The following is an excerpt from Birthing the Holy by Christine Valters Paintner. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
In many ways this book began shaping itself in my heart on October 19, 2003. That was the day my mother died. I was thirty-three years old, and she was only sixty. Her body became overwhelmed quite suddenly by infection after using prednisone for years to treat the terrible pain and disability her rheumatoid arthritis caused her.
I was very close with my mother and considered her one of my best friends. Her death was sudden. It was wrenching. It was excruciating. I came undone in my grief over her loss.
Many people tried to offer comfort and wisdom. Most often the words they spoke felt trite and meaningless under the weight of my mourning. But there were some whose words sparked something in my heart. A new opening. One such gift of wisdom offered was an invitation to reimagine my relationship to my mother, and indeed Mother as an archetype. As she was no longer on the physical, tangible plane, I could only reach out to her through the veil that separates us from our ancestors and the Communion of Saints.
I found myself crying out to Mother Mary in ways I had never done before. I had always admired Mary, but I retreated from the docile and pure images churches would promote of her. In my lament, I began to encounter a fiercer Mary, one who knew the weight of loss and how it strips away everything you thought you needed to navigate in the world. I discovered Mary, Mother of Sorrows, who could sit with me in my anguish and disorientation.
It was in these underworld days that I was introduced to the Black Madonna. Here was an image that felt substantial enough to meet my pain. This dark mother knew the weight of her own son’s body in her arms. I found myself praying to her in quiet moments when I wanted to wail. Once my grief softened over time, though, Mary became more distant again as a presence in my life. In 2012, my husband, John, and I felt a call to move overseas to Vienna, Austria. This was the city where my father grew up and was now buried; it was a place I had visited many times as a child. Soon after we moved, a young Polish woman I had met through my ministry online was inspired to send me a card with the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa on it. I remember my heart quickening when I opened the envelope and found her waiting inside for me. I realized I was now in the land of Black Madonnas—a term for medieval paintings and statues of Mary that depict her with dark or black features—and could make a point of visiting some of them. A few days later, after receiving that card, on Sunday at Mass there was an invitation to join a parish group making a pilgrimage for the day to Mariazell, or Our Lady of the Cell, a Black Madonna site in Austria within driving distance from Vienna.
The wooden carved statue of Mariazell holds a pear in her hand, and I started seeing pears everywhere. They became a symbol for me of the sacred feminine inviting me into a deepened relationship with Mary and a release of all my patterns of striving and reaching. Here I was living in Europe, on a midlife adventure, and I was being called to let go of old habits and ways of being. I was being invited to imagine a new way forward where I yielded more to what was arising within rather than always needing to direct and plan. Mary was reaching to me, offering me this sweet gift of fruit as nourishment.
Mary and the pear become important symbols for me as the years passed. After six months in Vienna, we moved to Galway on the west coast of Ireland, where John and I have lived ever since. Our home looks out over St. Mary’s Church, and I often pass her grotto next to the church on walks. One year I created an online Advent retreat for our community exploring the different names and titles of Mary, and the experience made me hunger for more ways of meeting and knowing Mary, both as a person and as an archetype of both the sacred feminine and Mother.
In the summer of 2019 I was invited to lead a retreat in Chartres, France, for the Veriditas labyrinth community. It had been seven years since I had moved to Europe, and it was just before the start of a year of sabbatical John and I were taking for the year we were both turning fifty. In Chartres I encountered many more faces of Mary, including Notre Dame Sous-Terre and Notre
Dame de Pillier, who, like Mariazell, also held a pear in her hand. It was there this book became firmly rooted. Soon after I returned home, Ave Maria Press asked if I would be interested in writing a book about Mary, and my heart quickened. Yes, of course I would love to, was my response.
Introduction to Mary
Mary appears throughout the gospels, most notably at the beginning and at the end. She is the one who is asked to say yes to the holy birthing and surrenders herself to something far beyond her imagining. She is the one who sits at the foot of the Cross where her son is brutalized and murdered. She stays with him throughout his journey of suffering and into death. It is interesting to consider how much the scriptures focus on her presence at these thresholds of Jesus’s life.
There is the annunciation, when she is asked for consent, and the Visitation, when two women who are cousins connect over their pregnancies and feel the intimacy of being in this space together. Mary’s poem and song of justice, the Magnificat, has allusions to the Song of Hannah from the Hebrew Scriptures, connecting her to a lineage of wise women. Mary makes a couple of appearances during Jesus’s lifetime, and then again she appears at the end of his life, standing witness at the foot of the Cross with other women, when so many have run away. She was there at the Feast of Pentecost. In some traditions, she is the woman in the book of Revelation: “And a great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12:1).
Stories of Mary have been used in various ways to reinforce a certain image of womanhood. The Christian tradition leans heavily on images of male sanctity and masculine divinity; Mary offers us another perspective. She is the embodiment of the sacred feminine, a window into another understanding of how the presence of the sacred can manifest in the world.
Mary has been called the mother of contemplatives as she models the essence of what it is to be an active co-creator and participant in the divine unfolding. She stands with one foot in the earthy, finite world and one in the infinite, luminous realm and bridges that gap in our hearts. Bringing Jesus to birth is less about making up for our sinfulness and more about the glorious revelation that comes when we bring together this wholeness.
She has many titles, including Mother of Mercy and Our Lady of Sorrows, the one who can bear the tremendous weight of our grief. She is the one who knows aching loss and does not run away in the face of its fierceness. There is a tradition of stories of the seven sorrows she had to bear. Joyce Rupp has a beautiful book titled Your Sorrow Is My Sorrow that invites you to enter into Mary’s sorrows and find yourself there, accompanied, and offered solace. There is a parallel tradition of Mary’s seven rejoices. She is the container for our struggles and joys. She is the source of compassion. She is the birth mother and the death mother.
Mary as Mother is the expression of infinite compassion and care. She is the experience of love that embraces us when we feel we may fall apart. We are invited to cooperate with this love and grace always available to us. We are invited to say yes to holy birthing, the way Mary herself did.
Mary has gone by many names in the Christian tradition. My approach to Mary’s names is influenced strongly by Jungian thought on the archetypes. Archetypes are universal energies that we all experience within ourselves and across cultures through dreams and collective symbols. David Richo writes that Jesus and Mary offer us windows into the essential Self. His book draws on the Litany of Loreto, which names Mary in a variety of ways. “Litany titles are fields of energy in the spiritual world. They describe what is in us potentially and what we are called to display in and disperse into the universe.”
Litany titles are indeed archetypes. Not all of the names I explore in this book come from the Litany of Loreto, but many do. I am drawn to the names of Mary because the images they represent show what we hunger to embody and ultimately find within ourselves. Mary can be a mirror for our deepest sacred longings. Mary invites us into practices and ways of being—these archetypes point both to her multifaceted nature and to our own inner multiplicity.
When we embrace the multiplicity of Mary’s names and titles, we discover that her qualities as Mother, as Seat of Wisdom, and as Queen of Heaven exist not just in an exterior way to ourselves but also within each of us as a mirror of our own deepest qualities when we cultivate intimacy and an encounter with them. Each name, title, or archetype describes what qualities live within us too as potential. By calling on these names, we empower these qualities within us to become more fully alive. We manifest
the qualities of the sacred feminine in the world and move closer to our own growing wholeness.
Mary is also the counterbalance to a tradition where the sacred has been heavily masculinized and patriarchal. We need the masculine energies in their healthy forms, just as we need the feminine in her life-giving aspects. Psychologist Carl Jung believed there were two levels to our unconscious. The first was the personal level created by personal experience, and the second was the collective level consisting of instinctual and universal patterns of thought developed in human beings over thousands of years. These primordial blueprints are called archetypes and form the foundation of our experience.
We each have within us a gathering of different energies. Archetypes appear across cultures and traditions in myths, stories, and dreams. By exploring a particular archetype, we can reflect on how it is alive in us, how we have suppressed this aspect, and how it might illumine our personal shadows and areas in need of awareness and growth. They can help us move toward our own growing wholeness and freedom.
Jungian analyst Mariann Burke, in her book Re-Imagining Mary, describes two ways of encountering images of Mary. The first is historical; when we view a painting of the annunciation, for example, it is an event in the past. However, in “the poetic or mythic approach, we are not so much viewing an image as experiencing it.” When we regard images in this way, we become open to seeing “the Annunciation not as history, but as something happening now. Taken in this way, the image reflects something within me. Like a dream, the image is happening within.”
This is how archetypes work. They invite us to consider these names of Mary not simply as historical realities but as living encounters right now with sacred aspects of ourselves. This poetic, mythic, and contemplative approach is the lens I bring to considering Mary’s titles as an encounter with dimensions of our own soul’s longing.
Introduction to Birthing the Holy from Abbey of the Arts on Vimeo.
Praise for Birthing the Holy
“Keen insights and fresh perspective on the life and meaning of Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus.”
—Fr. David L. Guffey, CSC, National Director, Family Theater Productions
“Even if you have known Mary all your life, you will encounter her afresh here in deeply nourishing and empowering ways. Drawing upon centuries of art, theology, and spiritual tradition, Christine Valters Paintner leads us into the sacred act of co-creation with God while Kreg Yingst’s beautiful block prints guide us in thoughtful contemplation of our Mother Mary, ever ancient, ever new.”
—Cameron Bellm, Author of A Consoling Embrace
“Every name for Mary, like every name for Christ, opens a window to another dimension of a mystery that will never be exhausted. We need a whole litany to even begin our pondering of Mary and the gift she is for us. Christine Valters Painter gives us just that in this richly textured retreat for the contemporary believer.”
—Ann M. Garrido, Associate Professor of Homiletics, Aquinas Institute of Theology
About the Author
Christine Valters Paintner is the online abbess for Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery offering classes and resources on contemplative practice and creative expression. She earned a doctorate in Christian spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and achieved professional status as a registered expressive arts consultant and educator from the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association. She is also trained as a spiritual director and supervisor.
Paintner is the author of seventeen books on monasticism and creativity, including Sacred Time; Earth, Our Original Monastery; The Soul’s Slow Ripening; Water, Wind, Earth, and Fire; The Artist’s Rule; The Soul of a Pilgrim; Illuminating the Way; The Wisdom of the Body; and two collections of poetry. She is a Benedictine oblate living in Galway, Ireland, with her husband, John. Together they lead online retreats at their website AbbeyoftheArts.com.
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