Forgive us our misconceptions

December 12th, 2008

A gospel in two parts.

The other night my book group met at the mall (you read that right!) for a quick dinner and an even quicker discussion of our latest read, the most pathologically unfunny franchise of bestselling books I’ve ever encountered. We did this with our hearts in the right place, having dutifully taken up the task of spending money to help those less fortunate than we, a faceless group that has, in these torturous last months, come perilously close to resembling ourselves.

We had absolutely nothing to say about the book, which filled most of us with silent gratitude to be done with it once and for all.

So the conversation turned to other things, other less frivolous things, thankfully not politics but the circumstantially relevant topic of religion.

It is easy to think of your religion as the religion. And by that I mean the right one. I sat at the far end of the table literally and figuratively.

First came the question of whether Jesus had brothers and if so, who they were. That brought up the subject of Mary’s imagined life as the wife of Joseph and mother of mortals and the implications of conception, immaculate and otherwise.

The most authoritative Catholic in the group appraised us all of the doctrinal meaning of “immaculate conception” which may not be the conception you, or I for that matter, were conceiving of, that is, the virginal conception of Baby Jesus. Rather, it refers to the concept of Mary’s own conception as a human being born without sin. We outliers on the far end voiced misconceptions about all these conceptions, and the devout one said, Google it.

Google it is the modern-day conversation stopper. But then, that’s what dogma is designed to do. Stop conversation.

So we stopped talking and each went on separate pilgrimage for socks, scarves, hats, books, toys and a shred of holiday warmth for some unknown poor family. It was easy to conceive of them wandering in the chill outside the high walls of this nearly empty temple, immaculately lit on this eve like an ancient shrine to economic redemption.

Part two.

I doubt that any of us did any Googling on the dinner topic when we got home. The next morning came an email followup inviting us all to convert our erroneous thinking about the immaculate conception by clicking a link to a page in Wikipedia. I encourage you all likewise to go look at it right now while I keep quiet and ponder these things in my heart.


How about it? When I looked at it I thought: Has there ever been a more faith-defying argument, explanation, fabrication, extrapolation, interpretation or complication than this? Holy catechism! Buying all that takes a lot more intellectual credit than I have on hand!

I can fathom how the doctrine came about. Catholicism venerates Mary as an intercessor, and so divinely sanctified she must be made to be. But I was raised a good Lutheran (which is to say, a bad Lutheran) and we didn’t make so much of Mary. Except some of us little Lutheran girls prayed like hell to be cast as the comely mother in the yearly Christmas program. As you can guess, back then I never got the part. Now I see it as a part we are perpetually called to fill.

All this conceptualization is beyond us; the arguments are beneath us; they conquer and divide us when we know the really important things in life perfectly well for ourselves.

We all came together again before the night was over, setting down the blessed burdens we carried, opening up to share the modest gifts we had come to deliver. Without shame, we had used our half-price offers and twofer coupons to bring comfort to the humblest. We offered a package of girls’ white socks size XS, travel umbrellas, toys, playing cards, marked-down scarves, hats and bargain books. We saved far more money than we spent, but we still did right and we did good, without the slightest defilement of doctrinal debate.

This is the gospel few preach, but all of us, unified by inherent grace and goodness, can practice it: Doing good. There is no need to understand it. There is only a need to do it. And that’s so easy.

No matter what we believe, we’ve all been cast in the nativity pageant. No matter what our means, we have it within ourselves to deliver comfort, love and peace from our own pure hearts. Thank heaven, heaven is ours to share.


  1. i’m struggling with my comment. i feel compelled to leave one, but what to say exactly is just out my reach. i just know that having read many beautiful thoughts on your blog before, i find this one leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. the histories of any and every faith are steeped in mysteries and questions that some people, mostly those of “authority” or who want “authority” or pretend to have or be an “authority”, try to answer and explain. the details blurred, elaborated, questioned, challenged, defined, dictated, told and retold. but the principle of the faith doesn’t require such analysis or “intellectual credit”…it only requires faith. and there’s nothing wrong or imagined or divisive in having faith in the existence and importance of a woman, such as mary, who did good, who did deliver comfort, love and peace and lived life with a pure heart….if that’s the faith you have.

    Comment by Sarah — December 12, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

  2. Sounds as if you all managed to rescue your evening in the end. I believe that “doing good” is a deep, deep human need in all of us.

    (My family was sort of wayward Catholic, so I didn’t get the full indoctrination. I don’t think I knew the definition of the Immaculate Conception until I was in my 20s.)

    Comment by Judy Merrill-Smith — December 12, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  3. I was raised Catholic–in a haphazard, roundabout way. Half of the Catholic dogma and whatnot I know next to nothing about.

    Doing good! Yes. My sister-in-law once told me that you could do all the good in the world but if you didn’t accept Jesus, you would still go to hell. Lucky for me I don’t believe in hell, but I think that is a (non-PC word) crazy thing. Makes God sound like a spoiled princess.

    ANd if Mary was immaculate, did she even get to live? How did she ever feel about anything?

    I have to stop or I’ll go on and on.

    Trying to do good here. EVery day trying even when the Christmas lights aren’t on and I’m reminded how immaculate I’m not,


    Let’s all do good.

    Comment by mapelba — December 12, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

  4. I agree completely with you Sarah, and if it causes you distaste then please give nothing I’ve written a second thought. Faith itself is the mystery that makes all things possible, and we prove it to ourselves every day by what we do, and never by what we know.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 12, 2008 @ 8:37 pm

  5. Beautiful post. I am reading your book right now! It’s hard to put down and I absolutely love it. Just found your blog today 🙂

    Comment by StatMama — December 12, 2008 @ 8:40 pm

  6. I didn’t know that bit of Catholic doctrine. I was raised Southern Baptist, and Mary is definitely not viewed as an intercessor. Interesting . . .

    Throwing in “ponder these things in my heart” is perfect. Just perfect.

    I’ll ponder, as well.

    Comment by Mama Zen — December 12, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

  7. LOVE your last paragraph. That bears remembering and repeating as we seek to live ourselves into higher places – for the survival of our species – where we no longer allow beliefs to separate us.

    Comment by Lisa — December 13, 2008 @ 2:01 am

  8. Well said, Mae, as always

    Comment by Wendy — December 13, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  9. Interesting Wikipedia article. Learn something every day.

    And I clicked on the link to that book your book club was reading. It sounds soooooo not for adults. I’m thinking you need a new “chooser” for your book club!

    Deliver comfort. I shall.

    Comment by Mary Ann — December 13, 2008 @ 3:52 pm

  10. Book clubs are tough, I love mine but struggle with some books, I just skip the club that month or if I am feeling the social bug I just go and drink some wine and listen.

    I am also very lucky as we have nothing that qualifies as a mall here. Its mail-order or main street.

    Comment by Bridge — December 13, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

  11. I am not in the mood to debate doctrine right now, but after picturing you stuck at the mall and discussing that book, I wish I could sit down with you for a cup of tea!

    Comment by MojoMom — December 13, 2008 @ 10:59 pm

  12. Thanks Mary Ann and Amy:
    I’ve delivered myself from this particular evil. Interesting, though. As is often writ in these formulaic narratives, neither the woman who suggested the book nor the woman who suggested the mall were in attendance!

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 14, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

  13. Very well said indeed. I’m always uncomfortable in situations like that. Wish I weren’t, but I know you handled it with grace.

    Comment by Shelli — December 15, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

  14. I like that you grew up Lutheran (I’m from Minnesota).

    Man-o-man I can’t countenance religious stuff coming up in group stuff. I don’t have the emotional ‘skin’ needed to not get freaked out, creeped out, overwhelmed and hurt. (Well, at least when people are adamant about me going to hell or suchlike.)

    Comment by Togenberg — December 18, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

  15. Karen, i have spent a few tranquil moments catching up with you and yours. As always, your writing brings peace to me. On this particular topic, the Immaculate birth of Mary, oh so very interesting. I was brought up a devout and conservative Catholic. Catholic schools, Mass daily, etc. etc. While I love the formation the Church provided for me and the deep beauty of Her ritual and traditions, I have to disagree with the dogma if only for it’s dividing force. It really doesn’t matter what we or they “label” Mary. It is only a “label” attached by others. It has nothing to do with Her essence as a loving and compassionate human being. She was a Virgin in the most sacred manner. A Virgin being a “woman unto herself”. Mary represents the Feminine face of God. When it all boils down, what does any of this mean? Why get our panties in a bunch? If we can each take the lives of our Saints and Prophets as inspiration in living our own lives with love and compassion, what more could God ask? I missed you! Have a Blessed New Year!

    Comment by Kathleen — December 31, 2008 @ 11:40 pm

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