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A creative engagement with Mary: Nicola Slee

A creative engagement with Marypage 2 Nicola Slee

Nicola Slee

Who is Mary for me? This is not a simple question, since, like Jesus, she has been painted, sculpted, written about and imaged in countless ways from every culture and era and from virtually every conceivable theological perspective. At the same time, the myriad faces of the Virgin Mary have often been created by men, although some of them presumably reflect wider, more popular devotion. It is not surprising that many, if not most, of the dominant images of Mary are ambivalent and alienating to many women. Very few of them can be straightforwardly appropriated for our times and lives; yet I believe, and have found, that the effort to engage with diverse Marian images, traditions and themes is inherently creative.

As I search her many faces, meditate on the different biblical traditions about Mary, and listen to stories of those who have kept company with her down the centuries, I find myself confronted with questions about my own identity (what kind of woman I am, and am called to become), the nature of faith (its risky daring as well as its receptivity and interiority), the place of suffering in discipleship (the sword that pierced Mary’s heart), as well as the nature of the church in which Mary is foremost amongst the saints. The quest to discover who Mary might be and what she might mean for faith is, at the same time, a quest for the suppressed feminine divine and a quest for our own humanity; specifically, for me as a woman, my own femininity.

In what follows, I chart briefly my own journey to engage with some of the multiple names and faces of Mary, and what I have learnt and am learning from her.

Growing up in a low-church Methodist tradition, Mary didn’t feature much in my childhood. She came out at Christmas, with the crib and the angels, but then went back into the dressing-up box for the rest of the year. If I thought of her at all, I regarded her as the mild-mannered, God-favoured mother of Jesus, whose role was primarily to bring him into the world. I didn’t think about her in her own right, or later parts of her story. If anything, this tendency to sideline Mary was exacerbated in my teenage years, when the Protestant fellowship centre I attended warned me off all things Catholic, and regarded any kind of focus on Mary as dangerous. It took me until my twenties, when I was at university and starting to become influenced by feminism and involved in various Christian feminist groups, to begin to revisit these rather negative and naïve attitudes towards Mary.

Before it became possible to engage creatively with the figure of Mary, I had to confront and work with my feminist anger at the ways in which she has been presented throughout patriarchy. Passive, placid, submissive, sexless, secondary, suffering, servile – these are some of the ways in which Mary’s image has been distorted. Isolated from her own social context, as well as from her other children and the wider community of women, she has been set apart, put upon a pedestal, ‘alone of all her sex’, as Marina Warner’s classic text (Vintage, 1976) has it. I wrote out my anger in poems and liturgies, and shared in the feminist quest for alternative images. I remember the almost physical sensation of shock and freedom I felt when I first happened upon Elizabeth Frink’s Walking Madonna in Salisbury Close: a wiry old woman determinedly striding away from the cathedral out into the town. Partly what was shocking was to see a Mary who moves – every other image I had seen of her showed her static, immobile; it was difficult to conceive of her having legs, let alone using them (an idea explored in my poem, Her legs).

Finding fresh images of Mary has been creative and freeing for me, as has reading a variety of theological approaches. Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister (Continuum, 2004) helped me think about the historical Mary in more realistic ways, but also opened up many theological areas. Johnson recreates the noisy village compound of Mary’s youth as part of her insistence that the historical Mary was immersed in a hard-working, peasant economy and strongly communal context. Johnson wants to situate Mary firmly within the community of the saints, those who are and have been God’s friends and prophets down the ages – thereby restoring her to her rightful place within the whole panoply of those who have walked in the way of the Gospel, and reconnecting her to many brothers and sisters.

page 2 walking madonna not sure about copyright for thisOne relational image of Mary that has been preserved down the centuries is that of the Visitation, in which Mary and her cousin Elizabeth greet and embrace each other. This is one of the few places in Christian tradition where female connection is celebrated (women usually being considered in relation to the male), and it is a powerful image of female solidarity, mutuality and spiritual friendship (even if, in a patriarchal reading the ‘real’ significance of the event is the meeting of the unborn male babies!)

Over many years now, I have been looking for images of the Visitation (medieval Europe offers countless examples, but so, too, do other parts of the globe), collecting them and using them as a focus for reflection and meditation. I have found these images affirming of the female friendships that have been so important a part of my own life, but the Visitation is also a story that speaks of the work of spiritual friendship more generally. The way in which the two women recognize the unborn potential within each other and support each other in their journey towards birth-giving speaks to me of the work of spiritual accompaniment: a process in which I have been involved as both accompanist and accompanied.

In a tradition that has repressed feminine images of God, the spiritual need for relating to the feminine divine has had to find alternative expression, and perhaps the main place where this has happened in Christianity has been in the figure of Mary and in the many devotional practices associated with her. While doctrinally, she has never been considered divine, Marian iconography and devotional practice may suggest a rather different story of how she has functioned as a symbol of the divine. My own response to this is nuanced. First and foremost, I believe that when the feminine is restored more fully in Christian faith and practice, Mary will be able to take her rightful place as first amongst the communion of saints. At the same time, I want to celebrate the ways in which Mary does and has functioned as an icon of the divine for many. While we lack authentic images of the feminine divine, Mary can speak deeply to our need for a divine mother figure. Thus I understand the need to pray to Mary, to contemplate her face, to come under the shadow of her veil.

While many would testify to the ways in which Mary has led them closer to God, this would include, for me, the ways in which she has led me to a threshold of encounter with the feminine in God. Thinly veiled beneath her form we may find powerful images of a fertile goddess, and whilst this has led some feminists out of Christianity into neo-paganism and other forms of Goddess practice, for me, the journey has led back to a search for the sources of the divine feminine within my own Judaeo-Christian tradition (whilst not ignoring what I can learn from other manifestations of the feminine divine). Mary thus has helped to expand my sense of God, a journey which is ongoing. f


Nicola Slee is a poet and theologian based at the Queen’s Foundation for Ecumencial Theological Education in Birmingham. She has published a number of books, including The Book of Mary (SPCK, 2007).