I never liked the whole Immaculate Conception doctrine. It's tangled up with a whole lot of other things I really don't believe such as Mary's perpetual virginity, Original Sin as inherited guilt and total depravity, the need for some kind of pure vessel for the Incarnation to happen.
But today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Church and so an excuse to post this magnificent painting of it by Jusepe de Ribera from 1635.
It still stands on the altar it was painted for in the Church of La Purisima in Salamanca in Spain.
What a magnificent Baroque spectacle! Ribera transforms a point of doctrine into a sweeping visionary cosmic drama. Like all great religious works of art, it preaches to the choir. Ribera is not out to convert anyone. Nor did his patrons expect him to convert anyone with whatever vision he conjured.
A lot of people online are discussing Original Sin today since the Immaculate Conception depends on that idea to make any sense. When people ask me if I believe in Original Sin, I ask them what they mean by it. Tell me what you think it is, and I'll tell you if I believe in it.
I incline more to Cassian than to Augustine on these matters. I did when I was very young, and I still do now that I'm a few days away from 64. I never believed in inherited guilt or in total depravity.
As far as I can see, human nature is not much different from that of all other life from bacteria to blue whales. We want to survive, to be safe, to have our needs met, and our desires gratified. We're selfish and we're frightened. Is that particularly good? Certainly not. Is that evil? No, it's not. It just is, and it is because we are carbon-based life forms that inevitably will die after a short run of life. Awful things happen to us not because we are wicked, but because we are mortal and therefore vulnerable to misfortune and destruction. As mortal prisoners of a single moment in time on a single spot in space, our vision is limited and partial. We can't help but trip over ourselves on our quest to find the Great Good Place.
As I get older, a certain agnosticism in spiritual matters looks less like indecision and more like humility in the face of things we can never understand clearly or perfectly. What's always struck me about the Gospels is how little they really explain. They say very little about the afterlife, and nothing at all about the mystery of the Resurrection at their heart. That silence is itself a message I think.
One thing the Counter-Reformation mystics like Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross understood so well is the very fine line between spiritual desire and physical desire. The flaming passion of love burns for both the flesh and the spirit and it's not always easy -- or possible -- to tell the difference. I've never believed in spirit/flesh dualism, so these things get bound up together for better and for worse.
And by coincidence, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is also the birthday of Jim Morrison who certainly does sing about the flaming passions of love, though it isn't mystical love.
It's the thrill of being young and alive.
One of Joel Brodsky's photos of Jim Morrison, 1967
All these years later he can still light my fire.