May 2011By Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.
Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary. By Francis X. Clooney, S.J.. Oxford University Press. 264 pages. $54.95.
While attending a Catholic Record Society conference in England a while back, I came across Francis X. Clooneys book Divine Mother, Blessed Mother among those Oxford University Press had put on display. I skimmed a few pages and surmised that it might be the fruit of anti-Marian feminism grafted onto anti-missionary ecumenism. I was wrong. Its even worse. Its an invitation to apostasy.
In the preface, Clooney, a Jesuit priest, recalls that he first visited a goddess temple at age 23, in 1973. He has studied Hinduism for thirty years and has taught comparative theology at Boston College since 1984. In Divine Mother, Blessed Mother, he takes three hymns addressed to three Hindu goddesses and contrasts them with three hymns addressed to Our Lady, in order to teach us what it means to worship a goddess. He is writing, he says, with feminist scholarship as his guiding frame, to contribute to the rectifying of gender imbalances. No surprise, then, that his tome is dedicated to women who are silenced and ignored, especially in the Catholic Church.
In the first chapter, Clooney warns that when God is named and imaged as traditionally conceived in Christianity i.e., as Father and Son our understanding of the divine is truncated, and women feel marginalized. Note that he uses the words named, imaged, and conceived to imply that the first articles of our Creed are man-made, not divinely revealed. He urges us to reconsider these traditions in the light of Hinduisms sophisticated use of goddess-language, though he concedes that its no small matter to recommend that Christian theologians take Hindu goddesses seriously and study these goddess hymns with theological care. Indeed. Emperor Julian the Apostate tried in vain to revive such goddesses in the mid-fourth century, but after the arrival of Christianity in Europe, these idols were as dead as doornails.
Just as pro-abortion Catholics insist that they only favor choice, so Clooney repeatedly insists that he is only offering us the choice of addressing Hindu goddesses face to face. After weve studied the intelligent, persuasive religious documents he provides, we then can choose whether or not to address Sri, Devi, and Apirami directly by the words of these hymns, and decide whether to approach them in prayer and worship. Clearly, the Jesuit professor is undeterred by the solemn warning of the First Commandment, and untroubled by the prudent fear of inviting demons into our lives.
Fr. Clooney urges his readers not to take these goddesses as symbolic, or facets of a higher reality, but rather to approach them as real persons in order to give goddess-language its concrete, material reference. He imagines that women today will find it liberating to affirm a wholly Other Goddess; the tremendum of whose real will for change would underwrite the religious feminist struggle. Think about that for a minute women demanding to be Catholic priests while invoking Hindu goddesses as real persons underwriting their struggle!
Among the feminists whom Fr. Clooney cites with approval are Julia Kristeva and Sr. Elizabeth Johnson. (Kristeva is infamous, at least in my book, for having ranked the works of the pornographer Marquis de Sade on the same level as those of Shakespeare.) Clooney thinks Kristeva is right on target when she calls Mary deracinated and no person, no human, for she rightly sees that the whole affair of Mary has to be demolished and rewritten. Here again the implication is that our religion is man-made and thus can be remade at will. He also approves of Sr. Johnson whittling Our Lady down to her size in Truly Our Sister [reviewed by this writer in the Jan. 2005 NOR Ed.] and reassigning her greatest attributes to the Holy Spirit, so that God may be represented by female symbols.
Fr. Clooney promises to be brief in his comments on the three Marian hymns he pairs with three Hindu hymns because these Catholic hymns are portals by which to enter those other, goddess worlds. In other words, he intends to use Our Lady as a stepping stone into the cult of his imaginary goddesses. After this introduction, Fr. Clooney gives us the six hymns in translation. In the three Hindu hymns we find the goddesses Sri, Devi, and Apirami all praised for their great power and superiority over their male consorts. Ah, but its a power based on eroticism. And then there are those rather off-putting serpents in each hymn, none of them under a ladys foot. Au contraire: In the first hymn, from the twelfth century, the lover of the goddess Sri is resting on the serpent called Endless Pleasure in the shade of its uplifted jeweled hood, and is drenched to the neck in love. In this very carnal hymn, sexual intercourse with Sri turns out to be the ultimate reality that worshipers are invited to contemplate. In the second hymn, from the eighth century, we find the goddess Devi turning herself into a serpent and going down into a deep cave: You descend to Your own place, / making Yourself a serpent of three and a half coils. In the third hymn, from the eighteenth century, the goddess Apirami wears a garland of fine snakes with poisonous bites. She is depicted as abiding with the snake and sleeping on top of the serpent with fierce eyes.
In his comment on the first hymn, Clooney says its words miraculously succeed in communicating the reality of Sri and the value of surrendering to Her. Yes, he uses a capital H. This surrender, he explains, is a plunge into the divine couples delight, an immersion in the bliss of Her erotic play with Vishnu, because their intimacy is fully accessible to Sris worshipers. Regarding the big serpent or dragon on which they have intercourse, Clooney merely says, Verse 25 visualizes their relaxation on the primal serpent known as Endless Pleasure. Apparently, this doesnt bother him a bit.
To stop us from turning our backs on such a grossly carnal idea of divinity, Fr. Clooney calls the hymn intelligent and insists that those from monotheistic traditions have to be willing to listen to reason and learn from intellectuals in other traditions. Thus does he browbeat us into submission. Then he offers us a choice regarding which images of the divine Christian or Hindu are most theologically cogent today. Today? In a culture drowning in sexual licentiousness? It all depends whether we want to go with the venereal flow or follow the steps of our Savior.
As obstacles are removed, Fr. Clooney continues, we may find it reasonable and salutary to go from hearing about Sri to speaking to Sri. Worshiping Her may appear a good and holy practice, and one that is not barred on rational grounds. If so, then we will finally have a real choice whether or not to approach this Goddess whom we have begun to understand. Thus does he present apostasy as a choice that is at once rational, salutary, and holy for Christians to make. He is like the moral theologian Daniel Maguire of Marquette who wants us to accept abortion as a Sacred Choice in a book he published under that title. Both theologians teach at Jesuit colleges and their messages both seem to come straight from the serpent Endless Pleasure.
In a brief section on Mary after his comment on Sri, Fr. Clooney writes of the paradox of incarnation, in which God becomes not-God, and the paradox of Mary, in whom the impossible occurs. He mourns that the price of monotheism is the loss of goddess-language.
The second Hindu hymn is addressed to Devi, a goddess tied to tantra, a web of rituals that includes morally transgressive acts such as adultery, but Fr. Clooney assures us that the hymn he translates is the respectable face of tantra. Devi is Power itself, but, like Sri, she rules by the erotic power of her body. As the hymn unfolds, she has sexual intercourse with her consort. In discussing this hymn, in which Devis beauty is praised from head to toe, Clooney warns that the sensual part cannot be discarded for a higher, interior reality. The sensuality doesnt bother him; rather, he calls it a useful affirmation of physicality, pleasure, and beauty as spiritually significant and not just instrumental to the spiritual. Here we see how an intellectual can put a gloss on the unspeakable. He takes after Christopher Marlowes Dr. Faustus, who addresses the succubus appearing to him in the shape of Helen of Troy with the famous line, Is this the face that launched a thousand ships? Clooney seems as beguiled as Faustus when he says that Devis body parts, when properly contemplated, invite the viewer to enter into Her presence, onto Her couch.
Again he offers us a choice: Its up to us when we reach her doorway, senses enhanced, to decide whether to enter inside and enjoy Devi there. The point at which this choice can be made is the culmination of the hymn. Up till now weve only heard and thought about Devi, but at this moment we can choose a face-to-face encounter and speak with her. She is accessible to all those who invoke Her and imagine Her presence as best they can. But wait, before her devotees can reach the final blissful immersion within Her, Devi requires the complete deconstruction and enhancement of their own bodies, sensations, pleasures, and relationships. After this total transformation, they will see Her directly and completely. First, though, Devi must possess them body and soul.
Comparing Devis hymn to Stabat Mater, Fr. Clooney comments tartly that Devi is sexually active, while Mary remains ever virgin. This is a plus for Devi, since she promises her worshipers bliss here and now, as well as there, later on; bliss floods the body and soul of the one who contemplates Her. Moreover, the bliss she offers is to be perfected in the future. So on one side we have Devi, the Mother of Bliss, and on the other side Mary, the mother of sorrows. (Yes, he uses a capital M for Mother when it comes to Devi, but not when it comes to Our Lady.) Oddly, Fr. Clooney doesnt suspect that Devis promises are delusions. After all, the primal serpent, Jesus warns, was a liar from the beginning.
Instead of asking Our Lady to step on the serpent Devi, Fr. Clooney invites us to make our choice between the two of them, as if to choose Devi were not enslavement to passion and the end of choice. At the very least he wants us to choose to see Mary in light of Devi. He flatters his attentive readers by saying they can now make a more reflective choice about where we might best look for Her. Since Her is capitalized here, and since Marys her is never capitalized in the book, its clear whom hed like us to choose.
The third hymn is about the goddess Apirami, who has possessed the tantric practitioner writing this song. He is already filled with her presence, so the hymn is wildly ecstatic and without coherence. Since Apirami is supposedly superior to the other deities, the singer keeps repeating that he will worship none but her: I will never weary myself in serving other gods. There are erotic elements here too: Apiramis consort is the great ascetic Lord who incinerated Desire, yet he cannot resist her sensual power. Like him, Apiramis devotees are intoxicated bees in their bliss, looking quite mad to outsiders. In his comment on the hymn, Clooney doesnt even mention that the worshiper keeps begging Apirami to help him not to be born here again after dying this time. Hes eager to escape this life.
Fr. Clooney compares Apiramis hymn to Mataracamman Antati, an exquisite nineteenth-century Indian hymn to Our Lady of Mylapore, a poem that refers to Hindu worship only to argue against it or reinterpret it in connection with Mary. Not surprisingly, Clooney comes down on the side of the Hindu hymn, stating that the Catholic hymn does not fully realize the complete interiorization that radiates from the center of the Hindu hymn. For Apirami dwells inside ones mind, while Mary arrives there from afar. Clooney invites us again to worship Apirami (note the capital letters in this sentence): We discover Her within, and at Her lotus feet we surrender; what this means, and how it happens becomes clear only when we see through the words, and reach Her where She is to be found: always here, and just arrived.
In his concluding chapter, Fr. Clooney uses words like intelligent, cogent, and rational to justify goddess-thinking. He insists that divine materiality offers us an intelligent model of divinization apart from Christianity, that Hindu hymns are intelligent theological discourses, that rejection of them would be more biblical than rationally cogent, and that believing in a supreme God doesnt rule out, at least on any accessible rational grounds, belief in a supreme Goddess. Like Lady Macbeth, he doth protest too much!
He then waxes effusive again about Devis hymn as a portal into a world where devotees are empowered and then transformed by moments of tasting and sharing in Her bliss and beauty. He reminds us of the great choice whether to enter alone and unaccompanied into the pleasure She offers, and urges us to take to heart all three goddess hymns because they enable us to be transformed, introduced into actual encounter, even converted. Yes, converted. Even if his readers are Christians, they may choose to touch the feet of Sri, Devi, or Apirami, and enter into the worship the hymns promote. These are his very words! He hopes those not permitted to approach the goddesses will at least approach Mary with a different sensitivity, now that they realize shes a stand-in for the divine female, even as she is declared not divine. At the very least, they can now put Sri, Devi, Apirami, and Mary on the same level: Whatever our theological decisions, these four will appear as more interesting persons if we meet them in one anothers company. From now on, Mary and the three goddesses are friends and not competitors. No, not a bit, Fr. Clooney. The only way Sri, Devi, and Apirami will ever be in the company of the Mother of God is in the form of the serpent under her foot.
St. Francis Xavier traveled to India as a missionary in the sixteenth century and converted vast numbers to Christianity. Today, Christians in India are under persecution and many are forced at knife-point to apostatize and worship the nature goddesses Sri, Devi, and Apirami once again. Instead of making so many martyrs whose blood will be the seed of future Christians, Hindu fanatics should stop and think for a minute and throw down their useless weapons. Why not invite the Anti-Xavier instead to seduce all those Christians into quiet apostasy? What a resource they have, unbeknownst to them, in the Anti-Xavier of Boston College!