While I have always intuitively seen Mary as more than Theotokos, my training in orthodoxy came to overshadow my orthopraxis of Mary. But today I hold a different stance because I have come to view my Marian practice as indeed worship of the Divine Godd/ess.
At a surprisingly early age, perhaps ten or eleven years old, I became the author of my own religious narrative, meaning, I took it upon myself to initiate and pursue the deep mysteries of my Catholic faith. Weekly Mass became an event, not an obligation, and something to which I attended independent of my large, Irish-American Catholic family. The singleness of my worship at such a young age drew stares and whispers from those families that arrived intact. And while I was not unaware of their curiosity, I found it easier to lose myself in the absolute wonder of my environment. This environment of the tangible and non-tangible is what Andrew Greeley has since come to identify as “the Catholic Imagination,” where a Catholic sensibility is manifested in cathedrals and high art, but is also awash in the mundane of our daily lives. Additionally, our family’s dependence on Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, was a close second to a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. By this I mean to suggest that she was our go-to heavenly figure when in need, and I, the appointed family petitioner. Through the years I would take each family crisis directly to Mary through the recitation of the Rosary. The thought never occurred to me that doctrinally Mary functioned as mediator between the Father and Son and not as Godd/ess. While I never identified her as the personification or manifestation of Godd/ess, that is exactly how my practice or devotion to her played itself out, until I left the church in my early twenties, certain my emerging feminism could not include the sexism and androcentrism of an all male priesthood. But twenty years later, when I discovered my husband had been involved in a five-year affair, I immediately ran for my childhood rosary beads, which I had not used or thought about since my youth.
Throughout my theological training as an undergrad and then graduate student, my childhood encounters with Mary took a back seat to Christological endeavors that sought to disentangle a Jesus of history with a Jesus of faith. Never would I have entertained a theological discourse that questioned Mary as anything other than Theotokos, until I began to see the trajectory of the Divine Feminine in sacred writings of the Wisdom/Sophia literature of the Hebrew Scripture and recently, the Kabbalistic tradition of Shekinah. . While I have always intuitively seen Mary as more than Theotokos, my training in orthodoxy came to overshadow my orthopraxis of Mary. But today I hold a different stance because I have come to view my Marian practice as indeed worship of the Divine Godd/ess. When the veneration of Mary, along with its rituals, prayers and intuitive desire for God as feminine is examined within the context of Sophia and the Shekinah as divine Co-creators, the nature of Mary is best understood as one with God and more than Theotokos.
The role of Mary has been a divisive one within Christianity over the centuries. Historically Church councils sought to clarify Mary’s role through dogmas as both eternal Virgin and Mother of God, becoming the female face of God. By so doing, Mary became the Great Mother (Magna Mater), with attributes of earth-mother goddesses mapped onto her, functioning as a female deity performing essential tasks for Christians once attributed to ancient goddesses.
Liberation theologian Leonard Boff in his study of Mary seeks to divinize her as hypostatically united to the third person of the Trinity. This movement of Mary as Mother of God to God is based upon Boff’s observation of devotion to Mary. Citing the little known or used doctrine of sensus fidelium, or the “sense of the people,” Boff insists on the collective unconscious of the Church in Jungian terms as our “interior archetypal archeology…for the divinization of the feminine.” Boff, and arguable so, points to the faith of those outside the realm of hegemonic power and theological discourse, in other words, to the everyday faithful who have come to worship and depend on the figure of Mary as their God. States Boff, “They relate to her as to someone by whom we find ourselves affected absolutely, as an ultimate source of comfort, grace, and salvation.” I should state here that Elizabeth Johnson in her text She Who Is offers a convincing argument against a Marian pneumatology as argued by Boff as well as his essentialist view of women and motherhood.
But how do we go from worshipping Mary as number one intercessor to Number One? A critical feminist approach to the exegesis of sacred scripture, tradition and practice begins with the destabilizing of static interpretation and authority. Additionally, the revelation of God cannot be fixed to the written boundaries of a canon or religious dogma but must seek new methods of what constitutes the sacred in text and praxis of the community. According to Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza a feminist reading of scripture and dogma must distance itself from Western authoritarian hegemonic understandings of sacred text while developing and conceptualizing both sacred text and dogma from a relational/contextual category by incorporating a post-colonial reading of both. In so doing, radical reconceptualization based on the experience of women and the community, redefines and expands which beliefs and practices become normative as divinely inspired. Additionally, Miriam Levering’s definition of what constitutes sacred scripture serves as a catalyst for expansion and destabilizing of canonical texts, Levering circumscribes scripture as “a special class of true and powerful words, a class formed by the ways in which these particular words are received by persons and communities in their common life.” In other words, how the whole community synthesizes into practice those sacred words contributes to their sacredness.
If we are to undertake a feminist reading of sacred scripture and tradition, then we must also take seriously what Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others consider a radical reconceptualization based on the experience of women and our community. Additionally, we must incorporate what Sandra Schneider’s understands to be the interpretation of sacred text as “a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning.” In other words, a dance of interrelatedness occurs, as the reader takes in her own meaning of the text independent of the author’s intent.
When engaged in a hermeneutics of suspicion, feminist readings of sacred texts can be destabilized in order to expand the anthropology and dignity of women. Additionally, through the destabilizing process, a kenotic space is opened up that affirms our experience of God in all its multiple personifications, including that of Mary as Mother, but also as God incarnate.
Cynthia Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past three years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.