Mary and the work of Salvation. A personal retrieval

Mary and the work of Salvation. A personal retrievalBernadette Broderick

In this article, Bernadette Broderick discusses her experience of taking the role of Mary in an ecumenical Passion Play. The subsequent realisation of the critical role Mary plays in the work of Salvation is considered from a spiritual and psychological perspective. Bernadette is a counsellor with 20 years' experience working in the NHS, prison, schools and charitable organisations. She writes as part of the Dympna Circle. The Circle consists of three women therapists who combine spiritual and therapeutic practice

I had difficulties understanding Mary's role from childhood. The way she was presented to me seemed to suggest she was more of an interloper, a distraction, rather than a gateway to Christ. The crunch came when a teacher at school told me that if I were to garner Mary's favour in life, she would wrap me in her skirts at the moment of death and smuggle me into heaven by the back door. There she would hide me forever, unbeknownst to God. This notion affronted me. 'What was the point,' I thought, 'of being in heaven and hiding?' I decided then at that early age that Mary and I had to part company. I was going to take my chances and knock on heaven's front door!

So more than four decades on, it was an unsettling experience to find myself volunteering to take the part of Mary in an ecumenical Passion Play. The choice wasn't taken from any spiritual motive. As I had never acted before, I reckoned I was best opting for the non-speaking part.

But at that first meeting with all the other apprehensive volunteers, I became intrigued. The director insisted that we were not to be actors in a play but prayers in a prayer. In this context, she encouraged us " or was she warning us? " to be prepared for a real and personal encounter with the Divine. I was gripped. Perhaps I was being offered the opportunity for something more personal, a spiritual development that I had not anticipated. I decided to wait to see if God's personal intention for me would make itself known. Working as a counsellor, this was not such an alien stance for me to take. Counselling is about accompanying, waiting and allowing events and knowings to unfold in their own time. So it was an easy transition for me to become the Stabat Mater, the mother who stands 'pondering all things in her heart', watching as the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday were played out before me.

The liturgy began with all the players per- forming a forward wave of movement to symbolically lay all human misery, guilt and sin onto the shoulders of Christ. At the time, I was working as a counsellor in a local prison and daily encountered the pain, distress, confusion and hurt that is part and parcel of human relationships, particularly for those on the very margins of society. I determined to bring all these emotions " along with the shame, anger, rejection and powerlessness of the prisoners " and to transfer them in spirit onto the shoulders of Christ. I wanted to align mine and the prisoners' experiences with Christ's prison experience of brutality, condemnation and social isolation in his last hours on earth. In this way, I presumed to hope that my counselling work would in some way be rewarded with blessings and grace. This proved to be just the initial, ego- powered impetus for what was to follow.

Taking my place in the role of Mary at the foot of the cross, I wondered 'How could any human being, let alone a mother, stand silently and watch such violence against a loved one? What was she thinking as she stood there?' As a mother myself, I could not come up with any answer. Then more frighteningly, I began to look at my own part in this process and again I wondered 'How can I bear to think that my sins are the direct cause of such savagery against another body?' The thought made me recoil in horror and confusion. Far from Jesus's death being a wonderful, loving act of forgiveness, generosity and redemption, it seemed to be punitive and reproachful out of all proportion. It was a realisation that made me men- tally turn and flee, producing distance and separation rather than closeness and relationship. Perhaps this initial horror and guilt was how Judas had felt? In this fog of shock, I had to force myself to stay physically and psychologically present. And as I stayed, a new and, I believe, God-given integration began to slowly and gently unfold for me as the liturgical experience and my profession- al understanding began to link together.

Bion's1 understanding of the dynamics of relationship is key to my practice as a counsellor. From watching mothers feeding their babies, Bion conceives the notion of the Container and the Contained. In this process, the nursing couple (mother and baby) develop in a mutual relationship of acceptance and trust. It requires both mother and baby to be active and responsive in the relationship. The mother has to offer the breast (the contained), the baby has to accept the nipple into his mouth (the container) and suckle. The feeding experience then becomes an immensely bonding experience for both. Bion takes this concept a stage further to pro- pose a parallel psychological process. When the baby experiences unmanageable aspects of himself " fear, distress, greed, destructiveness " he pushes them out of himself and into his mother's psyche for her to contain. The mother will respond to these emotions in one of three ways. A rigid mother will defend her- self by rejecting the emotional impact of her baby and will deal with him in a detached and dutiful manner, changing his nappy, rocking the pram etc. The frightening emotions stay within the baby unprocessed and distorted, with the message that he is unmanageable and unacceptable. He has not been truly heard or contained. This leaves the baby psychologically alone with a 'nameless dread' about himself and his safety in the world. A fragile mother will take in her child's emotions but is too affected by them and so panics or goes to pieces. The baby is left with the experience of being uncontainable and destructive. However, a sensitive mother will respond to her baby's distress by readily accepting and experiencing within herself his emotions, allowing herself to be affected but not overwhelmed by them. Instead she responds by containing the emotions within herself until they are processed and neutralised and then feeds them back to her baby. This process is mirrored in the way a developing world mother will first chew food herself to break down the complicated structures before feeding it to her baby in a state his digestion can manage. This receiving back of the emotions is vital for the child's psychological growth and integration. In receiving them back, he becomes the Container for his own emotions, whilst also receiving the added experience of himself as being accept- able, loveable and heard. In this circular process, the mother and baby give mutual satisfaction and fulfillment to one another. Any mother who has settled her fretful baby will testify to the experience of strengthening relationship as she holds her contented child. This primary experience of being the Container and the Contained sets a template for our expectations in our adult relationships.

With this insight, I began to experience Mary's silent stand by the cross as far from a passive response. In her maternal role, I recognised her powerful attachment to her son. For my part, I felt unable to take my eyes off the Christ-actor, to break the link, even for a moment. It felt like a shadow of her almighty attempt to lessen his burden by drawing into herself his terror and dis- tress for neutralising and containing. Mary's stand by the cross with her son was a crucial role in the work of Salvation.

Through this insight into the very human relationship between Mary and Jesus, I began to recognise parallels in my soul's relationship with the divine nature of Christ. I saw Christ crucified as being the Contain- er Mother, the Christ-Mother for me. He does not react to my sin as a rigid mother, treating me with distance and legalistic justice. Neither does he behave as a fragile mother, collapsing under the weight, although indeed, the physical humanity of Jesus was overwhelmed and broken.

Rather, I experienced Christ as a sensitive mother " feeling, responding, but not reacting to what I projected into him. In his divine nature, he returned the neutralised, non-destructive Contained into me in a manageable, non-harming form. He allowed me to contain for myself difficult aspects of my own character, allowing for my growth and integration. In accepting back my own self, I also took in his love, understanding and forgiveness. In this circular process, the relationship between myself and God became stronger and more satisfying.

With this insight, I was allowed to glimpse Mary's role in the Salvation of mankind. She is the personification of the dynamic power of God in his relationships with us all. With his great courageous act of love on the cross, Christ absorbs into himself our sin and misery, neutralizing it within his own body before feeding it back to us as Eucharist for our physical, psychological and spiritual health and growth. We offer the bread and wine and receive back the creator of all life. Transformation indeed! And as the opening liturgy suggested, we are all invited to play our part in this great act of love and reconciliation. We need to be active and willing partners in this cyclical process, we need to make this conscious choice to allow God to become Mother-Christ to us. With this choice, we can grow in relationship with him; without it, we are impoverished, cut off and terrified by our own existence.

'For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.' 2