By Amy Medvick
“Running late, maybe go in and find us seats,” says Ami’s text. People are trickling into St. Mike’s for Palm Sunday; I figure she’s right. I go, into that heavy light and incense. It’s years since I’ve been, and I’m not sure why we are doing this. When we were teenagers, we made faces at each other through the pews to cope with being trapped.
I am met by a saint, in gold, worshiped by red candles. I find it beautiful, but don’t linger. A man hands me a palm leaf; I take it silently. Down the aisle I find a spot and squeeze in between women also here alone. I scan the congregation for Ami while a few lucky latecomers cram in. It’s clear now that we won’t be sitting together.
The procession begins; the Bishop and the Priests make their way to the Altar. We stand; we sing; we make the Sign of the Cross; we sit back down. Mass has begun.
I hear the Bishop intoning, but his words are lost in the cavern. I look at the other people, who listen or fold their palms into braids or clever crosses. I wonder if I look like an Easter Egg in my green dress and pale blue tights. Earlier, I had tried to put my hair into a ladylike coif but failed miserably. No matter what I did, it was too sexy for Mass, or fell apart into wild disarray. In the end I made a plain braid with a ribbon. One didn’t need to dress up this much– just part of the game– but if I had left my mane of long, wavy hair undone, I think I would now be feeling off. Like sitting in church with a tit hanging out.
And there lies the irony: Ami and I, proud feminists, both have some bones to pick with the Catholic Church. Yet here we are, at Palm Sunday Mass, playing at traditional femininity. I wonder to myself what Ami is wearing. I wonder if it is irony, anger, nostalgia that has brought us.
Watching the faithful, I am struck by how hard it is for me to relate. I envy their conviction and their commitment, and I can’t understand how it’s sustained. I get the spiritual impulse, I feel it too—but trusting it? That, for me, fluctuates like the moon.
I look and wonder how many believe it all, how many are here out of habit. How do they reconcile their faith with the centuries of persecution in the name of this God? I observe the not-man-ness and the not-white-ness of almost everyone here. So many reasons I can see with my very eyes to be angry with the Catholic Church— and yet.
And yet, I think I’d still opt to be born into a Catholic family. I like the culture of it. My spiritual moments tend towards the pagan and polytheistic, but Catholicism fits with that in its way. I mean, the monotheism here is illusory. The Catholic pantheon is vast: God, the Holy Family, the legions of Saints. The Cathedral is, no surprise, riddled with pagan symbols; crescent moons, Celtic crosses, even a Magic Lamp from the time of the jinns. And the Jesus story has been told time out of mind. Tammuz, Osiris/Horus, Dionysus. Same stories, and there are more. Catholicism is Christianity that absorbed the paganism of the peasants. This is why, despite being angry at all the persecution, being Catholic jives with me. All the earthy folk stuff I like is still there. It sparks my fascination.
Now begins the psalm. We join in the refrain: “My Lord, why have you forsaken me?” I sing these words, instantly feel sad. Yes Lord, why indeed? Why do so many women and their children live in poverty, worldwide, here at home? Why are we still teetering on the edge of being legislated back into reproductive slavery? Why, Lord, have I been punished for my sexual autonomy, the same autonomy that men enjoy freely? Why does popular culture celebrate that punishment? Why, Lord, have you forsaken us, the women?
I think I know: Lord God, You are the ultimate symbol of the Patriarchy, and everything You teach Your worshipers keeps it ticking. And… BAM, the anger, it’s back. Amen.
I clasp the pendant hanging under the neck of my dress, hidden where nobody can see. Clasping it reminds me who I am. Yet, maybe I should be asking myself how I reconcile my own presence here, standing and sitting and kneeling along and silently being angry.
When I used to go every week, it was my Mom who sat next to me, my Mom who didn’t believe any of it either but went for her Mom, to give her some company in the lonely pew. My Mom has often said something that I also feel, about preferring to be Catholic. “If you take away the Virgin Mary,” she says, “you take away all the fun.”
Yes, the cult of the Virgin Maria! Properly known as Mariolatry. Nothing in the Bible warrants the passionate devotion shown to Mary. It doesn’t speak of Her Assumption, or how She was Conceived Immaculately. These are stories invented by worshipers, and after centuries of adoration and petitions signed by 8 million, finally legitimized as late as the 1950s. Thing was, everywhere the missionaries went there were Goddesses. The peasants refused to give them up, and would have rather changed Their names to Mary than to abandon Them. So now there is a great multiplicity of Marys, a different Mary for every nation of the Catholic world.
My Gramma adored Mary and filled her home with statues. As a child I lived with Her: perfect chestnut hair, sorrowful face, the shape of Her feet, which also seemed sorrowful, the blueness of Her robes. My favourite Goddesses wear that same colour of blue, Ocean and Moon Goddesses… Star of the Sea, Queen of Heaven, both of which are now Mary’s names too. I love Mary, she signifies the endurance of these Goddesses. I love that in my Gramma’s home there was a Mother Goddess idol that has roots in Isis of Egypt—in the Venuses of the Paleolithic caves, even. That makes me feel like part of something.
The endurance of Mary suggests that whatever the Men in Charge want, the people don’t exactly want patriarchy. In Ancient Misogynistic Rome, the worship of Isis was so deeply entrenched that long after Europe was converted, Her renamed statues were still adored in the Chapels. Some survived 600 years until the Priests discovered their true identity.
And indeed, it is Isis on my pendant. Isis is a bad-ass—Queen of all Magics—and her will cannot be thwarted. “Oh, what, Seth—you chopped up my husband and cast his parts all across Egypt? Whatever, I’ll just collect them up and bring him back to life. Oh, what, the fishes in the Nile ate his dick, bye bye? Whatever, I’ll just make him a new one out of wood, and then CONCEIVE MY SON UPON IT. No big deal.” Yeah, Isis, I love Isis. She does whatever the fuck she wants, and I want to be like her.
And so I have been trying to figure out where in the church Isis—I mean, Mary—resides. I think I see, up ahead there is an alcove that must have a statue, but I can’t see into it. I can only see the blue candles in front, and I figure I know who that blue must mean. Visiting Her statue and contemplating Her history will make me feel better.
And God-Isis-Mary knows, I need that. For since I have come out of the closet with my feminism, I have been exhausted. There’s no doubt that it feels better over here, on the feminist side– I feel like a whole person, fully adult. I don’t live or believe the backlash rhetoric of the lonely, humourless feminist. I have tons of fun. But, there are some things that are truly fucking sad about being a feminist. Like knowing the reason why every time you walk down the street, you are pestered by strangers because you aren’t attractive enough, or too attractive, or not smiling, or smiling, or checking your phone, or wearing green, or having bangs, or being a woman. Or, knowing how many women get assaulted each week in your city, and knowing that sooner or later one of them will be your friend, or you, and you know because that stuff already happened, and you also know why.
Yep, knowing all that makes me very sad. Writing and singing helps, but it’s not enough. Whole bottles-and-a-half of wine in a night helps, but it’s not enough and it’s really bad for me. And, when in the desperate middle of the night I am so exhausted and sad that I need to pray, even if I’m not sure I believe, having a name that’s not God/Man the Oppressor to call on, that helps. But alone they are not enough. I need all these things.
Now we stand; it’s time to make the Sign of Peace. We each smile and shake the hand of the person next to us. I understand better than I realize why people flock to their temples even if their temples are oppressing them. Because it also helps. Of course everyone is ignorant of something, me too. But I think most people know something of the world and the awful things that can happen, and why, and it makes them sad, and they come here because coming here helps.
And now we are lining up to receive Communion. I am nervous about going up; it’s been so long. But I will get a chance to scope out the alcove for Mary…Mary Help of Women. In the hands of the Church, sinless Maria has been a weapon against human women. But in the minds of the people She became Folk-Mary, petitioned for fertility and good crops. She was Help to Women. In 14th century Europe, Folk-Mary was thought to protect adulteresses from discovery by their husbands. Mary would take the wife’s place in bed, and it must be assumed that She performed bedtime wifely duties if the need “arose”. Yep, Folk-Mary wasn’t all that chaste… Our Lady Help of Adulteresses.
The Priests declared that Mary didn’t deserve the latria part of Mariolatry—the full adoration due to God. They thought Her more like a really great saint. But the people gave her latria anyways, still do, not because she is the chaste and perfect Virgin (yeah, right), but because she is also Folk-Mary, a human Mary who understands them.
And as I move forward, there She is, resplendent in blue with gold shooting out of Her, and I decide to light a candle for Her later. Soon I have passed the alcove and a woman in a robe hands me the Eucharist and I make the Sign of the Cross and feel the papery thinness of the Body of Christ dissolve in my mouth. I go back to my seat, kneel down.
Beside me appears a girl in spring-pink. Ami’s here. A hymn starts; I take out the hymnal and sing. Ami glances at it, points at the title of the song on the facing page, “Behold the Wood”. We stifle giggles. I scan the words and point out the word “hung”. And now I feel quite happy and a little choked up and I sing. For this is another thing that helps: good friends and laughter. Ami Help of Amy, Amy Help of Ami.
Mass is over; we Go In Peace. But Ami and I stay: she has no palm and wants to find one, and I want to light that candle. I get in line after the Grandmothers and Grandfathers. The shrine is to all the Marys at once, they name a few like Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima, and that’s perfect since I will be petitioning an obscure one. I wait and wonder if we have souls and if my Gramma can see me here. I wonder if her ghost would still argue with my Mom about Women’s Lib. I wonder if heaven and souls and ghosts are even real, and if anything will ever get better. Then it’s my turn, and I light the stick and find an unlit candle amongst all those tiny burning prayers.
“Our Lady Help of Adulteresses, please give me the strength to continue to be a feminist, and to be able to deal with whatever next bullshit thing happens. Thank you. Oh, and if you can, please also send me a decent lover for some no-strings sex. Thanks, love Amy”.
I light the candle.
Ami and I walk down Church Street to the car, bathed in sunlight and laden with palms.
“Hey Ami… wanna start a feminist blog?” I ask her. “Yep,” she says. “Cool,” I say.
And here’s another thing that helps: doing something. In fact, it more than helps; it feels real good. I guess that’s the thing that sustains belief, whether in a God or Mary, or lack thereof, or in philosophy, ethics, feminism: when you start living your convictions, living by them and living for them… it feels real good.
Bishop, Clifford. Sex & Spirit. Alexandria, Virginia: Time-Life Books, 1996.
Husain, Shahrakh. The Goddess: Power, Sexuality, and the Feminine Divine. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2003.
Mor, Barbara and Monica Sjöö. The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.