My Best Friend, the Blessed Virgin Mary

Was Mary the original riot grrrl?

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My fave goddess is pretty traditional: the Blessed Virgin Mary, the BVM for short. She gets a bad rap—spokesgirl for virginity, poster child for Catholic-boy Madonna/whore mind games—but I think of her as a mystical, pro-choice badass, and one of my best buddies. Even if you're not religious (or even if you're antireligious), her story can be seen as being about trusting yourself, and it's one of the best feisty girl stories of all time.

I first heard about the BVM in church—Baptist church—and to Baptists she is known more simply as the Virgin Mary, although they don't explain to little kids what virgin means.

I was immediately suspicious of her, because everybody knows Catholics worship Mary and thus have a good shot at going to hell. (Those Madonna and Child stamps at Christmas always drew little "hmphs" from my grandmother.) But there she was, right in Luke, chapter 2, so they had to talk about her in church.

My next contact with the BVM and Catholics (I didn't actually meet a Catholic until I was 10—welcome to the South) was in Little Women, where Amy stays with Aunt March and meets her French maid. Now, there are lots of things young Amy could have learned from a French maid, but what she learned about was Catholicism, devotion, and piety.

Thus began my secret preadolescent fantasies about prayers and beads and confession. It seemed to me that Catholics got to be assured over and over again that they were good, and if they weren't good they got to tell someone in secret and then it would be all better. This sounded all right to me, because my chief concern was whether or not I was good enough.

I didn't think too much more about the BVM until I met this awesome Catholic guy (no mind games here, thank you). One night I made him whip out the rosary and give me the lowdown, and when he got to the last two glorious mysteries—Mary is bodily assumed into heaven and Mary is crowned Queen of Heaven—I laughed out loud. "Those aren't in the Bible!" I hooted. "No," he said. "I guess not."

Next came my honeymoon in Italy with this same cute Catholic, where I got completely obsessed with 14th-century paintings of the Anunciation, the scene where an angel comes to ask Mary if she's willing to get knocked up for God (this is the pro-choice part: Mary gets to say yes or no).

In those paintings the question came out of the angel's mouth in arcs of golden words. I was hooked. The paintings were beautiful, and they were intimate—just Mary and her fate having a little chat. I tracked them down everywhere, which wasn't hard. I bought some postcards of the paintings and taped them up with the Frida Kahlo postcards and the Manolo Blahnik ad at my desk back home.

The BVM was brought to the forefront of my mind again in 1993, when Liz Phair sang "Help Me Mary." My squeeze didn't get what Mary was doing in the song, but I knew that Liz's heroine had nowhere else to turn.

Help me Mary, please.
I've lost my home to thieves.
They bully the stereo and drink.
They leave suspicious things in the sink.

Now, any girl worth her salt knows what Liz means. It's that feeling that you've betrayed yourself, that the Wrong Element is in your house and running things. I'd felt that way for a long time, still wondering when and if I'd ever be really good.

The Wrong Element had made me nice and pliant and completely unsure of myself. I thought I was too ugly, too fat, too sarcastic, too selfish, and too immoral to be fit company for anybody. Except the Catholic husband and some cool girlfriends. And, finally, the BVM.

Last summer I got really curious about the BVM, mainly because I felt like she was talking to me (not out loud, thank God). I wanted to learn more about her, and about how Catholics think about her, since they've sort of cornered the market on Mary. Her story's really simple: She risked ostracism to do what she felt (and what God via Gabriel told her) was the right thing to do. It was not the nice thing, the acceptable thing, or the correct thing.

The story of the BVM divorces goodness from niceness forever, which was just what I needed to do at the time, and is probably why she and I started holding all those conversations.

My image of Mary is very personal. Sometimes she's like Marmee from Little Women: She can see into my heart and help me to be true to my own nature. Sometimes she's like Samantha from Bewitched, distracting people who are potential dangers to me, like helping the swervy driver in front of me onto an exit ramp.

Sometimes she's Jackie Onassis, dressed to kill and drawing too much attention, like when she showed up at Lourdes and got Bernadette in big trouble. (If Manolo Blahnik designed something like those rose-feet Mary wore at Lourdes they'd be sold out until the second coming.)

She was a hussy (getting to tell her fiancé she was pregnant before he even got a peek at her), a nag ("Jesus, these people are at a wedding! Whip up some wine!") and a renegade, giving birth in the barn and aiding and abetting her son, an enemy of the government. But best of all, she listened to those golden words and said yes.

When you're busy being nice and docile, like I was, you can't hear anything but whether or not your good behavior is earning you points. If Mary had been a good girl she wouldn't have had the guts to say yes to the golden words. She would have been afraid Joseph would leave her, or that her family would disown her.

To me that's what liberation is all about: giving yourself permission to figure out what your calling is, instead of obeying everyone who wants to decide it for you.

Going for it, I finally decided to become Catholic, but even though I take advantage of the good points —those little medals with clear blue BVMs on them, the priest at my church with a degree in psychology—I figure I don't have to buy the whole package.

I'm not sure the church would have been so interested in me if they knew I was going to stay pro-choice, to champion Mary as an early riot grrrl, to advocate for women priests and birth control, but as the BVM might point out, it takes all kinds.

Since I come from a long line of good girls, martyrs, and rule keepers, I learned only people-pleasing goodness. Catholicism, at least my brand of it, helps with the internal, spiritual BVM kind of goodness that helps girls follow their hearts and turn into amazing women. Into goddesses, even.

From Bust (Spring/Summer 1997).