Last evening I attended the local church for the Ash Wednesday Mass, as the penitential season of Lent has commenced. There are typically three focuses of this period of time; an increase in alms giving, fasting, and prayer.
After receiving the ceremonial mark of the ashes and the Eucharist, the small church slowly began to empty, with a few elderly ladies pausing for a time in front of the stand of votive candles and the large statue of Our Lady. The elderly lit candles and stood for a few moments, silently petitioning the Blessed Mother, before dropping a few coin into the offering tin and exiting. This was a practice I’ve done since I could remember. As a child, I can remember the excitement of going up to the rows of colorful glass jars shimmering with flame light with my grandmother. Watching her take the long wooden match stem and set it alight from an already burning candle and then carry the flame to another candle she had let me pick out was a magical experience. It’s one of my earliest memories of seeing fire, and above it all would be the kind face of Our Lady looking down, with hands open and arms extended as though She intended to pick us up.
Growing up, the focus of devotion was almost always to Our Lady. We would say the Rosary to Her, light candles as offerings to Her when someone was ill or in need, we’d visit Her outdoor shrine on the grounds of the nearby monastery. She was always the primary concept of the sacred if conversation ever turned towards those things, while Christ and even God seemed secondary. And why shouldn’t She be? Our Lady is the Mother of God and the Mother of Christ, so why waste time trying to sweeten those two up when She’s the one with the sway. Now as an adult, I can see that this devotion to Mary was based in the cultural echoes of pre-Christian goddess worship as much as it was based in Church teachings, perhaps even more so.
Evidence of this was in the attitudes of older family members, their siblings, and relatives towards matters of religion. Catholicism wasn’t a chosen religion for us, rather it was an inheritance of a far more cultural nature. While everyone would say we were Catholic and were known as such, opinions on religion varied greatly; most never thought of Christ as God or believed in, understood, or even feigned a superficial comprehension of the Trinity. Such doctrinal complexities were “for the clergy” who had “no work but praying”. Common people hadn’t the time for theological study, nor was there any value assigned to it – unless a person intended to become a priest, a nun, or monastic. The common people were satisfied with common social values and simple devotions; these were “useful” things that aided people in their daily lives by fulfilling their spiritual needs, whilst the abstract and nonsensical matters of doctrine weren’t relevant. It’s in this space of prioritizing the practical that allowed room and freedom for folk beliefs, superstitions, and the fairy faith to exist simultaneously alongside Catholicism without a hint of cognitive dissonance.
Statements of faith were always accompanied by variations of “that’s what they say”, “so they say”, and “that’s what’s been said anyway” and belief in Christ was equal with belief in reincarnation, not with skepticism, but with a level of humbleness. In this way, convictions weren’t linked to beliefs, rather, convictions were reserved for things that worked or didn’t work. The only exception to this was the devotion to Our Lady, but then, I suppose, you don’t need to have faith in your Mother’s care, help, and love, you just feel and know it. Beliefs aren’t required for what’s obvious.
Mary, for my family, is both the Biblical figure and the Divine Feminine of our culture. One apparition that we grew up with was known as the White Lady, who people would encounter, usually in some lonely crossroads, along the train track, or on the banks of the river. This is most likely a carry over from older traditions of the Banshee. She would come in different forms, sometimes as an Old Woman, sometimes as a Young Woman, and other times She’d be with child, but the White Lady’s appearances always inspired a level of awe, familiarity, and fear.
Our Lady and the White Lady were the two feminine beings that were associated with either the sacred or the unseen. In my own practice, I tend to understand them as manifestations of the same Divine Reality, which I understand to be the Great Mother, or Mór Muman, the Irish name for the Goddess of Munster, the region of Ireland from which the majority of my ancestors originated.
Much of my work is devoted to Her, whether it take the form of Marian devotions – such as the Rosary, votive offerings, visiting Shrines, of lighting candles after Mass – or some of the wilder versions my practice. I’ll finish for now with a short poem that comes from a time when Ireland was under the Penal Laws, when attending Mass was essentially a punishable offence. It expresses the desire to uplift and guard Our Lady from the intruders who meant to break our ties with Her, and, to me, its a glimpse of the meaning that She has for myself and my people that goes way deeper than religion;
“Oh, my Mary, long we wait here
While the hunter combs the mountains high,
And the soft wind whispers, ‘guard Her,’
Though as hunted we must die.
Oh, the dawn is longtime coming,
And the long night clings with care,
But they shall not find with their chains to bind
My Mary, pure and fair.”
May Our Lord and Our Lady bless you.