Rachel Fulton Brown is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, where she writes and teaches on Scripture, liturgy, and medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary. She recently spoke with First Things junior fellow Connor Grubaugh about three of her favorite books on the Blessed Virgin.
The title of the first book cuts to the chase. Tell us about Mary, by Sarah Jane Boss.
Like me, Sarah Jane Boss trained as a medievalist, but she writes as a contemporary theologian rather than an historian. Like me, she tends to see Mary primarily as she appears in the medieval sources, as the place or vessel through whom God became visible to the world. Boss shows that seeing Mary as the elemental matrix or chaos out of which God created the world—“present in all physical things as their foundation”—enables us to understand the Incarnation as salvific, and creation as glorified through her. While arguing as a theologian, Boss writes as something of a poet. Like the medieval and early modern theologians on whose works she draws, she thinks in ravishing images and tropes.
What do you mean when you say that Mary “enables us to understand the Incarnation”?
In my forthcoming book, I discuss the way in which medieval Christians prayed to Mary through the cycle of antiphons and psalms at the core of her Hours (which many Christians still pray as “The Little Office of the Virgin”). The first antiphon in the hour of Matins in the Roman Use is Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. This antiphon is sung as a frame, as it were, for the psalm O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is your name in all the earth (Psalm 8), celebrating the Lord’s work of creation.
Mary is the frame through which God made himself visible to the world. In the Akathistos hymn, which Orthodox Christians have sung to her since the fifth century, she is hailed in exactly this way, as the “container of the uncontainable God,” “tabernacle of God and the Word … greater than the Holy of Holies.” The mystery is how the Creator of heaven and earth could enter into his creation. The answer is another mystery: through Mary.
Your second book is Margaret Barker’s The Mother of the Lord.
Margaret Barker is an Old Testament scholar, Methodist preacher, and author of seventeen books in which she attempts to recover what she has called the “temple tradition.” Whereas Boss thinks primarily in terms of Mary’s relationship to the cosmos, Barker shows that Mary points to the ancient worship of the Lord as he was believed to have become present in his temple. In this tradition, the Lady, too, was present in the temple as the tree of life and as the ark on which the Lord was enthroned. This is the same ark that John saw in heaven at the opening of the temple, the woman clothed with the sun, the moon at her feet, and a crown of stars on her head (Revelation 11:19-12:1). Far from an attempt to make Mary into a goddess, the recovery of the temple tradition is an effort to understand how Christianity depends on Mary for the recognition of Jesus as the Christ.
Is the idea that the Old Testament anticipates Mary as Mother of God, just as it anticipates Jesus as the Christ, a theme in ancient and medieval Christian thought?
Yes, it runs throughout the tradition, both in Orthodoxy and in the West, up through the seventeenth century, after which it is obscured by new methods of Scriptural interpretation. It is still implicit in the structure of even Protestant liturgies, in the readings from the Old Testament, most particularly the psalms.
The reason we sing the psalms at all is because ancient and medieval Christians believed that the Lord of the psalms had become incarnate as Jesus Christ. And for ancient and medieval Christians, Mary was present in the psalms as the mother of the king (Psalm 44/45), the tabernacle which he sanctified as his habitation (Psalm 45/46:5-6), and the glorious city of God (Psalm 86/87:3), to give but a few of her many names. Late medieval Christians wrote whole “psalters” of titles that they found for her in the Old Testament.
Your last book is a hefty work of theological reflection and spiritual devotion. What fascinates you about Mystical City of God, by Sor María de Jesús (Sister Mary of Jesus) of Ágreda?
Sor María was a Franciscan Conceptionist nun and abbess of her family convent at Ágreda in northern Spain. She is famous in the American Southwest as “the Lady in Blue,” said to have appeared to the Jumanos of northern Texas, whom she encouraged to convert. Her Mystical City of God is a masterpiece of Marian devotion, hailed at its posthumous publication in 1680 as a great work of theology containing “deep insight into sacred scripture.” A century later, the Italian adventurer Casanova was somewhat less impressed. In her book, he read “the wild conceptions of a Spanish nun, devout to superstition, melancholy, shut in by convent walls, and swayed by the ignorance and bigotry of her confessors.” The Mystical City is remarkable to most modern readers for the intimate details Sor María relates of Mary’s relationship with her Son. From my perspective, it’s also remarkable as a witness to the continuity of the tradition Barker and Boss describe, in which Mary is seen as the Lady of the Temple through whom God entered into his creation.
How do you think the Venerable Sor María—or other Christian women you study—would respond to today’s secular feminists, who reject Christianity on the grounds that it has contributed to the oppression of women?
I think they would be dumbfounded. It would make no sense to them to claim that Mary, through whom the fault of Eve became the source of our salvation, had done anything other than elevate women as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. One of Sor María's favorite images of Mary is as a mirror in which she saw herself reflected. In Sor María's words:
Sometimes when we look into a mirror, we may observe something new. When we look at Mary—as into a mirror—we know the Most Holy Mother participated in our redemption by taking the flesh of the Son of God into her womb. We also know that God is said to have created man in his image and likeness. In partaking of man’s redemption, it seemed to me that the Most Holy Mary helped to restore man’s resemblance to God, and in doing so by virtue of her own immaculate purity, she acts as a mirror in producing the most genuine likeness of God.
Unlike today’s secular feminists, the Christian women I study talk about Mary not as an image of “woman,” but as the human being most like God, the mirror of his majesty and the image of his goodness (Wisdom 7:26), filled with the knowledge of creation in her capacity as Mother of the Word. In Sor María’s telling, this knowledge included the whole of the arts and sciences—at which, on Mary’s model, Sor María herself excelled.
What motivated you to study Mary?
I grew up in the Presbyterian church, which has no tradition of devotion to the Virgin Mary. I first encountered the medieval devotion to Mary through a course I took in college on women in the Middle Ages. At the time, I was also reading a good deal of feminist theology, which seemed to me at odds with the image of the Virgin that I was encountering in the medieval sources. My goal as a scholar has been to recover an appreciation for the way in which medieval Christians prayed to Mary in the liturgy and imagined her through their reading of Scripture. Without Mary, I have become convinced, there can be no Christianity. I want to help modern Christians appreciate why Mary is necessary both theologically and devotionally to our understanding and experience of God.
Are Christian sects that lack a devotion to Mary missing something?
Yes, but those that lack an understanding of the ancient and medieval tradition of Mary’s appearance in Scripture are also lacking. I have often wondered why Mary chose me, a cradle Presbyterian, for the work of recovering the medieval understanding of her role in making God visible to the world. While I did not grow up with a devotion to Mary, I did grow up with a devotion to the Word. I do not think that I would have paid the attention to her place in Scripture that I have, if I had not grown up Presbyterian.
Do you have a personal Marian devotion now?
Yes and no. Perhaps it is my inherent Presbyterianism, but I have a hard time thinking of either Mary or Jesus as a personal presence. I experience Mary rather as the motivating force for my scholarship, as Wisdom, the magistra of the language arts. She is the frame for all the work that I have done as a medievalist. Whenever I have tried some new analytical method, I find her at the center, guiding me. I would dearly love to have some more personal experience of her, but that does not seem to be the way in which she interacts with me. What I know is that my work flourishes only when I take her as my star. Just this year she guided me to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. I am eager to learn what plans she has for me now.
Last question: Do you have a favorite work of Marian art?
My current favorite is a twelfth- or thirteenth-century ivory, which I saw last winter at the Walters Art Museum, about the time I was finishing my book. It is a folding triptych in the form of a statue of Mary as the Throne of Wisdom. Closed, it shows Mary holding the Son in her lap, not as a child but as Christ in Majesty. Open, it shows scenes from the Passion and Resurrection in the frame of Mary’s body, while Christ sits in majesty holding a book in her head. At the base of the image, Mary lies prone on her couch with the baby in the manger tucked in behind her. It all encapsulates perfectly the mystery of the Incarnation through Mary.
Rachel Fulton Brown’s review essay, “The Quest for the Historical Mary,” appears in the June/July 2017 issue of First Things. Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought is forthcoming in November 2017.