The Mother of God
By William Butler Yeats
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a Sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
I had never given much thought to the Virgin Mary, at least Catholicism’s take on the Virgin Mary, until my recent Jesuit retreat. Participants were told to bring a Rosary if they had one and I honestly wasn’t sure what a Rosary was or what “saying” the Rosary involved. Taking it seriously, my pre-retreat instructions, I decided to find out. A Rosary is a chain or cord with 59 beads and generally a small crucifix attached, one bead for each prayer in the Rosary. Several weeks before, I got down from a shelf a box of crafting supplies and beads that had accumulated over the years from various jewelry projects and proceeded to make my own Rosary. As you would guess, being a Protestant, a protester, I didn’t follow the traditional design. Mine is symmetrical on each side and does not follow the typical pattern, each bead a remnant of something gifted. I found a rock in Norway that contains a natural crucifix that goes all the way through the granite as white quartz. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I intend to attach it to the Rosary as a fitting place to remind me where it is and make it complete.
Once having constructed my Rosary, now I needed to investigate about saying the Rosary. Fortunately, there is lots of good information on line, the Jesuits quite helpful in providing detailed information in this regard. The website I found most interesting was from Xavier University.
The Rosary is a Scripture-based prayer. It begins with the Apostles’ Creed, which summarizes the great mysteries of the Catholic faith. Then an Our Father (Protestants call it the Lord’s Prayer), introduces each mystery, followed by many, many recitations of Hail Mary in each section. There are four sets of Mysteries: Joyful, Sorrowful, Glorious and––added by Saint John Paul II in 2002––the Luminous. Which version of the Rosary is recited is based on the day of the week and also on the calendar, and on the different Catholic traditions, the Jesuits versions a bit different than the other’s I have read on-line. All of them have the same goal; by using repetition within the Rosary, and by reciting the Rosary daily, the words are meant to lead the individual into restful and contemplative prayer related to each Mystery and a deeper faith. The idea is the repetition of the words helps us to enter into the silence of our hearts. The Rosary can be said privately or with a group or it can be done as a read and respond as a group chant, as was done at this retreat. It took close to 30 minutes at the retreat to recite each day, despite saying each part fairly rapidly, some in the group almost turning into a competition on how fast and loud they could respond, the result exhilarating but not the hypnotic chant to lure us into silent contemplation as it is intended.
I did not strangely, feel like a hypocrite, joining in on this daily ritual, despite my serious objections to many Catholic traditions and political positions. If you are going to be a protester, I figured I best understand more fully what is that I am protesting. The objective of why I was there was experience and inner reconciliation, not agreement or faith. We said the Rosary each day as a group walk, with one man leading it and respondents joining in each prayer after it was introduced, in a slow procession outside in two long single file lines. The walks ended in front of a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary, which I am sure in the summer time is ringed with flowers and on these cold February days was surrounded by snow. It all felt somewhat familiar, most of the words and prayers used by Presbyterians in some modified form, right up until the end. And that’s when things took a different and unexpected tangent in terms of my response.
Catholicism embraces the ideas of mystery and love and suffering and spectacle. I included Joyelle McSweeney’s poetry in one of the blogs proceeding this one because she is by her own words a Catholic poet, a Catholic artist, and it is from those roots of mystery and divine that her art arises. Look back at the poem Cool Whip and see that in a different light given that perspective.
The Rosary we said each day ended with The Litany of Mary, a slightly different version than the one printed below, but essentially the same, the version we said even a bit more self flagellating and extreme in the wording. It was the only time during the entire retreat my senses felt assaulted, I couldn’t say some of the words. I was stunned.
The Litany of Mary
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
God our Father ln Heaven, have mercy on us.
God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.
God the Holy Spirit, have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on us.
Holy Mary, pray for us.
Holy Mother of God, pray for us.
Most honored of virgins, pray for us.
Mother of Christ, pray for us.
Mother of the Church, pray for us.
Mother of divine grace, pray for us.
Mother most pure, pray for us.
Mother of chaste love, pray for us.
Mother and virgin, pray for us.
Sinless Mother, pray for us.
Dearest of Mothers, pray for us.
Model of motherhood, pray for us.
Mother of good counsel, pray for us.
Mother of our Creator, pray for us.
Mother of our Savior, pray for us.
Virgin most wise, pray for us.
Virgin rightly praised, pray for us.
Virgin rightly renowned, pray for us.
Virgin most powerful, pray for us.
Virgin gentle in mercy, pray for us.
Faithful Virgin, pray for us.
Mirror of justice, pray for us.
Throne of wisdom, pray for us.
Cause of our joy, pray for us.
Shrine of the Spirit, pray for us.
Glory of Israel, pray for us.
Vessel of selfless devotion, pray for us.
Mystical Rose, pray for us.
Tower of David, pray for us.
Tower of ivory, pray for us.
House of gold, pray for us.
Ark of the covenant, pray for us.
Gate of heaven, pray for us.
Morning star, pray for us.
Health of the sick, pray for us.
Refuge of sinners, pray for us.
Comfort of the troubled, pray for us.
Help of Christians, pray for us.
Queen of angels, pray for us.
Queen of patriarchs and prophets, pray for us.
Queen of apostles and martyrs, pray for us.
Queen of confessors and virgins, pray for us.
Queen of all saints, pray for us.
Queen conceived without sin, pray for us.
Queen assumed in to heaven, pray for us.
Queen of the rosary, pray for us.
Queen of families, pray for us.
Queen of peace, pray for us.
Blessed be the name of the Virgin Mary now and forever.
Whew. That is a lot take in, particularly if you have not grown up in the Catholic tradition. Its a bit of a shock to the system to hear it for the first time. There is much of it that is extremely beautiful. And it was moving, the entire experience of saying the Rosary, saying it aloud with 70 other men, and enjoyable except for that last bit. It was also a bit frightening. Is this really what all these men believe? Or is The Litany of Mary just words, that no one gives much thought in saying, a ritual that Catholics consider as being part of being a good Catholic because its tradition? Over half of the men had every word memorized. I know the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father) and I memorized Hail Mary prior to the retreat, so I had memorized probably 75% of the content of the Rosary prior to attending. I have been to quite a number of Catholic services and Catholic funerals in my lifetime and I had never, ever heard The Litany of Mary.
If you visit the link above you will find some of the best crafted, most carefully thought out poetry in the form of prayers, that have ever been written. The same can be said of the Psalms. The idea of poetry and religion are inextricably bound together. You can’t divide one from the other. And yet the Catholic obsession with the idea that Mary, as Jesus’s mother, has to be pure, a virgin, who gave birth only because of immaculate conception, unspoiled by the act of love of a human man, the physical love that is procreation, is not a healthy concept in my mind in unifying our own spiritual selves with our equally divine and sexual natures. It strikes me that this false idea is at the core of the misogyny that runs through all of Christianity and in particular Catholicism. The repetition over and over, requesting that the Virgin Mary, pray for us, pray for us sinners, because only she is pure, rings completely false in my heart. In my Canticle, we should ask the Virgin Mary to pray for us, not because she is pure, but because she is one of us and knows by her own experience, we are in need of prayer. But then, in my Canticle, I don’t believe in Heaven, so from my perspective all of it is poetry.
There is a long, long story on how the poem that I wrote below, called Mother of God came to be. Looking back, I am no longer sure if my version of events is true, or the version of a friend who also was present is true. I know what I thought I heard, but hearing and memory and understanding are not a very accurate thing in my experience. Two people can hear the same words and understand them completely differently. I am not going to relate the events that shaped me writing the poem. When I wrote it over the course of a week last July, I never once gave a thought to Yeats and his classic poem that I have included above. Of course, I was aware of Yeats poem when I wrote it, having read it many times prior, so it could be my subconscious at work which often happens when I write. It wasn’t until I finished mine that I put the two side by side and read each of them.
I find it fascinating that fear is the thread that runs through both like water flowing in the same and opposite directions at the same time, like eddy’s in a river. Yeats takes the reader into the mind of the Virgin Mary and what she must have felt, as a young woman, raising such a son, raising the son of God, given the portent billions of people now place on his life and death. Yeats projecting onto Mary emotions I have experienced as a parent, as most parents do, that our children are larger than ourselves, beyond ourselves, have more godliness than ourselves. My poem is an attempt at stepping into the wisdom of an extraordinary human woman. A flesh and blood woman saying goodbye to me, shortly before her death and wishing me well on my journey, knowing that fear will be omnipresent as part of the human condition, while in the act of saying goodbye, she was also saying goodbye to her fears.
The Mother of God
by T. A. Fry
The Mother of God said; “I want for you
Fearfulness – fear of unheralded brilliance.
How else will you know a life’s full value?
This planet’s? Or a Mother’s resilience?
Thine’s Kingdom is not built on righteousness,
Nor borne of sanctity. It arises from
The wonder in another’s selflessness.
It is through such gifts Thy will is done.”
I asked, “Why must I be fearful?” “Balance,”
She replied. “Themis weighs more than justice.
What portion peacefulness and its absence,
Tips the scales toward a life of substance.
Even in shameless life death is nursed,
So thankfulness might be our undying curse.”
I asked again, “Mother, why must I fear?”
“I want for you fearfulness so you’ll grow.
Have courage to find new seeds to sow.
Push beyond your comfort level. Never,
Ever, ever settle. And if your bravery
Becomes austere, know my Love shall never disappear.”