By Martin L. Smith
I wasn’t exactly eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing remarks an elderly couple were making as they wandered round the collection of Old Masters in the Atlanta art gallery. I particularly remember the husband’s brief comment, almost a growl it sounded so hurt: “So many pictures of her…”
We all know who he was referring to—Mary, the subject to which Christian art endlessly returns. Probably an evangelical brought up to suspect all visual representations of the sacred and to rely on words, words with a masculine ring to them, he could only respond with some bafflement and resentment. Why her face?
Perhaps it isn’t too early to prepare for Christmas by considering why Mary’s face is so central to the visual world of Christianity. Helen of Troy’s face only launched a thousand ships. Mary’s face is found in thousands of art galleries, tens of thousands of churches and millions of homes. However secularized the so called ‘Holidays’ are becoming, the mail that will soon be pouring into mailboxes will certainly contain some cards showing her gazing out at us, or returning the smile of her baby son. Let’s prepare to receive them with fresh insight.
We need to revisit in our imaginations the early months of a baby’s growth. For the first three months babies explore the world through their mouths. They lick and suck and stick things into their mouths. Then at three months there is an amazing shift. Babies start orientating themselves towards a person present. They seek and learn to respond to the presence of a human face. And they smile. They’ll even smile back at a balloon with a face sketched on it. The smile is born in the presence of the Face experienced as loving presence. This is what we mean by primal human experience, so utterly human and basic that it is foundational for all that comes next, something we never leave behind. And it is surely the experience in which all religious experience is rooted. In seeking God, we are seeking the Face turned towards us in love, and it was our mother’s gaze that first evoked the smile we want to give back to our Creator. The primal language of our religion recalls this gazing and smiling. In ancient Israel, worship itself was referred to as seeing God’s face. “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek.” (Ps. 27) “Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80)
There are so many pictures of her—Mary, the mother of Jesus—because her face represents everything about God’s love that the face of an old Man isn’t as good at conveying. God can let wisdom shine through the face of motherly tenderness, and nurture the reality of divine Motherhood that masculine imagery is less effective at communicating. If much of our verbal imagery about the divine draws on our experience of powerful males, how appropriate that we should cherish visual imagery that complements and corrects it by conveying divine power in feminine terms. Luke’s gospel itself represents Mary as recognizing the power of her motherhood and pointing to the tremendous resonance it was going to have in the hearts of God’s faithful. “All generations will call me blessed.”
Now the world of spirituality has a very healthy awareness of our tendency to live in our heads, and this isn’t a topic for argument, but for experiment. How in practice do we react to the contemplation of icons and religious artworks that represent Mary? Have you ever allowed yourself to be touched, moved, addressed at a gut level in quiet exposure to Mary’s loving gaze? If you have been put off by bad, conventional statuary and trashy cards, have you gotten over it and given attention to truly beautiful examples?
There are many Episcopalians who have never prayed with an icon of Mary, or ever cherished or meditated on her face. Many might dismiss it out of hand as a deviation into Roman Catholic practices. But that might be a matter of spiritual avoidance rather than theological principle. There is vulnerability in contemplating the face which represents tenderness, nurture, the flame of a mother’s passionate commitment, willingness to suffer for love’s sake, beauty. Many of us, certainly many men, are armored against this. This represents a world of meaning that challenges our habitual stances of control. It returns us to this fundamental level of trusting that emerged when we were scarcely three months old. But as every spiritual director will tell you, there is tremendous potential for healing and conversion in risking a personal return in prayer to this basic level of our humanity. “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” (Ps. 131)
The Rev. Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.