Marian Devotion for Uptight Anglos

A friend of mine, a woman from the deep South who belongs to something called a “Bible Church,” once said she wouldn’t dream of asking the intercession of the Blessed Mother. “You never know what a woman’s going to say about you behind your back,” she explained.

In Confessions of A Failed Southern Lady, Florence King quotes Henry Adams to the effect that America’s Puritan heritage has cheated American women out of two compelling role models — one being the pagan Venus, the other the Catholic Virgin. King adds that, for much of Christian Europe’s history, the Virgin was a fearsome, goddess-like figure, far from the “long-suffering Irish mother” she’s become since the counter-Reformation.

Well, having known a long-suffering Irish mother or two, I have to concede my friend the point. Unless you want all of Ballywhatzis knowing your business, it’s smart to play it close to the vest. Nevertheless, for many Catholic women, the Virgin remains a compelling role model, and presumably a discreet intercessor. My Patheos colleagues Pat Gohn and Julie Davis say so in this podcast.

I have to wonder, though, whether Mary’s old-school image — the one that makes Protestants cry “Pagan hangover!” — has been effaced quite so thoroughly as Florence King supposes. My first exposure to Marian devotion came in December of 1996, and it would have done any medieval hamlet proud. I was visiting the Tampa Bay branch of my mother’s family. It so happened that something resembling the Virgin had appeared, several stories high, on the Seminole Finance building in the form of grease streaks. The inexplicable event had made nationwide news.

My uncle and I drove down to see for ourselves, expecting to find the whole thing a hoot; we didn’t. Though the image itself was ambiguous — it was just possible to make out an inclined head covered by a mantle — the behavior of the devotees was too serious to write off as mass hysteria. No one was prophesying about the end of the world; anyone who wept into her mustache did it quietly. The whole business had such a dignified air that my uncle and I could only mutter “How interesting” before slinking off to Denny’s.

It’s easy to see why Florence King and Henry Adams missed all this. Adams was writing in the 1890s; King, was writing about the 1950s. Neither could have foreseen the transformative effect of Latino culture. If America has a goddess-rejecting Puritan heritage, it would probably come as a great surprise to most of the people covered by the Monroe Doctrine. Indeed, floating in the sea of poinsettas placed before the Seminole Finance building, I counted dozens of Cuban flags, along with notes that probably read: “SEND CASTRO TO THE PAREDON!” or “BLESS THE SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS!” How long can Anglo America hope to resist?

I can’t speak for the women, but I have to admit, even since entering the Church, I’ve been unable to help finding Marian devotion a little, well, girly. Now, this is a very unusual distinction for me to make. Judging by my work ethic, I seem to have shed my Puritan heritage quite nicely. Certainly I’m far more androgynous, psychologically speaking, than a lot of guys I’ve met named “Guadalupe,” “Refugio,” and “Pilar,” most of whom looked ready to gut a man like a trout for snatching the last can of Tecate out of the Circle K cooler. Not long ago, I ran across some old APA-approved profile purporting to define the Guy Who Is A Swish Everywhere But in the Loins. I passed with flying pastel colors on every point save one. I don’t idealize women. In fact, the very notion seems loopy to me.

I suspect this is because, thanks either to training or inclination, I’ve seen myself less a protector of women than a confidant. “Walker” was once the term for guys who squired women with busy or unsociable husbands. Most walkers were, or are, gay; but I suspect a few guys like me — straight guys with bendable ears — have managed to slip from time to time onto the union rosters. If no man is a hero to his valet, no woman can possibly be an angel to her walker. Indeed, walking for an angel would be a nonstop misery. Angels tend to have no idea who in the department or at the office is screwing whom, in any sense of the word, and obtaining that intel is one of the chief perks of walkerdom.

To illustrate the kind of un-Marian behavior I find most endearing, I’ll cite an episode involving my own mother, which took place at a wedding feast.

It was the kind of affair that could only have taken place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A colleague of my mom’s boyfriend, who came from Bengal, was marrying a woman from Germany. Presiding jointly over the ceremony were a Lutheran pastor and a pair of Brahmins. (If any Catholic priest had gone near that altar, his bishop would have had him strangled.) After the Protestant had done his thing, the Brahmins recited what sounded like the annotated Vedas, and then, very graciously, translated. One of the Sanskrit benedictions went: “May you have many offspring of good moral character, and many milk-bearing cows.”

Well, that had everyone rolling, which was appropriate enough, because it was then that the ceremony ended and the bar opened. This time, the (Rhenish) wine did not run out. Several times over the next few hours, my mother swam through the crowd, seized my arm, and brayed, “Max — my offspring of good moral character, my milk-bearing cow! Get mother a drink, won’t you!” Like all true Manhattanites, we were planning to walk home that evening, and in any case I’d never seen her having such a good time, so I obeyed gladly.

Now, what we know of the Cana business comes from John the Evangelist — the first walker in Christian history. It’s actually very flattering to think that a member of my own cast got a literal shout-out from the Cross. I’ll have to reflect on that; hopefully, it’ll help me shed my inhibitions and join the Marian party.

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  • NY girl in Ohio

    I love you! I want you to be my walker! Were there any “dancers”, for those of us with non-dancing dearly beloved husbands?

    I predict much persecution of you due to your shout-out comment. Fasten your seat belt!

  • Bill

    anyone who wept into her mustache did it quietly

    Did a spit-take, all over the keyboard. And it’s YOUR fault.

    But seriously: Some of the Catholic men I know who are most dedicated to Our Lady are tough-as-nails types. My late uncle, for example, who saw action (and its attendant horrors) at Midway.

  • Mike Melendez

    @Bill: Can you blame them? Mary got an eyeful of that herself and stayed. She understands.

  • Dan jersey

    The image of John as the first walker is very startling, beautiful and compelling. Thanks for blogging!

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