneration or heretical adoration, or if they go straight for the devotional gold of the hyperdulia to which Mary is entitled. A good word from a good friend with a good woman, who is of both Heaven and Earth, is good enough for me. As it is, I suspect, for those from 16 to 96 who stride, stumble or creep into a church to light their candle, make their frightened or frightening prayers, before the Mother of God. I look out for the ones who come to say thank you. You can see the lightness, smell the relief, hear the long, involuntary, exhalation.
As a feminist, I'm interested in how the cult of the Blessed Virgin and the legends and social conventions around it did for women, condemning us simultaneously to conditions of impossible perfection and guaranteed inferiority. Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex confirmed my instincts that the Church had subverted Mary's Fiat - her humility and acceptance - presenting them as their very antithesis, a lustrous "feminine submissiveness", by which we were scrutinised, objectified, classified. But we can hardly hold Mary responsible for that.
When one of my children threatened to arrive at 26 weeks, my father was dejected: since I'd 'lost my faith' I'd have nobody to pray to. When my mother reminded him I still believed in Our Lady, he replied "They'll be grand so". And we were. All the way to 42 weeks. I had faith we would be. Mary knew what it was like to carry a child, to love it before she knew it, to feel its heart beating beneath her own. She didn't spend her own pregnancy obsessing over the Nazarene equivalent of What to Expect When You're Expecting. Since she took herself off to the hill country to help her cousin Elizabeth, I knew she had heart, cop-on, she'd be good in a crisis.
And what of the two women? In today's medicalised order, the old Elizabeth would be an Elderly Primigravida. But not for her the comfort of a rubber ring or the joy of a Volterol suppository. Not, for the young mother, a flight into Egypt with a few G&Ts on Easyjet and a hot-stone massage at Sharm El Sheikh. What they faced was ridicule, suspicion, uncertainty, vitriol, and in the end, the murder of both their sons.
My fascination with Mary began when I was child. When she ate the Buttons we'd leave behind her statue in the local church, I knew there was more to this pale, painted creature than met the eye: she had a lip for chocolate. Ours was a religious family. As children, we strew rose petals in processions, lit candles, lived our duty to remember the forgotten, helped our fathers to furl fringed, silk-banners after Confraternities and Quarantore at St Vincent's Sundays Well. At our convent school, while Miss Hyland could be found 'Up the Wooden Stairs' and Miss McMahon 'Up the Iron Stairs', Mary was like Sr Benedicta who built two new schools and taught us singing: she was everywhere.
But it was my mother's mother had the 'in' with Mary. Born in 1893 in a long line of black Presbyterians, after her marriage, she said a magnificent rosary. With a lip for the exotic - dates, almonds, figs - in her prosperous days she was friends with the Armenian Harutun Batmazian, better known as Hadji Bey, whose rose and lemon Turkish Delight still makes Christmas and family occasions. In fact, the families, would become connected through marriage. In her later years, on the sly, she'd pour olive oil from the chemist onto a slice of bread and guzzle it. Her explanation? "The hot foreign blood back the generations." It's true, a single particle of sunlight turned her the colour of mahogany, so perhaps it was inevitable that with her, the Blessed Virgin would be less about flowing deep torrents, or child shepherds and Lambs of God and terrifying Third Secrets, but somehow about a real girl, with dark hair, who ate olive oil and dates, was visited by an angel and lived further to the East, even, than Harutun Batmazian.
Q: What was she like, Gran?
A: Lovely. Quiet and intelligent. But she had her own mind. You didn't think the Mother of God would be a little fool, a ninny? What are they teaching ye in that school?
She had form. After her husband gambled their house, and weeks at Longchamp or the Clarence Hotel and 'the season' in Crosshaven ceased, she turned to herself, to her new neighbours and to the Mother of God, to keep her sanity and her five remaining children. When I was 17 she told me, "never give up on the Blessed Virgin and she'll never give up on you." The kind of advice you'd ponder in your heart. I did. And turned to her at every stage. Young girl, pregnant woman, a mother worried about her children, a bread-winner anxious about work, someone who says please and thank you.
In France, I fell in love with the austere, alien Mary of Rocamadour; the shrines where so many come to pray, they have to leave their votive candles for others to burn. Their personal and family intentions being exchanged, adopted, amplified in relays of prayers. In Rennes le Chateau, near where my friends live, I visit Sainte Madeleine. Mary Magdalene, so powerful and dangerous, she had to be presented as a prostitute. At Carcassonne Cathedral, I make for the statue of a young Mary and her mother, who, my daughter Anna reminds me, were us - Anna and Miriam. Those names - our own names - coming like shots to the head, family after family, country after country, in the Litany of the Dead, read in the snow at the Auschwitz commemorations. In 1938, venerable Europeans met at Evian to discuss the fate of the Jews. They opened their mouths, then closed their hearts and their borders. The rest is ash, karma, Shoah. Seventy-seven years on, high walls, barbed-wire and razor-wire seem to have lost none of their allure. Talk, apparently, has been immune to inflation.
The perhaps-unlikely Keeper of Europe's Christianity, Hungary's Viktor Orban, might be surprised to find that Mary appears more in the Quran than she does in the New Testament. I hope that Mary's labour, and the birth of Jesus, featuring so significantly therein, won't put him off his Budapestian-pandy. In fact, for Muslims, Mary or Maryam, is shown the deepest love and respect; a woman like no other; chosen above all others, to be the mother of Jesus, Isa. I wonder how many Maryams, named in her honour are pregnant or about to give birth, how many Isas have been born, in fields, in the recent Exodus?
My favourite Mary is Our Lady of Mercy; the quality of mercy being, perhaps, the most underestimated in its capacity to save the lives of others and our own. If we cannot be merciful, do we have any decent function in this, or any other existence? The Madonna della Misericordia was painted most famously by Piero della Francesca. The same artist who got such a good price at auction for the Crawleys in Downton Abbey last week.
But for me, the Madonna della Misericordia appears at her most perfect, powerful and subversive, frescoed on the walls of the Bigallo, in Florence. Towering in her cope and bishop's mitre, over her head angels swing thuribles of incense. At her feet are the poor and suffering of the city trusting her compassion. With the Corporal Works of mercy writ large across her liturgical robes, the art historian Timothy Verdon, argues that here Mary is the presentation of the 15th-Century Sacerdotissa Justitiae, the priestess of social justice: I feed the hungry. I visit the sick. I comfort the lonely. I redeem the lost. I give refuge to all who need it.
Tonight, a Blood Moon will appear in our skies. A rare, and total eclipse of a Supermoon. It appears when, as Europeans, we can repeat history. Or we can make history. We can turn our back or our face to those at our borders, seeking refuge and protection. Is it now the case that the idea and ideal of Europe is more alive in the hearts and imaginations of those without its borders, than it is in those within? Have we so shrunk ourselves to fit a 'vision' of a free-market of producers or consumers or 'Roamers' - god help us - that we are purged of compassion, emptied of imagination, evacuated of spirit?
The last radio message out of Hungary in 1956 was "people of the world help us. SOS". That same message is travelling across our borders, consciousness and consciences today.
So what will it be? Echoes of the young Mary of the Quran.
Oh, would that I had died before this, and had become a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!
Or the Madonna della Misericordia who declares from the heart of our 'Christian' continent: Misericordia Domini Plena Est Terra/The earth is filled with the mercy of God.
Our earth. Our Europe. Our mercy.
Fifty-nine years on, save our souls. SOS.