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About the Virgin Mary

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

My childhood was filled with powerful women. At home there was my mother, at school the German nuns, and up in heaven, yet also somehow very close to me, there hovered the most powerful of all—the Virgin Mary. From a feminist perspective, the Mother of God was perhaps not the most liberated role model for a female child. She didn’t, after all, decide on her own to become a mother, but merely told the angel that she agreed to have it done unto her according to his/her/their (angels are SO non-binary) word.

Mary did provide the impetus for Jesus’ first miracle, at the wedding in Cana, when, keeping an eye on the catering, she whispered to him, “They have no wine.” Still, she herself didn’t change the water into wine, but only suggested that there was a problem. And the miracle concerned a mere domestic matter, far less impressive than feeding the multitudes or walking on water or redeeming mankind.

In an era in which there were few role models for girls, however, the Mother of God was our ideal. Our heads swam with images of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, but also with reproductions of madonnas by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Murillo, Raphael, and other masters, printed on “holy cards” handed out by the nuns as rewards for good behavior. Swathed in blue and white, Mary was beautiful as well as virtuous as she greeted the angel, embraced her cousin Elizabeth, swaddled the Christ Child, fled into Egypt, helped out at the wedding, then appeared again on the road to Calvary, at the foot of the cross, and eventually was taken up to heaven. There she sat, wearing a crown, right next to the Holy Trinity, looking out for us as we struggled with German vocabulary and long division. She may not have had the ultimate power to grant our prayers, but she could intercede for us as she had interceded on behalf of the embarrassed bride and groom at Cana.

But what about all the emphasis on her purity and virginity (before, during, and after birth, as Thomas Aquinas insisted)—didn’t that imbue young girls with a fear or a dislike of sex? To us as ten-year-olds, it made perfect sense that if one was going to become the Mother of God, a miraculously maintained virginity might be part of the deal. And the fact that she attained quasi divine status on her own merits conveyed to us, as we knelt before her in our braids and chapel veils, that one could attain beauty and greatness without reference to sex. Standing serene above the altar in the incense-redolent church, holding her plump baby, she seemed more approachable than God the Father with his white beard, Jesus with his appalling sufferings, or the inexplicable Holy Ghost.

Unbeknownst to us, however, there was something even grander and more mysterious behind the attraction exerted by the Virgin Mary. She was a palimpsest for humanity’s earliest notion of the divine, the Goddess herself. This connection is most transparent in the cult of the black madonnas, such as the ancient Virgin of Montserrat, who sits severe and hieratic on her throne in the mountains of Catalonia. I was particularly fond of the Madonna of the Orchards, near my mother’s village, in whose shrine I made my first communion. Black or white, these rustic madonnas were traditionally discovered by a shepherd or a farmer somewhere in the wilderness, often in the branches of a tree or next to a spring, places inhabited since ancient times by nymphs and local deities. This association of Mary with Nature, with woods and springs and fertile places, links her to those early goddess cults, and bespeaks our species’ long-forgotten reverence for the divine feminine.

Nothing could have been farther from my mind as I my raced through my nightly Hail Marys than the notion that I was paying homage to the Earth Goddess—Isis, Demeter, Gaia, or Astarte—of whose existence I would remain ignorant for decades. But I could have done worse, as a conduit to the personal experience of the sacred and the sense that I shared my femaleness with a loving, powerful, life-giving entity, than my devotion to she who understood my girlish troubles and was waiting, crowned with stars and surrounded by angels, for me in heaven.



5 Responses

  1. She is the image for a difficult topic: CONSENT.

    God asked, she said yes, and the rest is history.

    We don’t know if he asked other young women before her, and understood when they said, ‘no.’ Young women knew perfectly well what happened to them when they turned up pregnant and unmarried.

    But we do know that rape seems to have been the primary way the Greek (and other) gods procreated, consent be damned. Along with their petty behavior about pretty much everything else, it’s hard to understand why the Greeks worshipped them.

    And then Mary did a great job with a difficult role. Faithful until He died a very nasty death, one reserved for criminals and insurrectionists. And then supported the growing young church. You can almost see her doing it!

    The only problem with Mary has been the way MEN separate women into mother or whore categories, and claim to respect the former (but ask any single mother trying to exist with her child(ren) on the bounty of the state), and despise the latter (while using them).

      1. It has survived all these centuries (I wonder how they found out about it in the first place).

        Our God knew what he was asking, and she trusted Him. I can’t see Him asking and then not listening. This is why I’m still Catholic.

  2. Love this. Especially that Mary held her own with Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, but also that she was/is a vestige of the Goddess. Thank you.

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