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. Prologue
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The feminist Rosary

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Rediscovering a subversive prayer

Rosaries from the Liturgy and Life Collection, Burns Library, Boston College. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

By mary gordon

Coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s, it wouldn't have occurred to me that the kind of piety I rejected as simplistic and sentimental, the kind I associated with the Rosary, was precisely the kind connected with women. But it was mainly women who prayed the Rosary, women of two types: old women who wrapped the circuit of beads several times around gnarled fingers, or young women who wore Mary-like gowns to the senior prom and thought of spaghetti straps as the work of the devil. I was not that kind of young woman. Even in my most pious period (ages, approximately, eight to 12), when I thought of myself as a future Carmelite, my prayer life was based on the Scripture and the Mass.

The Rosary was not cool. Cool was holding your missal and reciting the responses of the Mass in Latin, following along with the (male) priest, a priest with his back to us. Ite missa est, Deo gratias. And we were grateful, grateful to be in the exalted company of the words of Scripture and the Latin tongue. There was no place in the collective imagination then for the idea that we were speaking in the words of the fathers, or that there might be a problem with that. But we knew we wanted to be with the fathers, out in the world, rather than with the old ladies in their old lady shoes, their long black skirts, and their kerchiefs, mumbling the Rosary embarrassingly.

So how has it happened that I got here from there, from a habit of mind that insisted that I reject the Rosary if I wasn't going to be embarrassing to myself, to a habit of praying the Rosary often, most days in fact? I begin my morning's work by saying the Rosary, sitting in the chair I have for reading and contemplation. I use the beads I bought in Galilee, at the place where Jesus was meant to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. They are black, mother of pearl: cool as sea pebbles.

If you had told me 30 years ago that I would one day be writing a feminist interpretation of the Rosary, I would have told you that you were crazy.

The custom of using some sort of counter to track repeated prayer is, of course, quite ancient. One example, from the fourth century, pleases me by its anti-materiality. In this tradition, an anchorite would collect stones in his lap and throw one away for each prayer he said. But it is St. Dominic, a 13th-century Castilian, who seems to have set his seal on the popular imagination as the originator of the Rosary. Dominic's preaching against the Albigensian heresy, similar in its dualism to Manichaeism, was going badly, and the Virgin Mary gave him the Rosary as a tool--just in case the violent and bloody massacre of the Albigensians, which went under the name of a Crusade, and the Inquisition, which was originally set up to combat the heresy, were not sufficient. The Rosary of Dominic evolved into what we have today--divided into five decades, each beginning with an Our Father, followed by 10 Hail Marys, and ending with the Glory Be to the Father. In the traditional Rosary, the one that I pray, there are three sets of mysteries, the joyful (said on Mondays and Thursdays), the sorrowful (said on Tuesdays and Fridays), and the glorious (said on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays). A fourth set of mysteries, the luminous mysteries, devoted to Christ's public ministry, was proposed in October 2002 by John Paul II. (I haven't tried these yet; I'm waiting for the road test results.) Each set contains five separate mysteries, or episodes in the life of Jesus and Mary; these episodes are meant to be occasions of meditation.

The Dominicans were called the militia of Christ, and the militaristic language attached to the Rosary continued well into the 1950s. Consider only two examples: the Legion of Mary and the Blue Army, both organizations that were big on the Rosary and both of which were committed to a crusade against communism and its near cousin secularism, a word that was used interchangeably with modernism. One Web page devoted to the Rosary today quotes the 20th-century saint Padre Pio as saying, "The Rosary is a weapon."

So how did I get from there to here? I was pregnant with my first child. I traveled to Kentucky to visit one of my dearest friends, who was also pregnant, but more advanced in her pregnancy than I. We posed for a picture, swollen belly to swollen belly. When I saw the developed photograph, an image from my past came hurtling toward me: the Visitation, the second joyful mystery of the Rosary, commemorating the visit of the young, pregnant Mary to her older, pregnant cousin Elizabeth. It occurred to me that in calling this a mystery, in surrounding it, framing it, in prayer, the full mysteriousness of the feminine experience was honored. Not only the experience of pregnancy, that deeply strange, deeply secret--in fact, hermetic--period in a woman's life when she communicates with the invisible beloved, unknown to all but her; but also the wordless understanding that passes from woman to woman, worked out practically in the offering of help when help is most needed; a young woman who had no thought of giving birth and an older woman who had given up hope of fertility come together, both astonished, both abashed, to embrace each other at the threshold of their shared experience. And if we say that feminism is simply the belief that the lives of women are important, this second mystery of the Rosary honors not only the fecundity of women, but their devotion to one another, in its tenderness, its simplicity, its willingness to make journeys and to take on burdens out of love.

I began from this time to speculate on the Rosary, particularly the joyful mysteries--the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation, and Finding of Jesus in the Temple--because they insist upon the importance, and indeed the sacred status, of the ordinary life of ordinary women, most particularly in the intensity of the maternal experience. A Church that holds that its most favored members, the aqueducts of its power and authority, be celibate males nevertheless makes room for sexual women in a prayer that has become the daily bread of its people, "the psalter of the poor," as Pope John XXIII called the Rosary. Whatever the praxis of the hierarchy, in the hearts of the faithful, the image of a woman who could not possibly deny her body's life was made luminous and precious, a source of hope in time of hopelessness, solace in time of pain. In its way, the Rosary is subversive--undercutting the meta-narrative of the bodiless male by an insistence on the necessity of the body as full partner in the incarnate mystery.

When I moved backward from the Visitation to the Annunciation, the mystery that commemorates the Angel Gabriel's offering Mary the choice of becoming the mother of God, it was impossible for me not to draw on the treasury of images that the great artists who celebrated the event have given us. In this way, I acknowledged that a part of my Catholicism is the tradition of artistic endeavor that finds its inspiration in sacred subjects. Sometimes, in our necessary quest for solidarity with the poor, some of us--or perhaps I am only speaking for myself--have trouble admitting the part of our religious life that has its roots in high culture, a high culture to which many of the poor do not have access. But I have been called to be an artist, and the art of the past has nourished me, and nourishes my prayers. When I first visited the Capella San Marco in Florence, the shock of Fra Angelico's great Annunciation, emerging from the darkness as I climbed the stairs, reminded me of the shock that Mary must have experienced when the angel (the angel with the amazing wings of feathers that look like marble, lime, peach, and blood red) invaded the private domain of her prayers to tell her she had been chosen to bear the Messiah.

In my meditations over the Rosary, I focus as well on a less famous Annunciation from the predella of Duccio's Maestà in Siena. In this painting there is the presence of darkness, as if mystery were made visible, given a reality, as a tone rather than an idea. Duccio's Mary uses her arm to shield her breasts from the angel's importuning; her hesitation, her reluctance are unmistakable. And the angel keeps his distance, bides his time. He does not impregnate Mary by ravishment, as Zeus impregnated Danaë or Leda in the Greek myths. He waits for her consent. That is why I use this mystery of the Rosary to pray for women who have been coerced by men, whose pregnancies were the result of force, whose consent was not asked for, not waited for. And I also use this mystery to pray for the work of pro-choice Catholics who insist on the primacy of a woman's unequivocal consent in the decision to bear a new life, so that every child will be a child brought to birth with the full willingness of its mother, as Jesus was.

When I reach the third joyful mystery, the Nativity, I recall the most amazing dramas of my life, the births of my two children. And I meditate on the moment of privileged aloneness when all those surrounding the childbed--the bed of straw, the manger, the hospital bed with its battery of sophisticated equipment--disappear, after the blood and sweat and filth have been cleaned away. (For the mystery of the Nativity celebrates blood and sweat and filth.) The pregnant and then birthing mother is importantly alone with her child in an enterprise only the two of them participate in.

Moving from pregnancy to birth, the invisible beloved grows visible, and there is the moment of silence when the child, newly in this world, reaches for his mother's breast, and both of them are entirely sufficient to each other and to themselves. I think of the dark of that December night, and the cold. I think of mothers bearing children in poverty, away from home, and of the joy, the feeling of unbelievable accomplishment that the simplest woman feels in the moments after having given birth. I thank God at this time for the safe births of both my children, for the gift of them, which must always be unearnable, and unearned; I am grateful to be part of a tradition that celebrates not just the birth of God, but the giving of birth.

The fourth joyful mystery, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, celebrates something that, like many human experiences, is best expressed in a Yiddish word: nachas, meaning the kind of pride in another that takes your breath away. The young mother brings her son to the temple. The old priest Simeon says not what any other nice old man would say--what a beautiful baby--but more: Having seen this one, this child, now I can die. I can only imagine Mary's pride, the pride a mother feels when her child has been publicly named as noteworthy (the pride at the school play, at the playing field) that brings with it the terrible temptation to use the word mine. And why not for this young mother, why not this time? To say: My son, whom the world will take note of. And the old man Simeon warns her that her soul will be pierced with sorrow because of her outstanding son. I am moved by the poignance of the old man, close to death, holding the child, so new in life; and of the proud, frightened, and no doubt exhausted young mother, in the temple to be purified, for she has been told she is unclean by the very fact of having given birth.

During this mystery, I meditate on the siren of maternal idolatry; on the piercing love that is a mother's for a child; on the vulnerability, like no other, that a mother is exposed to by the very fact of bringing a child to the world. And I use this occasion to indulge in simple, ambitious prayer: Let my children succeed in the world. If I'm feeling strong, or perhaps if one of them has recently been successful, I add a prayer for the removal of the maternal narcissism that ties my sense of self-worth to my children's place in the world. This mystery is for all of us, whether or not we have children, an opportunity to consider what is the source of our pride; not to reject pride out of hand, which a kind of wrong-headed Christian humility might suggest, but to situate ourselves properly in relation to the source.

Anyone who has ever lost a child in a department store can relate to the fifth joyful mystery--the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. Consider the situation: It is the time of the Passover festival. Mary, Joseph, and 12-year-old Jesus have traveled from tiny Nazareth to the bustling city. Mary turns around, the boy has disappeared. I think of the sweat pouring down her back and between her breasts as she runs up and down the strange streets, searching every face for a clue, unable to find her beloved child. I hear street music; smell the food being sold by the vendors, see the goods being hawked--the temple doves, the fruits of the sacrifice. He is nowhere. And then, she finds him calmly sitting amidst the rabbis, who are amazed at his learning. I feel her beating heart. And the moment of rage that comes so hard upon the moment of relief. "Why were you concerned? Did you not know I was about my father's business?" The impulse to strike the child for being what my mother would have called wise. The wise child, with a wise answer, in both senses of the term. It is an answer that does not take into consideration her terror, the possibility of her loss: I must be about my father's business. You, mother, are my past. She is silent, because of course there is nothing for her to say. She knows he is right. He is no longer her child.

How as feminists do we understand this thoughtless child's rejection of the world and the way of the mother? Perhaps by accepting the terrible truth: that in creating strong children, we automatically deprive ourselves of their company; that in being strong, we test ourselves, challenge ourselves, set ourselves in the midst of the elders and claim our own wisdom. During this mystery I become a supplicant: Keep my children safe, keep my children safe, I pray over and over, with each Hail Mary. Perhaps by the eighth Hail Mary I am able to enlarge my supplication: Keep all children safe. And perhaps there is a little room here for gratitude--gratitude for our tradition, which is one of concern for the private anguish and the larger terror of being lost in the larger world.

It would seem that in shifting from the joyful to the sorrowful mysteries, we move away from the sphere of the traditionally feminine. In the first three sorrowful mysteries--Jesus' Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, his Scourging at the Pillar, his Crowning with Thorns--the figure of Mary is not even present. With these mysteries, both the limits and paradox of gender present themselves to us as Christians, in that the form of human that God chose to inhabit happens to be male. "Happens to be" is a difficult locution. What do we say that isn't a rationalization--or that, conversely, doesn't lead us down the slope to goddess worship, which entails giving up too much?

Jesus was male. The sorrowful mysteries concern themselves with suffering that was endured by a male body. Nevertheless, if we say that occasionally gender must not be our primary focus--as we do, for example, in the case of natural disaster or a genocide that makes no distinction between female and male--if we say that the body of Jesus is the body of the author of the system of love that the Gospels insist we live by, then we can place ourselves, as we pray the sorrowful mysteries, in communion with all those who suffer in the world. Who of us has not experienced the dread of the Agony in the Garden, a sort of negative reversal of the Annunciation, where the fear of the future is not a fear of the unknown but of a vividly understood inevitability, the destruction of the spirit and the flesh. The agony at Gethsemane is a moment of the greatest psychological profundity, in which our sense of abandonment by God, our reluctance to do what must be done are honored and not dismissed as simple weakness or insufficiency of faith. Mental anguish is given its full weight as a sorrow equal to physical sorrow, and in praying this mystery of the Rosary we join our mental anguish to that of all the world, in a community of affliction that insists that the sufferer is not entirely alone--that acknowledges the failure of the sleeping disciples (ourselves, our friends) and in doing so admits the occasional failure of human comfort, human solidarity.

The sorrowful mysteries are precious to me because they contain the sufferings that we, as humans, are prey and heir to. When I get to the second sorrowful mystery, Jesus' Scourging at the Pillar, I think of victims of brutality, of people whose bodies are turned into things. I pray for those for whom the pain of the body has become the central reality. During the third sorrowful mystery, the Crowning with Thorns, I pray for victims of humiliation, and I pray against my own taste for humiliating and my own taste for humiliation.

In the fourth sorrowful mystery, the Carrying of the Cross, Jesus offers the women he meets on the road to Calvary an understanding of their pain in its particularities and differentness from his: Weep not for me but for yourselves and your children. The day will come when they will say unto you, "Blessed are the wombs that have not borne and the breasts that have not given suck." During this mystery I pray for people whose lives are a continual burden, and I pray that they may meet a Simon of Cyrene who will help bear the weight, if only for a little while.

Of the fifth sorrowful mystery--the Crucifixion and Death on the Cross--what can possibly be said? Except that one is dumbstruck by the unentangleable knot of love and death. The grief of Good Friday is best marked by silence.

Of the three traditional sets, I've always found the glorious mysteries--Jesus' Resurrection and his Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, Mary's Assumption and her heavenly Coronation--most abstract, most difficult of access. I have never had any interest in determining whether or not the Resurrection was literally true. And what is glory? It suggests removal from this world, a transcendence that requires apartness from the body--one's own, and the loved bodies of the people who we hold dear. I know that my beloved dead have not come back to me; I have not been able to put my hands into their wounds, or share a meal with them at any sort of Emmaus. I prefer to rest in images: the dim fire lit by the women who kept watch at the tomb, the dim fire of our hope in the face of terrible evidence of this world's cruelty; the lightning flash of the angel's news; the lightness of the risen body; the fragility of our lives, the thinness of the border between life and death, the assurance that communication with the beloved goes on after death.

It occurs to me that the glorious mysteries--unlike the sorrowful mysteries, which are drenched in crushing anguish and affliction--are sad: the Ascension of Jesus into heaven, for instance, which marks the apostles' growth from childhood's dependence to the lonely challenge of maturity. The glory is to Jesus--he is no longer a subject, a victim of gravity. But we on the earth must find our own way. I pray at this time for the grace to desire independence.

As an artist, the third mystery, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, has been important to me, because artists have always known how inadequate is our own unassisted vision, dependent upon inspiration, whose roots are in the word sospiro, breath. The Holy Spirit comes to the apostles, and to Mary seated among them, not only as a breath but as a wind, rushing. This is the blessed use of force, this wind that blows away our timidities, our habits, the tongues of flame that burn away our instinct to burrow into the safety of the familiar, to stay in the circle of the like-minded. If a life of faith makes any sense at all, it must be a wind, a flame, the courage to go out into the world and accomplish things beyond our explanation.

I have always had a lot of trouble with the fourth glorious mystery, the Assumption of Mary into heaven, partly because of the plethora of extremely bad art that I associate with it: zonked-out matrons with folded hands supported on clouds that looked like they were made up of old Easter candy. So as a feminist I have liberated the fourth glorious mystery, and I no longer name it as the Assumption but as the Dormition of the Virgin. The most common images of Jesus' mother are of a young woman; if she is older, she is seen as prostrate with grief. To portray Mary in his 1964 film masterpiece The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the profoundly religious poet, also a Marxist and a promiscuous homosexual who probably died at the hands of rough trade, chose his own mother, with whom he lived until his death. When I pray the mystery of the Dormition, I think of Signora Pasolini, a star in her son's film: her amused and lively eyes, her patient mouth, the wise and accepting face of a woman who has experienced much and is still hungry for life, a life that she knows she will leave soon. This mixture of sorrow and bemusement, which can come only with age, suggests to me the comfort that our elders can bring to us. And so when I meditate on this mystery, I throw myself on the mature bosom of the elder Mary, and I pray in gratitude for the women elders who have given me much, who may be passing from the life I've shared with them, to my grief, to their glory.

And it is glory itself that is celebrated in the fifth glorious mystery, the Coronation of Mary. Of all the mysteries of the Rosary, this has been most far from me. I got a sense of how to approach it from a fragment of a poem by John Donne: "Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness." It is a prayer written on the poet's deathbed, and he speaks of his death as the moment when "I shall be made thy music." I concentrate on the importance of celebration and of tribute. And I usually listen to Bach's Magnificat.

It is, of course, possible to disapprove of my calling my interpretation of the Rosary feminist. What, specifically, is feminist about it? For me, feminism insists on the importance of women's lives--not that they are more important than men's lives, but simply that they be foregrounded as the lives of men are, that the dishonor that has attached to them be redressed.

To be a feminist is to put oneself firmly, because one has experienced injustice, on the side of justice. And if one is on the side of justice, one is on the side of the afflicted. Then one realizes both the limits of this life and the possibilities of transcendence. It is this spirit of feminism--that neither dishonors nor privileges the body, that witnesses the suffering of humankind and hopes for a final triumph--that the Rosary nourishes and sustains.

 

Novelist, essayist, biographer, memoirist, Mary Gordon is the author most recently of Joan of Arc (2000), Seeing Through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity (2000), and The Shadow Man: A Daughter's Search for Her Father (1996). She teaches English at Barnard College.

 

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Rosaries from the Liturgy and Life Collection, Burns Library, Boston College. By Gary Wayne Gilbert

 

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