A frequent critique of Hopkins’ poetry, beyond its at times opaque vocabulary and strained verse, is its religious enthusiasm. The poem we have been examining is a case in point. The “Blessed Virgin” in the very title, touching on the Catholic doctrine that Mary was not only virgin before and during parturition but remained so ever after (despite gospel references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters), strains the credulity of any not indoctrinated.
I understand such incredulity, but it is not where I started. Steeped in Catholicism for the first 31 years of my life, I was a Mary enthusiast to rival even Hopkins. Long before I, too, entered the Society of Jesus (almost a century after Hopkins himself entered) immediately after graduating from a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati, I had a deep devotion to Our Lady. The Mary-air Hopkins breathed after his conversion in college I breathed all my Catholic youth. And this only intensified after entering religious life, with my heart finding even bolder wings towards Mary thanks to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins! Let’s just say I was a true believer from the start.
But early ground is not always final ground. After ten full years on the way to becoming a priest, coinciding with the tumultuous decade of the sixties, I left the Jesuits and not many years later Catholicism and formal (as distinct from mystical) Christianity as well. While my Catholic family could only see defection, I saw liberation. But there was a price to pay, and my devotion to Mary seemed a necessary part of that price. As I could no longer assent to a literal belief in church dogmas such as Mary’s perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and bodily assumption into heaven, Mary not surprisingly receded to the background for me, but she didn’t disappear. I had yet to understand her differently, meaning mythically or cosmologically on the one hand and as a flesh and blood woman like every other flesh and blood woman on the other, but further journeying was needed before I was able to differentiate and reconcile the two. I came to the understanding, in other words, that there are two Marys, not just one, each opening up rich truth.
The noted mythologist Joseph Campbell’s caution, “Beware the error of the found truth,” resonated deeply with me over the ensuing years. It wasn’t so much that I had abandoned Christianity’s truth but rather that I had recognized that there are other truths as well, that Christianity is but one of the world’s great mythologies, each a truth-story with wisdom and richness to offer those seeking to understand the Presence indwelling the universe. Great Mystery, always eluding attempts to define, always resisting the hardening of metaphor into dogma, rewards attempts to approach it with openness and imagination and reverence. After my venturing beyond Christianity, three particularly rich mythical sources of meaning deepened in me a sense of the Divine as being every bit as much feminine as masculine. Great Mystery transcends gender, of course, but there has been, particularly in the three monotheisms of the West (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), a virtually exclusive emphasis on the masculine. The same prompting that led me to the nourishment of Mary in my Catholic days was now leading me to other facets, including Mary’s, of the immortal diamond nurturance of the cosmos.
My first venture was into Taoism, later flowering into Zen, which opened me up to a sense of the creative, maternal source of the Ten Thousand Things, growing, as from a mustard seed, the universe from within rather than creating it from without. Reinforcing and personalizing this Divine immanence was Native American mysticism which experiences nature as not only alive but maternal, and everyone and everything in the Sacred Hoop of the Earth community as related since rising from a common Mother. All this was corroborated for me by revelations from religion’s alleged foe (but actually great partner in the Search) science. Not only is Earth alive and nurturing (the “Gaia hypothesis” was named after the ancient Earth-goddess Gaia), but so too is the whole sweep of the cosmos! What is the great drama of evolution but immanence transcending—dynamic mothering at the heart of that mustard seed called the Big Bang continuing across 13.7 billion years to birth new forms of life, consciousness, spirit. As Teilhard de Chardin proclaimed, we live less in a cosmos than a cosmogenesis.
Every religion enriches all who are open to its unique myth or truth-story. Catholicism’s depth and richness will be enhanced when its doctrines pertaining to Mary that we have been considering are understood metaphorically instead of literally. (Can we not see how, time and tragic time again, literalism breeds fundamentalism which then breeds pity and intolerance, sometimes to the point of violence, towards any believing differently?) What we know or can imagine of the historical Mary bears little resemblance to the mythical qualities attributed to her. I have joyously come to see, however, that it’s not an either-or proposition. Yes, there was an historical mother of Jesus, a young Jewish woman whose unplanned pregnancy, and the way she and her son struggled to cope with and transform its searing consequences, initiated a drama that continues across two millennia to impact our planet profoundly. And yes, there is mythic or cosmological Mary who is intertwined with the likes of Sophia and Gaia and Isis and Mother Earth and Kuan Yin. These are but a few of the names given to this mothering force throughout the cosmos incessantly calling new creations into being, particularly so now with human creativity blossoming extravagantly on the tree of Earth. Both flesh and blood Mary and mythical Mary have opened up for me a resplendent double richness. The invitation for those not able to accept one or the other, and for whom Mary’s presence has therefore receded to a far remove, is to go deeper, see wider. How better to appreciate the living wisdom of a path with heart than to listen with inner windows wide open to one whose life has been transformed by the truth and strength and comfort of it. For those seeking to comprehend more fully the meaning and potential significance of Mary in their lives, I can think of no poem more fitting to recommend than the one we have been not only reading but hopefully speaking, “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe”—a cosmological Magnificat! How apt a symbol for the face of God this blazing sun by whose light we live but whose intensity will burn and blind if not mercifully shrouded. How soothing for Earthchildren this bath of blue, imagined as a mother’s protective soft blanket, that slakes the God-sun’s fire by making it more sweet, not more dim.
Where you had seemed either irrelevant or a stumbling block, Mary of both mythical heaven and actual Earth, may you now be seen in a new blue light, comforting to your everywhere children.
She, wild web, wondrous robe, Mantles the guilty globe...
And her hand leaves his light Sifted to suit our sight....
And men are meant to share Her life as life does air.
O thou dear mother... World-mothering air, air wild, Wound with me, in thee isled, Fold home, fast fold thy child.
A Catholic Edge
Catholics learn early when learning of Mary
that the feminine principle in the universe is to be exalted,
wholeheartedly to be honored and loved.
Let’s face it, our Judaeo-Christian roots are patriarchal—
Jehovah is as masculine as Zeus,
while God the Father and Son are masculine by definition
and the Holy Spirit by innuendo (“but when he, the Spirit of truth, has come...”).
Even for those no longer religious this is the cultural grounding.
Perhaps we can begin to realize our impoverishment
by remembering Native American reverence for their Earth Mother.
How we need the counterbalancing feminine
if our souls are not to shrivel.
Catholics learn early a balance
through initiation into the cult of the devotion to Mary—
prayers and songs to her,
turning in absolute confidence to her,
hearts overflowing with love for her.
In some things being raised Catholic gives you an edge.
On Mary’s Day
August 15 is still for me Mary’s day
though my views of her now would dismay believing Catholics
who, holding to dogmas of Immaculate Conception, Virgin Birth and Assumption,
virtually deify her.
Oh, they’ll be quick to deny it,
but look at their faces as they say their rosaries,
crown her with blossoms in May,
defend her honor
and tell me a goddess could win greater allegiance and devotion.
Without doubt there are losses
when the security of dogmas long nourishing is abandoned,
but the gains are extravagant.
Symbol Mary reaches even further now,
inclusive of the likes of Sophia and Isis and Gaia.
Hail Earth, full of grace.
Flesh and blood Mary,
knowing sex, darkness and doubt like the rest of us,
invites a more substantial bond.
Undeniable loss but extravagant gain
ponders one no longer Catholic on Mary’s day.
Hungry For It
Carl Jung’s thoughts on the dogma of Mary’s Assumption
at first glance likely baffle.
Though never Catholic he cheered it, declared modern man’s psyche—
deprived access for centuries to the feminine divine—
hungry for it.
But the case he makes is not for a unique historical event,
rather for a universal psychological one.
Here he loses Catholics,
but others who wouldn’t have given second thought
to an incomprehensible Catholic dogma
now thanks to Jung’s provocative declaration
Christmas Musings Free of Dogma
Even the thought for the orthodox Catholic
that Mary’s conception of Jesus might have come the natural way
is unthought for being unthinkable.
Taboo territory here, but fascinating possibilities for pondering
for any free enough from dogma to think them.
If Mary conceived by man and Joseph wasn’t the one,
then who was
and where was he and what were his thoughts as Jesus’ career unfolded?
If Joseph never bought the supernatural explanation,
then his love for Mary must have been enough to make the angels sing.
Jesus catching wind of his illegitimacy never let it hold him back,
may even have been propelled by it
towards a bond with a Father he could count on.
Fascinating possibilities for pondering here
if free of dogma.
Conscious Step Becomes Prayer
The revolution represented by Gaia
is the radical difference between earth with life on it
and the Living Earth,
between spirit imported from a divine elsewhere
and Earthspirit irrepressibly rising.
When standing in reverence within Gaia’s presence,
breathing takes in sacramental air,
conscious step becomes prayer.