As a child, I searched out lives of great women. Some of my heroines appeared on the back page of the comic I read then, called Girl: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie mingled with Albert Schweitzer and Davy Crockett; their stirring words were blazoned in balloons, against backdrops of crenellated castles, jungles, battlefields. In the pages of the magazines my mother took, I followed the lives of divas, queens and stars; one of these was the pictorial weekly Oggi, modelled on Life, but also a harbinger of Hello! in its lurid curiosity about its rich, mostly doomed subjects. The women who appeared in its pages were usually embroiled in tragic, flagrant lives as abandoned lovers, infertile wives – victims, one way or another. Car crashes figured prominently; also drink and other intoxicants. Maria Callas, Queen Soraya, Françoise Sagan, Marilyn Monroe – these were my role models (you could say I was raised by negative example).
The exceptional status of women achievers, and the rack and ruin to which prominence seemed always to lead, puzzled me from an early age. I worried there might be fundamental differences in ability. I also became anxious about the discrepancy between women’s sinfulness and men’s: we were ‘occasions of sin’ rather than perpetrators; we incited others rather than committed acts ourselves. Could it be that the female sex was intrinsically passive and docile, so nicer? (This was the implied message, and in the 1950s and 1960s, far fewer young women were convicted of crimes than their male counterparts.) Could this be a strength, or somehow disabling? I began reading and watching for clues.
Resonances between historical individuals and larger than life mythological heroines gradually assumed significance beyond simple similarities. I hadn’t yet come across Barthes’s Mythologies, a book that was to prove crucial to me later, but I was beginning to sense the workings of ideology in stories, running from the sacred to the profane, from tales of the virgin martyrs, celebrated on their feast days and in the litany of the saints, to the cautionary lives of the rich and addicted. The anthropology of Malinowski and Margaret Mead was another crucial inspiration, for their vision of alternative social arrangements (and sexual freedom) provided passionate support for culture over nature, for social conditioning over biological destiny. Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which had also first appeared long before I read it, was decisive as well, though her vivid way with physical evocation was less encouraging than Malinowski and Mead’s utopian picture of possible liberty. Beauvoir’s grim plain-speaking put bodies – gynaecology and geriatrics – firmly at the centre of female secondary status.
In 1970 Germaine Greer brought out The Female Eunuch, which owes a huge debt to its French foremother, but parted from her in the defiant rallying call Greer issued to her sisters, in the incandescent eloquence she used to refuse the status quo, and her passionate and marvellous fury that women allowed the propaganda against female potential to continue. The book was a manifesto, and it rose on a spring tide of popular enthusiasm for feminism; appearing after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and the same year as Kate Millett’s blazing Sexual Politics, it marked the height of postwar hopefulness that things could change.
My editor during those excited days of hope, Christopher Falkus at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, asked me to contribute to a book of essays by women on what they thought had shaped them as women. The Virgin Mary was the single most dominant and crucial element in my female life so far, and so I wrote a short piece about the sexual politics of my convent school upbringing. Christopher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a full-length study. I protested, I begged, I told him I had struggled hard against the grip of Mary, and to condemn me to spend at least two or three years once more entangled with her as intimately and intensely as a book would require, was too terrible to contemplate. He urged me to think about it.
I was in Vietnam a few months later as a journalist, because I had only just got married, and I didn’t want to be parted from my husband, William Shawcross, who had been assigned to cover the war for the Sunday Times. In our room upstairs at the Hotel Royale, Saigon, I began looking at the New Testament, and was startled to find so few passages about the Mother of God. It seems naive of me – and indeed ignorant – to have expected her presence there to be more fully realised, but I had been immersed in her cult throughout my life so far. At school we celebrated her feast days with masses, processions and holiday treats; on ordinary weekdays, we were trained to feel with her sorrows, her joys, her glories as we recited the rosary; and myriad images of her – in miniatures in our missals, in paintings and statues inside the school and outside in the grounds, created a sense that Mary and Christian doctrine were synonymous. She pervaded the story of salvation as I had been told it.
As I was – still rather half-heartedly – embarked on writing a book about Mary, I began looking in Vietnam for traces of her cult. The cathedral in Saigon is dedicated to her, in her single, powerful aspect as the Immaculate Conception, and this effect of late 19th-century French Catholicism, revealing the popularity of Bernadette’s vision throughout the French empire, confirmed my growing feeling that the subject held matters of interest beyond sex, that the figure of the Virgin Mary could be unfolded for a wider political relevance. During the early period of contact between Christian missionaries, Buddhists and Taoists, a male Bodhisattva, Guannon, gradually changed into Guanyin (Kuan-yin), the beloved goddess who protects women and children especially. In Asia, in converted countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, the two women, like communicating vessels, exchanged and mingled their essences: Mary acquired the features of Guanyin, while Guanyin attracted to her many miracle stories told about Mary and the saints in the Middle Ages, themselves stories close to fairy tales – about Mary sheltering persecuted brides from the false accusations of evil mothers-in-law, or living in disguise as a monk and finding she’s charged with fathering a child.
The Black Virgin Mountain near Saigon, once a shrine to a local nature divinity, had become a Marian shrine, as often happens to ancient holy places, and I decided to go there. The lower slopes were also home to the headquarters of the Cao Dai, the vegetarian, pacifist, anti-communist cult founded in 1926, which figures malignly in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I was curious to see their vast enclave at Tay Ninh, where they worship an eclectic group of heroes, prophets and saints – Jesus and Muhammad, Julius Caesar, Sun Yat-Sen, Joan of Arc and Victor Hugo (the last two again exhibiting French colonial influence).
The press corps in Saigon used to hang around the veranda of the Hotel Continentale, waiting for a lead, and one day in June 1972 they (we) were at a loose end, and I suggested we hire a group taxi to take us to the mountain. En route, we stopped at the Cao Dai city, thronged with white-robed followers, and visited the temple, where in the nave the cult’s pantheon is depicted in larger than life-size brilliantly enamelled statues, amid a riot of gilded, floral, polychrome decoration. The wild syncretism of this modern faith provokes easy surprise, even laughter (Hugo on a pedestal in his dark suit), but in many ways its evolution, through adaptability and absorption, tells us something about changing established religions, about their ideological shifts and bids for relevance.
We then continued down Route One, but began to notice signs of fighting: planes overhead and some smoke drifting on the horizon. Gradually it became more difficult to advance: army blocks, stopped traffic, soldiers standing around in patrols on the road, stationary. We were still waved on, however, until we reached a larger huddle of buses and cars, surrounded by a detachment of the South Vietnamese army squatting on their helmets, and a small crowd of local people, with photographers and journalists leaning against carts and trucks and lorries. Almost as we stopped beside them, a strike from the air exploded in the village visible ahead, in front of the twin towers of the Catholic church, and out of the smoke some of the villagers came running down the road towards us. The first person I saw was a mother – or grandmother – with a baby in her arms, and the skin of the baby was hanging loose off his limp naked body. The woman was howling and as I stood there looking, waves of different feelings came over me all at once: horror at my helplessness (I had nothing with me even to cover a baby in that state, let alone do something medically useful), shame at my position as a foreign visitor, a voyeur out to find and see these terrible events, and then, as I took in the trail of smoke over the placid water buffalo lying half-submerged in the paddies by the side of the road and the farmland and the houses around us, so quiet, so apparently peaceful, I was engulfed in a kind of longing to disappear into them, to sink into the shallow water.
There were many more children and women, older people – men and women – scrambling out of Trang Bang, and a terrible confusion of wounded and terrorised and dying. Among them was a thin naked little girl screaming as she ran down the road; she had also been burned by the napalm bombing, and her image travelled all over the world and came to embody the horror of the Vietnam War. Much later her name – Kim Phuc – became known and she acted for a long time as a goodwill ambassador. This experience has returned in many things I have tried to write; it gave me a motive and a perspective. Although the connection between the bombing of civilians in Vietnam and the cult of the Virgin Mary is very stretched, the two are for me emotionally and ethically interwoven, as the accident of that day, 8 June 1972, made evident.
When Alone of All Her Sex came out, four years later, in 1976, it provoked controversy: I was denounced in Ireland and several reviewers in Britain and the US condemned the book for its attack on Catholicism. Garry Wills, who had inspired me with his study of the crisis in the faith, Bare Ruined Choirs, criticised my book for its contradictoriness. I show a great love of Mary, he wrote, of the art, liturgy and cult she inspires, while rejecting the meaning of the symbols and the doctrines associated with them. Colm Tóibín, in The Testament of Mary,captures this state of doubled consciousness, and with a tragedian’s insight into her inner conflict has entered into her voice, expressing the anguished struggle between love and doubt, faith and rage, trust and terror; it’s a luminous act of negative capability, and reads to me like Tóibín’s own confessions – he has written before, in The South, from the position of a cradle Catholic. In The Testament of Mary, which began as a play, he dramatises ambiguity about what is true and what is right, what is believed and what is rejected. His book follows closely on Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel, in which she quarries her background in Judaism and comes to a similar bleak sense of breakdown between mother and son. Mary, a disbeliever in her own status as Mother of God, speaks as the conscience of those who have known the security of faith. My own split feelings are bound up with what these writers are saying, but it has become a little less difficult to enjoy Marian worship, though I’m still not altogether freed from very turbulent responses.
Invited a decade ago to hear a friend singing in evensong at Jesus College, Cambridge, I was transported by a motet the choir clanged and mewed to the rafters, a wild ecstatic a cappella sequence of rising repetitions of the single phrase, ‘Totus tuus, mater mundi’ (‘Wholly yours, mother of the world’). Afterwards, I found that the piece was by the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki and the words were the personal motto Pope John Paul II had adopted, by which he expressed his intense love of Mary. The piece was composed in 1987 to celebrate the pope’s third visit to his native country and to the national shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The association spoiled the pleasure the music had given me, for John Paul II had declared again and again his opposition to the changing role of women, rejected the ordination of women and urged closer emulation of Mary. The priesthood, he argued, was a masculine role which would harm women’s ‘proper originality’.
A motherless boy from a communist state, John Paul II experienced personal and political losses that inspired his fervent attachment to the ideal mother, the embodiment of the motherland, and he did more than any pope in modern times to revive her cult. He made pilgrimages to Marian shrines of recent date, and was known to take a keen, sympathetic interest in Medjugorje, in former Yugoslavia, for example, where a series of visions were fiercely contested by the local clergy. The Fátima visions of 1917, the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, developed into the focus of a vehement anti-communist crusade, and this pontiff carried with him, into the central authority of the Church, the beleaguered mentality of a community who looked for support from Mary’s modern apparitions and their prophecies. His most ardent devotions were paid to Our Lady of Fátima, who had prophesied the attempt on his life in 1981, it was widely believed, and saved him during the attack. He dedicated the bullet that was extracted from his body to her statue at Fátima, where it is embedded among the jewels in her crown. In 1997, he proclaimed Mary as Co-Redemptrix with Christ.
Benedict XVI, his successor, is of a less passionate temperament, and before he became pope, acted as a rigorous scrutineer at the Holy Office over which he presided. But he has also made the pilgrimage to Fátima and reinterpreted the Virgin’s mysterious ‘Third Secret’ as a warning of the grief overwhelming the Church as a result of the child abuse scandals.
At Medjugorje, where the visions began in 1981, and at Ballinspittle in Ireland, where in 1985 a statue began wobbling before crowds of pilgrims, the Madonna’s message has been that however buffeted the faithful are by change, by reform, by the pressures and problems of modernity, she is on their side to help. The anthropologist William Christian Jr has explored the interpenetration of belief and power, visions and state authority, in research focusing on Spain but applicable more widely. Such outbursts of fervour are sincere, he argues, and genuinely popular, even when they serve the interests of a certain party; the young seers, very often adolescent girls, are not lying, but they succeed in commanding attention because the message they bring serves outside interests – the Cold War at Fátima, anti-Tito-style universalist Sovietism at Medjugorje (now in Bosnia-Herzegovina).
In Ireland, the phenomena at Ballinspittle sparked several other visions; they were taking place at a time when traditional social norms were being turned upside down (referenda were held on divorce and abortion, while charges of sexual abuse tore into the Church’s self-image, exposing guardians as predators, the sinners as victims). Local bishops, confronted with visionaries and their followers, often chose scepticism, if not outright condemnation; were they not given to doubt, the shrines would spring up in greater numbers than they do – any month brings news of bleeding icons, more moving statues, and Madonnas appearing in pareidolia on walls, in tomatoes, in a slice of bread. John Paul II was unusually open to such portents, and in his endorsement of Fátima and other cult sites of the Virgin Mary, he unexpectedly approved a populist current in contemporary religion, which joins its energies to the flood of interest in all manifestations of faith, ritual, iconic images and individual beliefs.
When I learned that the music I had found so blissful crystallised around Mary’s most powerful and passionate pilgrim, Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, I felt cheated by its loveliness, rather like a bridegroom in a story who finds he has been married off to the wrong sister (Jacob and Leah, and later, Italo Svevo in The Confessions of Zeno). But last year, when I heard the piece played on Radio 3, I found I could split it from its origins in papal ideology and propaganda uses of Mary. I could surrender to its beauty. This new serenity may be connected to John Paul II having died in the interim. Perhaps. But I also think that I mind less about the dictates and precepts of the Catholic Church because its grip on ethics feels so much less confident these days and its pronouncements on women and the ‘proper originality’ of their teleology have lost purchase. With huge changes taking place on the religious map (not only Islam but the spread of Christian evangelism), the meanings and uses of the Virgin Mary have also changed. In the last century, apparitions tended to be conservative in their yearnings, especially when approved by clergy, as at Fátima, with Mary castigating the community for their lapses and little faith. There was always another, countervailing current, however, when she rebuked the clergy and extended her protection to victims. With the widespread sexual misconduct of priests and nuns, and the remoteness of the present pope’s personality, the Church’s power to chastise and control has collapsed in many communities; this has contributed strongly to an efflorescence of popular forms of belief, expressed in the staging of events and the making of images of a sacred character but with no denominational allegiance or ethical prescription.
The startling resurgence of faith is one of the many complicated results of the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, but the rise of a politicised Islam began long before and was taking place in conjunction with the hardening evangelism of Christians in the United States; this rivalrous self-labelling revived an impassioned crusading spirit in political decision-making, which was prominently adopted to justify the invasion of Iraq. People like myself, who knew that congregations of all varieties were thinning, had felt that secularisation was settled as the norm. But this was to come to an end: however secular or sceptical one might be, the argument about religion is now live. Churches need to speak about state matters because states are increasingly casting themselves as the messengers of higher truths. Militant atheists, Islamist and Christian fundamentalists, New Age adepts, charismatic Catholics – faith has become one of the chief defining elements in identity and ideals. Philosophers have even begun suggesting that non-believers need their own temple of worship. Meanwhile, militant atheists are rising up in protest, in outcry after outcry that the public sphere is being encroached on by believers.
The solidarity felt between some Christians and the anti-capitalist political movement throws a fresh and curious light on the evolving differences of the cult of the Virgin Mary since the 1950s when I was a Catholic Child of Mary. Mary in modern times has consistently appeared to the poor, unlettered, downtrodden, children, women, the overworked and underpaid, a strand in her story that casts her as a symbol within the Occupy movement, something that would have been unthinkable in the 1950s and 1960s, when she was carried in the processions of juntas. At La Salette in 1846, for example, the young seers, when asked what the splendid Lady had told them, passed on orders that everyone should keep one day a week holy in her honour: labouring children were invoking a union rep on high to get them a day off. As Ruth Harris illuminated in her book about Lourdes, a coalition of women – from a pauper like the visionary herself, Bernadette Soubirous, to the philanthropic grandes dames who championed her truthfulness – formed to articulate a policy for the Church that would give women a greater role in its ministry, fulfilling Christ’s teaching on the Seven Acts of Mercy; Mary’s apparitions to Bernadette as the figure of eternal wisdom, the Immaculate Conception, not the Madonna with her child, confirmed this modern metamorphosis of the Virgin’s character.
One of the most striking features of the modern Mary is the fading from view of the baby. However much the doctrine commands the faithful to worship God through Mary and not Mary herself, almost every contemporary image I have looked at shows Mary on her own, often standing on the moon, an apocalyptic figure of power, resplendent, blessings flowing from her hands. Just as the Madonna of Mercy in medieval cult spreads her cloak to shelter all who turn to her (even covering up errant nuns’ pregnancies), Mary is now invoked as the protectress of the wretched, the guardian of sinners and prodigals.
Alongside the growing importance of religion in political conflicts and their justification, a countervailing, popular revival of religious practice is under way. Some of its participants adhere to a conventional church, some are believers, but mavericks, yet others aren’t believers at all. Different groups of very different persuasions are nevertheless accepting a new turn towards what the Catalan philosopher Eugenio Trias has termed religions of the spirit, grounded in events not tenets. Such events are marked by symbols and rituals, which take the form of artefacts and actions or enactments – pilgrimage, procession, ceremony. Relics, icons, charms and talismans are efflorescing. Within the official Church, the opposition to such popular expressions of piety is loosening: Pope Benedict XVI in this respect follows John Paul II’s enthusiasms, and is promoting the use of indulgences again. The veneration of relics is being strongly encouraged once more. A relic of Thérèse of Lisieux was recently taken on tour; the reliquary attracted vast, fervent crowds who testified to reporters that contact with the saint had a transformative effect on them. When the Belt of Virgin Mary, a famed help to fertility, was brought last year from Mount Athos to Russia, thousands queued in the icy winter weather to touch the reliquary; the majority were women, young women between twenty and forty. The passion of such testimonials is moving, and it would be ugly to scoff at them; they also offer, as one Russian paper commented, a diagnosis of distress.
One of the relic’s way stations on its triumphal tour was the Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour where, around six months later, Pussy Riot erupted onto the altar by the sacred iconostasis and staged their protest. ‘The main concern,’ one of them said afterwards, ‘was to appeal to the Virgin because she is considered the protector of Russia, and that is why we made a prayer to the Virgin to kick out Putin.’ A choppy video shows the young women in their lollipop-bright balaclavas, tights and dresses, capering and kneeling, and then, after two of them have been hauled away, the two who are left cross and prostrate themselves before guards hustle them off. In a magnificent show of spirit, punk irony here claims Mary for its champion against the lies and corruption of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is headed by a patriarch who has called Putin ‘a miracle of God’. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sees the band’s actions as yurodstvo – ‘holy fooling’ – in the Russian spiritual tradition, and brilliantly turns quotes from the New Testament against the women’s accusers: ‘It makes us sick,’ she said in her closing statement to the court, ‘to see such beautiful ideas forced to their knees.’ It is extraordinary that the state doesn’t see that meting out excessive punishments to the band – Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, both of whom have a young child, have been sent to prison camps of notorious harshness – only goes to prove that what they say is right.
Such developments are following – not leading – the general sacramental trend of public ceremony and assemblies: mass pilgrimages to museums and art installations and events; passionate involvement in national pageantry weddings, royal and other. Creating wayside shrines at the spot, the tree, the junction where somebody died in a road accident has changed the experience of driving: on one stretch of road that I take on the way to my university post, there are now three trees garlanded with flowers and fluttering with cards, photographs and other mementoes and messages. White bicycles, also covered in garlands and tributes, are padlocked to railings where a rider was knocked down; they are part of the protest for bicycle lanes and improved road safety, but they are also grim memento mori, with a ritual charge independent of creed.
The anti-capitalist camps which sprang up in different cities and were cleared by police applying different levels of brutality also turn tenet into event, taking language into the territory of controlled action. Such camps differ from marches, and draw more on the tradition of communal ritual. Their members have undertaken a pilgrimage in conviction and hope, and are addressing a united plea for sanctuary and redress. Their protests resemble prayer, even conjurations and apotropaic rituals, and they use masks, movement, gestures and other elements of performance. In the wake of Pussy Riot, four Occupy protesters commemorated the anniversary of that eviction by chaining themselves to the pulpit of St Paul’s. Photo opportunities in an era of instant image-transmission and news-streaming explain some of the ritual theatricality of these happenings, but not the reasons for their occurrence in the first place. In many ways, these protesters (their methods are widespread through many other reform movements) are adapting old sacramental processes to secular and political purposes, without necessarily proclaiming allegiance to a creed.
The Virgin Mary is increasingly loved and revered, invoked and depicted well outside the sphere of Catholic officialdom. From being the figurehead of the long crusade against communism and the emblem of kings and fascist dictators from Europe to Central and South America, she is evolving, it seems to me, into a countercultural peace symbol, closer to the voodoo goddess Erzulie or the Candomblé figure of Iemanjá than a traditional Madonna. It isn’t that her myth has died – far from it; but its historic meanings, alliances and effects have changed.
The sexual, feminist issues embodied by the Virgin Mary when she was held up as the ideal of womanhood, have become less urgently intertwined with her symbolism. By contrast, the larger ethical questions and their political reverberations, about relations of church and state, belonging and dispossession, justice, equality of means, of women and children’s survival, stewardship of nature, have crystallised in the traditional figure of Mary in her aspects as the Mother of Mercy and advocate and protectress of the poor. And it is not only the self-professed faithful who find this Mary an inspiration.
The potter Grayson Perry’s recent British Museum exhibition, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, offers a vivid case of the metamorphosis I am describing. He chose from the museum’s extraordinary collections an extraordinary array of objects, in order to explore the ways cultures have tapped the sacred through images, ritual artefacts, reliquaries, vestments, spells and charms. The Virgin Mary is invoked by many of the exhibits, as are many of her counterparts among the magna maters and virgin goddesses of civilisations ancient and modern. Most striking of all was a sculpture called Our Mother, a cast-iron statue of a woman completely covered in things she’s carrying – like a pedlar or a refugee, a bag lady. Rusted and mineral, with a head and face modelled on an African sculpture, she also reminds the viewer, in her bristling accoutrements, of the fetish statues studded with nails into which wishes have been infused by the petitioners, or of cult statues of Mary that are swathed from head to foot in gorgeous costume and ornament and flutter with entreaties pinned to them. She is Eve, in her African aspect as the world ancestress, but also a contemporary deity, a figure of Our Lady of the Disappeared, the Dispossessed, the Displaced. Grayson Perry’s Mother conveys that she is a pilgrim. Pilgrimage, wanderings and migrations were themes of the show and lie at the heart of its quest to bring the anonymous – the ordinary – into view as the makers of the world. It’s a long time ago that I lost my faith in Mary, a long time since she was the fulcrum of the scheme of salvation I then believed in, alongside Jesus the chief redeemer. But I find that the symbolism of mercy and love which her figure has traditionally expressed has migrated and now shapes secular imagery and events; Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolise it or control its significance.