Faith and Reason: A 'woman-soul' of the human psyche: In the final article in our series on Catholicism and feminism, Peter Mullen argues that the cult of Our Lady is too much part of Western spirituality and civilisation to be discarded.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE RELIGIOUS significance of the Virgin Mary greatly exceeds the historical place given to her in the New Testament where, if the expression be not too irreverent, she plays only a short series of cameo roles. Nevertheless, Mary the mother of Jesus is close to her son in the decisive moments of his life and ministry. Mary 'seeks him sorrowing' when the boy Jesus stays behind in the temple at Jerusalem talking with the elders and asking them questions. She tells him the wine has run out at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Stabat Mater Dolorosa, she is by his cross; and she is one of the early witnesses of the Resurrection.

Out of these short narratives the Catholic Church has imaginatively created a feminine character of such spiritual power that Christian paintings frequently portray her on the same level as the Holy Trinity. And in 1950, in the encyclical Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII proclaimed her bodily assumption into heaven as an article of faith. The dogma of the Assumption was not an onerous duty of belief foisted on to an unwilling laity by a Magisterium given to superstition and triumphalism; it had been one of the most popular 'pious beliefs' among the people in Catholic Christendom for more than a thousand years.

There are those, including some modernists and feminists, who would do away with the doctrine of the Assumption because they regard it as a barrier to reasonable belief or as a masculine perversion of the psycho-sexual role of women - even as a male fantasy. The full- blown cult of the Virgin Mary may well be a fantasy, but perhaps it is no worse for that. A fantasy is a thing produced by the imagination; and religious expression, like every other sort of expression, requires imagination. If religious objects are ineffable and transcendent - and it would be idolatrous to worship them if they were not - then they require imaginative representation if their reality is to be communicated at all.

Because it has persisted for more than a millennium, we can be sure that the image and cult of the Virgin Mary arises out of acts of creative imagination which are deeply rooted in the human psyche. Something so long and so deeply established cannot be done away with without provoking a psychological and spiritual hiatus. Moreover, we are not in any position to discard the cult of Mary: it is so much part of the spiritual, intellectual and artistic culture of our civilisation. If in our fits of modernity we are to suppose that this culture has been somehow in the wrong these thousand years, on the basis of what is it proposed to put it right? Wittgenstein said, 'Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and what will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life.'

So what, we may ask, is taking place in the interior life of human beings which finds natural expression in the cult of Mary and in the highest significance accorded to her by the doctrine of the Assumption? C. G. Jung was in no doubt: he claimed that psychologically we are androgynous and specifically that the male psyche has an unconscious feminine aspect, the Anima. This Anima finds objective expression in Western spirituality in devotion to Mary.

Some are inclined to dismiss Jung's explanation as fanciful but they should look more closely at the evidence before they do so. 'The Anima' may be a piece of jargon invented by Jung but the psychological reality to which it refers can be observed throughout Western culture. The Anima is personified in the goddesses and fates of Greek legend. She is Goethe's 'Ewig-Weibliche', the 'Endless Woman-Soul' who is the principal character in the whole Romantic Movement in art and literature. She is 'She' in Rider Haggard's novel of that name. As Jung pointed out, human beings are morally ambivalent and the Anima also has her dark side where she is the witch, the temptress and the femme fatale.

Of course this is all very politically incorrect. But there is nothing we can do about the fact instantly. Jung was not prescribing a spirituality as it ought to be in some perfectly adjusted non-sexist universe; he was describing how things actually are and how they have been in Western culture these 2,000 years and more.

Moreover, the woman carries within herself her unconscious masculinity, the Animus. He is represented in literature as the romantic hero; and has his dark side in the Byronesque figure, in Heathcliffe and Mr Rochester - even in the sexual predator Count Dracula.

Just as the highest elevation of the feminine in the male psyche is the Virgin Mary, so the noblest idealisation of the Animus in women is the figure of Christ himself. By looking carefully at our artistic and cultural representations of the Anima-Animus, we can come to insight about our inner life, our psychological make up, our spirituality.

Some feminists reject the Jungian analysis of the cult of Mary as representing everything that is wrong with the way women have been traditionally regarded. To which it must be replied that we cannot alter history, not even the history of the Western psyche.

Modern feminism may be regarded as a new insight but it will take time for this insight to be translated into altered representations of the feminine - as Jung would say, for there to be modifications made to the archetype of the Anima. Instant attempts to effect revolutionary changes in cultural, psychological understanding are certain to end only in dissociation and loss.