Though I was raised Catholic, the Virgin Mary has been a figure I have wrestled with throughout my life. Experiences of hurt and certain secular feminist perspectives caused me to question and even resent who I thought Mary was. Experiences of healing, prayer, and reflection ultimately revealed more about Mary, and led to a deep friendship with her and greater peace within myself.
In order to explain the progression in my relationship with Mary, I need to share a bit of my own story. When I was a sophomore in high school, my mom and dad split up after my dad came forward about being unfaithful. Eventually, my dad moved out of state while I was still in high school and was financially unstable and inconsistent with any kind of support to my mom. My mom was a single parent, breadwinner, sole caretaker for my little sister and I, yet she was also going through her own anguish which I often bore the brunt of. My dad fell from the pedestal I’d placed him on, and my mom simultaneously modeled that she didn’t need a man (or couldn’t rely on one) and yet often shifted the responsibility (unwittingly) onto me to pick up her broken pieces.
Understandably as a result of this, I learned to bottle up my emotions in order to be strong for others. I learned not to trust others to be there for you, especially men, and that women need to be strong for themselves. Both my maternal grandmother, and great grandmother were also single mothers with failed marriages. I come from a line of women who are independent, strong, stubborn, resilient, gritty, and unorthodox. I also learned to downplay my femininity because it seemed to be so associated with a lot of negative stereotypes about women such as being less capable, less intelligent, and weak or easy to manipulate. In my desire to be treated as equal I felt I needed to embody more masculine qualities, and I resented my femininity and seeing others who displayed it.
Yet, deep down, I longed for someone to support me, to be loved by a man in the ways my dad failed to love my mom and me. This longing was often manifested in unhealthy and codependent ways. I longed to not repress my femininity. So when I saw it so openly and freely expressed in others, my resentment was rooted partly in my own longing to be more feminine, partly in feelings of inadequacy – that I would never be feminine enough – that I could never embody all that consists of being the perfect, ideal woman.
my resentment was rooted partly in my own longing to be more feminine, partly in feelings of inadequacy – that I would never be feminine enough – that I could never embody all that consists of being the perfect, ideal woman.
In college, I began to identify as a “feminist”, mainly because it seemed my “equitist” or “equalist” values were more or less the same as those of the feminist movement and I felt that identifying with a more common label would help me to be part of a united movement towards dismantling sexism. But because I still had so much anger, hurt, and resentment inside of me, my feminism wasn’t yet a healthy feminism. I was a disintegrated person in college. I went to Bible Study and Mass, even prayed the rosary and went to Confession occasionally, but I also sought validation from friends and guys and still saw myself as very self-sufficient, and saw my worth and value in what I accomplished.
Towards the end of college, I had a powerful encounter with God and decided to place Jesus at the center of my life. I recognized that nothing else made sense at the center and I decided to trust that if I gave all to God, if I said “let your will be done”, that maybe my life would change for the better.
The first time I really thought of Mary as a feminist was in 2011, while attending an Advent Retreat during the winter after I graduated from college. The priest leading it pointed out how at the Annunciation, Mary represented incredible strength in saying “let your will be done”, not “well, first let me ask my fiance or father”. She allowed God to be first in her life and to say “yes” to God, unreservedly, and in doing so, was fully grounded and authentic and whole. This was only the beginning of being able to see Mary more fully, for I still had a lot of deep wounds, resentment, and frustrations to heal.
In the year after graduating from my very secular and progressive college, I was spending a lot of time within young adult Catholic communities, some of which were fairly traditional. There I was challenged to begin to embrace my femininity more. It was painful work. In part because there truly were feminine aspects of myself that I was repressing, but also because there were certain idealized images of femininity often perpetuated in traditional groups. I did not resonate at all with these feminine “idols,” and wrestled and oscillated, swung like a pendulum in between extremes. art of me wanted to go to Mary with these struggles. Yet I began to recognize that another part of me deeply resented her.
In Feb 2012, I prayed in my journal:
“Help me Lord to embrace my femininity the way You call me to, not society, or patriarchy, but You! Help me to not resent my mom, or the Virgin Mary. Help me to ponder her mysteries and to embrace all of her. To fall in love with her and model myself after her. Help me to let go of my attachments and my insecurities about people who I feel have forgotten or abandoned me. Help me to be fully secure in you Oh Lord, my refuge.”
Later that year, I was doing an Ignatian Contemplation with Luke 1: 28-31, where I imagined myself as Mary’s best friend, being present with her when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary with news that she will bear Jesus.
In my journal I wrote:
“My feelings here are initially jealousy! Awe and jealousy. I imagine myself at first turning to my friend Mary and being like, ‘Whoa dang Mary, there is an angel here right now! Are you seeing this?! Oh my god!’ And then upon the angel saying to her that she’s favored and the Lord is with her, I’m feeling totally less than. I’m comparing myself to her and wondering why her?… I imagine Mary being very quiet, demure, feminine, coy, alluring, and I’m the loud, goofy, boisterous girl next to her… I think these feelings are coming from a place of great insecurity. I’m lacking full trust in God and feeling forgotten and undesired. And this revelation of feelings of jealousy toward Mary really reveals something new… I don’t know how to relate to her as a woman. I come up short in comparison, and I feel inadequate. I resent her for being perfect, and I want to be desired as I am without having to conform to some ideal of the perfect woman I feel I can never come close to being.”
This was what I projected onto Mary — an image of this ideal woman that I could never be.
This was what I projected onto Mary — an image of this ideal woman that I could never be. I projected onto her all my wounds from being passed over for other more “perfect-seeming” women, my wounds from how men treated me when they treated other “Mary” types better and with more respect, I projected onto her all my insecurity.
The problem with getting to know Mary, is how little is stated about her explicitly, how little she speaks in Scripture. A lot is assumed about her (pun intended 😉 ). Because there aren’t a lot of things that she says, we can assume that she’s “quiet”, or not opinionated. Often times women are “blank canvases” that we project onto – and Mary is no exception. The less a woman says, the more we fill in the blanks.
As Catholics, because we literally venerate and place the Virgin Mary on a pedestal, sometimes we idealize her, to the point of actually dehumanizing her. Since Mary is upheld as the model for Catholic women, this inevitably leads to benevolently dehumanizing other women,, when they fall short of the idealized projection we’ve placed on Mary. For myself and other women, we often do this to ourselves. We see this kind of “benevolent sexism” when only women who appear to conform to this “Virgin Mary” type are treated with respect, while other women who don’t appear to possess those same qualities, or who have become so very real and human, are more readily disrespected, or objectified. This is often referred to as the “Virgin/Whore” dichotomy. The funny thing is, Mary probably would’ve been treated much like the latter in her time, given she was pregnant before she was married, she said “yes” to God without getting permission from a man, and she didn’t commit sin, so she was probably very weird and different from other people. She didn’t conform to what society or man would seek from her, but was solely focused on God alone.
As Catholics, because we literally venerate and place the Virgin Mary on a pedestal, sometimes we idealize her, to the point of actually dehumanizing her.
I began to realize that a lot can be known about Mary from what we see in Jesus. He attracted sinners and broken people, and disturbed hypocrites and those who were slaves to their possessions and power. Jesus became the man he was because he was raised by Mary. The wisdom, humility, willingness to act, to call out, to challenge, to be receptive and willing – he learned it all from her, and from Joseph. Everything Jesus did, we can see that Mary, too, embodied those characteristics, quirks, and virtues. He was flesh of her flesh, and bone of her bone.
I also began to see more of myself in Mary, and realized that she wasn’t this ideal I couldn’t keep up with, or someone I had to compete with, but she was someone who loved God and desired to be faithful to God with her whole heart – and that was something we both had in common. I also started to see how much she loved me and liked me and delighted in me. As a mother, a sister, a friend – someone I could laugh with, someone I could throw a fit with, someone who could hold me and support me no matter what. And as I felt more at ease in being myself, my feminine aspects have begun to be more naturally expressed in the way that I uniquely express them. As I healed this relationship with my Holy Mother, I also began to see more healing in my relationship with my earthly mother, and a greater capacity for forgiveness towards my father.
In August of 2013, one of my seminarian friends was planning to journey with Mary through the 33 day Marian consecration. He invited me to do it with him. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I began the preparation for consecration, but I’m grateful I was willing to do it. Marian consecration was instrumental in helping me become more grounded in who I am authentically before God, in pointing me towards that which most fulfills my heart. Mary was fully herself, full of grace, full of unabashed realness, and allowing her into my heart, and entering into hers has strengthened me in becoming more real and authentic.
Mary was fully herself, full of grace, full of unabashed realness, and allowing her into my heart, and entering into hers has strengthened me in becoming more real and authentic.
The rosary is another place where I’ve seen my friendship with Mary grow. Sometimes, I admit, I show up to the rosary but I’m really just saying words. Other times, it really can be an access point for reflection, imagining myself in the scenes in the mysteries, feeling my feelings, being vulnerable.
Most recently, I decided to pray the 54-day rosary novena (6 sets of 9 days of praying the rosary – the first 3 sets are for petition, the second 3 sets are in thanksgiving) after a painful breakup. I needed extra intercession to heal from it. During these 54 days I prayed for my former boyfriend and my healing, and for his joy and peace, even if I would never see it.
Towards the last few days of my novena, a bird built a nest right next to my front door. I’d lived there almost 3 years and no birds had ever moved in. The bird was literally at eye level and when I would walk up to my front door, I was within less than 2 feet of the nest and bird. On the last day of the novena, I looked up what kind of bird it was, and it was a mourning dove. I looked up what they symbolized: hope, letting go, healing/grieving a loss, a sign that your loved one has moved on. That felt like a pretty spectacular fruit from my novena. Especially since what I prayed for was something I couldn’t see, this sign was a helpful one. I even decided to write a song about it. While I was writing the song I looked up epithets for Mary, and one that I found was “Sighing Dove”. Three days after my novena was over, and the day I finished writing the song, the eggs hatched. It truly felt like a gentle way that Mary was reassuring me, inviting me to trust, to let go, to invite in greater healing.
Ultimately, my journey from resenting to befriending Mary has also been one of moving from resenting to befriending myself, to embracing myself as God sees me and created me. I’m less concerned with trying to conform to ideals, and more concerned with seeking to ask God what He wants from me and what He desires for me. And when I forget how to let God look at me tenderly and lovingly, I look to Mary, and she mirrors to me that generous gaze, that reminds me of my belovedness. This is ultimately what holiness and wholeness mean to me. And this is what I see as being the ultimate goal of feminism — and of Catholicism — to be seen, known, and loved wholly as you are and to reflect that to others, just as Mary did.
Jessica Gerhardt is a FemCatholic Contributor. She is a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter-ukuleleist and youth minister, with a hobbies in amateur astronomy, sky appreciation, Ignatian spirituality, painting, drawing, blowing bubbles, and making rosaries and paper cranes. She is an alumna of Reed College where she wrote her undergraduate thesis in Psychology on ambivalent sexism and the importance of allies in confronting prejudice. To check out her music, go to www.jessicagerhardtmusic.com and stay tuned for a release in 2018 under her artist name, Feronia.