Sunday, March 27, 2005

mary in the margins

As a result of peculiar religious upbringing (Catholic schools, Protestant years, Islamic plot twist), it is with great interest that I note the startling rise of recognition given the Virgin Mary by non-Catholics, specifically key Protestant groups such as the Methodists and Baptists in various places in the world but more so in the US.

The reason this is peculiar? In the Philippines, a very Catholic country, the Virgin is venerated and held in high esteem. She has all her titles including Queen of Heaven and Mother of God. The Filipinos recognize things like her bodily Assumption into Heaven and her unique role as Mediatrix - this allows her to plead on behalf of the poor sinners in her mode as Mother of Mercy (to Christ in his role as the stern judge). She's very very powerful, having innumerable devotees. Her "worship", in fact, is one of the many reasons there was a break from the Catholic Church hundreds of years ago.

The Protestants, in particular Martin Luther and later Calvin in some Swiss canton, urged a return to the bible as the sole authority to guide believers in terms of teachings - a definite reaction against practices like the selling of indulgences for sins not yet committed (to raise funds, of course).

At any rate, Mary was marginalized by the Protestants. She was devalued simply because of her growing importance to the Catholics. The Protestants, who favored Jesus above all, had no idols or statues of anyone else but the Son of God. Some of them removed even Jesus from the crucifix, leaving only the empty cross as their emblem of faith.

I grew up suspicious of Mary (in fact, I found Mary Magdalene infinitely more interesting) apart from her role in the Christmas Belen. It ruffled my Protestant feathers to even consider the existence of the Rosary - which, to me, was simply...blasphemous (I thought "Why pray to her when I can go direct?") - getting me into countless arguments with friends and teachers which were unwinnable by either side (I'd bring out my Bible or hurl verses from memory, because we Protestants take pride in knowing our stuff).

When I wrote "Fragments of Memory" in 1990, I had Mary doing the usual Mary thing but showed my interest (again) in the other Mary (Magdalene). It was a very Protestant text and somehow won a Palanca Award that year. And yet, having read the Bible and researched books to write my play, I could not deny that she was an excellent and faithful believer (there is a reason the song is called the Magnificat), a good mother (when she freaked out when Jesus went missing at 12 plus her presence at his death) - in other words, a good person. My only true issue was the worship given her.

So I was, in a way, "anti-Mary" because of upbringing. So recently, when I read in Time that Protestant sects were (re)introducing Mary as part of their regular Sunday thing, I was awash with emotion. It felt wrong. Almost blasphemous.

Every religious movement's biggest foes are pluralism and secularism. It's as if the Catholic Church created a very clever way to get everyone back into the fold, where their prior ecumenical movements failed (I think I'll write a conspiracy short story wherein the Protestants get "singularized" by Marianism or Marianology or whatever it is really called).

Of course, I write all of this tongue-in-cheek. I no longer believe in exclusive faith - especially in faiths that are easy to condemn those who do not buy into them completely. I do not adhere to Catholicism's dogma and colorful saints (though they are wonderful to think and write about). I am tired of Protestantism's Bible-blinders and their veiled hypocrisy (though they honed my mind for debate). And I am terrified by the implications of Islam. Ultimately, faith should be personal, expressed through actions but never in need of spectacular celebration, pogroms, mass conversions or miraculous displays.

If tomorrow's Protestants say "Hail Mary" and are somehow comforted, then good for them. Our lives are short and often impossible to accept or understand. There will always be things that the secular world and its philosophies, logic and science will never be able to address, despite the protestations of endless intellectual, political and libertine minds. For as long as faith in its most profound, hopeful and comforting nature is relevant, there will be space for ideas like the Virgin Mary and her merciful understanding.

You can never marginalize what is true.


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