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New ways of being sacramental

19 April 2013

The traditional symbolism of Mary now shapes secular events, argues Marina Warner


Memento mori: a "shrine" marks the place where a cyclist, Dan Harris, was killed near the Olympic Park in London last August

Memento mori: a "shrine" marks the place where a cyclist, Dan Harris, was killed near the Olympic Park in London last August

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 tenets.

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 distress.

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 other.

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 of creed.

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 effects.

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 ); 978-0-019-963994-6).

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