A Marian witness

As today is the (transferred) Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the talk given by Bishop Steven Charleston on Marian devotion at our parish adult education forum yesterday.

First of all, Bp. Charleston seemed like a really interesting person. He’s a Choctaw Indian who was born in rural Oklahoma and raised a Southern Baptist. In his teens he joined the Episcopal Church, later becoming a priest and then Bishop of Alaska. He’s been very involved in Native American ministry among other things, and currently serves as dean and president of the Episcopal Divinity School in nearby Cambridge, MA. He came across as a very down-to-earth guy who wore his position lightly, and had a rather quiet but direct demeanor. (He was also yesterday’s guest preacher and preached a very straightforward – and short! – sermon).

Anyway, I guess I had originally been expecting a kind of theological disquisition on Marian devotion, but Bp. Charleston’s talk was much more along the lines of an evangelical-style testimony or witness! He spoke of his own very vivid experience of the comforting presence and intercession of Mary and how he’s become something of an “evangelist” for devotion to the BVM in the Episcopal Church. I guess that’s what happens when you mix a Southern Baptist upbringing with Anglo-Catholic theology and piety!

He also spoke movingly of Mary as a kind of salt-of-the-earth working woman, not as the rather frail figure we see in some representations, of seeing her in the faces of Mexican women working in market stalls, or of careworn mothers on the subway. He talked about his efforts to introduce Marian devotion into the very low-church ethos of his Alaskan diocese, and said that, by the time he left several parishes had installed statues of Mary.

I actually liked this talk better than I probably would’ve if it’d been the kind of theological discussion I was expecting. Like I wrote a while ago, as important as the theology is, there’s something uniquely compelling aobut lived experience (again, assuming that it’s consistent with sound theology). So I found Bp. Charleston’s witness to be very powerful. Proudly brandishing his Rosary, he encouraged us all to mediate on how we might make room for Mary in our own spiritual lives and to share that with others.

During the brief Q&A period I asked him what he says to people who contend that devotion to Mary risks overshadowing devotion to the Trinity. He said that, first and foremost, Mary only finds her proper place in the story of Christ; she’s not some sort of goddess figure who stands on her own. She prays with us and for us, but this is always oriented toward God. Secondly, he said that God allows us to approach him in a variety of ways, depending on our particular needs at the time. He mentioned asking for St. Francis’s prayers in his work on environmental issues as an example.

I can see how one might interpret this as setting up “mediators” between us and God in addition to Christ, and it seems clear that, in practice, devotion to the saints has sometimes taken that form. But maybe a better way of thinking about it is that each saint, in his or her uniqueness, shows forth a part or aspect of God in a unique way, like a prisim which refracts white light into a rainbow of colors. Maybe, in asking a particular saint to pray for us, we’re trying to “plug in” to that aspect of God that they refract particuarly clearly.

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