In her new book, Gifts of the Visitation, Denise Bossert chronicles her adventures in discovering the role of Mary as a spiritual guide and model for her own spiritual formation. Her journey takes her from evangelical Protestantism to an orthodox understanding of Roman Catholicism. Along the way, she encounters Mary as a unique spiritual figure, divinely chosen and yet freely human.
I am perhaps an interesting commentator on Mary’s role in the spiritual life and Bossert’s engaging text. I appreciate Denise Bossert’s spiritual journey, honor her personal experience of the divine and respect her interpretation of Mary as one possible understanding of Jesus’ mother. Her encounter with the spirituality of Mary transforms her life. Yet, I understand Mary the mother of Jesus in a very different way than Denise Bossert.
I don’t venerate Mary. Nor do I find orthodox understandings of the immaculate conception, the perpetual virginity of Mary, the papacy and teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eucharist as real presence in the body and blood of Christ, and male priesthood helpful to my own spiritual journey. While these doctrines may be spiritually helpful to others, I see them as localizing and absolutizing what should be global and relative. They make fallible persons and institutions too distant from human life and unrelated to the struggles of persons like me.
Nevertheless, I have come to believe that the very human Mary has a role in the spirituality of progressive Protestants such as me. We can honor Mary without the need for supernaturalism. The natural human Mary is holy enough! She reveals what can happen when someone says “yes” to God in all her imperfection and finitude. None of this depends on metaphysical distance from humankind or personal sinlessness, but rather reveals the world-changing power of personal responses to God’s call in our lives. That is the heart of my understanding of Mary’s spirituality and gift to us. She could have said “no,” but her “yes” transformed the world.
Mary is one of us, I believe. She was an ordinary person, the daughter of ordinary persons, conceived in the ordinary way. She had no particular metaphysical qualities separating her from any other Jewish young girl, although she may have been “chosen” for a particular vocation by God who chooses all of us for vocations in our uniqueness. In the course of her life, Mary never fully understood her son Jesus, as scripture indicates, and was likely – although some might through theological gymnastics suggest otherwise – the biological mother of several other children.A sinless Mary, separated from humankind it all its grandeur and ambiguity, is too pre-programmed to be spiritually helpful to us. Anyone who is separated from the broken nature of humankind and always makes the right decisions cannot be a good guide or model for ambiguous humankind. Still, we can say that in the “call and response” nature of life, God called and Mary responded. As scripture suggests, she didn’t fully understand the call of God at the time or what was to become of her in the future, but she said “yes” to God’s invitation to a holy adventure of bearing God’s beloved child and healer of humankind. She made a “leap of faith” and brought new life into the world.
Mary’s “yes,” concretely given by and concrete and finite person, time-bound and imperfect, invites us to say “yes” to God’s call in our own “fear and trembling.” Mary was “perplexed” to say the least, as scripture suggests. As I read the annunciation story, I suspect that her dialogue and ultimate assent to the request of her angelic visitor was not an automatic “yes” but may have involved some questioning on her part. She may have had some internal dialogue, weighing the risks that her vocation might entail. But, even though saying “yes” could jeopardize her relationship to Joseph and possibility her very life, she followed God’s vision, taking the “cost of discipleship” (Bonhoeffer) on herself.
Mary is unique. She received a unique call and made a decisive response. Her uniqueness invites us to explore our own uniqueness and in so doing embody – and give birth – to God’s calls in our day to day lives and life plans. This is the gift of God’s visitation and presence in the lives of two women and the gift of Denise Bossert’s book to us.