Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

June 4, 2009

Mama Mia

I had promised a month or two back to provide some more notes from the ENDOW conference that I attended on the New Feminism, and now that the school year is ended, I can sit and share some things.  

During one point in the conference we were permitted to pick a "mock ENDOW study" of our choice.  I believe one was called "Knowing Your Dignity," another was on Mulieres dignitatem, and the third was a study of Redemptoris mater, or John Paul II's encyclical on Mary, mother of the redeemer.  I opted for the third talk as I had studied M.D. in depth and was pretty confident in my own dignity.  What I received was a brilliant, albeit concise, study on the Blessed Virgin.   Though the study spanned an hour and a half, I'll just provide two main ideas which are very similiar. 

The first thing that was said was that to the modern woman (that's us, folks), Mary can be a confusing figure.  How can she relate to us in the twenty-first century, with our crazed lives, many demands, stress-induced jobs, and quest for purpose and meaning in postmodernity?  Moreover, the modern woman is told that obedience is equated with subjugation and a threat to our dignity.  Here was this young virgin who says, "I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Let it be done to me according to your Word."  Where's Mary's autonomy?  Is she merely obeying out of some subservient, handmaid-y attitude? 

 The answer is no.  To be a handmaid in the Old Testament was to participate in God's unbreakable covenant.  A covenant is never-ending and involves the mutual protection of the parties (and here, since God's pretty set on his own self-protection, Mary's got a good gig going).  It's a good move on Mary's part...a beautiful move...a courageous move.  Moreover, obedience never means subjugation if the person in authority (or the person asking) is loving and wise (in Mary's case, Charity and Wisdom itself!).  To obey, in Latin, means to hear or to listen.  Mary is listening to a call, and she is autonomously responding to it.  God never infringes on her free will.  It's as modern as you can get! 

The second theme that the leader picked up on was that Redemptoris mater primarily defines Mary by her faith.   Though Mary is born without original sin, she is thoroughly human in all other things.  We tend to stop at the Annunciation after Mary makes this grand "yes" to God entrusting her.  But what follows this "yes" is a series of paradoxes and contradictions in her own life that must have made her question that "yes" and the covenant that she made with God.  And if she didn't, then she is a better woman than me (well, of course she is).  Mary's faith, in all of is humanness, was tested immediately after the Annunciation.  She conceives Jesus and while 8 or 9 months pregnant, has to travel (sans SUV) to Bethlehem.  Once she gets there, there is no comfortable place to rest, or to give birth, and so I can just imagine her (this is me projecting me onto Mary!) looking up to heaven and saying, "You want me to give birth to the Christ where?!?"  How confused Mary must have been after her "yes."  After the birth what does she have to do?  Just travel with a newborn to Egypt to flee death and persecution.  Life continues and when her son is in his thirties, his life is threatened as he preaches God's word.  And finally, what must Mary have been thinking as she walked with her son to Calvary?  Would she not have demanded answers from the Father?  What did her "yes" mean then?  Christ asks if He had been abandoned...would not Mary's cry have echoed that, too?  I can't imagine her life, faced with so many paradoxes and contradictions. 

The modern woman, whether single, married, or consecrated, faces such similar experiences everyday.  If we have been privileged enough to listen, hear, and respond to a call from the Father, how often do our lives turn out how we think they will after our own "yes"?  Hardly ever, in my experience.  My own projection about my life looks very different from what is unfolding.   Mary is the model for women in all eras and ages, to trust that when God calls us, He means it, all the way to the end.  

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