A disclaimer here: I am not in the traditional sense religious, I am not even in the traditional sense a Christian, since I grab bits and pieces from whatever spiritual tradition floats to the surface of my life and seem to offer some respite. Nor do I find that “spiritual” is a worthy alternative to “religious”; it seems too vague.
Recently, though, the majestic beauty of the Church of Holy Faith, here in Santa Fe, its stained glass, its music, and its astonishing rituals, has brought me back to the more conventional view of Christian belief, as expressed in the Episcopal Church, has even resigned me to an outcry against abortion which the rector discreetly omitted from the text he was reading to a group gathered to attend The Stations of the Cross.
I’m not familiar with the Stations of the Cross and so I was astonished to discover that Mary, as martyred mother of the martyred Christ, appears in several of them, weeping as she watches her son struggling under the weight of his cross and then receiving his dead body in her arms.
This is the image of the suffering mother that is familiar to many of us; but it seems to me there are many alternative images, especially in the Cathedral of Chartres.
Henry Adams’ brilliant, intuitive account in Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres, first published in the U.S. in 1904 and continuously available ever since (I am reading the paperback Penguin edition) is built on Adams’ “playfully daring imaginative bridge building” as Raymond Carney describes it in the introduction, connecting our notion of the suffering mother with something much more powerful, more interesting—and more dangerous.
Adams sees the Cathedral as the house of the Virgin, in which every detail is designed to please her, especially to satisfy what he calls her feminine love of ornament and color.
He writes, “The Virgin required chiefly three things, or, if you like, these four—Space, Light, Convenience and Colour, Decoration to unite and harmonize the whole”—very much what the contemporary woman-of-the-house desires if she is lucky enough to have a free hand in the design, and money to pay for, the house she arranges.
This is not the family house. That has another description, and another use.
Adams goes on, “The next point on which Mary evidently insisted was the arrangement of her private apartments, the apse, as distinguished from her throne room, the choir; both being quite distinct from the hall, or reception room of the public, which was the nave.”
In the nave, Adams says the Queen received the endless petitions of the faithful, which she had the power to grant, or not to grant, with no reference to the Father or the Son: “Man came to render homage or to ask favors. The Queen received him in her palace, where she alone was at home, and alone gave commands.”This is a radical description of feminine power, and one which might make most church fathers quite uncomfortable.
Adams even has the temerity to state, “The Trinity was absorbed in her,” God the father largely absent, the Holy Ghost entirely so, and Christ an infant in her arms, under her dominion.
The woman-of-the-house in our culture, who probably doesn’t own the house (and this is even more evident in other cultures), would not dare to claim the power over her housemates that the Queen of Chartres exercises over all humanity.
And, of course, we normally assume that her power—if we can even allow that it exists—is not “normal” and descends somehow from her connection with the Godhead.
But what if that is only our timid assertion, our attempt—always—to conform to conventional beliefs?
Then we have, I suppose, heresy.
But I am daring to suggest, in this dreadful season, that the sweetly smile, pastel-colored images that are so familiar in modern churches never arouse the frisson of excitement, in many women and some men, as does the solemn face of the Queen in the Rose Window at Chartres or in her stone image over one of the great doors.
Implacable, yes, a Queen who might have scratched the eyes out of her son’s crucifiers rather than waiting, weeping, on his path to the cross.Next week the annual pilgrimage to the Santuario of Chimayo will begin here, with throngs walking many miles along a hot and dusty road to render homage to the other version—the suffering Christ and his Father.
We will see many photos of the pilgrims—and they are truly pilgrims—laboring along under the weight of massive crosses. Some will carry their icons of the Virgin, but it will be the suffering mother, not the Queen. And in the Santuario itself, the color and light the Queen expects are replaced by shadows and gaunt depictions of the crucified—the Man of Sorrows—and his mother, the even more sorrowful.
Women have always thronged to churches, finding solace in this image of holy suffering. Is it possible that someday we will throng to the images of the Queen?