Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. She teaches and researches in the areas of women and religion, interreligious dialogue, comparative theology, Asian and Asian American theology, and Hindu-Christian studies. Tracy also co-chairs the Los Angeles Hindu-Catholic Dialogue.
I grew up in St. Louis, MO, in the decades following Vatican II. My parish, like many at the time, was an odd mash-up of old and new. Contemporary praise music co-existed with smells and bells, informal homilies by hip priests with solemn novenas. It was an exciting time to grow up Catholic. I was on fire for God, but the opportunities for ministry as a little girl were limited. Boys were taught to follow Christ and were groomed to be priests. They got to skip class to receive training as altar boys. We all knew that boys were special. Girls were taught to be like Mary. While shut out of most ministries at the church, we were essential for the yearly May crowning. Every year, I prayed I would be chosen to crown Mary. I was never chosen; but I nevertheless became incredibly devoted to Mary, talking with her often and leaving little gifts outside my door for her to take to heaven. My favorite game was to pretend to be Mary.
But I wasn’t devoted to Mary because of whom she was. I was devoted to her because of whom I was not. Mary, the perfect woman, was blond, blue-eyed, thin, and white, like the girls who got to crown Mary. I was chubby, brown: ugly. I sought her intercession in desperate pleas to be “normal,” which to me meant blond and white. I told everyone that my middle name was Mary – not Sayuki, a name given to me in honor of my Japanese female ancestors. Perhaps, if Mary saw my devotion, she would fix me. It never occurred to me that the historical Mary was herself brown. I believed with child-like certainty in the European image presented to me. I believed also that that physical representation carried spiritual worth. As incorrect as these impressions were, they were not far off in St. Louis, a city mired in racial tension and prejudice.
Whenever I hear talk of Mary as the paragon of motherhood, I am reminded of this early devotion to a pure, beautiful, white woman, a devotion that didn’t inspire self-transcendence so much as self-hatred. In many ways, the Church’s high talk of Mary, Virgin Mother, Co-Redemptrix, and Mediatrix of All Graces, places women in an equally high position. But with one child and another on the way, a solemn, serene, and snot free vision of Mary and Christian womanhood is completely unrelatable to me. I can’t help but think that such teachings once again remind me – not of whom I am called to be – but instead of whom I can never be.
I believe that Mary can be a profound part of women and men’s spiritualities, but an overly idealized view of her is not helpful. Mothers and fathers take the bad with the good, the exhaustion with the joy, the poop with the kisses. We are hurried, harried, and far from perfect. Mothers and fathers cannot parent on a pedestal of idealistic and naïve visions of the family. In our contemporary Church, where violence against women around the globe is increasing and children are abused in our own midst, we need to reimagine Mary not as idealistic and passive, but as realistic and active, an active and fierce Mother of God who gets off her pedestal, wades into the muck, and fights for her children to build a more just world.