Our Lady the Feminist Icon – for A Level RS – Developments in Christian Theology

I’ve  spent a good deal of time today researching material for an RS A Level Developments in Christian thought module I’m teaching on Gender issues and society. I’ve been thinking about what the Christian church has had to say about developments of feminism and the women’s liberation movement.

I’ll be talking with my class this week about how Mary is portrayed as the epitome of the feminine ideal for many Christians, Catholics especially. Traditional views of Mary as the submissive handmaid of the Lord, the passive devoted mother and wife to Jospeh the worker well trodden. But the idea of Mary as a feminist icon is an interesting one to play with and think about.

If you’re teaching this too, here are some images I’ve found that you might find useful and interesting

I really love this one :  (Much thanks to @ashdeanpoetry who has advised it’s ‘Andes Virgin and Child’ – -Artemio Coanqui) IMG_7438

 

Mary looks so young and fresh faced here. There’s an innocence and vulnerability to her that I find almost tearjerking. She’s so young, she wouldn’t look out of place in my Year 9 class. She’s elaborately dressed in a rather splendid black and gold number, and her shawl is exquisite I think. What i particularly love about this image though is the unusual depiction of Jesus on her back. Very adorable he is too, fast asleep and nestled into her neck. However, what’s significant here, I think, is that there is no eye contact between mother and son and that this is a hands free Madonna and Child. Despite her beautiful garb, she’s ready to work. This is no passive Mary who has not much to do except spend all day staring, besotted, at her little son. No. This is Our Lady of the Shopping. Our Lady of the Nursery Drop Off. Our Lady of the Trying to Pack a Million Things Into the Day. In fact, the child on her back reminds me of women in some of the poorest parts of the world tying their babies to their backs and starting work in the fields. She looks good on it mind. I suspect the porcelain complexion and the unfurrowed brow, the alert eyes are a cover. This is a woman who understands the power of mascara and a touch of creme blusher. I expect her laundry basket overfloweth though! I wonder if her hands are chaffed and sore. She keeps them hidden. Fair dos.
This is a really positive image though I reckon. Lots of women don’t get to see their children during the working day. But these children are still well cared for, content and close to their mother’s heart.
 

 

This one is from Our Lady of Angels, LAIMG_7439

 

Isn’t it incredibly striking?
There’s no fine elaborate robes, no crown. Her hair hangs in a simple plait. We can’t  pin this Mary down. Who is she? Where does she come from? I like that. She looks mixed race. She looks strong too. She stands so tall. Her open posture suggests a welcome and an openness, but one which brings with it a vulnerability. However, her face is so serene and so composed – she is not afraid. Her hands are the most visible thing about her. She looks like she uses them in her work. Her arms are bare, she’s got her sleeves rolled up! Our Lady of the Workers, Our Lady of the People Who Struggle. Our Lady of The About To Crack Under The Pressure But Found The Strength From Somewhere. Our Lady of the Women who Need to Take Five and Say Oh God I Don’t Quite Know How Im Going To Do All This Today. Our Lady Who Asks For Help And Still Keeps Her Dignity.
I really like this image too. It’s a very human Mary. It’s  not idealised or romanticised. She seems real.

 

This last image is hard to look at. I think it may be the most beautiful though.IMG_7440
This is Our Lady of Nagasaki. She was burned and scarred and blinded (Her eyes were simply melted away) by the atomic bomb that evaporated thousands of people. She was lucky to survive at all, and here she is.
When I saw this picture, and realised the context,  I thought straight away of the Hail Holy Queen prayer, “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears”

And then this line:
“Turn then most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us. And after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary”

She has no eyes though. Only two dark black holes. But there is  still a strange and wonderful beauty to her. I think so. Our Lady of the Disfigured. I have eyes. I see how the world is. She makes me want to make a world that’s kinder and more compassionate. A world without war and violence. She’s a woman who shares my values. She survives; her task is to challenge how we live, both men and women, and how we treat each other. She survives, but I can see.

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ”

 

 

 

 

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Ways to remember

 

This time of year is always tough in school. There’s so much to do. I feel like I’ve hit peak busyness, my head is stuffed full. There’s loads going on with my children too. By Friday morning I felt so overwhelmed with everything it was almost paralysing; physically and mentally. I dragged myself to work feeling so heavy, really emotional.Do you ever get that feeling when you’re on your own and silent in your car, and tears come into your eyes, but you’re not entirely clear why? Perhaps it’s a space when there’s nothing in  particular to bother you, so the culmination of everything in general comes to the fore.

I got to work and had forgotten that we were having our remembrance assembly later in the morning. I realised I wouldn’t be able to go this year. I always get really upset. The massive heartbreaking tragedy of it, the enormity of the loss of life, and pain and grief. Our school remembrance assemblies are done so well I feel it like it’s happening right now. And then I start crying. Trouble is, once I start, I can’t stop. I’m already feeling emotional. And I’ve a full teaching day. Oh my gosh I can’t do this today. Oh no! Why do I feel so emotional?

Maybe it’s that culmination of everything again. November is such a heavy month. The buoyancy of All Saints after the fun of Halloween gives way to the quiet aching sadness of All Souls. And then a whole month dedicated to remembering the dead. The first light on the Advent wreath seems a long way off. November can be so difficult. The 11th is the most desolate for sure. Remembering violent deaths, young people far from home. Bodies that didn’t come back. Hasty burials, often anonymous. Maybe not even that. And just a telegram home. Missing in action, presumed dead. No funeral at which to mourn the loss. So it’s all saved up for one collective day.

I like to wear a white poppy, as well as red. Remembering the dead, but also a very clear: Never again. I couldn’t even find my white poppy though yesterday. Hmm. That upset me too.

The period before assembly I’m teaching and at the end one of my young students is pining on her white poppy. I’ve never seen a student wear one before. But she’s a bit anxious about it when I ask her. She tells me, ‘I’m worried I’m going to be told off. I worried that people won’t get it’

‘I get it’, I told her. ‘It’s your way to remember. And, if these people died for freedom, then your way is important’

Suddenly she was emboldened. Wore her white poppy with head up. Remembering in her own way.  Good for her!

I did remembrance in my own way too. The staff room was silent. Everyone else in the hall. I stayed where I was. I just shut my eyes and sat very still.

Later, on my way to next class, my student came to find me. ‘I brought another white poppy in my bag. I’d like you to have it.’

I’ll never forget that.

 

Busy, but not too busy to be beautiful

It’s been a very hectic week, one of those weeks when you’ve no time at all to just sit down and be still. Even when I lie down at night to take rest my mind is swirling, and I wake up at stupid o’clock with a restless head but a tired body and soul. Half term seems a lot longer than a week ago. Then there’s the ‘Christmas holiday’ – which always sounds to me like a cruel contradiction!
However, whilst rushing on the way to a lesson in the early morning on Friday , a beautiful pale cream rose in the school gardens caught my eye and I stopped to look at it.

‘What are you looking at?’, asked a colleague.
‘This rose. It’s so beautiful. It’s almost a miracle that it’s still flowering in November. It’s fragile, but it’s hanging on in there’

We both admired it for a bit. There was time!
‘Well, if we’re lucky’, he said, ‘there might be a bit of sun, and it will open up’
And I thought, oh no. I like it now. Curled into a giant perfect bauble. Neither in bud nor bloom. It’s lovely just now, as it is.

In my yoga practice yesterday morning we meditated on how when we see the Forms of Beauty, they always point to something more. This is so true. Of course, perceiving beauty points us back to ourselves. There would be no beauty without one to behold it. And in order to behold, we have to be present. Not concerned with past or future, just present. Here. (Have you noticed in bible stories that whenever the prophets hear God calling to them, their response is ‘Here I am’ Hear. Here. I think that’s important. Revelation would be nothing without one to whom it is revealed) Our very presence is part of the beauty.  Isn’t that a lovely thought? There would be no beauty without us, and that must mean that we are part of the beautiful. It made me think of the November rose. And it made me think of this lovely poem, which I looked up when I got in from the fireworks yesterday evening.

A Beauty Blessing

As stillness in stone to silence is wed
May your heart be somewhere a God might dwell.

As a river flows in ideal sequence
May your soul discover time in presence.

As the moon absolves the dark of resistance
May thought-light console your mind with brightness.

As the breath of light awakens colour
May the dawn anoint your eyes with wonder.

As spring rain softens the earth with surprise
May your winter places be kissed by light.

As the ocean dreams to the joy of dance
May the grace of change bring you elegance.

As clay anchors a tree in light and wind
May your outer life grow from peace within.

As twilight fills night with bright horizons
May beauty await you at home beyond.

— John O’Donohue

Inspired by Sita: a Diwali blog

Awake in the small hours for ages this morning, I was thinking about Diwali, and particularly Sita. There’s many different versions of this story, so I think it’s okay to have my own spin:

Rama and Sita lived in the forest, before she was kidnapped by the evil demon Ravana. He’s a scary thing, with his ten heads and twenty arms; it’s every woman’s nightmare I think, being unable to escape the unwanted gaze and grasp of men. Ten pairs of eyes on her, ten pairs of hands. The more you think about it, it’s quite horrible. He whisks her off in his chariot, away from her beloved Rama, hoping to make her his own consort. Ultimately Ravana hides her away on a secret island. Will her beloved ever find her?

I’ve always thought of her as quite helpless in the story, awaiting Rama to rescue her. We discover though that, as Ravana speeds her away, she drops her jewellery as they travel, as a sign to Rama of her whereabouts. Perhaps this shows that her love for Rama is worth more than all her wealth? I was thinking though, how inspiring this part of the story is. In her darkest hour, Sita still has treasures to give. I don’t think it’s just physical jewels either. Her compassion, her faithfulness, her integrity, her wisdom, her love; these fall like precious stones over the universe. These are the things that give light and life, and make life worth living. It’s funny isn’t it that we often get our best ideas at night. Creativity can hit a peak when people are in dark moods. There’s beauty to be found in stark still winter days. Gems will be cast around in dark times. The means to secure her own rescue were in Sita’s own possession all along. We can be sure these precious jewels she scatters will return to her in abundance.

Rama follows the jewels until they lead him to the monkey god, Hanuman. He agrees to help him find Sita. He summons all the monkeys to help him, who in turn enlist all the bears. I love this detail. All the monkeys! All the bears! All the strength and agility in the world comes to help. They finally track Sita down to the island. But, oh no! The sea is too wide for them to reach her, they must build a bridge. Eventually every creature from the smallest to the biggest comes to help build the bridge. I guess they know they owe Sita. Her glittering blessings have been dispersed through the universe. This embodiment of Shakti, the divine feminine, the energy that gives the universe its very life. She’s not helpless, she’s everything! She is life! Now she’s calling in a favour, and all life works together to help her.

The bridge extends across the ocean, and a battle ensues with Ravana. Rama defeats him with a poisoned arrow. There’s a troubling bit to the story when Sita throws herself  the purifying  fire. I dislike the idea that there’s a question mark over whether she’s resisted the advances of Ravana and that she needs to prove her worth. I prefer to think of her becoming pure fire, sacred Agni. Sita herself personifies the Divali light that signifies the triumph of Good over Evil. She owns the victory too.

Rama and Sita are overjoyed to be reunited, and all the creatures of the universe rejoice with them. The oil lamps are lit all the way to guide them home.

Have a blessed Diwali everyone. Give thanks for the treasures you’ve been able to give the world. The universe will light the lamps to guide you home in return xxx

IMG_7366

Hush now

I love silence.
I think I’d have made a pretty good nun in an enclosed order. I thought about it once, long ago. And then thought, maybe not for me! The poverty, chastity and obedience might be a struggle! But the silence, not so much. That’s the bit I was drawn towards. A community of people who live and work together but nonetheless utterly respect each other’s need for a bit of peace.

Sometimes I feel increasingly troubled by noise. Things make me jump and startle me. TV and radio when it’s on in the background can really irritate me. I either want to listen fully, or turn it off. My sensitivity to noise has been made worse by being in pain recently following an op. It’s like every sense becomes heightened when one is in pain. Hearing especially.

BKS Iyengar writes that pain is a teacher.
I think what pain has been teaching me is how much I need peace and space and quiet. I haven’t had the radio on at all much in the last few weeks. My house is so quiet. Even with 3 children. They’re generally quiet these days too. Yes, they can argue and squabble at times, but for the most part, they are quiet. I suppose that’s because they’re my children and I’ve raised them. It’s true, my  boys were boisterous when they were little. Not much quiet in those days!  However, they’re moving into a teenage muffle now. When my now 9 year old daughter was at nursery they were worried she had speech problems! She didn’t. She’s just the quietest of my children – and when she was very small we used to communicate really effectively with each other in a great variety of non verbal ways. We always knew what the other was thinking without saying it.

So I’ve been quiet for a few weeks. My kids have been quiet. It’s been wonderful to share quiet times with them.

Quiet is not the same as silence though. This last week I’ve been alone and it’s been even quieter. Yesterday it did spook me a bit. It was really properly silent. All day. I got upset, felt really lost in my own house, missed the children really acutely. It was just for an hour or so. But I worked through that stage and reached a new level of peace today. I’m glad I stuck it out. It’s been a rare privilege to have this time. Time to be in my own company, consult myself when I want advice. I’ve discovered that silence is very empowering. If I can be quiet and still in myself I can observe myself. See what it is that I want.

Visible silence as Rosetti so exquisitely puts it in Silent Noon, a gorgeous poem in which he celebrates the beauty and intimacy of a shared silence. Just for one ‘inarticulate hour’.

‘Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:—
So this wing’d hour is dropt to us from above. ‘

I love the idea that silence is something ‘dropt to us from above’.

Heaven sent, if that’s how you want to imagine it. It does feel like a gift. That’s how it’s seemed to me. Is it a gift from God as Rosetti suggests? Perhaps. It fits the narrative I guess. Genesis tells us that God existed ‘in the beginning’  in a formless void. This is before he chose to speak and break His own silence. However, before that there was just silence. It’s the default setting for the whole universe. No wonder people crave it sometimes.

A blog about my dad who has dementia

My dad phoned yesterday, which was a bit weird. He’s got vascular dementia and its becoming quite advanced. I’m a bit unsure about how he knew my number. My mum can’t work it out either. Then there’s the fact that he doesn’t always know who I am anymore. We’ve had quite a few conversations now when it becomes clear that he thinks I’m his dead baby sister (we share the same name) ‘Are you from heaven?’ he once asked me. Clearly yes! Lol! But not in the way he meant. Ha!

I digress. Dad rang. Most odd. I’m struggling to recall a time when he has EVER rung me. In my entire life. Dad’s one of those people who only ever used the phone purely for ‘a reason’. That is to say, not socially. He does not ring ‘for a chat’. Sometimes mum puts him on the phone when I call her. But to specifically ring. To talk to me. That is weird.

And yet he rang. There was a very confused moment about 2 minutes in when he denied he had rung me. ‘No! You rang me!’ He declared. I decided just to go with it.

So I chatted to my dad. On the phone. Mum was out and he’d got a bit anxious. ‘I’m glad you rang’ he said, ‘I was a bit confused when I was on my own’ (I’m still thinking no, bloody hell, dad, you rang me, you great eejit) He seemed to know I’d not been well and had been in hospital recently. He remembered that I had children and even a little girl of my own. We talked for quite a long time.

‘How are you feeling Ceci?’ he asked suddenly.

‘I’ve not been feeling too good daddy. But I’m slowly on the mend. Don’t you worry’

‘Sometimes you’d get very hot’

‘Yes. But you had a big cold hand and used to put it on my forehead to cool me down’

‘I remember that’

‘Me too’

‘I’m just going to see what the weather is like for you today’

‘It’s sunny here daddy’

‘Oh. It’s gloomy here. I’ve opened the door it doesn’t look very nice’

‘Dad. Are you outside?’

‘Yes’

‘Outside the front door?’

‘Yes. It’s cloudy’

‘Can you go back inside please. Dad. Can you go back in the house? Daddy. Is the door still open?’

‘Yes, I’m going back inside’

‘Oh good. Are you actually inside the house? Are you in the hall?’

‘Yes’

‘Ok maybe you close the door. Why don’t you go and sit down in the lounge.’

‘Will you come?’

‘Yes. I’m still talking to you’

‘That’s good. I’m standing in the lounge’

‘Oh. Right. Well maybe sit down daddy.’

‘I’m sitting down now. Why did you ring me?’

‘I think we just needed to talk’

‘Love you Ceci’

‘Yes, I love you daddy’.

That’s dementia for you. You lose a bit of the person, but you also find a bit of them you thought you had lost.

IMG_7075

 

Goodbye Biblical Studies. A bloody great loss to RE

‘Simon, Simon, see, Satan sought to sift you like wheat’

This is Nicholas King’s translation of the passage in Luke Chapter 22 when Jesus predicts Simon Peter will betray him. I was studying it today with my Year 11. They’re the last year group to study Luke at GCSE; it’s being phased out with the GCSE reforms. You can still do bits of Mark (a gospel I like – not as much as Luke though) but it’s a bit unsatisfactory, trying to make it all work on the new course. So, with regret, we’re not doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I am really enjoying the new GCSE course, but I am super sad to lose my last link with Biblical Studies. People think it’s boring and unsexy RS. I love sacred texts though. There’s lots of emphasis in the new specs on good knowledge of scripture, but it’s not the same as studying a whole gospel, immersing yourself in the text, and all its richness. I studied this gospel for my own GCSE waaaayyy back in the last century. There’s still stuff to discover. Like today.

‘Simon, Simon, see, Satan sought to sift you like wheat’

‘Why the alliteration?’, I asked today. Is it deliberate? Nicholas King tells us the alliteration comes across even stronger in the original Greek. We check in with the Greek teacher in the class next door – and King is right. It’s the same sound in both languages. Ssssssssssssssssssss
What does it mean?
Then someone shouts out:
‘Ohhhh! It’s a snake!’
‘It’s slithering into my ear’.
‘It’s like the serpent in the garden, hissing in Eve’s ear.’
‘Tempting her’
‘It’s not just in the garden though, it’s everywhere, Jesus heard it in the wilderness. That’s how he knows, he knows what it sounds like’.
‘Three times he heard it, just like Peter will’
‘It’s horrible. I don’t like it. It makes my skin crawl’
‘Why did Jesus talk like the devil to Peter?’
‘Maybe he wanted to show him he knows how it feels to be human?’
‘That frightens me, that he could do that, and know that’
‘And Peter was frightened, when Jesus was taken’
‘Maybe Jesus was frightened too?’

It’s class discussion like that which makes you think they’ve really understood it. Did not our hearts burn within us? Biblical Studies, almost gone now. What a bloody great loss to RE.