Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Co-opting the Immaculate Conception

I have spent the past day mulling two interpretations of the Immaculate Conception.

In the Catholic world, which I inhabit body and soul these days, the Immaculate Conception is a beautiful teaching that I embrace. The idea that Mary was conceived free from original sin was an article of popular belief held by Catholics for centuries before Pope Pius IX made it dogma in 1854.

Four years later, in 1858, the Immaculate Conception was validated beautifully, at least to my satisfaction, by the apparitions at Lourdes. The woman appearing to an unlettered shepherd girl said, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” My first visit to Lourdes in 1972 was a deeply convincing experience and became one of the paving stones leading me to the Catholic Church thirty-seven years later, in 2008.

Ironically, I made that first visit to Lourdes with Gulliver, a cradle Catholic and my guru, who offered a dramatically different interpretation of the Immaculate Conception. As I have written, Gulliver had been running a so-called growth center in upstate New York, where I met him in the fall of 1970. When Lilliput went bankrupt, Gulliver announced that it was closing on December 8, 1970. He then explained to me, his newly fledged follower, that this date was “highly seeg-nee-fee-cant.”

“Eet ees the Imma-cu-late Con-cep-tion!” Gulliver said, eyeing me with a dramatic ritardando. This was, he said, a “ve-ry eem-por-tant date in the Cattolic Church”—which Catholics themselves did “noht un-der-stahnd!”

That got my attention. I was a nineteen-year-old lapsed Episcopalian who had left church-going and headed east, searching for a path. My path had led me to Gulliver, who was thirty-eight. He was Catholic, or said he was, and heck, Gulliver just seemed to know.

Gulliver’s “esoteric” system of “development” co-opted the entire Catholic Christian story, reinterpreting it in his own terms. The Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary, even Jesus Christ were only symbols, Gulliver said, of stages on the inner journey of “work on oneself.” Jesus was a symbol of “real I,” my authentic inner self, and the Blessed Virgin stood for “observing I,” and— You really don’t want to know.

For several years afterward, I swallowed Gulliver’s reductive interpretation of Catholic teaching, hook, line, and sinker. Today, I still feel the scars of tearing out that hook. Traces of the thought patterns remain, and they do affect how I see the world. But the hook is out now and it’s not going back down, not in this gullet, not in this lifetime.

In Gulliver’s world view, it didn’t matter whether Christ actually lived or died or (ha ha) was raised from the dead. These were only “stages on the way” of “personal transformation.”

Today, I believe as Flannery O’Connor believed, when she famously said of the Eucharist, “If it’s only a symbol, then to hell with it!”

If all these things are only symbols, then to hell with them! Without the Incarnation, without Jesus Christ man and God—and without his Blessed Mother conceived immaculate—the whole thing falls apart.

I am too far along in the game—and too convinced of the beyond-human beauty of Catholic teaching—to let it fall apart. Not for me. Not today.

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