I was raised in a nominally Catholic household, but it wasn’t until my return to the Church in the early 2000s that I was first introduced to the idea of a Marian ideal. It was in one of the first homeschooling mom get-togethers I ever attended that I heard the speaker extoling the virtues of living a “life like Mary,” and all of the other women nodding along in complete agreement.
Living like Mary seemed to be centered around the idea of self-control and moderation. Mary spoke softly and never lost her temper. Mary was careful to dress modestly and so we should do the same. She’d have never worn pants. (It was never mentioned that men didn’t wear pants in First Century Palestine either, only that women shouldn’t.) Mary was meek. Mary was mild. The longer I listened, the more I despaired because the woman they described, the woman we were supposed to want to be, was nothing at all like me. As a brand new revert to the Catholicism of my youth, I went home in despair that I could ever be what these holy Catholic women held up as the idyllic norm.
How could a loud, energetic, jeans-wearing, loud-talking woman ever get into Heaven? I knew that no amount of prayers or time were going to fundamentally change the woman I was. There was no way I could be a woman “like Mary.”
After years of trying to shoehorn myself into the tiny box of what Catholic womanhood was supposed to “look like,” I realized that the problem might not lie with me, but with the artificial ideal to which the circles I ran in aspired. The problem with their definition of Mary-like is that it’s superficial, external, and completely fabricated. The truth is that there is no one living today who had the privilege of knowing the Blessed Mother, and so no one can say for certain what she was actually like on the outside.
We don’t know that her voice was always gentle; she might have been no-nonsense and direct. We don’t know that her wardrobe fitted into some feminine ideal, and that she didn’t fight the constant battle with seams and keeping a veil on straight. The only thing we know is that she wasn’t sinful. That leaves a lot of room for completely ordinary, and there is nothing sinful in being completely ordinary.
What we do know about her is this: Pregnant while betrothed to Joseph, Mary was not shy about her difficult circumstances, and set off to visit her cousin Elizabeth instead of staying quietly at home. With the grace of having read the Bible and knowing how the story ends, it is easy to miss the suffering that Mary’s pregnancy would have brought upon her family and herself. She even lost her own child, and not just for a few minutes. She lost him for days. Two thousand years later we know that it all turned out fine, but what might her contemporaries have thought?
What started with scandal ended with scandal, and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an eyebrow raised and at least one gossipy neighbor bringing up how the story had seemingly begun. How could such a child end up anywhere except charged with blasphemy and dying a criminal’s death? But his mother didn’t turn away; she embraced her son on his way to dying like a slave at Golgotha.
Perhaps our conception of what it means to be “like Mary” has been skewed by two millennia of an ideal of what a “nice girl” is like, rather than what it takes to be a Woman of God. Isn’t it time that we take our focus off of the things that influence how other people perceive us, and turn instead toward emulating the part that actually matters—the spiritual part?
What if, instead of debating whether or not the Mother of Our Lord would wear jeans, we poured that energy into emulating her humility before God? It was that humility that allowed her to be unconcerned with the opinions of the world enough to be able to say YES to God’s plan for her. Whether that yes was in a soft and graceful voice or in the overly-loud tones of a loud talker is completely irrelevant.
Let’s stop using the imaginary example of the Blessed Mother to try to force girls and women into a pretty box, and instead encourage them to follow the real example that she set – loving God boldly, fearlessly, and without thought for what other people think.