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Star of the Sea

January 31st, 2020 | 11 min read

By Tara Isabella Burton

I have a weakness for verses about Mary and the sea. There is that line from Eliot, that bit of the Dry Salvages, when he asks the lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory to pray for all those who are in ships, and for those who were in ships and/ ended their voyage on the sand. There is the Medieval Vespers hymn Ave, maris stella, Dei mater alma, atque semper virgo, felix cœli porta. There are, too, verses more secular in appearance if not in truth, Marian devotion reimagined as devotion to a woman who is a lighthouse: that line from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” about our lady of the harbor, or from Joan Baez’s “Diamonds and Rust,” when she sings, with a pagan twist, of her lover: there you stayed/Temporarily lost at sea/The Madonna was yours for free/Yes, the girl on the half-shell. Mary, and the women one sees Mary in, stand at the sea’s edge, with harbor signs. They pull you home. She is a lighthouse. I know now that the concept of Stella Maris itself arises from a hapax: a transcription error in the time of Jerome (Mary was meant to be a drop of the sea, not its star), but of course Mary’s story has always been about particular, peculiar things happening in extraordinary times.

Anyway, there was a time in my life when I was not allowed to love the Virgin Mary, as I do now. In the sentence I have just written all the notions interlock with one another, because the fact of my own being bound and the fact that it was Mary who was so despised, and the fact of both our bodies, hers and mine, being so wholly other to that of the man who did not want me to love her. Anyway, I do not know how to write about all of it, yet, in the manifest way that I would like to one day to set it all down, but suffice it to say that I almost married a man who was not Christian, for starters, and who, although he had time for natural law and the Logos and the words of several of the prophets, reserved a special and perhaps culturally evangelical contempt for Our Lady.

Anyway, the very last night I spent with my fiancé, we’d gone to see Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which is a play about disturbed Christians who do not know whether the internal or external war is more pressing, and there was a line in that play in which one of the characters asks another what the point is of the Virgin Mary, anyway, why she is so special, and then another character goes into a cocaine-fueled jargon-laden tirade about the scandal of the particular, and then afterwards the two of us and another friend went to get what I think was bubble tea, and my fiancé grew aggressive, as he often did, about Mary.

She’s just a girl, he said. I remember that one. That is something that I remember that happened.

She didn’t do anything. She just had a kid.

Besides, he said, Jesus basically raised himself. That’s what the story of Jesus in the Temple was all about: the fact that Jesus taught himself so much more than his mere parents could in their mere humanity. He was the Logos, after all.

She’s just a mom, he said.

I asked him if prophets were just men who liked to talk. I don’t remember what he said to that one. But I remember the gist of it, which was that lots of mothers see their children die, and none of them get what Mary had, which was the cheat codes: she got to know that her son who died was God. She had it easy.

Mary and I, we spoke quite often, in those following days, which were the days in which everything ended. I was on a business trip, in the Georgian mountains, places where the theotokos got candles. I lit candles for her. It was an act of resistance, lighting candles for her, in these little mountain churches, and at times I worried that this was a form of perversity: veneration less pure because it came from a place of rage.

This is an essay about what happened, that week. This is an essay about the Virgin Mary. This is a piece of theology. This is a story about a man I did not know. This is a debate between proponents of different views. This is just a thing that happened, in the world.

Anyway, Mary. It was a theological question. If this man was right about the Virgin Mary, and also about what it meant to be just a girl, and just a mom, and for the particular to have no weight except as instantiation of a form, then he was also right about a lot of other things, and in particular right about a lot of the things that were wrong with me, and my dull diligence, and the way in which I was intuitionally prone to social justice causes, to feeble readings of contingency, to non-libertarian political visions that bounded the agency of men, but also to disembodiment when it came to elements of my own womanhood, which I resisted reducing to his vision of evolutionary psychology.

I was, I thought, a bad scientist: I believed that societies warped our cognition, and also that our bodies were no excuse to demand to possess one another, or to delineate the roles we played in accordance with one another. I believed in the wrong kind of blank slate, but also the wrong kind of determination. I believed in the wrong freedom and the wrong laws.

Which is to say: Mary was just a girl, with just one body, who didn’t even make a free and unencumbered choice, a choice between two equal hypotheticals at equal distance from one another, neither one unduly influenced by God. What she chose was not even, exactly, a yes, but rather a here I am.

Here am I, she says, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

She takes up so much space, saying it.

She does not make herself; she is what she is called to be, the servant of the Lord. She chooses herself, perhaps, in the existentialist sense: you might say that much. She embraces, humbly, her contingent life. She obeys.

But there is something else, too.

Mary sees the sense of things. She sees, in her body, in what has happened to her, what things mean. She sees the signs. She feels the kick in her belly and although nobody has told her all that this portends, she translates what is happening in her body into the language of the Magnificat. She makes flesh into words.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy

according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

She is vomiting, most mornings, and she knows what this means. She knows she is chosen by God, and she knows what this means. She has not been given words to say, but only a reality, a particular fleshly reality, and from that truth she interprets poetry. It would be wrong and heretical to say she takes something that is not and makes what is — only God can do that. It would be wrong and heretical, too, to say that she takes the generic and makes it particular, because she alone does not make the Word flesh. It is also wrong and heretical to say that she takes the particular, her son, and makes him generic, because He is always the Logos. Instead, you might say, imperfectly, that she finds the words to make what is make sense, for those she loves and for those who remember her and for those who light her candles and for those who are in ships. The rest of her children, John says.

The body is the site of so much of the worst of us. Ite is the site of our desires — although largely of our urges, rather than our perversities, which I tend to think are worse. It can be the site of certain false kinds of the real: the fatalism that says we are only our chromosomes, our melanin, our blood and the soil in which our forefathers fucked. It can be the evolutionarily pessimistic delimitation of our humanity as writ by the strong gods of Jordan Peterson. But in Mary, it is, when seen through the attending eyes of loving faith, also a conduit to a truth that subverts the kind of science that mistakes the Vitruvian Man for a human being. It is a redemption of the body, and a redemption of the material, and a redemption of the actual, and a redemption too of a very particular kind of creation: neither ex nihilo nor the clay formation of the tohu wabohu, nor ever the gritted-teeth self-choosing of the twentieth-century existentialists, which cannot ever get outside the self, but rather the creation that comes from saying here I am, saying this is what is true, and here it what it means. God touched Mary’s womb, and not her tongue. What passed between those two organs is what makes her the greatest prophet of all.

Anyway, in Georgia, I saw a therapist, via Skype, at the insistence of my mother, who was — like every other woman I knew (and it was almost only women who knew) — desperately worried about me. I explained how I felt, and had been feeling, quite crazy, that I was losing my mind. I came up with deeply theoretical explanations, scientific explanations, of all the ways in which I was insufficient, of all the ways in which my happiness came from an improper application of the ungrasped facts.

I have my reservations about therapists, which is a subject for another time, but suffice it to say she asked me about my body, first.

She asked me about the clenching of my teeth. She asked me about the mornings I woke up and I could not eat, or breathe. She asked me about the vomiting — my bulimia had returned — and about the ways I would tense up on the stairs up to that old shared apartment, about the time I had to get off my bicycle to stop myself from shaking on my way home, in inenumerable and unenumerated terror of what I would find there. She asked me about the time I spent not sleeping.

Trauma, she says, happens in the body first. You just have to know how to read the signs.

Anyway, it helped me. Anyway, Mary helped me.

Anyway, a day or two after I left, I was still jet lagged and up at six in the morning and living temporarily in my mother’s spare bedroom, and so I went to the diner I used to go to when I was a child and had an extra-rare cheeseburger, before dawn, and it was the most delicious thing I have tasted in the whole world.

That is another thing that happened. Small, but not, I think, insignificant. I must have put three whole tablespoons of pepper on it. And I paid too much for a fruit salad, after, and that was delicious too, even though the melons were too cold.

But this is not a story about a particular thing that happened to me, you see. It is a particular story about a thing that happened to somebody else, someone who knew what it meant, who could expand by assenting, like a tide. It is a story about what it means to create when you are not fully free, and I would say again, flesh made words, only I should stop, here, and say that between writing that phrase out the first time and writing it out the second I realized that I had inadvertently taken the phrase from a draft of Dhananjay Jagannathan’s forthcoming Earth and Altar piece on Augustine, part of which I had read that morning, and which I had without realizing it internalized, because words don’t come ex nihilo, either, but we are as contingent with one another as we are to the women who bore us.

There is knowledge that is not comprehending. There is knowledge that is, also, not purely habitation. There is the knowledge that is the preparing of a room in one’s own house: at once an emptying of the self and the self’s manifestation as something real, a space that only God can enter. This is the hospitable knowledge, for strangers and guests and sailors. It says here I am. It says come in. It says come into this harbor and no other.

At the lighthouse. On the promontory. Holding back the sea from the shore, or vice versa, or simply fostering the place that the two of them meet.

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