In my Catholic girlhood she was everywhere, perched up on ledges and in niches like a CCTV camera, with her painted mouth and her painted eyes of policeman blue. She was, her litany stated, Mirror of Justice, Cause of Our Joy, Spiritual Vessel, Mystical Rose, Tower of David, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven and Morning Star. Not a woman I liked, on the whole. She was the improbability at the heart of spiritual life; a paradox, unpollinated but fruitful, above nature yet also against nature. She could have been a benign second mother, and on your side, but she always seemed to be in cahoots with authority; she knew your every move, and had a low opinion of it. It was because of her purity that you had to guard your darker thoughts; each of your little sins was, you were assured, a sword piercing her heart. She was the example you were urged to follow, while knowing that you would fail. Pray all you like, you are not going to be both a virgin and a mother; this was a one-off by the deity, a singular chance for sullied female flesh to make itself acceptable to the celibate males who were in charge of whether or not we got to heaven. It always seemed odd and distasteful to hear priests speak reverently of the Virgin Mary, when you knew they despised women or feared them or regarded them as being as strange as talking fish.
LRB 9 April 2009 | PDF Download