"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"In Praise of America" (Sunday, May 29, 2011)

Paul Robeson singing "The House I Live In":

I’ve always resented Frank Sinatra for “stealing” the song “The House I Live In” from Paul Robeson. When Sinatra sang it for the hundredth anniversary celebrations for the Statue of Liberty in 1986, I was livid. How dare he, I thought, that’s Robeson’s song (of course, Robeson was ten years dead by 1986, so he couldn’t have been invited to sing it for those festivities anyway). But still, there was Sinatra, that white Republican from New Jersey stealing the thunder from the memory of my favorite black leftist (who was also from New Jersey, too, if the truth be told).

Then I found out (quite recently actually) that Sinatra sang the song first. He recorded it in 1945; Robeson didn’t record it until 1947. Sinatra’s version was the theme song for a short film he made to fight racial prejudice and anti-semitism at the end of the Second World War. The film received an honorary Academy Award and a Golden Globe; the song was a national hit; it topped the charts. Robeson’s version was part of an album called Songs for Free Men, which also featured the Soviet National Anthem and a “Hymn to the United Nations” (neither of which topped the charts). So, I guess “The House I Live In” was originally Sinatra’s song, not Robeson’s. Never mind.
 You see, I assumed it was Robeson’s song originally because I knew that the lyrics had been written by Abel Meeropol, who was a leading leftist during that time. (He and his wife later adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution.) The music was by Earl Robinson, another well-known left-winger at the time. So, I assumed that Meeropol and Robinson had written it for their leftist friend, Paul Robeson.

Wrong. They wrote it for Sinatra, and Hollywood, and the U.S. State Department. 

 Which is probably one of those things that could happen “only in America”: two Communists writing a song for a movie starring a conservative Republican from New Jersey paid for by the U.S. government.  It’s also yet another example of the dangerous ground we tread when we assume that something is true, just because we think it is; or just because we agree with it; or just because it fits so neatly into the well-manicured view of the world we have constructed for ourselves.
 Which is something we all do, especially, when it comes to patriotism and America and how we regard this land of ours. 

I have a rather long list of things that tick me off, especially when it comes to politics. (The list gets longer as I get older, I’m afraid.) But nothing ticks me off more than the assumption that “liberals hate America”, that those on the political left aren’t patriotic; don’t care about America or its people; refuse to stand by their land at its time of need. (When I hear nonsense like this, I get out my picture of no less a flaming liberal than George McGovern, flying bombing missions over Germany during the Second World War. Talk about “standing by America”.)

But no less an “authority” than Ann Coulter says that “Liberals hate America”. That may even be the title of one of her books. (Of course, Ann Coulter is also the same woman who said—and this is a direct quote-- “My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is that he didn’t go to the New York Times Building.”)
But it’s not just the loony right like Coulter and Savage and Hannity who feel this way. “Liberals don’t care about America.” “Liberals aren’t patriotic.” I’ve had people say things like that to my face, perhaps even within the walls of this very church. And it’s nonsense. It’s another of those ass-umptions,  and we know what ass-umptions make of both you and me.
No, liberals love America as much as conservative do (and maybe, in practice, even more sometimes). But the fact that many otherwise intelligent people (so we’re not talking Ann Coulter here obviously) really believe that liberals don’t, says something, I’m afraid. There is a a problem that people on the Left themselves do have. Why is it that they so often give the impression of being “America haters” (or, at best, tepid about things like the flag and patriotism and what have you)?
 I think that the insidiousness of assuming is at work here, once again. Liberals do a fair amount of assuming of their own, I’m afraid. So sometimes, when we talk about things like America and its people and its history, we give off the air of an overly judgmental parent. Or a hyper-critical spouse or child perhaps. In the eyes of some on the Left, America’s best is never good enough. We assume the worst about America’s motives. All success is suspect. We are too quick to ascribe ulterior designs when, in fact, none really exist.
 “What is America to me?” Meeropol asks. (And Robeson sings. And Sinatra, too, of course.)
            “A name, a map, a flag I see.”
 Yes—all these things that instill pride; that mean so much more; that symbolize so much. There is an intrinsic value that America has for us, simply because this is our home. One should naturally love one’s homeland.

But there’s something more at work here, too, and America also symbolizes most of all to us “a certain word,‘democracy’”America is about freedom. It is our belief in freedom that unites us as Americans, in spite of all our differences; in spite of all our disagreements.

“What on earth can unite the Americans in such a way?” one Romanian correspondent asked in the days just after 9/11. “Their land? Their galloping history? Their economic power?... I reached only one conclusion: “Only freedom can work such miracles.”
 “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” Janis Joplin used to sing (of course, Roger Miller sang it first). That’s balderdash, of course. (To be fair, the song is speaking of freedom in terms of personal relationships and not political ones.)
 But if you should think that, in any way, that “freedom’s just another word”, then I suggest giving it up for a while and seeing how that feels. No one ever tries to escape into prison, after all. In the 27 years of the existence of the Berlin Wall, about 80 people were killed by border guards while trying to escape into West Berlin. No one was ever shot trying to enter Communist East Berlin.
 In America, we have a great deal of personal and political freedom. What we do with it, how we use it, of course, is a different question. Whether we squander it, or whether we let it ring out in the goodness of our lives depends on us. Whether our freedom produces a good society or not remains to be seen, century after century, from generation to generation. (We’ll talk about freedom more next Sunday when we consider the toxic legacy of Ayn Rand and how the sacred name of freedom is so often abused.) But freedom is to creativity as air is to breathing. Freedom is the necessary groundwork of creativity; it is the necessary ethos of a dynamic society.
  Dynamism, it seems to me, is the second great American virtue.
  America is a society that is not static, that does not rest on the glories of its past, that is always pushing forward., toward the frontier, toward the “wide horizon’s grander view”.  In his historical studies of the American West, Bernard DeVoto showed how this expansive spirit came to dominate the American mindset from the very beginning of our national history. America has always been a nation “on the move”—and not just geographically. Creativity—innovation—an entrepreneurial spirit—all have made America a world leader in so many fields of endeavor. 

 Now, if the truth be told, I am, at heart, something of a Europhile. I read The Economist. I listen to Deutsche Welle, the Voice of Germany.  I cook French cuisine. So many aspects of European culture—its art, its culture, its history—fascinate me and even enchant me. But as a student of European history, I also have discerned—not just in the past, but right into our own day—a certain conservatism in the European manner: a not-always-earned deference to the past—and to class-- which sometimes lays a heavy hand upon the present; a clinging to tradition for the sake of tradition which can act as a damper to innovation and creativity at times.
 All nations have their ghosts of the past which haunt them from time to time. There is, of course, a dark side to America’s history, which we need to face honestly, which we’ll have ample opportunity to do in the months ahead. But in America, I think, we seem more ready and able to move beyond our past mistakes, and let the dead bury the dead, than other peoples often are.  Our focus seems more on the future than on the past. Of course, all this action without introspection can have its downside. But there is a reason that America’s universities (if not its health care system) are the envy of the world. There is a reason that American culture and American products are sought after the world over, and it’s not all about marketing. There is an American ability to foster innovation, creativity, and always something new.

            The grocer and the butcher
 and the people that I meet
The children in the playground
The faces that I see…

As James Carroll wrote recently in the Boston Globe:

“Here is the amazing thing. Overwhelmingly, present-day Americans are positively minded. You can see it in their faces. In their instinctive kindness. In the way, universally, they open doors for you, or gesture you first out of the elevator. Nowhere is our splendid diversity more dramatically manifest than in queues, whether shoeless at the X-ray machines, caffeine-deprived at Starbucks, weary at baggage carousels, or idling at freeway on-ramps. People in those lines, as I inched forward with them, were invariably patient, courteous, respectful.”

We are an informal and laid-back people, in the main. We may love watching royalty on CNN, but we would never want that for ourselves. That is where a great part of America’s power and glory lies: in the hearts of her wonderful people. “Americans are smart and good,” Carroll concludes.

The place I work in
The workers at my side
The little town, a city,
Where my people live and die.
The howdy and the handshake
The air of feeling free
And the right to speak my mind out
That’s America to me.”
We are a diverse people, too. Another great American virtue is our diversity.

All of us had forbears who were aliens in this New World, at one time or another; forefathers and foremothers who faced hardship to come here, seeking religious freedom or economic opportunity, or escape from political persecution, or simply a chance to build a new life. Who were greeted by “No Irish Need Apply” signs in shop windows. Who had their churches and temples burned to the ground by anti-immigrant mobs of “nativist” Americans. Who were spit upon and harassed and slurred and slandered as “Dagos” and “Wops” and “Kikes” and “Canucks”. Who worked for pennies an hour in the textile mills of Lawrence and Lowell and Fall River and Woonsocket, and built up this American economic powerhouse that would become the envy of the world. We all share, in some way, this magnificent story of the diversity of America.

Not too long ago, German chancellor Angela Merkel declared that multiculturalism had been an “utter failure” as far as her nation was concerned. Certainly, there are many questions we need to face as far as how we are to live in a world (in a society) where not everyone looks like us or speaks like us or prays like us. How much should we acclimate and how much should we integrate? Are we to be a melting pot or a tapestry? How can a healthy balance be struck between multi-culturalism on one hand, and national unity and cohesiveness, on the other? How do we live out our national motto: E pluribus unum—Out of many, one? I don’t pretend that these are anything other than tough questions.
But certainly, when we are most true to the ideals upon which this country was founded—for which our people lived and died—when we affirm that the American spirit is one of inclusiveness and not exclusiveness; toward opening doors and not barring them shut. That is what has made America great in the past, and will keep America great in the future.
The words of old Abe Lincoln,
Of Jefferson and Paine,
Of Washington and Douglass
And the tasks that still remain,
The little bridge at Concord
(the one in Massachusetts, by the way)
Where freedom’s fight began,
Our Gettysburg and Midway,
And the heroes of Bataan.

When we were in Germany last summer, one of the places I really wanted to visit was the main hall at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich, where some of the leading members of the White Rose resistance group attended classes, passed out some of their leaflets, and where, ultimately, they were arrested by the Gestapo.

On the first floor of the building there is a small museum dedicated to the members of the White Rose and the anti-Nazi resistance, which tells the brave story of their exploits. Finally, toward the end of our trip, we made it to the university in Munich and got to see the museum. The morning we were there, a rather elderly gentleman balding, but with thick white hair circling his head like a halo, and a large, bushy white mustache, was seated before a group of perhaps twenty or twenty-five people, speaking to them in German. This, we learned, was Franz Josef Mueller, perhaps the last surviving member of the White Rose, who is now 87 years old.

After Herr Mueller’s talk was over, the docent at the museum came over to us, and asked if, because we had come so far, we would like to meet him. Of course, we said, if it wasn’t too much trouble. Not at all, she replied, and she went and brought him over to us. We shook hands, introduced ourselves, and he spoke to us for a few minutes. With his eyes glistening, in halting but perfectly understandable English, he said, “I want to thank you for what your country did in rescuing us from Hitler and for saving my life.” After he had been sentenced to jail by the Nazi court—a boy of just seventeen at the time-- it had been American soldiers who had liberated him from prison. But it wasn’t just his own freedom that Americans had wrought, Mueller said (his voice still thick with emotion, 65 years later); it was the very freedom of Europe itself.

In addressing the U.S. Congress in 1990, Czechoslovak president Vaclav Havel said:
“Twice in this century, the world has been threatened by a catastrophe. Twice this catastrophe was born in Europe, and twice Americans, along with others, were called upon to save Europe, the whole world and yourselves…
“Proof of this are the hundreds of thousands of your young citizens who gave their lives for the liberation of Europe, and the graves of American airmen and soldiers on [European] soil…”

            This Memorial Day, may we remember that sacrifice, and honor it. And may we use the best that is within our national spirit to build a world where such sacrifice will no longer be necessary. May this garden of America bloom forth with flowers of justice, equity, and compassion. May the million lights we see—in churches, school, and clubhouses; in temples and mosques and places of business-- shine forth as reflections of the torch of liberty lit so long ago, but which burns forever new in the heart of America and the hearts of America’s people.

Monday, May 23, 2011

As Tranquil Streams that Meet and Merge (Sunday, May 15, 2011)

The final vote was in. The people had spoken—overwhelmingly-- in favor of the merger of their two denominations. The legal machinery was set in motion that would consolidate the two groups into one unified liberal church. So it was that on May 1, 1961—fifty years ago this very day—a service of worship was held at Symphony Hall in Boston to mark the birth of a new American religious denomination. As the officiating ministers processed into the hall, the delegates rose and sang:
As tranquil streams that meet and merge,
And flow as one to seek the sea,
Our kindred fellowships unite,
To build a church that shall be free.
            With what high hopes the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists was greeted. As we have heard, it was a long process—about a hundred years long in all.  But joined into one body at last, it finally seemed as though a new golden age of liberal religion in America might finally be at hand.
            Oh, there were lingering voices of discontent, certainly. A few scoffed that the marriage was little more than a short-sighted marriage of convenience. The Unitarians had the people and the Universalists had the money, these voices said; that was the long and short of it. Others wondered why the mowing down of two small, struggling blades of grass should, in and of itself, guarantee a new and luxuriant lawn.
            The voting within both churches had been overwhelmingly in favor of the merger, but neither was close to unanimous. Between 15 and 20 percent of both Universalists and Unitarians were opposed to it. A number of less traditional Unitarians worried about being tied down in a union with a group of Universalists they found too theologically conservative. On the other hand, there were more than a few Universalists who could not see themselves part of the same church as these (supposedly) “radical” Unitarian humanists.
            But given the monumental nature of the task at hand, it is actually quite amazing that the Unitarian-Universalist merger came about as smoothly as it did. It is equally impressive, too, that it has persisted as strongly as it has. Certainly, there have been strains over the years, especially during the earlier period, when many Universalists felt they were being “submerged” rather than “merged”; subsumed by the more numerous (and often more outspoken) Unitarians. (Many of us birthright Universalists are still not pleased when we hear the name of our Unitarian Universalist faith shortened to “Unitarian” alone.)
            But more and more, it seems that these are yesterday’s battles. For the majority of Unitarian Universalists today, these earlier issues mean absolutely nothing. Most of our members now have joined our denomination well after 1961. They have no “pre-merger” consciousness; no remembrance of a pre-merger religious existence. That, I think, is a good thing. We can let the dead bury the dead, and concentrate on what it means to build a thriving, strong Unitarian Universalist movement today, in our own time.
            No, we are all one now.
            However, we should nevertheless remember that, in their origins, Unitarianism and Universalism did represent distinct religious doctrines.
            Early Unitarians affirmed that God was one, and not a trinity. Early Universalists believed in universal salvation, that is, they declared that God would ultimately save all people, and that a God of love, in the end, would damn none of his creation to eternal punishment in Hell.
            But it is also an historical fact that, from the early days of both movements here in America, there were many noted Unitarians who also subscribed to a belief in universal salvation. And within a generation after the founding of Universalist churches in the New World. By the early 1800s, it is fair to say that most Universalists were, in fact, unitarian (that is, non-trinitarian) in their view of God.
            To be sure, differences in emphases would remain between the two groups. Unitarians would emphasize the search for truth; Universalists, the power of love. More and more, Unitarians would come to see human reason as their main source of religious authority, while most Universalists would continue to look to the Bible for religious inspiration and support. Unitarians tended to be more urbane, more intellectual. The chief mode of religious expression for Universalists tended more toward the “spiritual” or the emotional, than toward the exclusively intellectual or rational.
            Throughout the nineteenth century, differences did exist between the Unitarians and the Universalists. But it’s very important to note that these were never antagonistic differences.  The views of one side never derided or precluded the views of the other. Then, in the years following the Civil War, both religious groups would move, with ever-accelerating speed, beyond their exclusively Christian, Protestant origins, and toward a more inclusive, broader based, more universalized faith. This trend continued into the twentieth century, as both groups developed into religious movements which sought to hold together two divergent wings, traditional and radical, theist and humanist, both Christian and non-Christian.
            Perhaps within Universalism, the Humanist contingent was proportionally somewhat smaller than it was in Unitarianism. Perhaps more Universalists held onto their traditional ways of doing things, and were more likely to employ more traditional religious language. But within the Unitarian movement, too, there was a wide variety of theological opinion. There were Unitarians who were just as traditional in their theological views as were the more “conservative” Universalists.
            Universalism, too, was changing during this time—and changing quite rapidly, as well. As early as 1870, there was an attempt to relocate the central emphasis of Universalism away from the Christian idea of “universal salvation” and toward a more “universal religion”. This sense of a truly universal Universalism—of a Universalism beyond Christianity—would become the dominant strand within the Universalist denomination by the middle of the twentieth century.
            I think it’s fair to say that, by the 1960s, most Unitarians and most Universalists were saying, basically, the same things when it came to matters religious. The time for unity seemed to be at hand.
            I was six years old when the Unitarian-Universalist merger took place. I was, of course, an extremely precocious child, but I still think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t a big item on my radar screen. (I think there were radar screens back then.) My guess is that, in the Universalist church in which I grew up in Woonsocket (like Stoughton, another Universalist church that voted “no”, according to the official tally), the subject was not discussed very much, if at all. No one in that church would have ever dared to insinuate that we were anything but Universalists (and proud of it).
            I didn’t learn that I was “half Unitarian” until I went away to summer camp at Ferry Beach in Maine in the fifth grade, when I was about 12 or so (that would be around 1966). I remember coming back home to Woonsocket feeling so proud of the stories I had heard about the brave stand taken by our ministers in Selma and Montgomery, in support of the civil rights movement. I came back energized by the openness and honesty I had glimpsed in these “other” UUs—the first Unitarian Universalists from outside my own church that I had ever gotten to know. And, history geek that I was (and am), I came back from camp intrigued by this new dual heritage of which I now was part.
            Perhaps the greatest thing we Universalists gained by merging with the Unitarians back in 1961 was a share in that great and glorious heritage. No one can deny the splendid contributions made by Unitarians throughout the history of our country. Just listen to the names of those famous Unitarians of the past: Adams (both of them), Jefferson, Channing, Emerson, Thoreau, Lowell, Hawthorne, Whittier, Whitman—right down to Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Adlai Stevenson, and Linus Pauling in the twentieth century. Just to be able to claim that heritage as one’s own—what a precious legacy!
            But let us never forget, too, the brilliance of our Universalist heritage. So, many of the most noted educational institutions in America (including Tufts University)  were originally founded by Universalists. Universalists were the first denomination in America to ordain women into their ministry. It was the first denomination to state publicly its opposition to slavery, and to capital punishment. The greatest of all abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison, was a Universalist. So was Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. So was Horace Greeley, who told us to “Go west, young man, go west!”  So was P.T. Barnum.
            We need to work—work very hard indeed—to make our Unitarian Universalist present worthy of both our Unitarian and Universalist past.
            Now, I will admit that that name—Unitarian Universalist—can be a bit unwieldy at times. But I’ve gotten use to unwieldy names,  and I decided long ago that, if I was going to have to spell my name every time I made  restaurant reservation, that it wasn’t that much more onerous to have to spell my religion, too. But it was unusual, back when I lived in Maine and we all still had typewriters, to have to eventually replace the “U” key on mine (along with the “Y”), as well as the more usual “A”  “E” and “I”.
            For while that name—Unitarian Universalist—might seem at first listen to have all the phonetic resonance of “Hippopotamus Rhinoceros”, there is, nonetheless, something quite brilliant about it as well. For those two words remind us of the essence of our religious search: the search for that which is unitary and universal. It reminds us of our deep spiritual need, in all of our magnificent diversity, to know that we are united—one—interdependent—with all of the universe. In that somewhat unwieldy name of our faith, two deep instincts within the human soul—the unitary and the universal—meet and merge, as well.
            Thirty years ago, today, May 15, 1981, I was voted into the Unitarian Universalist ministry by the Fellowship Committee of the UUA. (I was ordained by the First Universalist Church of Woonsocket later that month.) That was the twentieth anniversary of the UU merger, and now, here we are at the fiftieth. Those of us who were Young Turks back then have become the old-timers of our ministry. Time flies when you’re having fun. That’s just how life is.
            But of course, fifty years old is not very old for a religion, not at all. Ours is still, in some ways, a very young religious movement. But let us hope that ours is a youthfulness informed and deepened the experience and wisdom of centuries. May we be forever young. But may we also never fail to heed the lessons which the past has taught us.
A freedom which reveres the past,
But trusts the dawning future more,
And bids the soul in search of truth
Adventure boldly and explore.

Prophetic church, the future waits
Your liberating ministry.
Go forward in the power of love,
Proclaim the truth that makes us free.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Another Look At Mary (Sunday, May 11, 2003)

I heard something downstairs, on the first floor of our house: the sound of breaking glass, or was it chimes blowing in the wind? I sat straight up in bed, while the other members of the household remained quiet and still, deep in sleep. They had heard nothing, it seemed. Then I heard it again: breaking glass or music, one or the other; I could not tell which. Still, I sensed no danger; no dogs barking; no cries of alarm bells. As I went downstairs to investigate further, I heard what sounded like the lightest blowing of the breeze through the living room window. But how could that be? This was a cold night, on the cusp of winter, never to be spring it seemed. There was no window open, and the storm windows were still securely in place, and would be for a while yet.
At the foot of the stairs, I turned right toward the living room, and looked toward the window in the corner. And then I saw that light, bright and shining as a thousand suns, with an intensity that drove me to my knees (a place to which I am not driven often). Finally, out of the light she appeared: a young woman with a veil as white as clouds and a long, flowing gown as blue as the sky. I watched as her heavenly aura returned within her being. With a smile, she bid to arise and sit by her on the couch.

“You’re Mary, aren’t you?” I asked.
She seemed relieved by my question. “Very good!” she said. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to recognize me or not. It’s been a long time since I visited anyone of your particular faith. Henry Adams was the last time, and that must have been over a hundred years ago now. But you have read widely, I see from all these books hanging around here. At least I can save time in introducing myself. It gets tedious after a while; I’m not one who likes blowing my own horn, after all. But then, we all have our crosses to bear. Yes, I am Mary, mother of Jesus, wife of Joseph, Empress of Heaven, Virgin of the Poor, Seat of Wisdom, Queen of Peace. There are other titles, too—94 according to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and I think they missed a couple. But we haven’t got time to go into all of them. This will be my only chance to visit with you, I’m afraid.”
Just one visit? I was a little disappointed. After all, at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina in was said that the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of young people every day for over ten years, from June 1981 onward. Before this, the most times she had ever been reported had been 33 times in late 1932 and early 1933, in Beauraing, in southwestern Belgium. At Medjugorje, the normally circumspect and reticent Virgin had become as garrulous and loquacious as a Rotarian, in the words of one commentator on matters religious. I would have only one visit, but still I hid my disappointment. After all, one apparition is better than none.

It did not surprise me that Mary spoke English. I knew from what I had read on past visitations that she always spoke in the language of the people she visited. What would be the use otherwise? At Medjugorje, she conversed in Serbo-Croatian; at Fatima, she spoke Portuguese; at Lourdes, French. There was almost a mix-up once: they say that when she appeared in 1846 at LaSalette, near Grenoble, high in the French Alps, she began speaking to two young shepherds in Parisian French. They could barely understand a word she was saying! The Blessed Virgin realized her error, and quickly switched to their local dialect. (It is nice to know that not even Mary was perfect.) In 1879, at Knock in western Ireland, where almost an entire village claimed to have seen her, she spoke not a word at all. She just stood there, a comfort and a help to a sad and sorely afflicted people. Sometimes, we do not need words; our presence is enough, and we hear with our hearts.

The fact that Mary spoke English is not what surprised me. It was, rather, that she spoke it with a Southern accent! This confused me at first, but then I surmised the reason. Could it be that in this apparition of the mother of Jesus, the Mother of Faith, I was hearing the Charleston drawl of my own mother? Was Mary choosing to sound like her? There is at least one irrefutable fact in matters of faith, it seems to me: We discern the workings of the Spirit through the lens of our own experience. The voice of the Spirit always speaks to us through the voice of our own culture in general and the voices of our own personal histories in particular.
“Why have you come to me?” I finally found the strength and courage to ask.
“You are as good as any other,” she replied. “My voice is speaking always. But there has to be a willingness to listen, and many people will not listen to my story anymore. For one reason or another, they don’t understand me. Some Catholic authorities want to turn me into just a tamed and domesticated mother figure, sort of a cosmic Donna Reed—full of sentimentality, nice in pearls, but not much else. The Protestants think even less of me. They dust off my statue once a year at Christmas, but as far as they’re concerned, I’ve never left the manger. I want you to help me and let people know: I can mean much more than that; there are important lessons that I can still teach the world.

And so we began to talk. I do not know whether it was for a long while or a short time. She told me of her life—or should I say, her lives?
Of her personal life, there was little that was remarkable, she said. “I was, after all, just a simple Jewish girl, growing up far from the big cities. But somehow, I was called to play this great role. That’s the way it is so often. The Spirit does not usually move among the great and famous, perhaps they are so busy being great and trying to hold onto their fame and their riches and their power. So the Spirit has no place to move in their hearts. But in those who are not the best and not the worst, the Spirit has a place to grow. So their souls can magnify the Spirit. That’s my story: that God chose a simple handmaiden to bear this child who would change the whole world.”
“What was Jesus like as a child?” I heard myself asking. “He, too, was not the best and not the worst,” Mary answered. “He was a good boy, a very good boy. But he had a will of his own, and that didn’t make it easy for Joseph and me. But we knew from the very beginning that there were special powers in him. We knew it when we found him in Jerusalem that day, discussing things with the elders of the temple; we knew then he was destined to be a great rabbi, a great religious man. In time, as we watched him grow, we started to think, “Maybe he is the Messiah—who knows?” And we always treated him as though he was the child of God. For we knew that, whoever he was, there was something of God in him. But then, there is something of God in all children, you know; something of God in each and every one of us. So that is the way we need to treat each other, especially the children—as though we were sons and daughters of God.

Then she continued: “But as he grew older, he kept to himself a lot. He was never really at ease with people. It was as though the Spirit was working so deeply within him that he found it difficult to find a way of letting others know that. He was awfully stand-offish at times; he didn’t want to get involved, especially when he was a younger man. Of course, he knew where it would all have to lead. And that frightened him—it had to—especially given his gentle and quiet nature. But I knew he had to continue, and I knew I had to help him do what he was called to do.
So here’s how it started. One day, we went to a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and—wouldn’t you know it? – they ran out of wine. I felt so bad for the host; he was a good friend of the family. Is there anything more embarrassing than having guests—his daughter’s wedding, no less—and running out of wine? I thought to myself, Jesus has got to show his stuff sooner or later; this is as good a time as any. Why not help the poor father out? So, I mentioned it to Jesus, and he wasn’t too happy with me. ‘O woman,’ he said (he was always calling me ‘woman’ when he got mad at me; as I said, he wasn’t always easy to live with). ‘O woman. My hour has not yet come,’ he says. Can you imagine that? ‘My hour has not yet come.’ Well, I knew that his hour had come—I’m his mother, after all—and not a minute too soon! The world needed him and needed to hear what he had to teach. So that day at Cana, he turned the water into wine. That was the miracle that got things started; people noticed him after that. It might seem kind of a silly reason to do a miracle, but it seemed important at the time. Sometimes, it’s the things that seem less important at the time that turn out to be more important later on.

“But there were many times when I came to regret it, and long for those old days back in Nazareth when he was playing in his father’s carpenter shop, or off by himself, under an olive tree, just thinking. And when he died, that was very hard. I was there watching, and there was nothing I could do; that was the worst of it. There is nothing that kills you more than losing a child. Maybe that’s why some people pray to me and ask me to help especially when they are in pain and brokenhearted. They know that I have felt what they are feeling, that we have something very deep in common, something to share.”
We were silent for a little bit, and then Mary went on: “I never wanted honors and titles. I never asked for anything. But in time, because of the place I had in the whole story, I somehow became more than that simple Jewish girl. I became a symbol of something much greater. Jesus did too, really. We all did. And as symbols, we took on new lives of our own, which might or might not have much to do with who we were in the first place. I became a symbol almost from the day I died. (And I don’t even remember when that was for sure. Most people say I died in Jerusalem, around the year you would number 63. But others say I went to Turkey, with my son’s friend John, and died in the city of Ephesus. I can’t remember; it was a long time ago, after all.)

But it was in Ephesus, long after my death, almost four hundred years after that, that a council of the church met and proclaimed me theotokos, the God-bearer. The men were completely in control by this time. That’s not the way it was at first; the early church had many more women in positions of power. Strong, powerful women like Priscilla and Nympha; they were as powerful as bishops, I tell you. (I’m the only one they pay any attention to now, and not always for the right reasons!) But anyway, at Ephesus, there was talk that some of the men on the council thought I was getting a little too much attention and that this distracted from their Father God and the glory of my son. So they were going to write me out of the creed! But the people of Ephesus gathered all together, and they surrounded the church where the council was meeting and kept shouting: ‘The goddess! The goddess! Mary is the goddess! Give us our goddess! Give us Mary!’ (Remember: Ephesus was the city of the great temple of the goddess Diana—one of your wonders of the world, I believe.) The people there knew that it was important for the spiritual world to include the power and wisdom of women, and I became the symbol of that for them, whether they saw me as the goddess or not. For many people in the years after that, I represented the feminine face of the church, maybe even the feminine face of God.

“During the Middle Ages, the people felt even more deeply about me. In France, every cathedral built during the 13th and 14th centuries was dedicated to me: Notre Dame, Our Lady. I was proud that my power could unleash such awesome creativity. That was another time of powerful women in the church, too, women like Julian or Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena.

But then came the Protestant Reformation. And maybe it had to come. Certain parts of the church had grown lazy and corrupt; things had to change. But the leaders of Protestantism—Luther, Calvin, and most of the others—had little use for me in their beliefs. They were mostly interested in gaining power and forcing a change over the face of Europe. They saw their God in the same way that they saw their prince: high and mighty, instilling fear and trembling, and 100% male. Soon, the church would be divided and only the Catholic side would have any placed for me. I am now like a mother who has two children, but is only on speaking terms with one of them.”

Mary looked a little sad as she said that. But then, the radiance of her smile broke through again, and she continued: “But now, the whole world is changing again, more rapidly than you can imagine. You are finally learning that to be holy means to be whole, and that the church, all churches, all religions, need to include both women and men if they are to be whole. I think I can become a symbol again for people in your changing times. Maybe I can give the world something of the warmth and caring of a mother who loves them when all else seems lost, a mother who stands by them when they are alone and don’t know where to turn next. Maybe I can be of comfort to those who are poor and hungry and without power. Do you think that it is an accident that, when I appear, it is usually to those who haven’t got very much? There is something in my story, something in my spirit, that speaks to them still. You remember my Magnificat in Luke’s gospel. I didn’t write it, of course, but I love the words anyway:
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
I can speak to the poor still and remind them: The way of an unjust society is not ‘God’s way’, no matter what those with wealth and power say. There is always reason to hope and pray and strive for justice.
“And there are other lessons I can still teach you, lessons you need to learn (for your times are full of danger). Through the years, you have come to call me ‘Queen of Peace’, a title of which I am especially proud. That is, perhaps, another part of the wisdom that women can bring to the church and the world. Peace. Reconciliation. An end to war and violence and the need to dominate and control. Accept one another. Love one another. Quit dividing things up. Like I said at Medjugorje, it is you who draw the lines between one another. Don’t blame me, and don’t blame my son. You draw the lines between people who have different religions than you do, or speak different languages. We never did that. My son was a man who wanted to bring different people together and wanted people to be all at peace within themselves and with God. People have dared to make such terrible divisions and do such dastardly things in his name. This must stop. Especially in your dangerous times, this must stop.

“And perhaps there is one more thing that my spirit can teach your age. Simple people have always identified me with the Earth goddess and with the goodness of the Earth. Perhaps this was the role I played, even within the church: to keep alive people’s connections with the cycles and seasons and life-giving spirit of this wonderful creation. I could touch the Earth more closely and arise out of the Earth more sensitively than a detached and distant Father God off somewhere in Heaven.
“I am glad that in your time more and more people are discovering that this Earth is alive, and that this Earth is the mother of all of us. Just as I, Mary of Nazareth, gave birth to the Jesus of history, so, perhaps, may Gaia, spiritual mother of all Earth’s children, give birth to that wisdom that can lead you away from poisoning the Earth and lead you toward living to heal the Earth and living in peace with all your brothers and sisters, human and nonhuman alike.

“’Hail Mary, full of grace,’ they pray to me. ‘The Lord is with you.’ But I don’t want memorized prayers and empty ritual. I want your lives to be like prayers, living prayers of justice and reconciliation. Ritual is beautiful and powerful, but I yearn even more to see the inner ritual of a change of heart empowered by love. When these things happen among any members of my human family, then I am blessed among women, and then I, Mary, Woman, know that the fruit of my life has blessed the Earth.”
And then, I was asleep. When I awoke, I ran to the window, desperately hoping for just one more look at this beautiful woman. Gradually, the winds outside died down. I knew that my magnificent visitor was gone, back into the sky and clouds from where she had come. The stars in the sky were smiling their benediction upon me, and a morning star in the east had just appeared. Before too many hours had passed, a new day would dawn, and I thanked God that I would be there to see it. But for now, in these hours between dark and daybreak, I was left alone with the moon.