Greenbelt, is a festival of arts, justice and faith that takes place at Boughton House near Kettering in the Midlands of England. It’s become almost an annual pilgrimage for me, and this year, helped by the glorious weather, it has refreshed and inspired me in unexpected ways.
One of the highlights of the festival was a talk by Teresa Forcades i Vila, a Benedictine nun from Catalonia, Spain. She spoke without notes, for about 45 minutes, quoting Hannah Arendt, Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, and a host of other philosophers and theologians, addressing the political climate in Europe today. I can’t sum up the content of her talk in one blog post, but I would like to focus on one particular point she made, that central to the work of the 21st century church will be the figure of Mary, the Mother of God.
Quakers, Catholics, Mary and Me
For a British Quaker, this might sound just too Catholic. In the 17th Century, the Puritans despised Catholics and Quakers alike, often accusing Quakers of being Jesuits in disguise, but that didn’t mean the first Quakers had any sense of solidarity with their Catholic sisters and brothers. A strong anti-Catholic streak runs through early Quaker writings, and it’s not unusual to come across a subtle anti-Catholic sentiment amongst contemporary British Quakers. As an atheist, then Quaker teenager, I was virulently anti-Catholic, associating it with excess and superstition.
My encounters with Catholics since then (both living and dead) have altered that view dramatically. Roman Catholicism, like any institution, has its problems, blind spots and systemic evil, but in reading the writings of Dorothy Day, and meeting the nuns working with refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham, I’ve witnessed hearts that beat for justice far stronger than my own.
I think I’m also more open to Mary as a result. I find her a fascinating and enigmatic figure. She is a young women who has angelic visions and submits completely to God. She makes fiery prophetic pronouncements. She gives birth in squalor, and becomes a refugee fleeing state violence. She struggles to understand her son’s prophetic witness, but is there at the foot of the cross as he dies. She lives to see his resurrection, and the birth of the church. In the book of Revelation she is portrayed as ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.
Mary the God-Bearer
Mariology is the study of Mary, as Christology is the study of Christ. Like any branch of theology, Mariology has its own terminology and complicated metaphysical debates. One such debate resulted in Mary being given the title Theotokos – meaning ‘God-bearer’. The term is used in the Eastern Church, and in Eastern iconography Mary is often represented as the unburnt bush encountered by Moses. Like the bush, Mary contained God but was not consumed.
At Greenbelt, Sr Teresa explained how the relationship between God and Mary is the relationship that God wishes to have with us all. God cannot impose Her will on us from the outside. God will never enact martial law, and rule us in an authoritarian manner. That would make God a tyrant. God can only enter our individual and communal lives through our own freely given cooperation. God could only become enfleshed in Jesus because Mary freely said ‘Yes’.
Sr Teresa commented that, in Catholicism, the metaphor of being ‘channels of grace’ is often used. This reminded me of a oft-quoted passage from Quaker Faith and Practice about us being ‘God’s plumbers‘. But Sr Teresa feels these metaphors of being some sort of vessel or conduit do not fully communicate what it means to live an incarnational life. Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly wrote that ‘We cannot look upon the face of God and live, live as our old selves’. A channel is not transformed by what passes through it.
Sr Teresa suggests that, rather than just being passive plumbing, our calling is more visceral, bloody, painful and joyful. In Mary we see what we too are invited to become: God-bearers. We are called to a spiritual conception, pregnancy, labour and birth, to enflesh God in the world and be irrevocably changed by the experience.
A Quaker Mariology
The early Quakers knew all about being filled with God without being consumed. They took Paul at his word that ‘It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ This sense of Christ coming to birth in them has been called ‘celestial inhabitation.’ For early Quaker leader James Nayler, Jesus was enfleshed in him to the extent that he couldn’t tell where he ended and Christ began.
These were controversial claims that brought great persecution, and later generations of Quakers toned down such language, but in the Quaker tradition we have the bold claim that Christ is present amongst us, and that God works Her purposes thorough our weak and mortal bodies. This theology has been famously expressed in ‘The presence in the midst’, a painting of a Quaker meeting with a spiritual Jesus leading the worship.
I propose that we add another image to our visual theology, the image of Mary as Theotokos. Mary offers a model of Quaker discipleship – faithful, prayerful and open to the leadings of God. She captures the best of the Quaker tradition: She demonstrates the non-coercive workings of the Divine; in a patriarchal world she is a strong, prophetic women, a champion of the poor and downtrodden whilst herself a refugee. Like James Nayler, she knows that a life with God is not a life without grief, that bearing God leads to pain as well as glory. Also, as a man I have the opportunity to be challenged by female religious imagery.
I believe the God that is Love invites us to be God-bearers, to enflesh the Word in the world. Can we say with Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’?