I was surprised when I opened the box of philosophy and theology books sent from a sweet woman who has made it her mission to fill our library. Inside was tucked away a good-sized statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that simple blue and white statue that stood in the corner of every American Catholic elementary and high school through the 40s, 50s, and 60s: Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. While being the most common in the U.S, it’s not often seen elsewhere. I was suddenly sent reeling back in time to May Crownings and devotions of my youth. The statue was well-worn, old, and even a bit chipped; but I was touched by the kindness and generosity of the woman who wanted to share it with us. I put it on the shelf in the dining room.
One evening while a visitor was with us, it was time for common prayer. We are a bit cramped in our rented house and don’t have a chapel. So a crucifix was set on the coffee table in the living room along with the image of Mary. We certainly don’t need either to pray but reminders are nice and can help keep you focused. Some of my Theology 131 students had made big colorful flowers as part of the decorations for our class “wedding celebration” and gave them to me at the end of class. I really wasn’t sure what to do with them, but when I took them out at home, the guys liked them and suggested they decorate the shelf in the living room. So the colorful tissue paper flowers also came out to bring joyful color to the room for prayer.
After evening prayer, the visitor said to me rather dryly, “You need a new statue of the Virgin Mary, that one is dirty. And it’s chipped.” I thought about that and realized it was precisely because it was a bit stained and chipped that I liked the image. I’ve never liked all those fancy statues and paintings of the Blessed Mother where she is dressed in great finery with jewels and a crown, not to mention all those angels and archangels playing harps and violins for her. I know they are to symbolize the result of her great faith, hope and love, but I’d always rather remember how she lived out those amazing gifts and graces here on earth. She reminds me who I am and who I should be.
Imagine a messenger of God dropping by and telling you you’ll have a child while remaining a virgin! Then add to it the fact you’re engaged and when your fiancé finds out, you risk being stoned to death by a self-righteous and indignant mob. Then you’ve got no time to be proud of yourself or even worry about yourself because you’ve got to make a long, difficult and dangerous journey into the mountain country to visit your old cousin who is also now pregnant. What ever happened to the normal days in Palestine? So you get married and have to go off to Bethlehem where you give birth, all sorts of weird things happen, then just when you’re trying to settle into some sense of normalcy, your husband suddenly tells you to pack up the house, you’re off to Egypt. Imagine what you feel when you hear that the babies of your friends, relatives, neighbors have been murdered by the army. The solidarity among mothers is a fierce force of the heart to be reckoned with. Then just when you finally begin to settle in, set up house, make new friends, your husband has another one of those bizarre dreams and says it’s time to pack everything up again. Nazareth, here you come. What humility, that after having Gabriel drop in on her, she had no problem trusting that when her husband shared his understanding of what God was telling them, she knew God was in touch with all of us and we can be the voice of God for each other. For her, the world was aglow with the presence of God.
I can see Mary kneading bread, the sweat dripping from her brow. Like women have done for time immemorial, she cleaned and washed and fixed, looked after her husband and her son. I imagine she good-naturedly shooed Joseph out of the house when he traipsed in covered in sawdust and filth from a hard day’s work, dirtying the room she had cleaned all morning. Even with her menstrual cramps and splitting headache, she went for water from the well as all women did. I doubt she was able to keep her robes well-ironed and beautifully clean. She didn’t have a nice French manicure highlighting soft lovely hands. Her nails were probably chipped, more than our poor statue; her hands rough, but her touch soft and loving.
It would have made all the papers today that a young couple lost their kid in Jerusalem and judgments would run wild. Luke uses wonderful expressions like “she wondered what this could mean” and “she pondered all this in her heart” to show she didn’t really know what was happening, what was next, or how it would play out. What she did know was something about a savior, and God’s love and faithfulness, and that was enough for her. Like all mothers who know their sons so well, she enjoyed going to a wedding celebration with him and nudged him into his first miracle. While most of the macho apostles and disciples of patriarchal society kept a low profile during her son’s crucifixion for fear of all sorts of things, she was there. And she must have looked quite a mess, hardly an artist’s portrait, but her faith, her hope, and her love never wavered.
She was, as we used to say in the politically incorrect and sexist quarters of the Brooklyn of my youth, one hell of a gutsy dame!! That came from her relationship with God, from love. Paul wrote, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1Cor.13:7-8). And that’s exactly why she inspires me. Heck, if I had jewels and crowns and angels and archangels playing violins for me while I float in the sky and had more titles of awe than I can keep track of, I suppose it would be a lot easier to do the right thing than it is for those of us who sweat and toil and live day-to-day, sometimes without a clue about what we’re doing, but trusting that it will become clear one of these days, that God never abandons us…that grace comes often in the most unexpected ways.
I looked again at the chipped and worn and stained image of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and I realized again that I like it because it reminded me of who she is and who I can be. And it doesn’t happen by floating in air. Oh, I have a feeling that when we move into our new home it won’t be taken with us. That’s okay, too, because we don’t need any image to pray. Probably some artistically beautiful representation of the Blessed Virgin symbolizing the heavenly reward that is hers will be seen there instead. And that’s fine, too. It’s all one story after all. It’s just important to remember that the glory of the saints comes from the faith, hope and love they lived out every moment of their lives. And like I heard in Brooklyn, she was one hell of a gutsy dame. Love will do that to you! John reminds us, “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in them.” (1 Jn.4:16). Mary, Mother of Jesus, what a great woman, such a blessing to know!
– Fr. Daniel Sormani, C.S.Sp.
Fr. Dan is a Spritan priest who teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines
© 2016, essay and photographs (portrait and statue), Daniel Sormani, All rights reserved; photograph of miraculous medal by Xhienne under CC BY-SA 3.0 license