Saturday, November 25, 2017

Rachel Fulton Brown's "Mary and the Art of Prayer"

Rachel Fulton Brown is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago. She is the author of From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200 (2002) and coeditor of History in the Comic Mode: Medieval Communities and the Matter of Person (2007).

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought, and reported the following:
At the top of page 99 is the end of a quotation from one of the most famous passages ever written about what it means to pray to Mary. The speaker is the great Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), and he is encouraging his audience to turn to Mary whenever they feel themselves overwhelmed by the tempests of life:
Asking her help, you will never despair. Keeping her in your thoughts, you will never wander away. With your hand in hers, you will never stumble. With her protecting you, you will not be afraid. With her leading you, you will never tire. Her kindness will see you through to the end. Then you will know by your own experience how true it is that “the Virgin’s name was Mary.”
This is the experience that my book attempts to capture for modern readers, but here, at the end of chapter 2, we have already come as far as most modern studies of the medieval devotion have been able to take us. We know by this point that every medieval Christian who could read—man, woman, or child; clerical, religious, or lay—would have known the Hours of the Virgin, the text at the core of their prayer books. We have also learned what we can about their experience of praying to her from the accounts that they gave of saying the invitatory antiphon at the first of these Hours and repeated by many throughout the day: “Ave, Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum.” Above all, we have noted, they reported sensations of lingering sweetness and exhilarating joy.

But why focus these prayers on the name of Mary? Most modern Christians, certainly most Protestants, think of Mary primarily as a humble maiden of Nazareth, remarkable only in that she was a virgin overshadowed by God—or raped, as certain feminist theologians have claimed. But medieval Christians had a whole range of other names for her—ark, tabernacle, temple, house, throne, city, mountain, river, tree, mirror, bride, queen—which they invoked to describe her relationship with God and which they professed to have found in the scriptures. As the book asks on page 99:
Where—other than in their desire to exercise their onomastic skills—did they get the idea to read the scriptures in the way that they did, as filled with names for her, almost none of which (other than her actual name) were invoked by the evangelists Matthew, Mark, or Luke?
The puzzle has been a persistent one ever since the eighteenth century, when philosophes like Casanova and Voltaire ridiculed interpreters like Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda (d. 1665) for imagining Mary as the Mother of Wisdom, filled with the knowledge of creation as God, the maker of heaven and earth, prepared her to be the temple of his Incarnate Son. The answer, as the remaining chapters of the book set out to show, lies in rethinking the history not only of the devotion to Mary, but of the origins of Christianity itself, grounded as it was in the recognition of Jesus not just as the Christ, but as the Lord worshipped in the psalms—and of Mary as the Mother of the Lord, the Lady of the temple in which the Lord became visible to the world. It is on page 99 that the full dimensions of this mystery first become clear and the doors of the temple begin to open wide.
Learn more about Mary and the Art of Prayer at the Columbia University Press website, and visit Rachel Fulton Brown's blog.

--Marshal Zeringue