From Meditations on Mary
Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality. Christian dogma is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery. (Flannery O’Connor)
I am indebted to the writer and sculptor Edward Robinson for pointing out to me that the word “dogmatic” as used today means, ironically, to have abandoned the original spirit of dogma. In the early church, he says, dogma simply meant acceptance, or consensus, what people could agree on. The Greek root from which “dogma” comes means “what seems good, fitting, becoming.” Thus, the word “beauty” might be a more fitting synonym for dogma than what has become its synonym in contemporary English: “doctrine,” or a teaching.
For Christians, dogmas represent what is basically agreed on as the foundation of faith. They are a restatement of the Christian mysteries, and as such, tend not to be foremost in people’s minds when they come to church. Dogmas undergird the faith, and as they constitute the primary content of the creeds, they surface in worship when a creed is read aloud. The most ancient of the creeds that is commonly recited, The Apostles’ Creed, begins, “We believe,” and proceeds to tell the mystery of Jesus’s coming, death, and resurrection remarkably quickly, and in simple language.
Friends who find my religious conversion inexplicable, if not annoying, sometimes ask how it is that I can live with dogma. It’s not that difficult, I tell them, because dogma is not dogmatism, which, in the words of Gregory Wolfe, results when “theological systems become calcified and unreal.” Dogma in this dogmatic sense is peripheral to my concerns. If I do get caught up in fretting over one of the mysteries of the faith that is expressed as a dogma, it’s usually a sign that something else is wrong, something I need to sit with for a while and pray over so that I can see the problem clearly. But when dogma is in its proper place, as beauty, it appeals to my poetic sensibility, rather than to my more linear intelligence. I have a hard time, in fact, separating “dogma” out from the sheer joy of worship. At its best, the sights and sounds of worship, its stories, poems, hymns, and liturgical actions, are beautiful in the sense of “good, fitting, becoming.”
One of my guilty pleasures, for example, is the celebration of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. Presbyterians are not supposed to even notice the Assumption, and the fact that it has become one of my favorite celebrations of the Christian year has little to do with Pope Pius XII’s declaration of the dogma in 1950, and everything to do with my love for the ancient stories, symbols, and metaphors that surround the vigil and the feast. I never had to memorize the Baltimore Catechism on the dogma of the Assumption, and I haven’t yet read what the new catechism has to say. I do know that it became a dogma in the best possible way, because from the earliest days of the church ordinary Christians believed and celebrated it, and finally, after nearly two thousand years, the church responded by making it official. Dogma: what seems right.
Every year I listen attentively to whatever extra-biblical texts are being read at the monastic vigil on the evening before the celebration. Monastic communities choose these readings carefully from the mystical or scholarly Christian tradition, and I may hear anything from John of Damascus or Gregory of Tours to Karl Rahner, the documents of Vatican II, or Pope John Paul II. One of my favorite texts comes from Julian of Norwich, who recounts how Christ had asked her, repeatedly, “Do you want to see her?” He then gives Julian visions of Mary in three guises, as a pregnant young woman, a mother grieving under the cross, and, Julian reports, “as she is now, delightful, glorious, and rejoicing.” I find the lectionary readings at Mass similarly enticing, and the gospel account in Luke of Mary and Elizabeth, both heavily pregnant, greeting and blessing one another, is a scene replete with gladness.
Women have told me that pregnancy, while a powerful expression of the body’s mystery, is also a humbling reminder of one’s dependence on the physical. All of it finds expression in the prayer Mary makes in response to Elizabeth’s blessing, the Magnificat, that has been part of daily Christian liturgy for many centuries. In this great poem, I wonder if it isn’t the upheaval in Mary’s own body that triggers her prophetic understanding of how God acts in the world: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” (Luke 1:52).
I also love to hear, and to ponder, the passage from Revelation that is read every year on the Assumption: “A great portent appeared in Heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, the moon beneath her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth,” (Revelation 12:1-2). The woman faces another portent, a monstrous dragon intent on snatching her child as soon as it is born, a dragon so powerful that its tail sweeps a third of the stars from the sky. Only with God’s protection do the woman and child survive.
This passage always makes me reflect on the mixture of pain and joy and fear that any woman experiences in giving birth, the sense that dragons do indeed lie in wait. Will my child be healthy? Will I be able to raise it? Will the temptations of this world sweep it away, to an early spiritual or physical death? Why must I give birth to a creature who will one day die? As for myself, while I have never faced the vulnerability of giving birth, I have had to face the dragon in other ways. Adult life often seems to me a battle between the forces of life, which would have me admit how much I need to connect to other people, even to the point of being dependent on them, and the forces of death, which would have me disconnect from others in a vainglorious attempt to sustain the illusion of self-sufficiency.
My pleasure in the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven has been greatly enhanced by the experience of hearing a monk who is a physics professor preach on this feast. In his homily he reminded us that while our bodies are indeed made of “star-stuff,” modern cosmology has eliminated any direction called “upward.” He went on to say that Mary’s journey might not be seen as upward so much as inward, a lifelong journey toward the kingdom of God within.
Before I had experienced the celebration of this dogma, I had thought it to be suspiciously escapist and otherworldly. I could not have been more wrong. The Assumption reminds us not to despise this world, even ordinary human flesh, because God has called it good, and found it worthy of Heaven. It is a story about potentialities, specifically the human potential for goodness and even holiness, that we so carelessly and consistently obscure. As for the dogma, it’s in there somewhere, less a matter of what I believe than who I am, someone who has very little difficulty with what Coleridge termed “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It’s in the singing and celebrating, and the homilies, in the stories about how beautiful, how generous and fruitful we are, or can be.