FATHER FRANK’S RANTS
Rant Number 313 29 July 2008
Spain, March 1522. A pilgrim, a former knight called Inigo, is on his way to pray at the shrine of Our Lady of Aranzaru. As he rides along, a Moor on a mule comes up to him, so they go on talking together. The Blessed Virgin interests the Muslim – more verses speak of her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament and the Book attests to Mary’s virginity. Nonetheless the Moor avers, contrary to Catholic belief: ‘I cannot see how she could have remained a virgin after giving birth.’ Despite proffering sundry reasons, the pilgrim fails to budge him. After that, the fellow rides on away.
Inigo wrestles with his emotions. Anger, especially: ‘I have allowed the Moor to besmirch the name of my Lady. How could I? I have failed in my duty!’ Natural feelings for a knight whose code includes defending the honour of his damsel. A strong desire seizes him to go after the Moor and teach him a lesson. Yet, a Christian pilgrim recoils from violence. After inner struggle, he decides: ‘I will let my mule go with the reins slack as far as the place where the road separated to a fork and the blasphemer took the left side. If the mule goes in that direction, I will pursue him and stab him. If not, I’ll let him be.’ Well, though the left side of the road was broad and good, the mule goes the other, narrower way. Alhamdulillah!
The pilgrim was St Ignatius of Loyola. The Church of England lectionary commemorates him on 31 July. Pretty amazing, considering how for centuries his name made Protestants shudder. Because he founded one of the most militant Catholic religious orders, the Jesuits. Whose motto is Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam: ‘All the greatest glory of God’. Indeed, to the end of his life Ignatius saw himself as a being chosen by God for a purpose - the salvation of souls. It is fitting that, at the start of the Pilgrim’s mission, God’s finger should save him from committing murder. Maybe the Virgin Mary interceded for him. What an awful insult to the Blessed Mother of Christ, if her name had given cause for the shedding of innocent blood. She who at the foot of the Cross still prayed for the sinners who were torturing her Son.
The priest must confess to a personal illumination. Chatting with my young Iranian friend E. on Friday, I noticed he was wearing a neck chain. As he is a Shia Muslim, I naturally assumed it had some Islamic emblem. And so it was: Maryam. A small medal showing the Virgin Mary. Shown cradling the baby Jesus. Maybe I shouldn’t but, yes, I was stunned. Devoured by curiosity, I asked: ‘Why do you wear this!?!’ All that E. could tell me was that it was a present from his grandmother. Wonderful.
All right. Pointless to pretend. Muslims do not draw from Mary’s virgin status the same theological conclusions Christians do. The miracle of the Virgin Birth does not for them point to Jesus’ divinity. If it did, Christianity and Islam would not be two faiths but one. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Just imagine the chagrin, nay, the fear and loathing of secularists. I’d enjoy that hugely.) I recall some Spanish priest years back suggested exactly that. He called his fantasy ‘Chrislam’. Mad as a hatter, I guess.
Still, attempts to build on Mary’s place in both Scriptures exist. When I was chaplain in Turkey, I would visit Maryam Evi. Mary’s House. A tiny shrine near Selchuk, an insignificant little village near the ruins of ancient Ephesus. A tradition has it that it was Mary’s last earthly habitation. A conjecture partly based on the Gospel of St John. ‘Behold your mother!’ Jesus tells the beloved apostle. ‘And that from that hour the disciple took her to his own home’, the Gospel notes (St John 19:27). As St John after the Resurrection went on to become Ephesus’ first bishop, he must have lived somewhere there, no? And if Mary was with him, she too would have lived somewhere there…geddit?
Mary’s House is looked after by Franciscans and local Muslim people alike. A steady stream of pilgrims and tourists testifies to its reputation. It is a quiet, peaceful spot. Whether it means more than that, only time will tell. The Turkish secret police closely monitors, and keeps an iron grip on any religious manifestation. So, should Mary’s House result in mass fervour, it might worry them a bit – which would please me very much.
Could the Virgin Mary ever be a closer common ground, a symbol of real collaboration between the two religions? I’ll spare you interfaith platitudes. Rather, I’d leave it to Mary herself. To her powers of intercession. Something after the fashion of the stupendous legend Dostoevsky recounts in Brothers Karamazov. (Readers accuse me of quoting him incessantly. It’s because I like him!) The story of Our Lady’s Journeys through Hell. While she travels through the dismal underground kingdom, the doleful souls implore her to ask God to grant them a short respite from their sufferings. Naturally, Mary is soft-hearted. And so she begs God to be compassionate. But the Father remains severe. And he shows the mother her crucified son’s wounds. ‘Look at that! They did it to your son. The sinners now in Hell. It is their work. How can you ask me to grant them respite from their just punishment?’ Whereupon the mother of Jesus asks all the angels, the archangels, the saints, all the company of Heaven to fall down on their knees along with her and beg God to relent. Until, moved, the Father does concede the lost souls a short relief from their agony.
Totally unorthodox a tale, I know. Still, Mary’s role as intercessor makes sense. The mother of the Messiah plays a huge role in Eastern and Western Christian spirituality and that’s a fact. If the great Russian writer could get the Virgin to intervene on behalf of the damned, this humble Italian priest surely can lobby her to pray for a Muslim-Christian rapprochement.
Don’t get scared, it’s not as if I wanted Mary to be patron of a Cross and Crescent Axis, is it?
Or maybe it is…
Revd Frank Julian Gelli