Mother of the Church, Earth our Mother - Elizabeth Pike
He has looked upon his servant in her lowliness
And people forever will call me Blessed.
How swiftly we have moved into the season of spring, which always brings to my mind Mary, the bearer of the Light of the World, who gives new life to us all. Over the next two issues of Madonna, I would like to spend some time with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of the Church, and link her with the Aboriginal image of the Earth our Mother. This will be a journey of beauty, with some history, poetry and art, to help lighten our spirits after the darkness of previous months.
Throughout the centuries, the words of the Magnificat have echoed strongly over and over. It is impossible to understand Christianity and its devotions without paying attention to Christ’s Mother. It is fitting then to explore within the history of Christianity the theme of Mary. Historically, she has maintained her hold on most of the Western world, in spite of anti-religious propaganda, the persecutions in Eastern and Central Europe and the so-called secular age. The continuity and tenacity of the people’s devotion to her cannot be dismissed.
An early German poet speaks of Mary’s beauty:
I see you, Mary, beautifully depicted
In a thousand pictures,
Yet none of them can portray you
As my soul perceives you.
I only know that ever since then
The tumult of the world
has vanished like a dream,
And heaven abides eternally in my heart.
Irish writer and poet, John O’Donohue, of Anam Cara fame, claims that it will be beauty that finally saves the world.
It is important to realise that people often view images of Mary within the context of their own culture. Although stories of her from both history and the scriptures are limited, Mariology has had an enormous development: just as a pearl develops from a tiny stimulus in the shell of a mollusk.
It is not so much about our knowledge of Mary, but how generations of people have experienced her. Today, through contemporary scholarship and archaeological excavation, we can view a little of her world through a small window.
Mary of Nazareth (Miriam in Hebrew) was a young Jewish peasant girl—married and a mother. Her home was in the small village of Nazareth, south of Galilee, off the main road of commercial travel. Seventy per cent of the people of her day were peasant farmers who either worked on some small land of their own or worked as tenant farmers for a landlord. Others were craftsmen serving the needs of the village.
The houses were small, just one or two rooms clustered together and built of native stone held together with a mortar of mud. Roofs were thatched from reeds and floors were packed earth. In an open courtyard, extended family or a close kinship group shared an oven, a cistern for water and a millstone for grinding grain. This was their kitchen. Domestic animals were also housed there. This is where Mary spent most of her life.
Women in biblical times shared in caring of the land, whether in the fields, orchards or vineyards. Historically, Mary would have been physically strong, practical and respectful of family traditions. She spoke Aramaic, a language with a strong poetical tradition. Mary would have known by heart the stories of the women in the Jewish scriptures and the prayers. Reading was the specialised skill of the men who read the Torah. Scripture stories were not only religious but were acted out for entertainment.
Socially, Mary’s family would not have been among the rich land owners or the destitute poor who had neither land nor jobs and survived by begging, but the middle group who worked on the land or at a variety of skilled trades.
Because Mary was of a peasant family and very attached to the land, it is easy for Aboriginal Christians to relate to her to in their image of the Land our Mother. Today there is a very deep struggle in many Aboriginal people who identify within two cultures. Just as Mary would have struggled with the New Way her son was advocating. But she trusted and followed him, all the way to the cross.
Renowned Aboriginal woman Miriam Rose Ungunmerr, from Daly River—artist, teacher, and philosopher—often wearies of explaining how she can marry her Aboriginal spirituality with her Christian belief. We witness through her art just how rich this can be, particularly in her love for Mary. Again we see how revered Mary has become through the ages and in vastly different cultures.
Can we read the signs of our times and recognise the inevitable return of the feminine within all creation, something that has been repressed for so long? The true image of Mary is not a goddess symbol. It is a realisation of the fullness of both the feminine and masculine spirit within the Creator and all creation. Aboriginal artist George Mung (sadly deceased) also echoes this in his uniquely carved image, Mary of Warmun.
Little Mary of Warmun
So small in stature,
Yet within your heart
Lies the greatest love
Given for the whole world.
So filled with the Spirit
Of your own beloved Creator
You have so generously given us
A woman of our own people.
(More about Mary and cultural art in the next issue.)
On discovering a great work of art
George Mung had carved a statue out of a piece of tree, a work of extraordinary beauty. Here it was, sitting on top of a hot-water system. About a metre high, it is an Aboriginal woman, a Madonna, pregnant with a man-child who stands in a shield just below her heart, his feet extended and his hands tipping the edges of the shield. It's almost like the image you get in the Leonardo drawing, but also like a Russian icon (which George Mung could never have seen).
The woman's body is painted with the paint reserved to young Aboriginal women before they have children. Accompanying her is a carved wooden bird, because Aboriginal people in this area believed in the holy spirit long before Christianity came. They believe that each person is accompanied through life by a holy spirit, male for male and female for female.
This work of George's would take its place, I believe, beside the great sculptures in the history of art. It is as moving as the carvings at Chartres, as great as the Germaine Richier crucifix in the church at Assy or the great Lipschitz sculpture at lona. It is incredibly moving.
Rosemary Crumlin (from Eureka Street, March 1991)