Monday, August 15, 2011

A Jungian Appreciation of Mary

Our Lady of Fatima, on the grounds of St. Francis Xavier Church, Birmingham, Ala.

Over the centuries, there have been hundreds of claims that Mary, the mother of Jesus, has appeared to offer advice and comfort or to give warning and encouragement. Although there are only eleven Vatican-approved Marian visitations,  Lourdes and Fatima being perhaps the best known, there are even today claims of appearances from the Blessed Virgin. She has supposedly been seen by visionaries in Medjugorje, and images have been seen in windows, on walls, and on food items such as toast and macaroni & cheese. There is even a site down Highway 280, just south of Birmingham, Alabama, where thousands gathered after one of the Medjugorje visionaries reported Mary’s appearance to her when she was in town for medical treatment.

Growing up in the rural South, I experienced my share of anti-Catholic bias. Although the Catholic view of Mary is a stumbling block to many Protestants, it became one of my greatest attractions as a convert.  I should add that it took years to get there, and it was not dogma or theology that opened up the path. Instead, it was an understanding of myth and archetype. Years ago I was amazed and intrigued when I read in Carl Jung’s book, Answer to Job, that he considered the dogma of the Assumption of Mary to be the most important religious event since the Reformation. The Assumption of Mary was not proclaimed as official church dogma until 1950, but Jung saw it as something that the populace had been aware of for over a thousand years. Carl Jung, the influential Swiss thinker and pioneer in the field of psychiatry, had a lot to say about how archetypes speak to us in old stories that endure from age to age.  He also developed the concept of the collective unconscious, in which these universal archetypes speak to the human condition. He thought that understanding these archetypes could help us to understand our own interior lives. In reference to the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, he said::

 “But anyone who has followed with attention the visions of Mary which have been increasing in number over the last few decades, and has taken their psychological significance into account, might have known what was brewing. The fact, especially, that it was largely children who had the visions might have given pause for thought, for in such cases, the collective unconscious is always at work ...One could have known for a long time that there was a deep longing in the masses for an intercessor and mediatrix who would at last take her place alongside the Holy Trinity and be received as the 'Queen of heaven and Bride at the heavenly court.' For more than a thousand years it has been taken for granted that the Mother of God dwelt there.” (1)

It is undeniable that Marian visions occur. Rather than ask if they are factual, I think it is more important to ask why these visions are needed. I agree with Jung that we need the influence of the feminine archetype to have a balanced life. For Protestants who question this, think about 19th century American Protestantism. It was the most anti-Marian expression of Christianity known up to that time. Jesus was primary, and what did 19th century Protestants do to Jesus? They made him highly feminized, made him meek and mild, even gave him long hair and a dress! (2)  Some of the artistic portrayals of Jesus show him in flowing robes with arms outstretched – exactly the same posture that previous artists had traditionally given to Mary. This is just one example of how the feminine archetype will make itself known, even when a society tries to push it aside.

When I read about some of the Marian visions that have occurred in the past, often the message from Mary was to build a church in her honor and to promote the praying of the rosary. My own thoughts are that if this were the actual historical Mary appearing, such requests would be completely out of character – to dedicate a church in her honor? However, if that vision is an expression of the feminine archetype, it makes perfect sense. It is correcting a heavily masculine society, bringing balance by restoring feminine qualities and bringing the feminine archetype to mind (often Marian visions occur during wartime, or just before war breaks out, when the masculine war machine is at work destroying).

In the Lady Chapel
at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church
 Birmingham, Ala.
Let me also share a personal testimonial. Although my wife and I are now practicing Catholics, last year we began going back to the Episcopal Church where we met. We heard that the church was in a rough spot so we began going back to lend moral and financial support. We would usually go there about three Sundays a month and would attend our Catholic parish once a month. On this particular Sunday, I felt personally inclined to meditate on Mary. As we entered St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, I was glad to find seating that was in line with the Lady Chapel, with Mary in full view. In my private prayers I prayed the Hail Mary (not a typical devotion in the Episcopal Church, though the Lady Chapel is an old Anglican tradition). After church as we were going home talking about the service, I discovered that my wife had also had Mary on her mind that morning and had spent some time much as I had done, to acknowledge the blessed Mother. Later that day, we both felt like going to the evening Mass at our Catholic Church. When we arrived, we were quite surprised to find that that particular Sunday (August 15) was the feast of the Assumption of Mary!  We enjoyed a full service giving special remembrance and honor to her. 

All of this is to say that while I am often skeptical of a lot of the Catholic lore – I don’t believe the bit about Mary’s perpetual virginity (I see no need for it) and have no use for the concept of Immaculate Conception (I see no need for it) – I do recognize the need to allow the feminine archetype into our consciousness, into our worship space, and into our society.

Our Lady of Guadalupe
St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church
Birmingham, Ala.

Black Madonna of Czestochowa
St. Simeon's Orthodox Church
Birmingham, Ala.

Stained glass window at
St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church


1. C.G. Jung.  Answer to Job, trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp 99 -100.
2.  Cf. Stephen Prothero.  American Jesus, New York, Ferrar, Straus, and Giroux, pp.59 - 61.

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  1. A very interesting post. I know very little about Catholicism and probably less about Jung, but I did read a fascinating book about mythology by Joseph Campbell that was fascinating.
    Thanks for dropping by my blog today.
    Also, thanks for the tip about the place where Medjugorje saw the vision. Do you know if 280 Living did a story on that?

  2. I don't know about 280 Living, I do remember the Birmingham News covering it at the time (which is the source of the article I linked to in my post).

  3. Here is another take on Mary from a woman's point-of-view: Kirkepiscatoid: Finding Mary at

  4. Thanks for the shout-out on my blog post. I think Jung's thoughts about the feminine archetype are spot on. The fact is, "there's something about Mary," and what I am discovering in the more progressive parts of the Episcopal church, we are looking to her more as a guide for maneuvering this archetype. We didn't quite push her away as far as the Protestants on the European continent, but we sort of kept her around, not knowing what to do with her. As we start understanding more of the archetype, I think we will continue to evolve to a place with her differently. Not quite the RC version, but perhaps simultaneously a new and an old place.

    I know for me, it is Mary as Theotokos that connects most strongly with me. Thanks for all your thoughts!

  5. As usual, your words are powerful and moving. Thanks for reminding us that our wonderful creator created male & female and both are in his image and both are aspects of his nature. Keep being a beacon of light my brother.

    1. Thanks, Hal -- I appreciate your comments.

  6. Charles, thank you for this thoughtful essay. I was writing something about Marian visions and wanted to make the point about Jung and the Assumption of Mary, but couldn't recall which of Jung's book I'd read it in. So I googled it and somehow landed in your post. The archetypal character of these visions seem, as you suggest,about the hypermasculinity of the Abrahamic religions. By the way, the Lady is in the Koran more than in the Christian bible. Some years ago I got to know an American who witnessed the Mary apparitions in Zeitun. An Amazing story. I met a priest on a plane once who came back from Medjugorge and swore his rosary beads changed color. Thanks again for the post.

    1. So glad you landed here, Michael! Thanks for the comments. I'll have to go back and read about Our Lady of Zeitoun.


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