Mother Mary

A couple of weeks ago, I needed space and time to pray. I was on my way to the gym and decided to stop off at the Catholic Church immediately opposite the gym where I was headed. The elderly women who staffed the church were pleasant, if a bit guarded as

mother mary

they contemplated a big Black man in a somewhat rough neighbourhood asking about access to the building. The main church building itself was locked; only the office was open. The ladies directed me to a grotto on the property and said I may pray there as long as I wished. I thanked them, and walked over to the less than impressive section of the church’s grounds, sat down on one of the two rocks available, folded my hands and lifted up my eyes only to be greeted by an even less impressive statue of Mother Mary.

Now, one must understand that though I emerged from the Protestant stream of Christianity – indeed, the fast flowing Pentecostal stream – I have never had the aversion to Catholic iconography, statuary, and ritual that many others have. For reasons I cannot delve into here, these have never bothered me too much. Indeed, I have always found them beautiful and uplifting in their way. I have fond memories of watching the Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome with my mother. Beyond this, my work within a broadly evangelical and largely white Christian ministry has broadened my exposure to forms of spirituality that may be traced to Catholic traditions, particularly contemplative practices. Despite this affinity for the aesthetics of Catholicism, and my appreciation for what I’ve gained from their contemplative tradition, I must confess, I have never connected on a spiritual level with their use of statuary and iconography.

Given this, I had no expectation that sitting in a poorly designed grotto, and looking at an even more poorly sculpted statue of Mother Mary would be in any way significant.  It was, quite simply, a quiet – if uncomfortable – place to pray.

I was mistaken. As I lifted my eyes to the statue of Mary, I was met with an overwhelming sense of presence – a presence I shall come to describe in more detail shortly – and also a deep awareness of a truth which is not in any sense that profound at all.

Jesus had a momma.  Of course that Mary was the mother of Jesus is nothing new or surprising. But in that moment, it was not a biblical idea that seized me. It was, rather, that Jesus had a momma – and a momma is different that a mother, despite the etymological similarity of the words. Momma is an informal term, a form of address that denotes intimacy and connection. It is a child’s term that teenagers ache to graduate from to the even more casual ‘mom’ to distance themselves from the deep feeling of dependence and weakness that ‘momma’ entails. And Jesus had a momma. Mary was his momma.

Irma was mine.

Now here I must return to the sense of presence I spoke of earlier, for, despite my theology, my Pentecostal Protestantism, and yes, perhaps even my prideful assumption about what prayer is or ought to be, I was met by an overwhelming sense of presence of my own momma. It is difficult to say more about what that experience was like, and certainly I cannot tell what we discussed, but it was in that moment that I understood why people pray to Mother Mary. There is something about maternal presence that draws out of us that which otherwise would remain buried. We who have been blessed with good relationships with our mothers, and with fond memories, even when those memories and relationships are tinged with the inevitable brokenness that marks all such human relationships, we know something of that closeness one only feels in the presence of momma.  So momma and I had a talk; I talked to her, and she with me. You could call it a prayer; Mother Mary stood beside in silent witness to those moments.

I do know, of course, that all Christian prayer is directed to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, our intercessor and Lord. Nothing that occurred in this moment of prayer in time has changed that truth nor my affirmation of it. In fact, my affirmation of the reality of Christ’s intercession was strengthened in those moments as I was confronted with the profundity of His own identification with us. In his weakness and infirmity, Jesus too had a momma. He needed his momma. She was there when he performed his first miracle, and in fact she was the one who gave him opportunity to do it.  It is no surprise that when his disciples ran away at the end, his momma was there – watching, making sure her baby was okay, even though she knew that he wasn’t and even though his sacrifice was for her too.

So it was with me in that moment. I needed momma, so she came. I talked/prayed to and with momma and she shared her wisdom with me as only she could.

After a while, my prayers ended. I had to take a call from a work colleague. The moment passed. I let the elderly women know that I was done with my prayers and thanked them for their hospitality. And I left, grateful to God for the time spent.

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I Believe

I believe… today, and everyday these two words cross the lips of many millions of Christian believers all over the world. They are the opening words of the great creeds – belief statements – of the Christian faith. They are intoned with more or less reverence, more or less meaning, more or less conscious awareness of what is being declared. However spoken, they are words loaded with meaning. They are words that are intended to call back to the believers mind the incontrovertible, and essential elements of the faith he shares with other believers around the world and throughout time.  The most general of the creeds – termed the Apostle’s Creed – is held in common by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians.

The declaration “I believe” is a faith declaration – an agreement with the collected wisdom and witness of ancient Christianity.  It is a faith declaration because those who intone the words are not first-hand witnesses of the things they declare. They “believe” that God the Father is the maker of heaven and earth, but were not present to see it. They “believe” that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, but did not witness his sufferings nor hear his cries. They believe, partly because of what they have been taught, but for many, they believe because they have personal experience of the things they declare. These are experiences that cannot usually be put into words that would pass muster in a court of law. They “met” Jesus. They “felt” the Spirit. They “know” the love of God. They believe.

Here lately, the words “I believe” have been most often used as a prefix to a personal pronoun – “I believe, her”; “I believe, him”. Her – Dr Christine Ford. Him – (now) Justice Brent Kavanaugh.  Though it may seem a contrived or even irresponsible comparison, these declarations of belief are also faith based.  No one who has declared their belief in the assault against Ford or in the innocence of Kavanaugh can claim anything like first-hand knowledge of the facts. There is, of course evidence that can be marshaled for either confession. There are many who cite their own experience of sexual assault, or the testimony of others who have been assaulted to point to the plausibility of Ford’s claims. There are others who cite the lack of corroboration of those claims, and perhaps their experiences and the testimony of others who have suffered from false or misplaced allegations.  Yet it seems to me that the evidence in this case is much less important than the confession.

The confession, “I believe”, is more often an indication of inclusion in a particular community than it is of conscious faith. Most people who declare their belief in the resurrection of the dead have not seriously examined the evidence for the claims of Jesus’ resurrection. This does not make their claim deficient, nor does it invalidate the underlying claim. It is simply true. They believe it, at least in part, because that is who they are. They are people who believe in the resurrection.

So too many (though certainly not all) who have made their confession in the midst of the current debate have not really thought it all through. They believe him, or believe her because that is who they are. They are part of a community of belief, a community of faith. Because of this, the confirmation or failure to confirm Kavanaugh the Supreme Court is not simply a matter of politics, or judicial philosophy, or even of evidence – it is a matter of divine import. The wars of religion, long thought to be banished to the annals of history, are beginning to rear their heads again, because how we order our common life is, in the end, always a religious question.