ALONGSIDE the growing importance of religion in political
conflicts and their justification, a countervailing, popular
revival of religious practices is under way. Some of its
participants adhere to a conventional church; some are believers,
but mavericks; others are no believers at all.
Different groups of very different persuasions are nevertheless
accepting a new turn towards what the Catalan philosopher Eugenio
Trias has termed a religion of the spirit, grounded in events, not
Such events are marked by symbols and rituals, which take the
form of artefacts and actions, or enactments - pilgrimage,
procession, ceremony. Relics, icons, charms, and talismans are
efflorescing. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the opposition to
such popular expressions of piety are loosening: Pope Benedict XVI
in this respect followed John Paul II's enthusiasms, and promoted
the use of indulgences again.
The veneration of relics is being strongly encouraged once more:
a few years ago, a relic of St Thérèse of Lisieux was taken on
tour; the reliquary attracted vast, fervent crowds, who testified
to reporters that contact with the saint had had a transformative
effect on them.
When the Belt of the Virgin Mary, a famed help to fertility, was
brought last year from Mount Athos to Russia, thousands queued in
the icy winter weather to touch the reliquary; the majority were
women - young women, aged between 20 and 40. The passion of such
testimonials is moving, and it would be ugly to scoff at them; they
also offer, as one Russian paper commented, a diagnosis of
One of the relic's stations on its triumphal tour was the
Cathedral Church of Christ the Saviour, where, about six months
later, Pussy Riot erupted on to the altar by the sacred iconostasis
and staged their protest (News, Comment, 24 August). "The main
concern," one of them said afterwards, "was to appeal to the Virgin
because she is considered the protector of Russia, and that is why
we made a prayer to the Virgin to kick out Putin."
SUCH developments are following, not leading, the general
sacramental trend of public ceremony and assemblies: mass
pilgrimages to museums and art events on the one hand; and a
passionate involvement in weddings - not just royal ones - on the
Creating wayside shrines at the spot where somebody died in a
road accident has changed the experience of driving. White
bicycles, covered in garlands and tributes, are padlocked to
railings where a rider has been knocked over; they are part of the
protest for bicycle lanes and improved road safety, but they are
also grim memento moris, with a ritual charge independent
The anti-capitalist camps, which sprang up in different cities,
and were cleared by police applying different levels of brutality,
also turn tenet into event, taking language into the territory of
controlled action. Such camps differ from marches, and draw more on
the tradition of communal ritual.
Their members have undertaken a pilgrimage in conviction and
hope, and are addressing a united plea for sanctuary and redress.
Their protests resemble prayer - even conjurations and apotropaic
rituals - and they use masks, movement, gestures, and other
elements of performance.
In the wake of Pussy Riot, four Occupy protesters commemorated
the anniversary of that eviction by chaining themselves to the
pulpit of St Paul's. Photo opportunities in an era of instant
image-transmission and news-streaming explain some of the ritual
theatricality of these happenings, but not the reason for their
occurrence in the first place.
In many ways, these protesters are adapting old sacramental
processes to secular and political purposes, without necessarily
proclaiming allegiance to a creed.
THESE examples range from very different kinds of event, and
involve very different groups and individuals, but they share two
principal unifying features: first, that they are events, communal
statements expressed by gesture, movement, action, and their
meanings (tenets) are not apparent, defined, cohesive, or central;
and, second - and this follows from the absence of settled tenets -
they take place regardless of belief in a higher order of reality,
however much they seem to reproduce religious processes.
For both these reasons, the Virgin Mary is increasingly loved
and revered, invoked and depicted well outside the sphere of Roman
Catholic officialdom. From being the figurehead of the long crusade
against Communism, and the emblem of kings and Fascist dictators
from Europe to Central and South America, she is evolving, it seems
to me, into a countercultural peace symbol, closer to the voodoo
goddess Erzulie, or the candomblé (an African-originated
or Afro-Brazilian religion) figure of Iemaja than a traditional
Madonna. It isn't that her myth has died - far from it; but it has
changed with regard to its historic meanings, alliances, and
The sexual, feminist issues, embodied by the Virgin Mary when
she was held up as the ideal of womanhood, have become less
urgently intertwined with her symbolism. By contrast, the larger
ethical questions and their political reverberations - about
relations of Church and State, belonging and dispossession,
justice, equality of means, of women and children's survival, and
stewardship of nature - have crystallised in the traditional figure
of Mary in her aspects as the Mother of Mercy, and advocate and
protectress of the poor. And it is not only the self-professed
faithful who find this Mary an inspiration.
It is a long time since I lost my faith in Mary; a long time
since she was the fulcrum of the scheme of salvation that I then
believed in, alongside Jesus, the chief redeemer. But I find that
the symbolism of mercy and love that her figure has traditionally
expressed has migrated, and now shapes secular imagery and events.
Roman Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolise it,
or control its significance.
This is an edited extract from the new edition of Alone of All Her Sex: The myth and culture of the
Virgin Mary by Marina Warner (OUP 1976, 2013; £25 (CT
Bookshop £22.50 - Use code CT307 );