Friday, July 8, 2011

A Meditation on Re-imagining Mary by Mariann Burke

Annunciation by Fra Angelico
        I was raised Jewish in an observant household. There were many taboos, and most forbidden were All Things Christian. Years later, I developed a chronic illness. The potions that promised to take away symptoms were more harmful than helpful. I had a dream: My classes are over, and I’m driving home from the College of Marin. When I stop for a red light, I see a huge, animated billboard of a blind man, dressed in biblical robes. An image of Mary appears next to him, and he tells me that I will find her nearby. If I could kneel and pray to her, he says,  I would find relief. I woke up shocked. Both my agnostic stance and my list of Must-Nots were deeply challenged.
Two weeks later my tragically mad mother calls me to say that one of her Voices told her to  visit a Mission. Soon! I was startled that she, consciously or unconsciously, knew of such a place. I took her to the Mission San Rafael, which happened to be midway between the college and the special care home where she lived.
I had never been to the Mission and the first thing I saw in that intimate, inviting chapel was the statue of Mary that appeared in my dream.  What secret, synchronous process had brought us here? I took my mother home, returned to the church, chose an inconspicuous pew, knelt (another taboo), and prayed. I began to cry, and as the tears came, the pain and exhaustion seemed to flow out of me.
     Years ago, Mariann Burke was studying to become a Jungian analyst in Zurich. She tells us that
       One day as I sat in my basement apartment reflecting
       on a picture of the Annunciation, energy seemed to surge  
       through me, and lifted  me above myself. Tears brought me  
       to deep center. (p 1)
Burke tells us that artists open “windows” whose depths may be unknown even to themselves. She “longs” to see other images, other paintings, “other versions” of the Annunciation. This is the beginning of her journey through the art of Mary, expressed through the deep connection she has with Her. She speaks of the power of spiritual imagery - the events depicted are not out of a lost past, but “Like a dream. the image is happening within”. (p. 3)
      It must be true that whenever artists or writers bring back mythical images from the past - Orpheus, Eurydice, Antigone, The Mother Goddess - those figures are “happening within.” As Carl Jung wrote in The Red Book “To give birth  to the ancient in a new time is creation.” (The Red Book. p. 311) There is a poem in After the Jug Was Broken that brings Mary and Ann (Hebrew Hannah) into both their Hebrew origins and our “new time.”:
                        "The Education of the Virgin”
                                          after a painting by Georges de La Tour

There is Ann with the book   Mary with the flame
Will the mother explain first bleeding   the rule of seclusion 
set forth by the fathers   Perhaps she is learning her aleph bet   
or the declaration of faith:
“Here O Israel the Lord Our God the Lord is One”
Ann would know nothing of a Son  And sacrifice? a lamb
on the altar   The cross? a woman’s to bear for her otherness
her breasts  the nest inside her
How to prepare   How to prepare the weeping woman on the front page of this morning’s paper who lost her son in a drive-by  
How to prepare the woman on another page who lost a son 
in each of our wars 
St. Ann mother of mothers   Teach her how to survive past grief
Teach her to seek healing and relief  And that said   Teach her
the prayer for the dead

      Mariann Burke’s goal in writing Re-Imagining Mary is not simply to take us on a  tour of Mary’s appearances in art. She writes:
     “The historical Mary needs to be recovered from a view that
       sees her as totally  meek, submissive to male authority
       rather than her feminine inner authority.” (p. 6)
      I sympathize with that goal. The Church saccharined Mary into submission, but what is the true nature of the Madonna? An ex-Catholic-now-Buddhist colleague once asked why that “meek woman” appealed to me when there was such a need for powerful female inspirators. I answered that Mary was another aspect of the Great Mother. She is  a symbol of compassion and healing, like Kwan Yin and the Taras for Buddhists, as Lakshmi, Saraswati & Parvati serve Hindus. For Jews, the Sabbath Bride, the Shekinah or Divine Presence, symbolizes the feminine, and who was Mary but a young Jewish woman pregnant with fate and prophecy?
      It is not only Mary that Burke wants to redeem, but Eve as well. She characterizes Eve not as evil or disobedient, but curious - a curiosity [which] “leads to greater consciousness. Eve’s “yes” to the serpent, and Mary’s “yes” to the angel represent two aspects of the journey toward wholeness.” (p. 23)
      Burke explores many Annunciations, a few that I had no knowledge of. Did you know that Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali painted the angel’s visit? Burke writes:
     “Salvador Dali’s Annunciation looks as if an explosion has
      ripped through the room catapulting Mary from her prayer
      stand and swishing Gabriel to the ceiling.” (p. 63)
She suggests that the News “shakes up the life of Mary” as our own lives are shaken by events. “How shall this be done”, Mary asks, becoming somewhat undone, and Burke responds that “out of unknowing understanding comes.” Her discussion of Warhol held the same pleasure that her descriptions of other artists did:
I could not anticipate her reaction or interpretation.
Annunciation after Leonardo da Vinci by Andy Warhol
        The author moves from the Annunciations to the expression of Mary as Mother and Sophia. I was delighted to find  a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem included that I had not read in years, which begins:
                    WILD air, world-mothering air,
                    Nestling me everywhere,
                    This air, which, by life’s law,
                     My lung must draw and draw Now
                     but to breathe its praise,       
                     Minds me in many ways
                     Of her who not only Gave God’s infinity…...
                     Mary Immaculate…….
                                                                 (p. 110-111)
As “world mother air”, Burke tells us, Mary is a cosmic temple, who allows us the freedom of our own finding, of our own breath. She offers liberation within a protected domain.
     Burke intersperses the images she presents with her own experience, her dreams and those of her clients, and her knowledge of the goddess as well as the religious understanding that I would expect from a woman who was identified in Italy as  “a monstere incognito” - a plain clothes nun.
     In the last chapter, “Sounding the Stone Dream”, Burke asserts that “all religious revelations are psychic realities. There within the soul we may discover our gods, and their matrix, the one source that mothers all.” (p. 150) Amen!  
Annunciation by Jim Janknegt (not included in book)
Re-Imagining Mary
Product Details
Re-Imagining Mary: A Journey Through Art to the Feminine Self
Paperback: 180 pages, 20+ illustrations, Index, Bibliography
Publisher: Fisher King Press; 1st edition (March 8, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-0981034416                                                    


  1. It is a good sign, I think, that Mary, Eve and Mary Magdalene are being discovered and/or re-discovered for who they are (and can be) as symbols and representations of aspects of the sacred that we need for inspiration on our own journeys.