‘Alone of all her sex’ (Warner)

by Jul 18, 2020Lourdes, Reviews

I went to Lourdes on pilgrimage for the first time in 1972 at the age of 17. I saw a lot, got involved a lot and understood very little so when Marina Warner’s book Alone of All her Sex was published in 1976 I read it from cover to cover

By 1978, going through my own personal crisis, I lost my faith and interest in the Church and Our Lady and the book sat in my bookcase, a little battered and sun-bleached, where it has remained unopened – until now.

Reviving faith, deepening undersatanding

By the mid-2000’s my faith and interest were returning and since 2014 I have been to Lourdes nine times, six with the Ampleforth Lourdes Hospitalité and three times as a Stagiaire. Our pilgrimage this July was fulfilling hard work as usual, comprising long days spent with our sick and long nights in the bars in deep conversation with fellow pilgrims. However, this year I felt less pressured, more at home and able to take much more notice of the Marian experience.

Faith, vulnerability, companionship, healing, the role of Our Lady in Jesus’s life, especially on his journey to his crucifixion which a small group of us retraced at the High Stations of the Cross, the powerful kiss of peace celebrated by the 20,000 strong congregation at the International mass on Sunday, the singing of the Salve Regina at the end of the Marian Torchlight Procession or our own sung Compline at the end of the day, the baths, the late night trips to the Grotto to join the silence and the deep faith of those who may spend much of the night in prayer there. All these things became more meaningful to me this time, leading to a more inquisitive approach to what is going on.

This year I avoid the stressful pilgrimage return flight to Stansted and travel back to Yorkshire alone by train, which allows me rare time for reflection. I have a deep need to know more, to understand more and I remember Warner’s book. I purchase the Kindle edition on the TGV travelling to Paris and start to read it. Given my tiredness, deep emotion and need to explore every unknown word or event Warner writes about, I only get as far as reading her 2012 Preface to the new edition during my journey. However, even this is enough to deepen my understanding and to begin to explain what has happened during the last week.

Changing roles

A theme of this important book seems to be the different and changing roles of Our Lady, often in response to those pressures of modern life. And whilst some may find that a difficult concept, I see it as adding hugely to the power of Our Lady. Two of the roles Warner describes seem to be fully present in Lourdes.

It comes as no surprise that Warner connects her experience at Trang Bang in 1972 to her exploration of the cult of the Virgin Mary.  In Lourdes, we constantly see the connection between suffering and Our Lady. Indeed, we are occasionally joined by wounded members of the armed forces or pilgrims disabled by the violence of others (see Sacred Journeys). So Warner’s description of the Madonna’s message as being on the side of pilgrims to help them as they are buffeted by change and the pressures of modernity rings absolutely true. And indeed as all of us, sick and well alike, come to Lourdes to find healing and meaning, her description of Mary as ‘protectress of the wretched, the guardian of sinners and prodigals’ could not be more appropriate.

And a countercultural peace symbol? Peace, certainly. We know Our Lady as the Queen of Peace. The theme of peace is ever present in our pilgrimage. Twenty thousand strangers offering ‘peace be with you’ to each other with truly generous handshakes and hugs at the international mass or at the end of the Marian Torchlight Procession touches the heart and invokes a powerful gift to take back home.

A countercultural peace symbol

Countercultural? I think certainly and in more ways than one. Warner offers Pussy Riot as an example. I offer Florence Welch’s album ‘How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful’, which includes her song ‘Queen of Peace’ and which seems to me to contain elements of Marianology (as much of the rest of the album seems to have undertows of Christianity behind it). But where is the counterculture these days. Since Warner wrote her preface to the second edition in 2012 it seems to me that Western religion and faith has become ostracised. That is partly due to the Church’s involvement in child sexual abuse scandals. It is also, I suspect, due to the onward march of materialism and rationalism and their increasing popularity over spirituality.  People with faith are seen as strange, different. Perhaps it is we at Lourdes who are now the counterculture, in which case Warner’s description of Mary as a countercultural peace symbol is spot on.

Lourdes, with its daily rituals of congregations and processions unites different cultural and linguistic approaches to Catholicism. To this end Lourdes does display a ‘religion of the spirit, grounded in events’. However, I don’t believe this is at the expense of religious tenets, as Warner argues. It is interesting to note the comparison between the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana and ceremonies at Lourdes. Diana’s death certainly gave rise to genuine and deep emotions, not least shock and sorrow which could not to be dismissed out of hand. Her funeral had the power to unite a country, even the world, for a short time. But with no underlying tenets, the experience faded quite quickly.

The processions at Lourdes bear similarities, not least the raw emotion and the feeling of being part of something extraordinary. But I believe Lourdes continues because of its underlying tenets, not in spite of them, and it is these tenets that make Lourdes ‘the most phenomenal sacred site of modern Christendom’.

The Church and the role of women

As I re-read Alone of All her Sex (and Ruth Harris’s Lourdes) I become more aware of the impact of the Church’s influence on the place of women in society. I will not deny that my feelings about the Church remain conflicted. On the one hand its tenets of spirituality, love, compassion and help for the disadvantaged (the Beatitudes and the Mercies) seem to me to be more important than ever in this time of egotism, materialism and self-centredness; our annual pilgrimage to Lourdes is our opportunity to immerse ourselves in this message and Our Lady’s role here, and to take it back home with us on our return. However, the influence of the church and the cult of the Virgin on women that Warner describe so well (and which Harris also addresses from a slightly different viewpoint), as well as the child sexual abuse scandal, takes the edge of the shiny side of the coin.

I thoroughly recommend reading Alone of All her Sex. Take time to explore the many tributaries that flow into the book. For people such as myself, trying to find a way through the puzzle of life, death and faith, it is a huge help and from now on will always remain downloaded on my Kindle.

(This post first published in July 2019 and updated in July 2020)

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