Sunday, September 20, 2009

Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advcate

By Jon M. Sweeny, Novalis, 220 pages.

Strange Heaven focuses as much on the history of Christianity as it does on the Mother of God. This is appropriate because the place of the Virgin Mary in the Church, as the author points out, took many centuries to develop and become clear. Practice often began slowly but would eventually lead to theology and official Rome-sponsored doctrine being established.

A study of Mary is the study of Christianity's history because of the incredible amount of poetry, architecture, art, sculpture, and writing that has centered on her. Sweeny cites saint after saint, and even many Protestant reformers who opposed her centrality in the practice of the faith.

The author cites the Qur'an, claiming that it discusses Mary more often than it does any other woman (though Mohammed's daughter Fatima may be mentioned and discussed as often): “The angels cast lots with arrows (like cupids), as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary.” (Qur'an, 3:44)

Sweeny also relies on non-canonical writings (texts from early Christianity that never made it into the Bible) about Mary that were source material for many medieval legends about her. One of these stories goes like this according to Strange Heaven: “Mary was given by her parents to the temple priests as a young girl. She lived with the virgins of the temple until such time as a proper husband would later be found for her. But Mary later resisted these attempts to wed her, and in so doing, created the first movement of nuns.”

Sweeny courts controversy by diving deeply into every facet of the Western tradition about Mary, rather than simply keeping things at a Catholic-Orthodox level. By addressing all theological, cultural, and poetic sides to Mary's place in Christianity and Western culture, Sweeny does Catholics a service by analyzing the mentality of unfriendly interpretations.

For instance, Strange Heaven examines the feminist denunciation of Catholicism's beliefs about Mary, referring to one thought that “the concept of Mary, as developed in the New Testament texts, is a 'pale derivative symbol disguising the conquered Goddess.' Where the ancient goddess had power, Mary gives up her power. Where the goddess was all-knowing, Mary looks to her son.”

The author rounds off the debate with a good chapter on the Catholic rosary (and parallel Orthodox and Anglican practices), and its practice and theology, starting in the thirteenth century, when, legend has it, St Dominic received from Mary instructions on “how and why to use it.”

Sweeny's confidence in the face of feminist and Protestant accusations is at its best in this chapter, and explains why he so clearly examines non-Catholic—even anti-Catholic—viewpoints: Because he clearly and strongly believes in Mary and Marian devotion. He writes, “The rosary is a meditative prayer. It doesn't seek answers or quick guidance. It is a way of listening for God in the heart, with Mary's sweetness, attentiveness, and intelligence.”

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