Thinking Anew: Mary – a woman central to the Christian story

Tomorrow the church observes the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Photograph: iStock

Next week marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Wieck in Leipzig on September 13th, 1819. She would become Clara Schumann, wife of Robert Schumann, the celebrated composer.

What is less known is that she was one of the top concert pianists of her day and a gifted composer.

However, her talents went unrecognised, an injustice she attributed to her gender: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose.”

Her husband said: “To have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing . . . I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”


Clara Schumann lived when women who excelled in the arts and sciences were hidden; hers was a man’s world.

However, in this bicentennial year special attention is being given to her music by the brilliant young pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason (her brother played the cello at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle). She will give recitals devoted entirely to Clara Schumann’s work in Carnegie Hall and elsewhere.

Some women could not be ignored in earlier times. Tomorrow the church observes the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary – a woman central to the Christian story from its beginning.

In his meditation Radical Grace, Fr Richard Rohr invites us to explore the relationship between Mary and her son, Jesus. “Much of what we find in the eyes of Jesus must first have been in the eyes of Mary. The mother’s vision is powerfully communicated to her children. Mary had to be his first spiritual director, the one who humanly gave a life vision to Jesus, who taught Jesus how to believe, and how to feel his feelings. What was in Jesus’s eyes was somehow first in hers. (We now know this to be true scientifically from our new understanding of mirror neurons.) In both of their eyes is what they both believed about God, and it was a co-believing. She holds joy deeply, where death cannot get to it. Jesus learns by watching her, and he protects her motherhood in some of his very last words from the cross just as she protected his sonship. Not a word is spoken by Mary in either place, at his birth or his death. Did you ever think about that? Mary simply trusts and experiences deeply. She is simply and fully present. Faith is not first of all for overcoming obstacles; it is for experiencing them – all the way through.”

The Rev Norman Autton, a distinguished hospital chaplain, wrote several books on pastoral care. At a chaplains’ conference, he spoke of Mary as the model for good pastoral ministry. He referred to the story of the marriage in Cana of Galilee, associated with the transformation of water into wine.

Autton was struck by the words: “And Mary the mother of Jesus was there.” For him this was about availability, being with people and recognising their needs.

He described this as “loitering with intent” and went on to point out that having listened to the people’s problems she pointed them to Jesus – the golden rule of Christian ministry.

Since the days of Clara Schumann there has been a gradual and sometimes reluctant acceptance of the fact that women have important things to say but there are men in leadership roles in the church who won’t even listen.

That has been the experience of former president Mary McAleese who dared to suggest that the church needs reform on gender and other issues.

It was good therefore to read that she has been awarded the prestigious Alfons Auer prize, an award to honour international theologians. The award will be presented to Dr McAleese, at a ceremony at the University of Tübingen in Germany next month.

All should rejoice because as the author Jill Briscoe observed: “A man of quality is never threatened by a woman of equality.”