I write this on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 2020 at a time when each of us is being called into a new planet-wide reality, invited to give our love, our trust, our assistance, our presence, (our respectful absence!) in a crisis unlike any we have experienced.
In this moment, we, like Mary of Nazareth, may feel astonished.
May we respond with the courage Mary showed to a request beyond anything she might have imagined.
Today, I travel back in time to my first encounter with Mary. I remember a day when I was perhaps eleven years old. Each afternoon, walking home from school, I passed our parish church. On this day, I was drawn to go inside.
I remember glancing at the marble statue of Mary, standing to the left side of the altar.
Her stone pale white face was shuttered, her eyes downcast. The statue radiated coldness. Though I did not understand what her title of “Virgin” signified, I associated the word with an absence of what I longed for most in my life: warmth, caring, love.
I turned my gaze away from the statue, noticed a small booklet on the bench where I was sitting. It contained the Scripture readings for the Sundays of each month, with reflections. On the inside front cover, someone had written of Mary, creatively presenting ideas in the form of a letter as though it had been written by her.I have now no memory of the letter’s content. Perhaps I did not even read it. I was transfixed by the words at the end, “Your Loving Mother Mary.”
In that instant, my life shifted. A loving presence entered into my existence and has never left me.
As Jean Houston has written, “Whenever they move into our awareness, both personally and collectively, archetypes and the old and new stories that they bring with them announce a time of change and deepening.”
To grasp the true significance of Mary as Archetype, come with me now to the tiny sanctuary dedicated to Isis on the Island of Philae in the Nile River.
Crowded into a space never meant for a group as large as ours, stand here with the other travellers on this spiritual journey to Egypt, led by Jean Houston. Listen now to the words Jean is reading from the writings of Apuleius, a second century Roman, not a Christian. In the story, a hapless magician named Lucius has cried out to the goddess for help. Isis responds.
The way the Sacred One identifies herself to Lucius may startle you: I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity…. I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names…
Behold, I am come to you in your calamity. I am come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow packing.
Soon through my providence shall the sun of your salvation rise. Hearken therefore with care unto what I bid.
Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.
After the reading, listen as someone suggests that we call out all the names by which we have known the Sacred Feminine.
Listen as voice after voice calls out wonderful names. Many of these names are familiar to you, titles you may have learned as a child. We knew them as part of a litany, composed in honour of Mary. Yet many of these titles were given thousands of years earlier to Isis:
Mystical Rose. Tower of Ivory. Gate of Heaven. My own voice calls out: Star of the Sea. Jean’s voice, strong, certain, proclaims: Mary in all her forms.
The human heart longs for a divine mothering presence. Ancient cultures honoured a feminine divine who over millennia was called by many names: Isis in Egypt; Inanna in Sumeria; Ishtar in Babylon; Athena, Hera and Demeter in Greece; Anu or Danu among the ancient Celts; Durga, Kali and Lakshmi in India; for the Kabbalists, Shekinah; for the gnostics, Sophia or Divine Wisdom.
In the early centuries of Christianity, Mary of Nazareth became an Archetype of a Loving Mother. How that came about is a luminous story.
Christianity had no “Mother God” to put in the place of the Goddesses whose worship it was determined to eradicate. In his book The Virgin, Geoffrey Ashe writes of his theory that Mary’s gradual ascension in Christianity was not an initiative of Church Leadership, but rather a response to the hunger of the early Christians for a sacred feminine presence.
Mary became for Christianity a portal for that sacred presence. Or, put another way, a sacred presence responded to the cries of her people when they called her “Mary”, just as that presence had responded over the millennia to other names cried out in love or sorrow or desperate need.
And yet, and still, before any of that happened, Mary, a young woman living in Nazareth, a town despised in Israel, was already a luminous presence who made a choice to say “yes” to a call that held mystery, uncertainty, unimaginable risk, a call to mother a child with a love that would ask of her everything.
When we first meet Mary in the Gospels, she is being offered that invitation.
Here is how Irish poet John O’Donohue imagines the scene:
Cast from afar before the stones were born
And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,
The words have waited for the hunger in her
To become the silence where they could form.
The day’s last light frames her by the window,
A young woman with distance in her gaze,
She could never imagine the surprise
That is hovering over her life now.
The sentence awakens like a raven,
Fluttering and dark, opening her heart
To nest the voice that first whispered the earth
From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.
She offers to mother the shadow’s child;
Her untouched life becoming wild inside.
Where does our story touch Mary’s? Where are the meeting points? What are the words waiting for the hunger in us “to become the silence where they could form”? When our hearts open, will they also become a nest for a new birthing of the Holy?
The urgent needs of our time require a “yes” to the conception, followed by the birthing, of new life.
Mary’s story gives us the courage to say “yes” without knowing where that “yes” may lead. It is enough to know that certainly our own life will become, like Mary’s, “wild inside”. Mary comes as Archetype to each one of us who carries the Holy within us, seeking a place of birth.
We walk the dark road, with Mary, in trust. We walk companioned by one who knows our struggles to maintain our trust in the face of inner doubts and outer calamity.
We walk with one who loves us and encourages us, prepares us, to welcome “the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”