The expression, cited in my title, got my attention long before I became a Christian, let alone was received into the Roman fold. I found it a rather thrilling assertion, whether or not “true.” The idea that God could have a mother fritzed my little neurons; but it was better than that. For there is a second, Trinitarian punch coming, when the corollary follows, that “Christ is God” — and thus no “prophet” as I was raised to think of Him in my highly secularized milieu. It seemed to me that the Catholics had knocked the wildest Evangelicals into a cocked hat.
This comes back to me, naturally, each year at the Annunciation. From the same milieu, I knew that word as a term of art. Quite literally, an “Annunciation” was a painting of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, to declaim a famous passage from the Gospel of Luke. I was once fairly well-educated, by Canadian standards, I will have you know. I knew that passage from a fairly early age. I’d read my Gideon New Testament, which in those days was distributed to schoolchildren. (If the schools tried that today there’d be trouble.) I had it from both post-Christian parents that one ought to read the Bible, in order to become an “educated person.” This was not the Holy Bible they meant, rather, “the Bible as Literature” — another book, of identical text, but much different meaning. (Borges once wrote a good story about that: “Pierre Menard.”)
“Mother of God.” Well that just takes the cake, my wee mind thought. Having been pupil in a certain Saint Anthony’s School in earlier childhood (the one in Lahore), I was already prepared to accept the proposition that Catholics are, as a species, crazy; though not necessarily crazier than the rest. Indeed, they seemed so naturally to attract persecution (not only in Lahore), that I tended to identify with them. At some point in early adolescence, the notion that those believed most crazy might be the most sane, was consciously formulated.
It took me till fifty to join up, but as God is my witness, I’ve been pro-Catholic all my life; never more so than in a Canadian High School when I was an “evangelical atheist” and a spiky debater. I noticed the school’s few Catholic kids were the butt of much smug, bad humour. I decided, for instance, to defend Humanae Vitae, on purely secular, rational grounds. All my crushes were on Catholic girls; but that was only indirectly because of their religion. Really it was because they wore their hair long, and were not tomboys.
This eccentricity got me inside several Catholic homes, where I saw the statuary. Mother Mary invariably made an appearance, as she did not in nice Protestant families. They had pictures any Protestant would find in bad taste. They had crucifixes with “the little man on them”; which looked as they might drip blood on your shoe. They framed biblical texts in weird translations. They were tribal, largely because they were excluded from respectable society, and their fathers worked in places like the brewery. Their surnames could end in vowels. One might call it an anthropological fascination; I was also partial to Armenians, and Jews.
“Mother of God.” A little girl called Liddy, who informed me that I was going to Hell, because not a Catholic, once used this expression. I found it as enchanting as her pigtails.
The mother of God, and by extension, the mother of everything, as nearly as I could make out. My mind was not ready for the Virgin Birth, the Immaculate Conception. That is for older boys. But these Catholics had things called Rosaries — you know, the beads — and I gathered they addressed prayers to Mother Mary, fifty times.
Now sixty-three, and doing this sort of thing myself, I continue in amazement. The Annunciation seems to me, still, too much to take in. The conception of the universe comes into it.