To think of Mary’s story as unfinished gives me comfort. There are moments in my morning quiet time, the smoke of rose incense rising, where I pray to her and I find that sense of peace within.
It starts in my center, like a cloud clearing, and peacefulness radiates. Those moments, I fully trust that everything in my life is well, and I am filled with a light, airy sensation. It’s a welcome respite to receive her comfort, because I live so much of the time hounded by my worries of the future. Do I have enough money to support myself, what if my cancer comes back. When I can connect to her I even, most importantly, let go of my endless anxieties about my two adult children. I fill with gratitude that we are all still here, my children and I, and that we have everything we need, and it’s more than enough.
I’m painfully aware that those moments of pure trust often elude me, even though I keep Mary’s images near. On a chain around my neck, never taking it off, I wear a tiny Blessed Mother medallion (made for infants). She’s also on my skin 24/7 in a Renaissance image by Della Robbia. This “Bliss Madonna” tattoo was inked on my left arm during some of the darkest hours of my life. On my desk, I keep a zoomed-in photograph I took at the Duomo in Florence, Italy. As I write this, her eyes gaze from under her hefty marble crown, and her scepter tilts toward me. What I am admitting is that even in spite of my round-the-clock seeking, I often feel so far from the possibility of a mother’s love. I believe I am, however sad this might be, still struggling with feeling worthy. This unworthiness has hounded me since childhood, and it is only in my 50s that I have been making any significant headway in changing it.
Now, as I reflect, I see that the mornings and the autumns and the years have gone by, and in continuing to pray to her, I’ve been able to let her in more and more, and because of this, I am realizing my worth. I can say that I love myself now with a tenderness that I had not ever known—this is from her. I can say that I am more gentle with others now, the gentlest I have ever been. This is from her.
I want so much to keep deepening my ability to be gentle with myself, with others, with the world. So this, I think, is her unfinished story moving forward. The story of being able, each day like a new brushstroke, to feel more loved and more whole. With her perpetual blessing, I see how far I have come. I have such a long way to go.
Mary, I find comfort in your embrace. Enfold me in your mantle where I can find rest.
Fill me with your gifts of grace, that I may persevere through all I have before me. With you, I find peace and joy.
As a writer I’m particularly struck by words that most of us know the meaning of, yet rarely incorporate into our daily conversations. Relinquishment is such a word.
I begin each day asking the Divine to help me let go, to help me surrender, and now I will also ask for help in relinquishment. It has a more impactful song than “let go,” a plushness beyond “surrender.” How beautiful to connect the cadenced syllables of this word with the exquisite face of the Black Madonna.
I love stories of spiritual epiphanies, even more so when they occur on pilgrimages. Holly’s story of giving over her crippling thoughts to Mary is uplifting and depicts the miracles that occur when we seek her. To let go of something that is impeding us from giving our unique talents fully in our lives—this is a miracle. Not just for the person receiving it, but also a miracle for all those who will be touched by a woman living and creating with more trust and open-heartedness in the world. In other words, a woman living more like Mary, in alignment with God. The word alignment always makes me think of that image of a straw in a river, turning itself to just allow the water to flow through. It’s so simple, and yet, when it comes to relinquishing, so hard. It’s a daily challenge to turn like that straw, and to allow the river of God to flow through.
It can take time to even recognize the weight of the heavy thoughts within us; they are insidious. Holly locates the burdensome question she’s carried: Who do I think I am? I, too, have had a similar question inside me, and I’ve had many conversations with other seekers who also struggle with this. For me, the voice inside mocks and jeers, asking, Who do you think you are? For this voice, the answer clearly is, you’re nothing.
These negative thoughts can feel so much like conclusive facts. They hurt us to the point where we end up groping in a false sense of darkness. But the Great Mother does not leave her children in a scary place alone. A mother’s love reaches into the places in our heart where we need her most. And so, the image of the Black Madonna shows us a way out of those lies, a way beyond our low-esteem, beyond our wounds of feeling unworthy. The radiant serenity in her expression, and the luminous pearl of a world she holds, is a counterpoint to our contemptuous inner voices. Gazing on the Black Madonna doesn’t just redirect our negative self-thoughts, it exposes them for the lies they are and melts them. Relinquishing our lives to Mary allows the buds of our true selves to turn to the light and to blossom.
Mary, help me to be a good example of what is good and holy.
Help me to appreciate the gifts God has given me and to keep my thoughts and actions pure.
I love this expression “pondering in our hearts” because it so aptly captures my own journey with Mary. In all my years walking a spiritual path, I’ve striven to bring the best of who I am to each of my roles as a woman. Mary, too, was a daughter, wife, sister, friend, and mother. While all these relationships have dignity, it is true for me, and for Mary, that the role of mother is the one in which we have been required to stretch our spiritual selves most profoundly. While we know bits and pieces of how she imbued her grace within each of these roles, it’s when I begin to ponder who she was during the crucifixion that I find I have needed her most.
Of course, I am continuously drawn to images of her gentleness, in particular, how artists throughout the centuries have depicted the quietness of her hands crossed over her heart upon hearing Gabriel’s announcement. But Mary has infinite range, and her strength, awakened by her sorrow in what she had to witness, is what has carried me through my darker times as a mother.
Parenthood can be an immensely lonely experience, even when you have support. Every parent, to varying degrees, will have to watch their child suffer. The heartrending fact is that even with the unending well of love flowing inside you, sometimes you cannot alter your child’s human path. You will be fully present to their aching, and your own aching, as you have to witness them precisely as Mary saw Christ: your child hurt by others, or bullied, or uncertain, or lost, vulnerable, scared, and alone.
The powerlessness Mary had to endure in Christ’s crucifixion is beyond words. Her astonishing fierceness often gets overlooked. When I have pondered the Stations of the Cross, I see that though she couldn’t prevent him from staggering and falling that first time, she was there right after he did. She shows us that parenthood, in fact, all deep relationships, brings unpredictable and harrowing passages, and that while our love cannot alleviate suffering, our love can encircle people amidst the suffering.
Like Mary, I’ve known the bliss of holding my warm, dreaming infant. And like Mary I’ve watched my children grow up beyond the protection of my arms, striding into the chaos and calamity of the world. I don’t mean to suggest, in any way, that being a mother is only being on guard for my children, that I live this role harried and fraught. Not at all. But I am expressing that in all my life, I’ve been most challenged in my faith while watching the pain of my children.Mary has shown me how to withstand the steps along the tumultuous path. As mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, friends, we can turn to her and trust her to understand any crushing situation we face.
Mary, you listened for God’s message through the angel Gabriel and did not hesitate with your “Yes” in obedience to his will.
Teach me to listen for God’s voice, to be aware of his messengers.
I must admit, Holly’s rendering of a cross-cultural Mary touches my heart. In it, I see the shy expression of hundreds of teen girls I’ve taught. The omnipresence of Mary’s love is essential because I can’t rely on yesterday’s beliefs. I need the renewal of her guidance near me everyday.
Like today. One of my students stands outside the classroom. I will call her Jasmine. She’s only fourteen, tells me her birthday is soon; in fact, it’s four months away. But she’s eager to turn fifteen, to shed her childhood as fast as she can. I know it’s actually years before she’ll be able to leave the tumult of the daily dysfunction she endures.
“It’s bad,” she whispers, her eyebrows raised.
“I know, honey.” We face one another in the hallway, the classroom door slightly shut, the rest of the kids getting settled for my class. I often take this sort of private time with students. It’s not really private, and it’s not ever enough time. But I practice something my spiritual director taught me: I imagine a thread between my heart and Jasmine’s, connecting us, a bridge.
I knew when Jasmine walked through my door in September that something wasn’t right—the bags under her espresso-brown eyes, the gaunt shadows in light brown cheekbones, the endless talk of being hungry, her head put down on the desk, the furtive movements of her eyes keeping secrets.
Jasmine shakes her head. I can see the Mary in her. The holiness. I think, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” I don’t even have time to complete the whole prayer. What to say to this child? I notice she’s wrapped her hair exceptionally high today, pinned it into an enormous smooth nest standing tall.
I attempt to redirect her sorrow. “You’re like a queen with that bun.”
Her teeth are crooked and her lips are chapped but her smile is luminous. She admits, “I know. I am rockin’ this bun.”
Though Jasmine is barely five feet, I tease her, “You’re like, what, six feet tall with that thing?”
“Yes,” she agrees, pleased. I hold her gaze, her irises dancing with light. I reach toward the handle and pull it and we step through the door together. If I could have one wish, it would be to have all the girls of the world lift their eyes up with hope. All the girls. Each Lily. Each Rose. Each Violet.
Mary, help me to take the time for others, not always rushing in and out,
but fully experiencing moments that last and sharing memories.
I’ve never understood Eve. Whenever I think of her apple, my mind is drawn to another woman with an “ordinary” object who has led me to Mary. I am hesitating to tell this story because it’s unbelievably precious to me. Four years ago, through a series of events that were undeniably serendipitous, I found myself spending the month of June at a writer’s retreat in the mountains of Assisi, Italy. On a blistering hot afternoon, I descended the steps into the cool underground of the Basilica of St. Clare.
I was unprepared for the intensity of the relics displayed. I became almost disoriented. Clare was lying there, quite tiny. When I turned, I bumped into what I thought was a lantern, but was in fact a glass cube filled with snippets of baby-fine, white curls. This pile of her hair shook me even more than her bones. Beyond that, I encountered Francis’ tunic, the primitive hide roughly stitched. Maternal tenderness ran through me at the sight of his course stocking, only one, not even a pair. Blood crusted the arch—stains of the stigmata.
And that is when I saw Clare’s dress.
The dress was the shade of spring, at the very beginning, when the tiniest of buds first appear in pale green mist. It floated high above all the other relics, as if airborne, so utterly, delightfully girly, I actually laughed out loud. I studied it for over an hour, because I didn’t want to break the rules and photograph this sacred object. I needed to make sure the details were captured in my mind forever: the goddess-drape of the long sleeves, the high medieval bodice, the soft cotton, nearly see-through.
The next day, at breakfast with the other artists and writers, one of the women commented that she did not believe that dress could really be Clare’s, after all these centuries. That it had to be some sort of reproduction, and besides, a dress that enormous would never have fit those small bones. I was appalled, then saddened, not arguing with her. I spent that day in silence under a ripening fig tree, thinking. And I have thought about this quite a bit ever since.
What I learned then is that I am a woman who quietly believes. I don’t need to convince anyone of anything, I just need to keep walking my own path. And on this path, saints like Clare will keep leading me to the Great Mother. I believe that dress was Clare’s. I believe it was her feminine spirit that emanated from within. In the years since I stood before it, the dress has returned to me, lunar-moth like, floating in the dark and bringing coolness to the heat of my 3 a.m. insomnia. It reminds me to turn to Mary, to pray, to let go and let her magic fill the air like a lullaby. To let the Blessed Mother sing.
Mary, help me to be a good example to those in my life.
Help me to take the time for others, to be fully alive and present in the moment.
I’ve mentioned my struggle feeling worthy of God’s love, even in spite of having an incredible life where I love so many, and am loved in return. Recently I had an experience with Mary that, as Holly says, pierced my heart in its beauty and simplicity, and led me right to Christ’s love.
A vital part of my spiritual life is a daily walk in the valley along a river where I observe the incessant shifting of New England seasons. Since I’m often overwhelmed by situations in my life, I find a great deal of solace in the truth of how the river changes. The Farmington River, about the width of a three-lane highway, rushed high that day, moving at a good pace after a weekend of heavy rain. I spotted a single male Mallard duck with a glistening emerald-green head. Usually the ducks are in a group of pairs along the shallow edges. He came around a tight bend, about eight feet from shore, where the current was the fastest, and the surface the glassiest.
He was just riding the river. I burst out laughing because he was such a tiny creature surrounded by all that water, all those trees and sky, and I could tell he felt really good. He had no intention of stopping or changing his mind. Clearly, it was just so fun. There was no need to turn around, or to fly away. He kept gliding along as if—well, as if he were part of the river. Which he was.
I kept watching him until he slid out of sight beyond the farthest turn. And this is what struck me: from the moment I spied that duck, I loved him. It made no sense. I stood on that riverbank, wondering if this is how Mary viewed me. Was I like that duck, just moving along, and she was near even if I didn’t know it? And how could I love a little duck that quickly?
It was then that lyrics returned to me. I had not thought of this song, in all honesty, in decades. We sang it at the 10:00 folk mass when I was child. Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me. I would say that the duck qualifies as the “least of my brothers.” Standing all alone in the tranquility of the woods, my connection to nature turned into an understanding of how Mary loves me and, ultimately, how Christ works through us all.
The heart is the heart, joyous and free. It makes no sense that I loved that duck. Love just is. I’m dumbfounded by the mystery of it all. In thinking of his shiny green head now, I wonder if this is how Christ feels sometimes. That we are like the little ducks, riding the river, and we are loved. If only we knew.
Mary, you show me the importance of simplicity.
May I not be weighed down by the odds and ends of this world but stay simple and filled with love for all.
Like many people, I had a grandmother who influenced my faith so thoroughly that 25 years after her death I still find guidance in what she left behind. I inherited a simple 5x7 piece of cardboard that’s one of my most precious belongings. Printed on it is an image of the Sacred Heart with which you are probably familiar. Jesus’ face flickers with light radiating from his own burning heart, the flames rising from a crown of thorns. His eyes follow you everywhere. Not in an eerie haunted-house-painting way, but in a “I see you, I’m here for you” way. A “I’m listening” way.
My Grandma May kept this picture tacked to the wall in the spare room where she lost one of her children. Her grown son had been staying with her and passed one night in his sleep; she found him in his bed. At the age of 78 she endured the most traumatic of losses. In her remaining years, when I’d go visit her, we’d dunk ‘Nilla wafers in our tea and talk. “God has been so good to me,” she’d repeat.
I have a fierce sense of justice, albeit a limited human one. Quite honestly, in my 20s, I doubted whether or not God had been good to her. But who was I to question whether this was true? She believed it, and I respected her. So in the ensuing 25 years I’ve carried her words of faith in my heart, and that framed Sacred Heart has watched over me every night. It’s that unflinching gaze of love, from Jesus, and Mary, that, like a child, I need.
Holly’s image of the Blessed Mother with Jesus, their robes and halos awash in faces of the varied colors and features of the human family, is a dazzling depiction of needs being met. We need each other, as people. We need to be seen, and heard, and listened to, by each other, and by God. Perhaps this is why she has painted the eyes of Mary and Jesus in a Forget-me-not blue. Because we are a treasured part of the family we are never ignored and we are never neglected.
It still stuns me that even with that well of loss, my grandmother trusted God with her heart. She gave me such a long-lasting example of how to live as a woman of faith. As I write this, I remember there was one more thing I got from my grandmother. I was named after her, the Irish form of Mary. Her given name was Mary, but we called her the diminutive, May.
May, the month we celebrate Mary, and all mothers. As a little girl I used to love May Day: picking wild violets, putting them in a tiny paper cone and hanging it on my front door, and ringing the bell, and running way, leaving flowers for my mother to discover. Together we can continue to celebrate Mary, and mothers, and giving to one another, ringing bells and strewing our love like leaving behind delicate flowers for others to find.
Mother Mary, there is a deep desire in all of us to help others in need.
Teach me to reach beyond what I am capable of, past what is expected.