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Sustainability, Spirit & Community

Coming to Mary – the Divine Female of a Christian West

With roots in pre-patriarchal history, Mary is explored as reflected in the faces/phases of the moon corresponding to Maid, Mother, and Crone. As such, Mary is an inclusive appellation naming the Divine Feminine in Christianity. She is first the Divine Feminine as ancient Triple Goddess participating in women’s mysteries. Mary transforms through both pre-history and patriarchy into a quaternity of Virgin, Magdalene, Black Madonna, and Jesus or Cosmic Christ. This is a look at Christianity from the time/space coordinates of the particular moment in which the western world sits, and at this time, the Cosmic Christ becomes the fourth face of the moon in my work to unpathologize the Sacred Masculine. He in turn becomes a Triple God in relationship to the Sacred Feminine. My conceptualization is very similar to the western Christian notion of God existing in hypostases (or essences) as a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; but my conception is a non-limiting, inclusive, and flexible trinity because it stipulates relationship to be of the utmost importance. By creating this radical vision of the Feminine, Mary becomes a force envisioned in a state of wholeness.

Coming to Mary

By Chandra Alexandre, Ph.D.

A great sign was seen in Heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. (Revelations 12:1)

Mary is a compassionate God. One woman, a leader of women’s pilgrimage tours to Nepal, wrote to me about Her:

I was brought up Catholic and related only to Mary. I used to write letters to her often and felt that she listened to me. I carried around my favorite Mary Knoll pictures of the Virgin that my aunt and grandmother would give to my sister and myself. My mother had a wonderful statue of Mary in her bedroom that I would often visit. To me she was all knowing and filled with an abundance of love for all. Since I was the eldest child in our family (two sisters and one brother), I felt I could go to her more than my mother for comfort about things only she would understand.

Mary, the Catholic Church’s Queen of Heaven, is a figure of the western world who carries great power in the minds, hearts, and bodies of Catholics everywhere. She serves the world over, and as Jaroslav Pelikan has noted, Mary is, “one of the most profound and most persistent roles...in history...a bridge builder to other traditions, other cultures, and other religions.”

She has for ages been an intermediary on behalf of all those who seek her out for representation in the sacred realm of Christianity, and she has also been the guardian and protectress of the oppressed and the poor, a source of empowerment for those marginalized, subjugated, and abused under patriarchy—even for those who honor Her from within the bounds of a patriarchal tradition. As Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza points out, Christianity did not invent western patriarchy; it merely mediated and perpetuated it.

For many westerners seeking a Goddess, Mary is still Our Lady, a role model transformed from both the inside and the outside of the traditional Catholic vision of her. She is recognition of the Divine Feminine regardless of how the Catholic Church defines Her, which is not as a Goddess. Nevertheless, many in the west, even those not of Christian faith, are looking to Mary to provide another way of being with or finding God/dess as a sexual, alive, relational, and caring divine being in whom they can find a source of empowerment, courage, and hope.

There are many voices of women and men already engaged in reclamation of Mary from Church doctrine. I also find, as others have before, that she is older than the Church, and see her within a new visioning in which she serves as a catalyst for transformation and healing, particularly in her aspect as Black Madonna, the aspect that contains, I believe, recognition of all that Mary is apart from patriarchal ecclesiastical constructs. Mary is more than the Virgin Mary as she is commonly known, and she instead becomes an archetype embracing of the full richness that is the Divine Feminine within the Christian tradition, and perhaps even within the western world.

Mary in my vision is the ancient Triple Goddess, much in the way China Galland describes the Black Madonna as such: the two goddesses in our respective presentations are taken as the Supreme Goddess, in many respects, of Christianity. In many ways, these conceptions are similar but nuanced differently. However, Mary as I work this vision is a Triple Goddess who corresponds to all phases of the moon and to all phases of a woman’s life, the moon and women’s cycles being ancient interconnections. This means that I see in Mary the Maiden, Mother, and Crone; three forms that are analogous to, for example, the Three Fates of classical myth, or the Greek Moirai, meaning “a part,” who, according to Doreen Valiente:

Refer to the three ‘parts’ or phases of the moon. These are the waxing moon, the full moon and the waning moon, symbolized as a young maiden, a beautiful mature woman and an old crone.

While to some extent the Church may acknowledge the Maid and Mother forms of Mary—she is Virgin and the Mother of God—it does not acknowledge through Mary the sexual nature of motherhood, nor the virtue of womankind as sexual being. I therefore invoke another biblical Mary, Mary Magdalene, in this second phase to make motherhood a fully-fledged correspondence to actual women’s lives. For even though the Magdalene may not have been an actual mother (although she may indeed have been), her reputation as a sexual being is well known (although not biblically based).

With these correspondences in awareness, I have developed a symbolic methodology so that Mary retains her ancient association with the moon and becomes the tripartite goddess who as the Virgin Mary is the waxing moon (Maid), Mary Magdalene the full moon (Mother), and the Black Madonna the waning or dark moon (Crone). As Marina Warner says of the association of Mary and the moon:

The moon has been the most constant attribute of female divinities in the western world, and was taken over by the Virgin Mary because of ancient beliefs about its functions and role, which Christianity inherited.

In the tradition of other spiritual feminists who have established correspondences of the phases of the moon with women’s life phases in empowering ways, I intentionally establish the relationship of each phase of the moon to women’s and the Three Maries’ sexuality, body, and essential femaleness, because it is this very essentialism that patriarchy has used to destroy women’s sense of self throughout the ages. Here, however, that essentialism is reclaimed, unpathologized, and asserted as a challenge to and undermining of patriarchy.

Thus, to elucidate regarding the correspondences I have chosen, the Virgin is the Maid aspect of the moon because she is not yet a sexual woman in the sense that her menses have not yet begun (“Virgin” does mean not having had sex but rather, “Wild, Lusty, Never captured, Unsubdued” as Mary Daly describes, because one can be sexual and still be fully “one unto oneself”); Mary Magdalene is the Mother aspect because she is a fully sexual woman whose menses and sexuality potentiate motherhood; and the Black Madonna is the Crone aspect because she is in some ways symbolically beyond sexuality—she no longer menstruates and she owns her sexuality fully in her body, whether or not she engages in literal sex. She is, as Donna Wilshire says:

She who reclaims all spent forms back into Her cauldron-womb where She ever remixes them, reshapes them, transforming them into new possibilities which she then gives birth to.

These three phases are easily demarcated in a woman’s life, and specifically as she approaches death, the metaphorical darkness of the third phase resonates with the Crone’s waning moon and the Black Madonna’s literal darkness of color. The Dark Goddess as symbolic old woman therefore forces patriarchy and all humanity to look in the face of Death. And this is a role demonized by patriarchy so that She has become the Hag and the Witch—and literal women have suffered with the correspondence.

Reclaiming Her wisdom, however, means embodying the wisdom that life and death are inextricably linked. As Demetra George says:

The crone, as funerary priestess, extinguishes the old cycle and, as midwife, she helps to birth the new. The crone and the virgin stand back-to-back at the doorways of death and birth.

She serves, as George says, to usher in death. As I vision, in the death of patriarchy; and to midwife life through new potentials in new paradigms of relationship. These interrelationships are indeed cyclical and serve in powerful ways that are not simply limited to the ouroboric cycling of Black Madonna and Virgin Mary.

The ouroborus is an ancient symbol later adopted by the Greek, Arabic and Egyptian alchemical traditions of Western mysticism, and it is used today still by indigenous peoples, for example, by the Dayak of Borneo. It signifies all that is cyclical, self-birthing, self-maintaining, and self-destroying. It also signifies the whole (snake) as well as the parts (head and tail) that make up cycles within a continuum. The ouroborus also represents the natural cycles of the manifest cosmos, such as the phases of the moon: waxing, full, and waning, as well as the transformative element contained within the cycles—the ability to go from waning to waxing moon, or from Crone to Virgin.

As an aside, I would mention that medieval renditions of the ouroborus often render it as vagina dentata; the man-eating (penis-devouring) vagina with teeth by depicting the snake with open and fanged mouth (vagina) wrapped around the tail (phallus). This, of course, is an illustration of the patriarchal fear (real or imagined) of women’s power, which often incites radical suppression of women’s freedom.

Nevertheless, my methodology takes Mary further than given the above and finds Her, through the life cycle of the Feminine as Maiden, Mother, and Crone, related to an unpathologized tripartite Masculine of Son, Bridegroom, and Sage, which with a western Christian focus I work through Jesus as the Cosmic Christ. Matthew Fox develops this archetype in his work The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. As Fox says:

The Cosmic Christ is not a doctrine that is believed in and lived out at the expense of the historical Jesus. Rather, a dialectic is in order with a dance between time (Jesus) and space (Christ); between the personal and the cosmic; between the prophetic and the mystical. The dance is a dance away from anthropocentrism.

I invite readers to open to this exploration leaving Christian dogma and patriarchal notions of Jesus behind because my intention is to illustrate just one moment in time with the model I have developed, not all of Christian history or theology. The methodology I employ has potential, I believe, to serve larger ends than what I can only touch upon briefly here, specifically as related to the tripartite Sacred Masculine, as well as to the interrelationships of each aspect of the Sacred Masculine to the Sacred Feminine. Perhaps a consideration for future work would be the development of the Triple God as partner to the Triple Goddess in both East and West, and their respective correspondences, as well as expanded visionings of them beyond tripartite.

Most generally, however, the methodology I employ serves to bring the form of Mary through ancient portals in order to shine the light of Sophia onto Christianity’s patriarchal past, thereby rendering its wounded shadow visible and in need of healing. Sophia is Wisdom, a reflection of the Dark Goddess as the seat of great and ancient power, a wisdom ignored within the Church traditions as well as within the western scientific paradigm to the detriment of the western world. Often depicted seated on a throne, the Black Madonnas of Christianity are themselves empowered as the “Trône de Sagesse,” or “Throne of Wisdom,” and it is to this doorway I come repeatedly in my exploration to deepen understanding of Mary, because it is this doorway that has been closed so tightly for over 2,000 years of the Christian era. As Virgil Elizondo notes regarding Our Lady of Guadalupe, this Black Madonna of Mexico City “give[s] the world a new way of relating religions and peoples to each other: no longer by way of opposition but by way of synthesis, for even the most contradictory forces can be brought together creatively for the sake of a truly new humanity.”

My theory is that within Mary as: i) Virgin (the Virago or “potent virgin”) ; ii) The Magdalene; and iii) Black Madonna; and in conjunction with the Jesus archetype of the Cosmic Christ, which again, I also vision as tripartite, we find the lost-to-orthodoxy story, legacy, and meaning of the Divine Feminine within Christianity—-meaning that ultimately transcends the limitations of the Church. My hope is to create space for new consciousness to be born—-a consciousness that moves in psychological terms from undifferentiated, through a process of individuation, into the possibility for mature, relational being in the world and can accompany the abstract recognition of the Divine held by mainstream religion.

In this visioning, Mary enters and engages the Feminine in a pivotal role within the Church. As Harald Haarmann notes, the archetype of Mary:

…assumed a pivotal role because it could fill a crucial psychological gap between, on the one hand, the moral rigor of behavioral constraints imposed on social life by the Ten Commandments as well as Jesus’ doctrine of altruism and, on the other hand, the needs of ordinary people to orient themselves in everyday life with its many sources of despair and misery. Jesus the Savior, was in the distance, but Mary, the caring and understanding mother, was near.

Together, the Christian archetypes of Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine in relationship to one another present a much fuller, richer, and deeper idea of Divinity that includes reconceptualization of the Feminine and the Masculine, and indeed of womanhood and manhood with ramifications for all of humanity. Mary is then not only the revered woman of popular religiosity, the one who immediately captures the hearts of the masses because she is unquestionably human, but also the gateway to a new concept of what it means to be a man within the world. Her sacredness directly translates to a profoundly real and embodied humanity with reciprocal implications for the nature of the Divine.

One beautiful reflection of Mary’s tendency to find a place in the hearts of folk not already accustomed to her but willing to understand her from within their own context may be identified through the work of artists who express creativity in form—and not necessarily Catholic ones. For example, the troubadours sang the glory of the Divine Feminine in a Christian land when many of them were actually Roma people who had adopted France’s Catholicism; and on a much smaller scale, an image of Mary carved by a Hindu sculptor and located now in Mexico City at Tepeyac, the Black Madonna site of the Basilica of La Virgen de Guadalupe, comes to mind.

This image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was carved in marble by someone from Rajasthan (synchronistically, believed to be the original homeland of the Roma people). It is situated in the Basilica museum, near the long stairway approach to the hillside where the peasant and Nahuatl (indigenous) convert to Christianity, Juan Diego, first saw the apparition of the Virgin Mary. The sculptor depicts this Black Madonna in characteristically Hindu form and style, with facial features and eyes giving a distinctly Indian visage to the piece, but with the regalia and iconography that makes her easily identifiable as Guadalupe.

Often it is those who let their inner voice or inner knowing speak through them, sometimes through art as just discussed, who find in Mary the Divine Mother to counter God the Father, regardless of their own traditions and regardless of the rigid dictates of Catholicism itself—which say, as already noted, that Mary is not suitable divinity. One woman told me of her process in coming to know Her:

I was raised Catholic, then transitioned to [less-formal] Christianity. The feminine influence as a contribution to each of these religions was either represented through the Virgin Mary or as the role of the evil sexually influential woman who Man was to be cautious of and in which the bible [sic] reports many of its other claims and tenants against women. Mary’s role was as facilitator, surrogate mother. It is not until now, as I develop my own spiritual belief systems, that I understand the concept of the Divine Feminine, Mary’s true role as Co-Creator and how the Dark Divine Feminine is a natural expression of divinity.

However, the creativity of a mystical interpretation of Mary, in which She is visioned as divine as well as Mother of God is one worth mentioning because it liberates the role model from strictly biblical or dogmatic construction. In it, Mary becomes She who in fact gave birth to God Him/Herself and through whom Jesus as the transformational energy of the Cosmic Christ came to be.

Further, as Andrew Harvey eloquently reminds us, humanity cannot have the richness of the transformational energy that Mary in Her fullness inspires until we allow Mary her righteous place in God:

Until the divine Motherhood of God as Mary is recognized in all of its mystical and radical revolutionary aspects, in all of the full meaning of its radical demand for transformation on every level, in every area of life and every dimension of our world-existence, Father within the embodied Mother, cannot be completely imagined and so cannot be completely born.

Embracing both world and metaphysical realities, a revisioned Divine Feminine and Sacred Masculine help move humanity emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and physically into healing.

This is reflected in the west, where as early as the fifteenth century of the Common Era, Christian mystics, such as Nicholas of Cusa, were describing God:

not just immanent in nature, as in pantheist philosophies, and not just transcendent, as in deist philosophies, but both immanent and transcendent, a philosophy known as panentheism.

By establishing such a vision, these mystics were pushing beyond the walls of duality. First, their vision reaches into a non-dual perspective much like that espoused in many Eastern traditions, for example, the path of Advaita Vedānta. However, they were also expanding non-dualism to be radical—that is, also containing of opposites, as expressed above by the immanent and transcendent divine. Theirs was a vision that held the possibility for transformation through paradox, through the realm that the Black Madonna holds within the west and Kālī so eloquently holds within Indian cosmology.

Traditionally, western Christianity (in its guise as a product of patriarchy rather than through its mysticism) has created the holy dyad of Father and Son with the sacred whole of Trinity completed by the addition of the Holy Spirit. But not only is this rendering of divinity a split into an impersonal God located "up there" and the more immediately relational Jesus "down here," it is also an interpretation of God in purely masculine terms that to a large extent leaves God philosophically un-dynamic. By this I mean simply that a creative tension cannot exist as fully within a duality of like-to-like as it can within a polarity of similar-to-different, as would be the case were Divinity to include the Feminine Divine in this rendering.

The Dark Goddess as Sophia, Shekina, the Black Madonna, and Lilith, although representing only a slight undercurrent of the Judeo-Christian faiths to which they belong, are nevertheless manifest within this Christianity despite the Catholic Church having left its members with only a limited framework in which to conceptualize God. They serve to help make God more dynamic. Still, the Holy Spirit as Sophia of the Gnostics, for example, cannot fully remedy the male-to-male relationship between God and Son. It is difficult to find permeating dynamic balance unless the Divine Feminine is fully acknowledged and fully restored. As an aside, it is interesting that today’s less powerful eastern Church does have room for the Feminine, in both sacred and secular realms. Karen Armstrong, for example has written that, “[Eastern Christianity] appealed to women: its scriptures taught that in Christ there was neither male nor female and insisted that men cherished their wives as Christ cherished his church.”

Within the Christian mystical traditions (as is true in those of other faiths) one often finds exploration of God in gender-neutral, trans-gendered, and/or bi-polar gender language. Recognizing a need for the Divine Feminine within their otherwise male-dominated religion, there are often images of spirit to be found that equally represent the Masculine and Feminine. Some mystics, like Mecthild of Magdeburg and Meister Eckhart, for example, visioned God as Father and Mother; but theirs was deemed a heretical stance and opposed by the Catholic Church. Eckhart was actually condemned after his death for this imaging. Such an imaging, however, can serve to unify and rebalance the value spheres of patriarchy, within as well as outside of the religious spheres. Sometimes called the "God/dess," an alchemical androgyne, or in the East, Ardhanarisvara to say that God is half male and half female, this type of image helps break through gender-identified descriptions of Divinity. As Pheme Perkins has said, “The ultimate image of salvation is neither male nor female but the restored unity of an androgynous Mother-Father, who has passed through diversity.”

Proponents of Gnosticism, liberation and creation spirituality have also expressed Divinity though archetypes that include languaging of the Feminine. And April, one of my collaborators, told me that in the Christian Science Church, a church founded by a woman, Mary Baker Eddy, that they too have a conception of a Mother/Father divine. Susan Starr Sered notes that several western women’s religions, besides Christian Science, have a male-female conception of deity. She says, however, that:

Androgynous deities in women’s religions, unlike the androgynes in Indian tradition, are not associated with androgynous physical characteristics. It is their moral and spiritual characteristics that make them androgynous.

Even though this divine is not an immanent one connected to the body, a woman working with me a few years ago, although raised Christian Science, now feels most drawn to the immanent divine and still acknowledges the power of her upbringing:

As a child I prayed each night a prayer that began, “Father, Mother God, loving me…” Not surprisingly, these words still come to me when I feel anxious or frightened.

If one closely examines even the Augustinian, characteristically repressed version of Christianity, it appears that the Divine Feminine has never been completely demolished. She may be coaxed out from under oppressive layers of rhetoric, dogma, and fear; and in fact, has been for centuries by the people who know and love her particularly as Mother, Comforter, and Nurturer.

She is the Virgin Mary who appears on dashboard altars in Mexico as the understanding, compassionate Our Lady of Guadalupe. Or, perhaps in El Salvador as Madre de los Desaparecidos (Mother of the Disappeared) to those who have lost friends and family. In France, She may be Our Lady of Lourdes to those who were once ill but now are cured by the grace of her miraculous holy waters. In this cross-cultural sentiment there is hope that the cycle of life prevails even over the cruelest of torments, ever seeking loving union, the hieros unios, in the face of pathological patriarchal oppression and omission. Whether expressed through mass annihilation such as the Inquisition or Holocaust, through political juntas, in human rights violations, with environmental devastation, vivisection, or the smallest of ingratitudes, denigration of the Feminine and Feminine Divine leads to horror in all forms planetary and personal. It is against this backdrop in the west that the oppressed and suppressed images of Mary the Triple Goddess nevertheless return again and again, offering new and expanded possibilities for humanity and life on Earth.

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