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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Mary and Margaret and Margaret and Mary:
A String of Pearls for Mother’s Day

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 9, 2010


            Mother’s Day is a great day—for restaurant owners, and florists, and the people at Hallmark, maybe. It’s a great day for mothers, often, too; and for those of us who have mothers (which I guess covers just about everybody).

 

            But Mother’s Day can be a tough day, too. If we’ve lost our mothers; or if we never knew them; or if we had a difficult relationship with them, or some other “issues”. Or if we feel inadequate in our own parenting skills; if we feel as though our relationship with our own children isn’t quite what we might like it to be. Mother’s Day can be tough sometimes, if what we’ve experienced doesn’t quite “measure up” to the ideal so often extolled on this special day.

 

            Mother’s Day can be tough for ministers, too. (Woe is me!) Just as on days like Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, it’s hard to say something that hasn’t already been said—and usually better—by someone else, so on Mother’s Day, it’s tough to come up with something new and fresh, year in, year out.

 

            And, if we’re honest, and at least a little humble, we ministers know the truth of the old Spanish proverb that “An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.” Mere words about mothers or mothering or motherhood  (however effusive and sentimental and even sincere they may be) do not the joy and challenge and power of mothers make.

 

            Our mothers have given us so much—indeed, the very gift of life itself—and what do we offer them in return? A sermon, perhaps; mere words. It’s sort of like the lanyard Billy Collins gave his mother, in the poem we read at the start of our service. “She gave me life and the milk from her breasts, and I gave her a lanyard.”

 

            We can never really repay the gifts that others have given us through life, and nowhere is that more true than when we speak of our mothers.

 

            But we do our best. And even though I hated the movie Pay It Forward (you didn’t ask my opinion, I know, but you can have it anyway), the concept of paying the good we have received forward has much merit and wisdom: We repay our mothers (dimes on the dollar, perhaps) by trying to share, as best we are able, those gifts with which their lives have blest ours down through the years. By paying their care and kindness forward, to our own children, our own families and friends, and to all of those with whom our lives come in contact. That is how our lives have meaning and purpose, and how our mothers’ lives, truly, are redeemed. It is how we are redeemed, too, and how we achieve a sense of harmony with the divine; how we gain atonement-- at-one-ment-- with God, as well.

 

            As I’ve mentioned before, I have in my personal devotional and spiritual life a particular interest in and devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary—unusual for a non-Catholic; very unusual for a Unitarian Universalist, and really very unusual for a UU minister, to boot.

 

            There are, no doubt, many reasons for why this is (we are all complicated critters, spiritually speaking). But one of them is, for me, that Mary keeps alive, within the Christian tradition to which I still feel strongly attached, the feminine face of the divine. Not because Mary, to me, is god or goddess (she’s not). But because Mary reminds me that God is neither male nor female, but radiates forth for us the best characteristics of all categories of human living (including maleness and femaleness).  As our opening hymn reminds us so beautifully: there are “many names” for God, including Father—and including Mother. In the Protestant tradition, we have largely forgotten that. (An interesting bit if trivia is that “Bring Many Names” was originally written for the Methodist hymnbook. But the Methodists, good Protestants that they are, couldn’t handle that mother imagery for God, so they rejected it. Their loss is our gain…)

 

            Mary, though, keeps that thought of the feminine side of divinity alive; she is not goddess herself, but she is the bridge to the maternal side of the divine. As Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I (another lodestar in my rather peculiar devotional life) said shortly before his death in 1978: “God is our Father, but even more our Mother.” (Actually, what he said, in Italian is that “God is our Papa. But God is even more our Mama!”)

 

            That’s a lesson that another Mary taught us, too: the feminist theologian, Mary Daly, who died back in January of this year. Mary Daley was, for many of us, a kind of spiritual mother (though she would probably hate that term, and she probably wouldn’t like me very much; she had, admittedly, very little use for any males of our species whatsoever).

 

            But mothers (whether of the spiritual or biological sort) are not always easy to live with; they can be difficult, and our relationships with them can be fraught with tension and pain and even anguish. We can find ourselves going off in different directions; communication between us can become strained, if not impossible. As the years pass, we might not understand each other very well any more.

 

            So it was, for some of us, with Mary Daly. Her early works thrilled us, and opened our eyes to new possibilities in our religious tradition. But then, as she veered off onto roads that left us behind—roads that, to some of us, seemed absurd and needlessly provocative and just weird and as alienating and energy-sapping as the patriarchy she spent her life fighting-- then we felt first sadness, then resignation (for we all have our own journeys to travel). But back, in 1973, when our own Beacon Press published Daly’s Beyond God the Father, /i>it was as though a revolution in the sphere of spirituality had been launched. And truly, it had:

 

            “If God is male, then male is God,” she wrote, with a conciseness and clarity that thrilled us to the core. “The divine patriarch castrates women as long as he is allowed to live on in the human imagination,” she continued. “Courage to be is the key to the revelatory power of the feminist revolution. Courage is like -- it's a habitus, a habit, a virtue-- you get it by courageous acts. It's like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging. You guard against decay, in general, and stagnation, by moving, by continuing to move… Women have had the power of naming [that which has been] stolen from us… [Speaking of]  'God's plan' is often a front for men's /i>plans and a cover for inadequacy, ignorance, and evil…”

            “It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God…

 

            Why indeed must 'God' be a noun? Why not a verb-- the most active and dynamic of all.”

 

            Mary Daly died in 2010—200 years exactly after the birth of Margaret Fuller, another great woman, another woman derided as a “radical” and as a “misbegotten daughter of Eve” in her own time. Margaret Fuller is another of our spiritual foremothers that we remember on this day.

 

            Margaret Fuller was born in Cambridge/st1:City>, Massachusetts (where else?) in 1810. She came from a prosperous and influential family; her father was elected to the Congress of the United States during her early childhood. At a very early age, her intellectual gifts became apparent. She taught herself to read when she was three and by the age of five she was translating Virgil from the Latin. As a teen, she attended a selective school for women but she also studied on her own; she taught herself a handful of foreign languages and also engaged in an independent study of the classics. By the time she was in her early thirties, she had gained the reputation as the most well-read person, man or woman, in all of New England.

            Recognizing the limited opportunities provided within society for women to grow as intellectuals, Fuller began to host salons for young women to improve themselves intellectually. Through her twenties Fuller taught at several schools. Intermittently, she worked on writing a biography of Goethe. Her intellectual reputation reached Ralph Waldo Emerson who invited her to join the Transcendental Club which included Boston/st1:City>’s leading Unitarian and Transcendentalist thinkers. He then asked her, at the age of 29, to become the editor of The Dial, their new journal of Transcendentalist thought.

            But still, Margaret Fuller was unfulfilled. In 1844, she moved to New York/st1:State> and was hired as a writer and reporter for Horace Greeley’s newspaper, The New York Tribune. (Greeley was a Universalist, by the way; the only Universalist ever nominated for President by a major American party.) Back to Margaret: she started as the Tribune’s book critic, the first person, man or woman, ever employed as a full-time book critic for a newspaper in the United States. Two years later she was promoted to editor, the first woman newspaper editor in American history. Two years after that, she accepted a position as foreign correspondent, also the first woman to do that. While working in Italy, she took a lover and had a child, and (perhaps) got married (though probably not).  We’ll never know, because she, and her child, and the child’s father, all perished in a shipwreck off the coast of New York in 1850 on the way back to America. She was forty years old when she died.

            Today, Margaret Fuller is not forgotten; though she is more overlooked than she should be, even within our own liberal religious circle. She left an amazing legacy, and was, in many ways, the Oprah of her day: She wrote the first book published in America/st1:country-region> advocating women’s full equality; she published hundreds of newspaper articles, as well as poems, essays, and other writings. She was the first woman allowed inside the main library at Harvard. They say that Nathaniel Hawthorne modeled two characters on her: Hester Pryne in The Scarlet Letter, and the vivacious, outspoken, and intelligent Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance. Once, at dinner with Emerson and her other Transcendentalist friends, she looked around and remarked, coolly: “I now know all the people worth knowing in America, and I find no intellect comparable to my own.”

            Everyone—including herself—regarded Margaret Fuller as the most well-read human being in all of New England/st1:place>. But for humility, perhaps, we need to look elsewhere.

 

            Which brings me, last but not least, to the other Margaret, my own mother. Who is not the best-read woman in America (though she is no slouch), and is neither a feminist nor a theologian (though she has always been resolutely independent-minded and forward-thinking, as well as deeply spiritual, in her own way). But she is humble (which I guess I got from her, if  “truth”  be told) and charming (which I didn’t inherit); and the most untrammeled extravert I have ever known (I’m a lot more like Pops on that one, too). Even now, in a nursing home, she holds court with the staff and the other patients. And she is quick witted, and funny, and still, often, the person who can make me laugh the loudest (as she did last week; and if you want to hear the story, ask me later; I really ought not to tell it here).

 

            And she loves life—the day to day living of life; all the little adventures, even now, that give life its color and vibrancy, and make it sing (even if it is a song in one ear and a lament in the other). She loves a good meal (or even a semi-semi meal) as much as I do, and always has room for dessert, which (still) makes her the best of lunch partners.

 

            I know that much of the good side of who I am I owe to her. On Mother’s Day, again, I have the chance to remember that, and speak of it, and give her just a lanyard in return for all she has given me—even if, this year, that lanyard is a string of pearls, like blessed memories of those wondrous women, angry and gentle and wise and loving, who have called us to action, called us to whom we truly are, and have called us to open our eyes.

 

 


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