After writing yesterday’s blog post, I found myself thinking further about my relationship with that statue, with Our Lady (to use her traditional Anglican title), and with the Sisters of Mercy. I grew up in an Episcopal church that had a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as part of its high-church identity. We had a Lady Chapel decked in blue; a shrine where you could light candles and pray before a reproduction of one of Raphael’s Madonnas; an annual May Procession where we crowned one of the girls Queen of the May and she presented flowers to our Lady. (No, there was no May King to take her out to the field and deflower her. A lot of girls in my neighborhood got deflowered pretty early anyway.)
When I was seventeen or eighteen, my childhood parish got a new rector, who arrived with a pretty young man in tow and settled him into the rectory with the official explanation that he was a family friend who needed housing while he was in college. I developed a raging crush on the rector, not hindered by the knowledge that he was gay; I also had my first exposure to a sort of Marian devotion peculiar to gay men, especially gay men who are in the closet and believe fondly that other people think them celibate. Our Lady is the perfect mother for the kind of man who shudders in revulsion at the thought of sex with women; she didn’t even have sex in order to bear her son. (I’m sure not all homosexual men feel revulsion toward women, but I’m also quite sure some of them do.)
For all that, I never had much devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary myself, though not for lack of trying. I was certainly interested in her as a substitute for all the goddesses Christianity didn’t have; I didn’t have to read Isis in the Graeco-Roman World more than once to realize how much the Hellenistic Isis had influenced the Theotokos. But I didn’t particularly want a divine mother, or aspire to be a mother. The Virgin Mother hovered just out of reach, two-dimensional, a symbol of what men wanted women to be (and I probably wasn’t going to measure up).
But when I was thirteen, and again when I was fourteen, my father had a heart attack, after which he quit smoking and retired. When I was sixteen, my grandmother died abruptly, on my sixteenth birthday, and in March, my mother had the first of a string of heart attacks that progressively weakened her. A bypass and the replacement of a cardiac valve kept her around for a few more years.
All of these events, along with my sister’s delivery of a daughter, took place at Mercy Hospital, and always, I saw the same statue of Our Lady. I have failed to find a picture of it on the hospital website, alas. Our Lady cradles her swaddled son in one arm and extends her free hand to the world. Her child’s head droops against her bosom as he sleeps; her eyes are lowered to look at him and at you as you look up to her. That statue stood in for the grandmother and mother who were sick in the hospital and not taking care of me. It stood for the smart, kind, progressive, and exceedingly well-educated Sisters of Mercy I met at the Catholic college where I went. It stood for Sr. Thecla, who is memorialized on the hospital website. Sr. Thecla, small, grey-haired, clad in a white nursing habit, seemed to be present and available, miraculously, whenever someone needed her. My mother once joked that she didn’t think Sr. Thecla actually slept, that she just leaned against the nearest wall and closed her eyes for a minute until somebody called her name.
In thirty years, I don’t think I’ve ever walked past that statue without speaking to it, to her, at least to say, “Hi, Mom.” I realize yesterday I’ve been a good pagan with a local cultus; I don’t have a devotion to Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, I have a devotion to Our Lady of Mercy, and to that representation of her. That statue is as central to my relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus and the adoptive mom of his followers, as images of Antinous are to my worship of him. I prayed to Our Lady through that statue as confidently as I pray to Antinous in front of the triptych I made in his honor.
There’s an occasional kerfuffle in online pagandom about whether a person can be a Christian Wiccan, a Christian witch, a Christopagan, or the like. Vehement yeses and vehement noes get hurled back and forth. While I can’t speak to issues of Wicca or the Craft generally, it seems to me that if you step outside the Church, outside the lines drawn by Christian theology (lines like monotheism, the Trinity, the Incarnation), Jesus easily takes his place among other gods, bodhisattvas, divinized mortals as an itinerant wisdom teacher and healer who was deified by a sacrificial death and passed on a set of mysteries to his students to guide them through the afterlife. And his mother and notable followers take their places as worthy, powerful ancestors. Jesus snuck back onto my shrines during the elevation work I did for my Aunt Margaret, a lifelong if not very religious Methodist. His mother turns out to have been hiding in my heart all along, under the mantle of a particular local title.
Does worshipping Jesus and his Mother alongside Antinous make me a Christopagan? I don’t think so. It might make me a polytheist Christian, or maybe just a polytheist.