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Anna Funder – The Comedy of Women, 2016

If you didn’t know she was Mary, mother of Jesus, who would you think Marina Sagona’s Mary was? Sagona has painted the holy mother as a teenager. Could she be someone you know?

She is looking straight at us and yet she is in her own world, her gaze is sober but shaky too; she’s ethereally beautiful and yet could be any teen on the street. This Mary owns her contradictions: holy and mortal, virgin and mother. If she has a context it is in Marina Sagona’s series of Dante’s women; women sketched with a sure economy of line for maximum effect of emotion, women in black and white as if the essence of them has been caught on the page. And then comes Mary: psychedelic pink, wired for the resurrection.

To me she looks like my teenage daughter, and if I’m honest, I feel the same response to her in my gut as I do to my daughter. I feel awe at her beauty, her energy, her untrammeled soul. But also that she might need protection from what this beauty, energy, and untrammeled soul might attract. And I feel fear of two kinds. Fear for herwhat is coming to you, girl? And, if I’m much more honest than I usually like to be, fear of herwhat do you, as yet untainted by the lifetime of compromises and accommodations I have made, have to say to me? Are you like a ‘best self’ from the past, come to hold me to account for all I have not done?

This is the confrontation with the power of innocence that is Mary, or with the power of whatever it is that is a teenage girl.

It seems to me that we carry that teenage girl inside us, even as we become her mother. Sagona’s genius is that this Mary is a specific girl who could also be any girl, any time. She could, for instance, be my aunt back in the 1970s, who was at that time a teenager with flowing hair.

Somewhere in Queensland far away from all the rest of my family lives a man who is my cousin. I have never met him, and neither has his mother, my aunt, who gave birth to him up there when she was a girl more than forty years ago.

My aunt is a woman with a brilliant, but sensitive mind. It may be that she has never recovered from having to give away her son. She has had no other children, nor, as far as I know, relationships with men. She likes to listen to Radio National, the station that unites the vast continent that is Australia. My aunt has found out that her son is a philosopher who is interviewed from time to time. So, she sits in her kitchen 2000 km away and listens to the son she has never met, one brilliant mind enjoying another. But also in a kind of pain I cannot imagine, and, if I try, I cry.

My aunt’s parents my grandparents were Catholic and remained so all their lives. But some time in the years after my cousin was born my parents stopped going to church. I don’t know if this had anything to do with them experiencing the violence of Catholic doctrine as it applied to my aunt. No doubt, as in every age, people of good will acted as they thought they should in a difficult situation, which is to say a situation they knew would have irrevocable consequences for everyone. I didn’t know of my cousin’s existence until recently.

Despite our family’s lapsedness, I went to a school named for Mary: Our Lady Star of the Sea. Every morning we girls stood behind desks and mumbled:

Hail Mary, full of grace the lord is with thee. Blessed be the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death amen.

We said the words without thinking because they were worn smooth with repetition and because our minds were on whether we’d finished our math homework or forgotten our sports uniform or whether so-and-so had a brought note for us from the boy who lived on her block. But I also believe we said them without thinking because who wants to start each day with wombs, sins and death? Yet despite all our mumbling thoughtlessness, some of that womb-sin-death talk sank in.

For us girls, even as late as the 1980s, Mary’s plight was personal. I lived in mortal dread of getting pregnant as she had, even though this was statistically unlikely, given I had never had sex. We ourselves didn’t put any value on our virginity.  But each day Mary’s holiness was confirmed by the impossibility for anyone else of being a virgin and a mother at the same time. We imbibed the harshness of the religious strictures which had required my young aunt to appear to be a virgin, and so meant she could not be a mother to her son.

I don’t believe in God, though I am uncomfortable saying so almost as uncomfortable as I would be saying I believed. This is partly because of a couple of small, private miracles that have happened to me easily explicable, most likely, with neurological anomalies, stress, grief or common-or-garden overthinking. But it is mostly because so many things seem miraculous to me, even the things which are explicableto a point in neurology, or biology, or astrophysics. So I like the bible because it contains a language for miracles. The virgin birth is miraculous, but then to me, so is the conception of my own children, of all children. In spite of my layperson’s grasp of the biology involved, the miracle of each life will not be explained away.  

God’s love, as I understand it, is always already there for us, so we live our lives in the situation of reciprocating love already given, even if we cannot see its source.  The feeling I would wish for my cousin is this: you have no earthly sign of it but you are loved from afar, by a woman sitting in her kitchen listening to the radio. You are her only son, and she, in her way, is a virgin mother.