Venus and Mary by Natalie Weaver


Natalie Weaver editedOf the many things I have read recently, one thing stands out in my mind in high relief. It is the opening of Lucretius’ masterwork on Epicurean philosophy, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). Here Lucretius invokes Venus to help him craft this work, identifying her as the governor of all nature and the one through whose light all else comes into being. With her help, Lucretius trusts that he can write his truths with confidence and ability in defiance of dominant philosophical norms.

Lucretius goes on to extol the great wisdom of that ancient Greek, Epicurus, claiming that the philosopher saved humankind from foully groveling upon the ground by liberating people from religious superstition. Superstition, he goes on to say, is the source of true impiety and criminality, made manifest in Lucretius’ example in the sacrifice of child virgins.

Why do people succumb to religious superstition and such horrible deeds, he queries rhetorically. Because of fear of death, terror at the anticipation of penalties in the afterlife, and the desire to avoid tribulations during life. So great is the fear of suffering that it makes people susceptible to religious exploitation and subordinate to the authority of priests, whose power rests exclusively on superstition. Such a ruinous condition can only be countered by the philosophical examination of nature, including all things celestial and terrestrial, spiritual and material. Having prayerfully introduced his case and the reason for his critique, Lucretius proceeds to explore the basic tenets of Epicurean metaphysics and ethics.

This discourse is striking to me in several ways. On the one hand, while Lucretius repudiates religious superstition, he nevertheless invokes the goddess. He sees in Venus calming arms and a welcome lap that would receive children, stay martial tendencies, and generate fecund new life. It reads (perhaps only to me) as though Venus trumps, through an encompassing and natural attraction, all competing divinities. She is God to the gods. Of course, I recognize the literary conceit of praying before philosophizing (consider such classic examples as Augustine’s Confessions or Anselm’s Proslogion). Yet, even while the text dismantles religious superstition, the writing rests on something like grace.

As I have been considering the obvious but startling observation that “tantum religio potuit suadere malorum” (religion/superstition is able to persuade great evil), I am also struck by: 1) the author’s ability to differentiate between a divine and life-giving ground of creative being on the one hand and 2) dangerous and exploitative religious presumption and power on the other.

I agree that this differentiation should be made, and I must admit that I was curiously startled to see it again (at least to my own reading) in a sculpture of the Virgin Mary while walking in the Marian chapel at the Church of the Gesu in University Heights, Ohio one afternoon before school let out.

This is the image that startled me:

Mary

And at her feet, the inlay Mater Dei:

Mater Dei

Like Lucretius’ Venus, this image of a young mother with her child has a kind of cleansing power in its simplicity. It seems to me capable of undoing complicated doctrine, practice, and superstition, even those that are directly driven by Mariology. It says to me: This is love, yes? This is life, yes? This is kindness, yes? This is wholesome and good and desirable. It asks me to remember my mother, to see her as a young woman. It invites me to remember myself as a new mother, and to recall the time when nursing my own children was really my only priority in spite of everything else I was doing. It makes me feel quiet and compassionate and, well, natural, toward myself and other people.

So accustomed have I become to Marian imagery and theology (as well as critiques of both), I had failed to really appreciate how young she is; how gentle she is; how primordial she appears as she is holding that baby. Perhaps this is why she is or must be standing on top of the heavens. Perhaps it is merely in the nature of things that such a one was, and is, and will be unapologetically identified (albeit in varying ways) as the Mother of God.

 

Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D.is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013)Natalie is currently writing Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014).  Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin.  Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology.  Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan.  For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.

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Categories: Divine Feminine, Female Saints, Mary

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6 replies

  1. This is the essence of the matriarchal worldview, a reverence for the love of mothers, who, luckily for them, did not stand alone, but was held in the embrace of mothers (including maternal aunts), sisters (including maternal cousins), and grandmothers (including maternal great aunts).

    The primoridial question is: Is the universe as loving as mothers can be, or is it indifferent to all of us, humans and animals included.

    Thanks…and of course She can also be understood to be Goddess Mother, Mother of All. xxx

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  2. John Milton, who was Oliver Cromwell’s Latin secretary (he wrote letters in Latin for Cromwell) also invokes a goddess in what some scholars consider to be the greatest poem in the English language, Paradise Lost:
    Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
    Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
    That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
    In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
    Rose out of Chaos:

    Of course, that’s not the beginning of the poem. He begins by stating his theme, which has nothing to do with goddesses:
    Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
    Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
    Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
    With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
    Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

    This is about Eve, the first sinner. I much prefer Venus, who started out as a domestic goddess and was conflated with Aphrodite, the Great Creatrix, true Mother of Us All.

    Thanks for writing this blog and inspiring me to remember Milton. To this day, I am convinced that my major professor in my Ph.D. studies was so wise he’d been Milton in an earlier life. Milton was already blind when he dictated his epic poetry to his (reluctant) daughters. He already had all that stuff he wrote about in his head!

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  3. Yesterday evening I was sitting at a table in a local cafe waiting for an elder friend to arrive and share dinner with me. At another table across the way I was aware of a young mother and her baby and their delightful exchange, and looking a lot like the figures in your Marian statue. Just then my friend arrived, and I realized suddenly how she had always been a mother figure to me. Life seems so often to be telling us stories, teaching us through everyday life experiences, as if they were real parables — and they can be, certainly, if we read them that way!!

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  4. Your words remind me that religion and spirituality are two very different things. When I think of religion I think of man and gods, patriarchal and restricting. When I think of spirituality I think of woman and goddesses, mothering and free.

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  5. One of the last things Emma Adelaide Hahn wrote in her long and distinguished career was a brief analysis of the opening prayer to Venus in which she suggests it betrays the influence of Sappho. By far the most telling evidence (in my opinion) is “sociam” (comrade) (line 24 in the edition I have) which she claims is an echo of ‘summachos’ (comrade–line final, Sappho’s prayer to Aphrodite). Summachos is actually a very rare word in Greek and hence it is all but certain sociam is an echo of it (though as I recall Hahn does not emphasize this). Here is the full citation for her article: Emma Adelaide Hahn, Lucretius’ Prooemion with Reference to Sappho and Catullus, Classical World 60 (1966): 134-39.

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