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MARY THROUGH THE CENTURIES: Her Place in the History of Culture
By Jaroslav Pelikan
Yale University Press. 267 pp. $25

Go to the First Chapter of "Mary Through the Centuries"

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Full of Grace

By John B. Breslin

Sunday, December 8, 1996

As I was finishing Jaroslav Pelikan's engaging Marian parallel to his bestselling "Jesus Through the Centuries," I happened upon a music review in the New York Times of a recital devoted to vocal works in praise of the Virgin Mary. Soloist Christine Brandas apparently had no shortage of material requiring "subtlety and discrimination."

Neither does Jaroslav Pelikan. As the author of a definitive five-volume study of Christian doctrine ("The Christian Tradition") and as a master of the lecture hall, he brings to this project a comprehensive knowledge of theology and a lively writing style. Like the Jesus book, this one originated as a series of public lectures given at Yale on the occasion of his recent retirement -- lucky listeners, indeed, who no doubt had the added benefit of many more art slides than the still generous amount the publisher could afford to reprint here.

For the aesthetic record of Christianity plays as large a part in this two-millennium survey as the decrees of church councils or the cogitations of theologians. It was the artists of East and West who made the Virgin the most familiar figure of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. And this was no accident, for her role in Christian belief was to press home the full import of the Incarnation. As far back as the fifth century, the battle over the title Theotokos ("the one who gave birth to the one who is God," as Pelikan literally translates the Greek) centered precisely on the actual humanity of Jesus. Only if he was fully human as well as fully divine could Mary warrant that shocking title ("Whose presence, power is/Great as no goddess's/Was deemed, dreamed," in the poet Hopkins's words).

Theotokos is an early and perhaps the most controversial title ever given to Mary, but it is only one of hundreds she accrued over two millennia. To structure his narrative Pelikan uses some two dozen of the most prominent ones: the Second Eve and the Heroine of the Qur'an, the Paragon of Chastity and the Blessed Mother, the Mater Dolorosa and Gloriosa, the Queen of Heaven. In each case the name given to Mary reveals as much about the cultural concerns as the doctrinal issues that preoccupied a given age.

Eastern Christians sought to escape the transiency and corruption of earthly life in order to achieve participation in the divine nature. For them Mary as Theotokos represented both the historical realization of such a "divinization" and the promise of its ultimate accomplishment in all believers. Icons of Mary in the Russian tradition bodied forth such faith, and the daily chanting of the Magnificat before her icon gave it voice.

In the Christian West, Dante, with the help of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, best captured the paradoxical nature of Mary's distant glory and intercessory presence. At the beginning of the final canto of the "Paradiso" Bernard addresses Mary: "Virgin mother, daughter of your Son [figlia del tuo figlio] / more humble and sublime than any creature." In her dual role Mary stood for us in both senses of that term: As Mater Dolorosa, fully acquainted with our griefs, she spoke on our behalf before her Son; as the exalted Queen of Heaven, she shone with the transfigured glory that would one day be ours.

Curiously, it has been a Japanese writer, the late Shusaku Endo, who has most eloquently kept alive for our day the image of the sorrowing Mother. In one of his best short stories, "Mothers," the sophisticated narrator, a clear stand-in for Endo, is drawn for personal reasons to the descendants of the Japanese Christian apostates called kakure. Hidden away in the mountain villages where their ancestors fled from 16th-century persecutions, they cling to a crude image of a mother and child as their object of devotion. By story's end the narrator shocks his fellow Catholics by clearly preferring the kakure to them.

Pelikan does not include Endo in his survey, nor does he tell us much about the Virgin's role in the development of courtly love, but he does give us a close reading of Goethe's celebration of "Eternal Feminine" and a survey of popular devotions in which he sees an encouraging democratic principle at work: "Belief in Marian apparitions has, as often as not, been imposed from below on the ecclesiastical authorities."

After finishing Pelikan's book, one must surely conclude that the Virgin is as fortunate in the "subtlety and discrimination" of her 20th-century chronicler as she has been in her composers.

John B. Breslin is the editor of "The Substance of Things Hoped For: Short Fiction by Modern Catholic Authors" and the rector of the Jesuit Community at Le Moyne College.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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