I’ve long since given up on being Catholic. During the time I needed it, I would sneak into church and sit in the back pews during morning mass and it was so comforting and important to me to hear human voices rise up together in prayer and love and to know that my voice was a part of something. I taught myself the different prayers, said the rosary at night, alone. But taking comfort the whole time. Knowing that out there, somewhere, there were others praying the rosary too. And so we were together.
As much as I needed Catholicism then, I eventually walked away from it. And found my home in Buddhism, where I go to temple rather than church and I am happy with that.
But when times are tough or complicated, I invariably find myself mumbling those Catholic prayers under my breath, most often the Our Father or Hail Mary.
These days, I’ve been mostly saying the Hail Mary.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are you amongst women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death, Amen.
All those years ago, when I regularly attended church, I said this prayer without thinking too deeply about the words. I said them, I understood them. But I understood them through the eyes of the male priests or the babysitter with the Virgin on her wall–a desire to be submissive. A desire to be more like this holiest of submissive women. The woman who was so holy, God chose her to be impregnate. A vessel. For God.
But I’m older now and I have learned so much since then.
Like: the definition of ‘virgin’: a free woman, one not betrothed, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person.
Like: the definition of ‘compassion’: to suffer with.
Like: Mary was an unmarried teenager when she had Jesus, and a woman when he died. She was with him when he died.
Like: Joseph was the man Mary was set to marry when she turned up pregnant, and had to be visited by an angel before he was convinced to marry her despite her pregnancy. He was not with Jesus when he died.
I found out all these things over the course of years. And they all sit with me now, as I go through ritualized mourning. And they help.
Because the thing is, knowing that Mary really actually was a virgin in the sense she was unbound to any man and thus capable of making her own choices, makes me think that Mary was less of the ‘vessel’ so many have made her out to be and much more of a real human being who made an active choice with God to create something beautiful and world changing. She didn’t have to consider the needs of a ‘headship,’ she didn’t need to worry about other children or family honor. She was free. And she made the decision to trust herself and her faith and ‘go with God.’
Thinking about Mary’s free choice as an older woman, and that she chose to follow Jesus through to his death, says that she wasn’t just a vessel used by God–but that she was a real human being, one who made rational decisions, had an active faith, and who could love. Staying by the side of a man struggling through his conflicted relationship with God, the terrible violence inflicted upon him, and then his death are not easy things to bear. Joseph was not with Jesus or his group during this time. Joseph was not at the cross when Jesus died. Scholars speculate Joseph was dead–I speculate that men have left their families throughout all of history over much smaller things than having a child born of God or seeing a child murdered.
Men see the devotion of women and mothers and assume it is just ‘normal.’ That it is biological. That there’s something biologically wrong with a woman when she’s not a complete martyr that sacrifices everything from food to safety to keep her child happy and well. Some of this is sort of true, those who birth get the hormones that are supposed to bond mother to child. But. There is no hormone strong enough to overturn a human being’s decision once they’ve made up their own mind. And barring societal threats (like marriage or prison), when women are free and supported and show devotion to a child or family, it’s because they’ve made the choice to. Women are not mindless vessels. Men insist that devotion must be biological because they sense the choice underneath. The choice they can’t control. Insisting that devotion be biological is just a way of manipulating the choice they can’t control.
Women are not vessels.
And neither was Mary. She was an active participant in her own life. And her life included seeing her own son murdered (and be reborn, if you believe). This is not a weak mindless woman or the simpering snowflake Mary is often presented as. Mary stayed even during the worst of times. She made the choice to suffer with Jesus when she could’ve walked away, like Joseph and many others did. I imagine her hands to be calloused, her handshake to be firm. I imagine Mary had a direct gaze, firm but not unkind. But a gaze that intimidated many anyway. I imagine that Mary knew before Jesus did that he would be betrayed. Intelligent. Fierce. A fighter.
It was Mary who said I can’t carry the burden you carry for you, but I can help you bear it. Compassion. Not because she was a martyr, but because she knew her shoulders were broad and strong enough to help. Solidarity, rather than martyr.
Which is why even tho I am now a Buddhist (or perhaps because I am Buddhist, we are very big on compassion), I now say the Hail Mary with a whole new sense of awe, a whole new sense of wonder. And a whole new sense of comfort.
It’s not just that my voice rises in prayer alongside others at Mass or with others across the world who are saying their Rosary. It’s that those who pray are suffering, the same as I am. And we are together praying to a woman who is willing to suffer with us. Who is willing to bear the burden of suffering with us. We suffer together and pray for relief from suffering. Together.
We are not alone.
Holy Mary mother of God,
Help us to bear this crap now, and when the shit hits the fan, too.
Because we know that you made the choice. To stay with the suffering until they are able to rise again.
It’s not everything. Saying Hail Marys two times or 200 doesn’t make the pain just suddenly go away. But it does help. There are others out there that suffer like you do, like I do. Who have no place else to turn, who don’t know what to do, who are facing the worst moments of their lives, the scariest, the most unknowing. And they are raising their voices too. In prayer. That you and I–all of us sinners together–will find relief.
Oh, the utter holiness of humanity.
This sacred world. Where love does exist.