Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate by Jon M. Sweeney, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate

Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate

by Jon M. Sweeney
  Join Jon Sweeney as he delves into the mystery, history and imagination surrounding the life and legends of the Virgin Mary. Strange Heaven explores the many meanings of her life and their importance for the rest of human history.

Sweeney searches for Mary in the four gospels, the non-canonical Gnostic gospels, the Qur’an,


  Join Jon Sweeney as he delves into the mystery, history and imagination surrounding the life and legends of the Virgin Mary. Strange Heaven explores the many meanings of her life and their importance for the rest of human history.

Sweeney searches for Mary in the four gospels, the non-canonical Gnostic gospels, the Qur’an, medieval and Renaissance art, mystical writings of figures such as Beatrice of Nazareth and Anne Catherine Emmerich, the teachings of Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther and various little-known mystics, contemporary novels and art, and throughout twenty centuries of the Christian imagination. The result is a satisfying feast of information and lore. But more importantly, Strange Heaven offers a glimpse into how the Incarnation placed Mary at the center of salvation history, a role that at once benefits all of us and models what is possible in a relationship with God.

Praise for Jon M. Sweeney’s work

“Nothing short of astonishing in its power to touch the heart and revive the soul.”

St. Anthony Messenger

“Sweeney achieves a fine balance between excellent scholarship and sweet accessibility for every average reader.”  —Walter Wangerin, Jr.

“In a learned yet warmly personal voice….Protestant readers with ecumenical openness will find as much to enjoy in this book as will Catholics interested in viewing their faith tradition through the eyes of an appreciative visitor.” —Spirit & Life

“A bridge-building volume. We live in times of great religious divisiveness….His respect for his fellowChristians, even those with different beliefs, is something we should all emulate in our own spiritual journeys.”  —The Lutheran

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publishers Weekly
Pious devotions to Mary the mother of Jesus, once derided as superstitious by non-Catholic Christians, are reconsidered by award-winning Protestant author Sweeney (Born Again and Again). Drawing upon excellent scholarship, Christian history and spiritual traditions, Sweeney recounts how a humble Palestinian teenage girl came to be revered by many Christians as the "mother of God." While there is a dearth of historical facts about Mary, it matters not to the Christian imagination, for "It is her myth that draws us: her power to fascinate us intellectually is only surpassed by her ability to inspire devotion." Sweeney is clear that Mary's significance transcends even her role as the mother of Jesus. Mary's virginity influenced the development of Christian sexual ethics, she is praised in the Islamic Qur'an and some would say that her role in redeeming humanity is equal to her son's. Sweeney is very evenhanded when addressing some of the more controversial Catholic beliefs about Maryhis prose comes across as earnest and respectful, while remaining informed and unafraid of critique. This book may not convince Protestants that Mary deserves the privileged place that the Catholic Church gives to her, but it is a fascinating and well-researched exploration of a powerful female archetypal figure. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Sweeney (The Lure of Saints: A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition), who has written several books on religious subjects, here turns to Mary, the mother of Jesus. With scholarly research as his basis and drawing on biblical sources, the Qur'an, legends, classical mystical writings, and medieval and Renaissance literature and art, he explores Mary's enduring place in salvation history. Sweeney presents both Catholic and Protestant perspectives in understandable language, showing the development of the Christian imagination regarding Mary. Balance and respect characterize this study of Marian influence even into the 21st century. Chapters cover discipleship, the apostle Paul, apparitions, the Rosary, feasts and titles, difficult concepts such as coredemption, Martin Luther, and feminine aspects of the divine. Small 19th-century illustrations enhance the text. Refreshingly contemporary, Sweeney's book, whose title derives from a work by poet John Donne, is a welcome ecumenical addition to religious and general collections from a publishing house couched in the Benedictine tradition.-Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ. Lib., New York Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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Paraclete Press
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Read an Excerpt

Strange Heaven

The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate
By Jon Sweeney

Paraclete Press Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Jon Sweeney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55725-432-0

Chapter One

Why a Virgin?

SHE IS HISTORY'S GREATEST EMBLEM OF PURITY-a fitting place for God to be born. In ancient civilizations, there was no greater symbol for a woman than her virginal purity. Given the prevalence of rape, arranged marriage, incest and other factors, virginity was very difficult to guard. It was rare for any woman to leave her teenage years and still be a virgin. A virgin has always been one who is untainted and unaffected by the vagaries of the secular world. The mind, imagination, and spirit that are nurtured in an adult virgin body are seen as something qualitatively different-and purer-than all others.

Protestants have questioned Mary's continued virginity for centuries. It is uncommon to doubt that she was a virgin at the time of the Annunciation, but she is often described as having given birth to children after Jesus, or as having had normal, sexual relations with Joseph throughout their marriage. Catholic tradition says otherwise-and in the strictest of terms.

The writers of the New Testament do not help in settling the issues, as they often seem to disagree on the most fundamental issues of faith. For example, who were Jesus' parents? Matthew's and Luke's Gospels offer genealogical clues for Jesus in the line of King David throughJoseph, the husband of Mary. But Joseph's flesh had nothing to do with the boy's. In contrast to Matthew and Luke, Mark's Gospel offers no genealogy for Jesus at all, referring to him only as "the son of Mary," implying that there was no real father. John's Gospel does what it often does-takes the situation to a further, mystical, end. John has Jesus saying that God the Father is his only parent: "I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father." Finally, the author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews teaches that Jesus was "Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life."

What was the relationship between Mary's body and the Christ child? The Annunciation was the bringing of the news to Mary (and to humankind), but the second person of the Trinity existed before time began. Some of the more radical Protestant reformers taught that the Incarnation pre-existed the coming of Christ. This sort of doctrine would pull Christ out of human time, saying that the second person of the Trinity existed as a man from the foundation of the world, before the Creation itself, eternally one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Medieval icons show the three persons of the Trinity all together, like a family; the Father is seated at the center, and beside him are the Son, often standing beside the Father, and the Holy Spirit, represented in a dove, hovering at the other side of the Father, facing forward. For those reformers, what would a Christ outside of history say about Mary, his mother? Did Mary, too, exist before time began? Was Christ somehow already enfleshed even before he had flesh, or was given flesh, by making his home in the strange heaven of Mary's womb?

So, when God came to grow as a human being inside of Mary's womb, whose flesh was it? The divine-human life that was Jesus Christ began with the aid of divine sperm or some other miraculous means of fertilizing Mary's egg, but it was Mary's flesh alone that grew the fetus. Christian mystics sometimes make this seem like a non-issue, as in this fantasy from one of Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons on the Song of Songs. Applying an allegorical interpretation to the words of the bride in the Song, he writes of Christ, "Look he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills." Bernard explains that this is Christ himself, leaping through space and time:

For he bounded over Gabriel and preceded him to the Virgin, as the archangel himself witnesses when he says: 'Hail, Mary, full of grace ...' What is this? He whom you just left in heaven do you now find in the womb? He flew, even flew ahead, on the wings of the wind.

But while some medieval mystics were fuzzy on clarifying biological issues, other, more recent ones have interpreted Mary's role as absolutely central: "How I love you, Mary, you who made / This Divine Flower blossom on our shores!" (St. Thérèse of Lisieux).


There have been plenty of metaphors for Mary's womb over the centuries. That "strange heaven" has also been compared to a tabernacle, an unopened gate, a sealed fountain, a tower, a holy field, a palace, blessed cloister, and a reliquary. God had an unusual home for those nine months, feeding on blood and partaking of flesh, while still very much of heaven. As we will see, Mary's blood and flesh, and even her breast-milk, became important clues to how Christians would perceive her role in the history of salvation, and her virginity inspired many to reinterpret the meaning of sex, procreation, and the ways of loving God.

Although Mary was not a surrogate mother, her role did include some surrogacy. In Western religious history, Sarah and Abraham were the first surrogate parents. Sarah found a birth mother in the person of Hagar, her Egyptian servant girl, in order to satisfy her and Abraham's desire to have a child. Sarah sent Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and the result was, frankly, disastrous. When Sarah could first tell that Hagar was pregnant, the Book of Genesis says that Sarah "looked with contempt on her." Hagar brought Ishmael to term for the old couple, but the boy was never really integrated into the family. Abraham had him circumcised when he was thirteen years old, a sign that he regarded him as a legitimate son, but a surrogate child was not good enough for Sarah and Abraham. Before long, Sarah was made miraculously pregnant with her firstborn, Isaac, and after he was born and weaned, she urged Abraham to send both Hagar and Ishmael away. Again, Genesis records that "Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, 'Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac'" (21:9-10).

Any gestational surrogacy consultant today could have suggested various ways for Sarah and Abraham to avoid these pitfalls. But, the ancient couple's experience does point to some of the ethical issues related to the separation of sexual relations, procreation, and parenthood. Long ago, people first wrestled with what it means to be a mother or a father, and what makes a family.

The Virgin Mary was not a surrogate mother. It was her egg that produced the child, making her the genetic mother. And she was also the gestational mother, as it was Mary and only Mary who bore and gave birth to the child. But, just as it was not Sarah's egg that produced Ishmael, it was not Joseph's sperm that fertilized the zygote that became Jesus. Critics have often looked on Mary's role in the birth of Jesus as little more than a borrowed womb. One radical, Protestant reformer even argued that it was "impossible for the flesh of Christ to be formed of the seed of Mary." Orbe Philips was anxious to avoid all elements of Catholic religion in his rejection and reframing of Christian teaching. In the process, he became a heretic, saying, "God, the Heavenly Father, prepared for Jesus Christ ... a body, but not of corrupt human seed, rather of his incorruptible seed." According to both Catholic and Protestant theology, as well as surrogate ethics, Mary was a complete mother.

She said yes to God, and unlike many women of her age, she was not at the mercy of a man, usually the woman's father or husband, who would decide when she would become pregnant. It would be more accurate, in fact, to compare Mary to women today who seek practical means of exercising a wide range of fertility options such as egg banking, egg freezing, and using sperm donors. That is, of course, if we assume that Mary had the choice to say no to God at the Annunciation-and I believe that she did. Mary should be the patron saint of mothers, especially expectant and single mothers, although she isn't.

A scholar at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, recently compared Mary to the title character of Tina Turner's hit song, "Proud Mary," in order to demonstrate how people might view the Virgin today. "Mary is, I believe, a sociocultural figure who symbolizes the embodiment of a vibrant, wise woman with maternal and earthly instincts.... She is a sensual, sexual being who is most intimate with God." As you can imagine, this sort of interpretation is at odds with traditional Catholic dogma, which usually emphasizes Mary's virginity as a series of renouncements, rather than fulfillments. Nevertheless, reinterpretations of Mary's sexuality are beginning to make sense to many people of faith. They lead us to ask: "Why is it important to the dogma of the Church that Mary never experienced sex, or even felt pain in childbirth?"


We have to go back to Augustine of Hippo in order to understand how Mary's virginity has been perceived in the West over the centuries. Long before his death in AD 430, Augustine's ideas dominated the Christian world, and in many respects, they still do.

When the mighty Roman Empire, which ruled most of what is now Europe, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and North Africa, was summarily defeated by the invading Goths in 410, many people concluded that Christianity itself was to blame. The popular theory ran like this: Ever since the Christian faith became the "official" religion of the Empire one hundred years earlier by Constantine, the Empire had become weaker and weaker. Christian rulers forbade the worship of the old Roman, civic gods, and made Christianity the rule of the land, instead. Those earlier gods had helped preserve the Empire for many centuries before Constantine and Christianity put everything in jeopardy.

It was for the purpose of answering these accusations that Augustine wrote his classic apology for Christianity, The City of God. Augustine attempted to explain how Christians live in the earthly "city," while being citizens also in the heavenly "city." He wrote at length about issues such as the relationship between church and state, the obligations of a Christian to both religious and civil authority, the history of the civilized world and how Christianity had informed that history up until the midfifth century-and just about everything else in between! Augustine is still considered the supreme "Doctor" of the Western Church.

In the midst of all of this interpretive history, Augustine theorizes about what happened in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve committed the first sin. In Book 14, he says that when Adam and Eve first partook of the fruit of the forbidden tree, it was then, and only then, that they were ashamed of their nakedness. Before that first sin, Augustine explains, there may have been sex, but definitely no sexual enjoyment, in Eden. He explains that the sin of lust is equivalent to the pleasure of sex, even between husband and wife. Building on earlier writings of St. Jerome (who taught that marriage was intended only for those who had not the strength for virginity), Augustine coined a term for this lust: concupiscence.

Augustine argued that any sensible Christian, and any godly Christian, should want to procreate, when necessary, but without lust; for when a person allows him or herself sexual enjoyment, called "lust" by Augustine, "it moves the whole person, without and within, with such a mixture of mental emotion and carnal appetite that it becomes the highest bodily pleasure that can be produced." Augustine is, of course, talking about orgasm. And, if you've ever read his other, more intriguing book, The Confessions, you know that Augustine has plenty of firsthand experience upon which to draw.

This marked the beginning, and became the linchpin, of Christian sexual ethics. As the most holy of humans, Mary was seen as the exemplar of a mother who created a son without tainting her flesh with sex. She also remained a virgin after Christ's birth. As Jerome wrote: "Christ and Mary, both virgins, consecrated the pattern of virginity for both sexes." Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), the abbess and medieval mystic, later agreed with Augustine's doctrine and argued that Mary's womb remained always a "closed garden." She is the one who restored creation to the state it was in before the Fall: "Alleluia, O branch mediatrix ... your womb illuminated all creatures with the beautiful flower born from the sweetest integrity, the modesty of your closed garden." Again using language that echoes the creation narrative in the Torah, Hildegard explains that whereas the first Eve "threw into chaos" the first Creation, Mary becomes through the sexless procreation of Christ, "a fountain springing from the Father's heart."

John Milton, the great Protestant English poet of Paradise Lost, also took up this doctrine from Augustine and, as is the case with many of our ideas about the first parents and the events in the Garden of Eden, Milton's descriptions soon became better known than the biblical narrative itself. Milton describes in Book IX what was happening immediately after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit:

As with new wine intoxicated both, They swim in mirth, and fancy that they feel Divinity within them breeding wings, Wherewith to scorn the earth: But that false fruit Far other operation first displayed, Carnal desire inflaming; He on Eve Began to cast lascivious eyes; she him As wantonly repaid; in lust they burn ...


Excerpted from Strange Heaven by Jon Sweeney Copyright © 2006 by Jon Sweeney . Excerpted by permission.
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