Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Full of Grace: Meditations on Mary, Love, and Transformation

This review originally appeared at Patheos.

Among the practices indelibly associated with Catholics is the veneration of Mary and praying of the rosary. To outsiders it can seem as if Jesus is being cast aside while his mother is being unduly worshipped. Or, it might seem to be precisely the meaningless gabble of thoughtless prayer that Jesus warned against when he said, "In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words" (Mt. 6:7)

Anyone holding such opinion while encountering Judith Dupré's extraordinary book Full of Grace will soon realize how wrong those ideas can be. Dupré melds myriad written and artistic images -- a glittering mosaic of perspectives on Mary through the ages. Always, she is pointing to Her Son, Jesus. If one could produce a symphony in writing it would be similar to Full of Grace, which combines art, history, poetry and prose, personal experience and hearsay, traditional Catholic theology and Islam, and orthodoxy and feminist theology, into a marvelous and comprehensive look at the Mother of God.

Although Dupré educates and guides the reader, make no mistake, this is not intended as a historical or educational book. It is intensely personal as she shares in the introduction:
The narratives are offered as fifty-nine meditations, or beads, equal to the number of beads in a traditional rosary. The book is a journey undertaken, like the rosary, in the spirit of pilgrimage. The idea of the beads came to me nearly eight years ago when I began researching this book, but as my work progressed, I started to doubt the wisdom of the structure. I put the question to Mary: What to do? Moments later, fifteen dots of light -- fifteen being the number of the mysteries of the rosary -- appeared on the wall. Not trusting my eyes, I snapped a photo. The image you see in the margin has been a constant affirmation, for me, of the many ways in which Mary is with us.
Dupré is a proven master at communicating with images, as her books about skyscrapers, bridges, churches, and monuments have shown. Full of Grace branches out from her usual format to include Dupré's short essays, modern and classical images with explanatory text, and excerpts from other writers in the marginalia. Taken together, Dupré intends this to act as a midrash for the reader, engaging them on the subject of Mary from many views. Midrash is a traditional Jewish way of interpreting biblical stories to fill in many of the gaps left in scriptural narratives where there are only hints of actual events. What Dupré's work does is to widen the reader's view, open their eyes, and help pull back the veil between the material world and the divine. She does this by never losing sight of our human connection to Mary's experiences of love, grief, humility, compassion, maternity, and transformation.

Full of Grace is carefully directed toward anyone with an interest in Mary, not just believers. This leaves Dupré free to incorporate myriad viewpoints from sources one might not associate with the subject. Indeed, one must not take this as a theological guideline but remember that personal contemplation of the mysteries of the rosary may often take one far afield, just as this book does, while always keeping Mary and Christ at the center.

Appropriately beautiful, as befits the topic, the pages are glossy and the art is featured in stunning color. Great care was taken with the type and layout so that the reader can take in the intended mixture of reflections on each subject with clarity.

Finally, although this is not a theological work and there are a few points that might give an orthodox reader pause, the tone of the book is utterly respectful. Never is there an utterance that is the slightest bit irreverent, despite the many unusual sources excerpted. In fact, Dupré often reminds the reader, as is appropriate, that Mary's purpose is always to point to Jesus and never is there a word to imply that He is not the Son of God, our Savior.

All in all, this is a beautiful and unusual book that may be enjoyed by historians, art lovers, the inquisitive, and the faithful. Not only does it offer the faithful many opportunities to deepen their relationship with Mary, but it may well acquaint the merely curious with a person and model they want to get to know better.

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