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Saturday, 23 June 2012

Our Lady, Mary

Because of several things which have happened in the past few weeks, including my pilgrimage to Walsingham, I have been thinking of the title of Mary, "Our Lady". Now, in these modern times, many English speaking persons in America, and other countries, do not understand the title "Lady".  Here, in Europe and specifically, in England, this title involves several layers of meaning, and I would like to comment on all as applicable to Our Lady, Mary, and why we need to meditate on this title.

The first dictionary meaning is the ancient meaning of "a woman having proprietary rights or authority especially as a feudal superior". This is quite straight forward, as a landed gentry would have a wife whose title would be lady, or, as in the case of many, even medieval ladies, women could own land in certain countries in their own right. That Mary, Our Lady has been given authority over us is part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Her rank and honor stem from her Immaculate Conception, as well as her "Fiat", her "yes" to God which brought Christ into the World, the Incarnate Word. Even in the Magnificat, we see Mary acknowledging  humbly, her exalted status as the Mother of God. The English "lady" could be the wife of a knight or other member of the peerage. That Mary is exalted is a teaching of our Church. She is the Bride, the Mother, the Sister. She is Queen and First Lady. 

The second meaning may be, but is not necessarily, connected. In this definition, "a woman receiving the homage or devotion of a knight or lover", is an extension of the first definition, with a slight twist. The lady of propriety would be married, but the woman receiving homage of a knight or lover could be any exalted lady of rank he would choose to honor. One sees this in the poetry of courtly love and the French Romances. For example, in Eric and Enid, one of my favorites, we see in some translations, the use of the word Damsel for Lady. The Lady is loved and fair, pure and worthy of love. This ideal is also found in romances other than the Welsh, French or English, such as Parzifal, in German. The language referring to a lady was transferred very quickly to Our Lady, Mary, and poetry relating to her as the perfectly loved one became increasingly popular. This type of lady, and therefore, Mary, was seen as superior to other women and therefore, worthy of honor.

Here is one example which is an English carol you will all recognize, which refers to Mary as Christ's Lady:

1. I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships come sailing in,
    On Christmas day in the morning.
2. And what1 was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And what was in those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.
3. Our Saviour Christ and his lady2
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
    On Christmas day in the morning.
4. Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Pray whither sailed those ships all three?
    On Christmas day in the morning.
5. Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem,
    On Christmas day in the morning.
6. And all the bells on earth shall ring,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
    On Christmas day in the morning.
7. And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,
    On Christmas day in the morning.
8. And all the souls on earth shall sing,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the souls on earth shall sing,
    On Christmas day in the morning.
9. Then let us all rejoice, amain,
    On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Then let us all rejoice, amain,
    On Christmas day in the morning

There are many more such poems and carols. In addition, Our Lady was painted as a "lady", especially in the ideal of the Garden Enclosed, as she was fruitful as a Virgin. This label came originally from the Song of Songs, and became connected to the ideal of the lady during medieval and Renaissance times. Some of those paintings are here on this post.

A third view of  Lady Mary denotes her gentility and manners. This last ideal of the Lady Mary has been lost in our popular culture. Partly, this is owing to the emphasis on Mary's Jewishness, her simplicity and humility. But, those characteristics are included in the title as well.

That women who are Catholics should model themselves on the Gentle Mary, and on the Mary of manners is an ideal so foreign that one knows hardly where to begin in explaining the necessity for this meditation and understanding of Our Mother, Lady Mary.

Gentility is part of the life of grace. A woman of grace shows forth not merely a gentleness, but a courtesy, a decorum, a mode of acting, speaking, walking, eating, dressing. 

When I was in college, in my first year, all the girls had to take two courses. One was personal health and the other was manners, or decorum. The second was taught by the woman who trained, yearly, the Miss Iowa contestants.

We learned how to walk, stand, get in and out of cars, talk, speak on the phone, greet guests, write invitations, set formal tables, pour tea and sherry, wear hats, wear gloves, have discussions, and in general, be mannerly to all, young and old. We were taught "grace" and as Catholics, we had "grace" to help us. Some of us learned these traits in our homes, but the encouragement at an age when we were dating, going out to dances, proms, dinners, preparing for careers, and perhaps, meeting our prospective in-laws, these traits were handy, as well as important. And, our model, (despite the car and telephone bits) was Our Lady, Mary. She would have been a lady, serving and being peaceful in all situations, being modest and gentle to all and with whom, it would have been a joy to be.

We actually earned a grade for these two courses. Needless to say, feminism was on the rise and tore into these classes, so that within five years of my graduating, both courses were dropped. With the dropping of the college dress code came the dropping of manners and appropriate dress, as well as social skills. The change happened in the 1970s.

This was not progress. With the dumbing down of curriculum came the dumbing down of behavior, and the disappearance of manners. Also, there was feminism, which taught women to act and dress like men. In addition, the "cult of the ugly", which I have written about here before, became popular. Women lost their beauty to "goth" and "jeans". In college, we could not wear trousers, except on Saturdays, and if we went out, we had to wear a coat over the trousers. We could not wear sandals, or socks. We dressed appropriately for dinner. These rules have been re-introduced in some Catholic colleges in the States with varying success. 

I love being with my older female friends, those in their eighties and seventies, who learned what I did. To spend a day in the atmosphere of gentility and grace is wonderful, especially today. I miss the level of discussion, and the entire Christian decorum of these few ladies I do know. We were taught that gossip was wrong, that laughing too loudly was coarse and that being intelligent about current affairs was part of being a lady. Of course, my mother falls into this category and the entire family knows she is a lady, par excellence. So, too were my grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and for those role models, I am grateful. Even the great-grandmother who was on the Oregon Trail acted in a ladylike fashion. One great-grandmother was a lady in society. Traits and customs were handed down in the Catholic circles which made up my family.

Mary as Our Lady is a meditation I wish to share with the younger sisters (and brothers) who have missed this grace in their lives and who may not even value manners, decorum, gentility. Some who read this may even become angry, and misunderstand the message of beauty and peace herein.

One of the saddest things for me on my return to England was the awareness of the dropping of such ladylike behavior in the society at large. I do not know what happened. I partly blame the hatred of the elite, a hatred of supposed weakness, and the hatred of religion, as religion, the Catholic Culture, created manners. A sign of the saint is gentility, a result of the interior life of virtue. And, as you know, the interior life of the virtues is a great theme of this blog.

 If one is humble, one is a lady. 
                                                                      My soul doth magnify the Lord.

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid;
for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
Because he that is mighty,
hath done great things to me;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is from generation unto generations,
to them that fear him.
He hath shewed might in his arm:
he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath received Israel his servant,
being mindful of his mercy:
As he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his seed for ever.

If a woman or a girl has not thought of Our Lady as a role model, as an ideal woman, "the" Ideal Woman, I challenge her to do so now.

More than ever, we need ladies.