From Hinduism to Orthodoxy: “But what can a virgin know of the sorrows and travail of mankind?”
The quote in the title is from a book I loved as a teenager, The Mists of Avalon [by Marion Zimmer Bradley -ed.]. In it, Morgaine (the legendary Morgan Le Fay) states:
I have no quarrel with the Christ, only with his priests, who call the Great Goddess a demon and deny that she ever held power in this world. At best, they say that her power was of Satan. Or else they clothe her in the blue robe of the Lady of Nazareth – who indeed had power in her way, too – and say that she was ever virgin. But what can a virgin know of the sorrows and travail of mankind?
I was a Hindu then. And I knew nothing about Christ or Christianity – though of course, like everyone else, I thought I understood it all better than the pitiably ignorant Christians themselves. Though this is a fictional novel, I think the ideas encapsulated in this quote really strike a chord with many people – it has certainly lived in my own memory for a long time. It reveals a thought pattern that is widespread enough among real people to be worth noticing.
First, the instinctive urge to flit near or at least pay lip-service to Christ Himself, while assuming that His followers have not preserved His teachings and are at odds with them – the idea that the non-Christian individual in fact has a better understanding of Christ than the members of His Church. I used to be first-rate at this attitude. But that topic is huge and requires a separate post of its own.
Second, very vague claims about a “Great Goddess” and the assumption that because the Theotokos is a woman who has been greatly loved and respected by Christians since ancient times, whose intercessory prayers have been sought ever since, that she simply is a replacement for this “Great Goddess”. As well as the misunderstanding that Christians venerate her virginity. Christians acknowledge the fact of her virginity as a mystery and a sign of the power of God. But she is not venerated for being a virgin, at least not by the Orthodox. She is venerated for being the Theotokos: the God-bearer, the mother of God. Think of how selflessly a mother loves her son, how constantly only a mother can believe in her son – and understand that this most powerful, awesome, unmatchable love was in the heart of Mary for our Lord, Jesus Christ! Not one who rejected Christ or abandoned Him at the cross, she was the woman who accepted the dangers of receiving Him while unwed, protected Him at all costs through His childhood, and stayed by His side to face the world’s praise and hatred unflinchingly through the end. Non-Christians are the ones who are prone to confuse her with a Christian version of a goddess….and yet they claim that she is like our goddess. Another example of the tendency to “know” Christianity better than the Christians themselves.
The fact is, it seems unfathomable to many that Christian veneration is indeed for a flesh-and-blood woman who lived through the joys and sorrows of life among ordinary people, subject to the events and forces of the time – not a goddess. A woman who can relate to us, and to whom we can relate, much more so than if she were a goddess. Her intercessory power does not come from being a deity – it comes simply from the purity of her heart and her love for and closeness to Christ! Her spiritual strength doesn’t come from being divine, it comes from having endured the harshness and sorrows of this fallen world and this fallen life with faith and love. In other words, qualities which we mortals can develop – by taking up our crosses with faith in Christ, not by some incantation or spell. God’s power comes to us from above by His will as He sees fit, it is not conjured up from earthly ingredients by our own manipulations and in accordance with our own private strategies.
When my own mother laid suffering before she died and asked, “Why did this happen to me?”, she didn’t take comfort in the Hindu gods and goddesses, reaching out for some boon of healing by performing the proper pujas. She reached out instead to Christ, who Himself knew what it was to be humiliated, abandoned, unjustly condemned, tortured, and killed in this world. And as a mother, she understood how witnessing this may have hurt His mother far worse than going through it herself.
This leads me to the third misunderstanding: that the Theotokos was somehow a stranger to suffering…again somehow vaguely linked to her virginity. While I can’t speak outside of Orthodoxy, I personally heard a lot more about virginity being a measure of a woman’s worth before I became a non-goddess-worshipping Christian. Anyone who thinks that virginity is the gold standard for holiness needs to read the life of St. Mary of Egypt. For virginity to be claimed to protect one from suffering when so many in the world use sex in order to temporarily escape emotional pain makes no sense. People who believe abstinence is an unrealistic option for teenagers generally say so because they believe it is too difficult. Using mortal, historical Mary’s virginity to shove her out of sight onto the back shelf of social and personal irrelevance, favoring instead a mythical goddess to be encountered in a clearing in the woods….that is just plain crazy. I’m not saying it is crazy for non-Christians to believe in a Mother Goddess or worship her however they would like. But the leap from A to B to C is absurd – and I suspect it is not too uncommon.
As for suffering….I am convinced that the only way one can deny the suffering of the Theotokos is by refusing to look. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, if we look at the iconography we have of the Theotokos we can see how the memory of her sorrow, and the human familiarity of it, has been preserved in her face for centuries.
Anjali Sivan was born and raised Hindu, was an active Bahá’í for five years before finding Christ and being baptized into the Orthodox Church. She is a graduate of Brown University and attends Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland.