The experience of beauty belongs to the individual because it takes place in a person’s mind and heart. It resonates, it evokes, and it speaks in the interior of the person. A picture is worth a thousand words but our own experience is what allows it to speak to us. The impact of art is in the resonance it stirs within us.
As I learned my Catholic faith I saw the importance and reverence given to Mary, and it made me uneasy. Looking at Jesus, I came to know him as Mercy who loves me, but somehow before Mary, all I saw was the weight of my imperfections. Searching for a way to know her in statues and paintings of her at Church, I couldn’t find my own experience, or anything that connected us. I didn’t know how to relate to Mary or how to approach her. She was perfect, almost stone-cold perfect, in the way I saw her.
I still desired to know her, and to love her, because she is Christ’s mother. I remember looking at the statue of Our Lady of Victory in church and whispering to Jesus awkwardly that if he wanted me to get to know his mom, he should really introduce us.
As I spent more time meditating on Christ’s life, I began to see that Mary was more than stoically perfect, she was God’s own comforter. She kept him warm as a child, found him when he went missing, and encouraged him as he began his public life. She consoled him in the Via Crucis, and she stayed fully present with him at the cross. I started to see that in His humility, God decided to allow himself to ‘need’ the comfort and strength of a mother, and that Mary was truly that for him. Knowing Christ more deeply, the image I had of Mary changed from a person made of stone to a woman of soft strength. Mercy himself needed tenderness and love, and Mary was that for Jesus.
I began to see that she was present in my own life in the same way, with the same silent, tender presence. She was there, gently present in Schubert’s Ave Maria at my grandmother’s funeral. When my husband and I got married on August 15 (Feast of the Assumption) I walked up the aisle to the same Ave Maria as my wedding march. She was there when my mom died, and we gave her to God’s arms in her funeral mass, accompanied again by the same hymn. She was there faithfully, in the pillar-moments of my own life. To comfort, to celebrate, to accompany, to love.
But I still felt it really difficult to get to know her. She was like a benevolent guest, often present, but slightly distant. Until I became a mother myself. Experiencing my own imperfect but incredibly powerful love for my child made me see into Mary’s heart for the first time. We finally had something in common. I knew now the incredible joy she felt when she looked at her Son. I knew the exhaustion that she experienced in raising a toddler, perfect or not. I knew what it was like to live the questions without answers that a mother faces, like she did, and how necessary it was to ‘ponder these things in my heart.’
I knew that she, like me, was a married woman and a mother. She shared her life and her love with Joseph and with Jesus. Mercy himself grew up in her home, in her arms, guided by her heart.
When I became a mother I finally realized why it was so hard to get to know Mary. Mary is not about herself. Her life wasn’t full of her own accomplishments, desires and talents. There is nothing in her that sets her apart as a unique individual except for how she fully gave herself to God and how fully she loved. That is how she is remembered in the Gospels, and that is the only way we can come to know her, by seeing who she was for Christ himself. Her life was about him. In looking at Jesus’ life all the detail that is missing in her own becomes present. She is the strong, gentle, kind, purposeful presence in his life. And at the cross Mercy gave his mother to us, to be present in the same way.
December 24, 2004, as we were sitting down to Christmas Eve dinner after Mass, something went wrong. I was 3 months pregnant with my 5th child and knew immediately that I needed to get to the hospital. After 4 easy, uncomplicated pregnancies, I couldn’t understand what was happening. In the emergency room it became clear. I was losing my child. All of a sudden, the world made no sense. One minute we were celebrating the birth of Christ and the next minute the baby in my womb was dying. I was confused and felt very alone. The answer to my scared, wordless cry to God was an image.
The image that came into my head was the Pieta. I was no longer alone. Mercy gave me his mother at my cross. Mary was there. Mary understood. Mary had experienced this. And she was my strength that night. In my valley of tears, she held me and she grieved with me. She shared my experience and she gave me hope. There was no more stone, no distance left in my relationship with her. She knew me, and finally, I knew her.
Mercy gave me his Mother when I needed her most. He helped me know her heart when mine was broken. Since then, I recognize her more in the quiet events of my days as well as in the important moments.
Having known her in tragedy, I feel like I know her better in the day to day. I know she loves me. I know she is there and she ‘gets me.’ And even in my imperfection, I feel like I understand her heart a little bit. I know I need her strong, quiet comfort on a daily basis the same way Jesus did. I turn to her often now, in happy moments, in the daily hidden life of a family, and in the problems I face.
The image I have of Mary is now no longer cold and distant. She is warm, radiant, loving and stronger than stone.