Growing up, as I did, in a kind of Broad Church environment, Mary was considered a necessary part of Christmas, but to be ignored for the rest of the year - with occasional curt nods in her general direction, during the singing of the Magnificat.
Indeed, we eschewed anything which could be considered vaguely Roman. There were two - and only two - candles near the altar. Saints were in the stain-glass windows and nowhere else. Crossing one’s self would have been seen as an indication that one wouldn’t be taking communion, because the Holy See had forbidden it.
I first encountered Mary through a friendship I developed with a monk of the Community of the Resurrection. He was a man in his sixties and I was an irritating 20 year old. He was blessed with an impish sense of humour. He loathed posturing and falseness and would poke merciless fun at all pretence and posing. He would laugh uproariously at some of the things I took extremely seriously, at the time. Not because he was cruel, but because he was forgiving of my youthful enthusiasm.
It was he that introduced me to Mary. His devotion to her was neither extreme, nor passionate. It was just something ordinary, natural and true. And I suppose I sort of decided to emulate him and, from a very uncertain base, conjured up and fashioned an untutored but real devotion to the Mother of Jesus.
He once told me a joke, which I suppose, demonstrated his ease with the holiest of things. Pope Paul VI (it was round about that era) died and went to heaven. There at the pearly gates he was met by St Peter.
“How wonderful to meet you!” said St Peter. “God has told me to tell you that he is so pleased with your work on Earth, that I should grant you one wish – and that I should grant it – whatever it is”.
Pope Paul, rubbing his hands in abject humility, was overcome by God’s gift. After thinking about it for a while, he responded in Latin.
“St Peter”, he said, “it was a great honour and privilege to be the Pope and I really don’t feel I need any recognition at all. But if God insists”, he said, “and if it isn’t too much trouble, I would very much like to meet the Virgin Mary”.
“Done!” said St Peter. He snapped his fingers and a golden chariot, drawn by 10 white horses drew up. Pope Paul got into the chariot and the horses took him a couple of heavenly kilometres down the road. The horses stopped at a tiny little house on one of the streets of gold.
Pope Paul nervously stepped down from the chariot, went to the front door and knocked, with due reverence. After a while, the door opened a crack. Then wider, revealing a tiny little old lady.
She looked at him, but said nothing.
“Virgin Mary”, said St Paul, dropping to his knees, “it is such a privilege to meet you, considering you are the Mother of our Blessed Lord”.
There was a long silence, and Pope Paul nervously looked up from his kneeling position.
“Vell, you see”, said the little old lady, “he vas a great dishapointment to us, you know. Ve vanted him to be a lawyer!”
I recount this story, not only because it is a good story, but because it so scandalously (and thoroughly) demystifies Mary. Mary, seen as a little old “Bobba”, instead of the Queen of Heaven.
And my point is this. It is all too easy to worship a deified serene image of the Virgin with gold rays beaming from her crowned head. That is the religious imagery of wonder and awe and mystery and divine fabulousness. That is flawless stuff. It is the stuff of which worship and devotion is made.
It is much more difficult. Much, MUCH more difficult to see and to worship Mary in the "Bobba" next door. And there is the heart of the contradiction. Why is it so easy for Catholics to adore the showgirl, but to ignore (at the very best) any other girl?
While this is not something which men do alone in the church, it is something which has its essence in a patriarchal world view. A view where, functionally, to be divine is to be male. And, most of the time, to be human is to be male as well. Women need to define themselves in the light of the male paradigm, which is fearlessly and vigourously defended at every turn.
And so the image of Mary is stately, regal, virginal and ageless. That is the pristine image which is venerated. She didn't grow old and ordinary. Her breasts remained pert and firm. Her lips rounded. Her eyes clear. Her waist slim. That is the image of the theotokos - the God bearer.
But there is a slight of hand in the image. Because it is unreal, because it is much more similar to a Hollywood movie than any common reality, it is controlable, manageable, essentially dismissable. If the image were not like that and more like reality, it would point us inexorably to the woman sitting next to us in the pew, or in the traffic, or in our street. Then it would lose its glamour and become disturbingly familiar. It would then lose its holiness. That is the sad truth of the matter.
It strikes me, altogether more so in a consciously Catholic parish, that the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is no guarantee of an exalted place for women in general. In fact, it is disturbingly true that, more often than not, that where Mary is most fervently honoured, women are most emphatically overlooked. And if not that, then held in lower esteem in one way or another. Or made to occupy a place specially reserved for them, away from the real action.
It is a strange and curious contradiction and I think it has something to do with the problem we have with seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary as someone's rather ordinary grandmother.