She was beautiful, the radiant lady wreathed with stars, standing (barefoot!) on the serpent. “Be like Mary!” they said, and my child’s heart, fed on fairy tales, responded with enthusiasm. To be at once the Princess/Queen and the slayer of dragons, the heroine and the doer of all things good, more beautiful even than the angels–how could I not want that? I rashly promised this Queen of Heaven all things–my good deeds, my chastity (having no idea what this meant; I thought “being pure” was hygiene related), even martyrdom, as I imagined myself burned at the stake with a heroic but gentle smile on my face.
Morality is one thing, reality is another. My spirit was willing but my flesh was easily bored.
One summer day, inspired by William Thomas Walsh’s poetic rendition of Our Lady of Fatima, I decided to assist her in saving the souls of all the poor sinners I knew. I filled my shoes with small stones and hobbled around reveling with pride in my penance.
My observant mother quickly intuited the meaning and motivation behind this mini-martyrdom, and suggested that Our Lady might be more pleased with reality-based sacrifice. “You could try to be nicer to your brother and sisters” or “Help clear the table without complaining” or “Eat what is served for dinner.”
These less-dramatic virtues held no appeal to me and I quickly lost interest.
As I grew older, the notion of Mary as Exemplar became more pressure than poetry. How does one relate to someone who NEVER ever sinned?
This (difficulty relating) was exacerbated by those who emphasized what they deemed her feminine virtues. Marian Modesty proponents advocated an almost first century code of dress–hide those elbows and collarbones, ladies! Or my personal favorite “Pants on a Christian woman are an abomination!” Would Our Lady wear blue jeans? Surely not. And since Mary was mostly silent in the Gospels, well, women, you know what is expected of you. [This was not in fact true Catholic teaching, but made its rounds in certain circles nonetheless.]
Indeed the Gospels don’t give a lot of information on Mary, other than her humility and perfect obedience. My spiritual life took on a sort of Jansenist dimension and was laced with moralism, as I tried to model perfect obedience (and thereby earn “highly-favored” status).
Theology classes gave me admiration for “sinful man’s solitary boast” but not affection. If I have the courage to admit it, I was even envious of her.
“You’re trying too hard!” my confessors would tell me. But I knew that I wasn’t trying enough. I knew it was all up to me, my growth in holiness and virtue.
“You need to learn to do less and receive more.” I shook my head sadly; they don’t really know me. Had they even heard my recitation of sins?
Once I admitted that I didn’t really have a good relationship with Our Lady anymore. “Ask her for one!” came the reply.
How silly, I thought, that something like that could be obtained just by asking. But okay God, if you want: “Mary help me!”
Then one day, I was sitting in the chapel on retreat, when I received an image in my mind of Our Lady opening the windows of my heart. In the subsequent moments I felt a palpable rushing wind blow through me, and found my hands turning around into the receiving position. For the next stretch of time–it felt like hours but I have no idea how long it really was–I was physically unable to turn them around.
It is hard to describe, but I can only say the experience was like receiving a waterfall of grace tumbling into my outstretched hands. I did not understand but I knew that somehow God was ushering in something new.
“Receiving” did not come easily at first. I still wanted to “do”, to control, to fix, to improve. It seemed a cop-out to let God do all the heavy lifting.
But as I stopped trying to change myself, and let God (through Mary) do the changing, miracles started happening.
I found that the love of God was not an abstraction or theological construct, but something that could be experienced. This came not through human effort, but as a response to receiving “God who first loved us.”
Prayer changed from a duty to a meeting place, where God received my empty hands and filled them with all sorts of gifts that I never before imagined.
“From eternity God willed that there be one creature, one woman, who would perfectly receive every gift He had to offer, and that woman was Mary.”
Receiving Him in her heart, through the Spirit she conceived Him in her womb, and became the Mother of the Gift. And in His final breaths, He gave her to us as our mother too, there from the cross, as His hands were stretched out to receive all that humanity had to give in return.
Featured Image: The Immaculate Conception by Peter Paul Rubens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Crucifixion image painted by Heidi M. Paris
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