Tina Beattie

Our Lord, no one knows how to address Your mother. [If] one calls her "virgin," her child stands up, and "married" -no one knew her [sexually]. But if Your mother is incomprehensible, who is capable of [comprehending] you? (Ephrem the Syrian 1989: 131)

"She" is indefinitely other in herself. This is doubtless why she is said to be whimsical, incomprehensible, agitated, capricious. . . not to mention her language, in which "she" sets off in all directions leaving "him" unable to discern the coherence of any meaning. Hers are contradictory words, somewhat mad from the standpoint of reason, inaudible for whoever listens to them with ready-made grids, with a fully elaborated code in hand. (Irigaray 1985b: 28-9)

Now the apostles were in the place Chritir with Mary. And Bartholomew came to Peter and Andrew and John, and said to them: Let us ask Mary, her who is highly favoured, how she conceived the incomprehensible or how she carried him who cannot be carried or how she bore so much greatness. . . . But Mary answered: Do not ask me concerning this mystery. If I begin to tell you, fire will come out of my mouth and consume the whole earth. (Gospel of Bartholomew 2.1-15; Hennecke 1963: 492)

There is a riddle which describes a man looking at a photograph and saying, "Brothers and sisters have I none, but that man's father is my father's son." Whose photograph is he looking at? The logical answer is that he is looking at a photograph of his son. The difference between that riddle and family relationships between Mary and the Trinity is that the latter remain resistant to logic no matter how hard one tries to work them out. The fourth-century hymns and meditations of Ephrem the Syrian are a rich resource for these devotional riddles. Ephrem imagines Mary saying to Christ:

Shall I call You Son?

Shall I call You Brother? Shall I call You Bridegroom?

Shall I call You Lord, O [You] Who brought forth his mother

[in] another birth out of the water?

"For I am [Your] sister from the house of David, who is a second father. Again, I am mother because of Your conception, and bride am I because of your chastity. Handmaid and daughter of blood and water [am I] whom you redeemed and baptised." (Hymn 16.9-10; Ephrem the Syrian 1989: 150)

In this chapter, I argue that such paradoxical language has the power to lead the believer away from the demands of rationality into the poetics of devotion and prayer, through the expression of forbidden desire. Psychoanalysis provides a resource by which theology might bridge the gulf between the relatively sober language of Marian doctrine and the often unrestrained excess of Marian devotion, reintegrating the two in a holistic encounter between Christian belief and praxis. However, this entails rediscovering a sense of wonder concerning Mary's role within the mystery of the incarnation, a mystery which celebrates the patristic insight that "He is the good Word of the good Father, and it is he who has established the order of all things, reconciling opposites and from them forming a single harmony" (Athanasius 1974: 398-9). It is this reconciliation of opposites and harmonious reintegration of difference which constitutes the incomprehensibility of the incarnation from the perspective of human reason.

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