In Your Midst

Mary Our Mother

Dec. 2008

Cathedral parishioners offer meditations on the Mother of God

           Years ago I saw a lovely statue of Mary in a village church in Germany that caught my attention and stayed with me ever since.  The statue was old—from the late middle ages.  Somewhat precariously balanced on her right arm—as if she were offering him to the world— was the child Jesus; below her, gathered into the folds of her mantle that was spread wide were all kinds of people who had clearly found a home there, and a safe refuge.  There were peasants and priests, popes, and just enough people to represent every one of us.

           I thought of that beautiful statue as I read the following stories written by some of our fellow parishioners.  It wasn’t difficult at all to picture each of those parishioners carved into that old statue, sheltered under Mary’s protective cloak, one of her children, part of her family.
No two stories are the same, of course.  Each person’s relationship with Mary is unique. But there is a common thread among them, as you will see.

           The great St. Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote, De Maria, numquam satis (One can never say enough about Mary).  He was right.  Maybe after reading the thoughts of your fellow parishioners you will find yourself thinking your own thoughts about Mary and who she is to you.  During these days of Advent and Christmas when Mary is such a central part of the story may you come to realize in new ways how much she is part of your story.

Father Michael G. Ryan

Who is Mary to me? Mary, the mother of Jesus, has many images for me.

      For most of my life, I have seen Mary as Mater Admirabilis—Mother Most Admirable—patroness of all Sacred Heart schools around the world. Mater is the depiction of Mary as a young girl before her call from God, as a peaceful and contemplative young woman. A Sacred Heart tradition is to write down special intentions and leave them in Mater’s lap. While working at Forest Ridge I visited her regularly for my own prayers and the intentions of others who called or emailed me their prayers to be offered.

       My other Mary, a more mature depiction, is the statue of Our Lady of Seattle in the chapel at St. James. Like Mater, my relationship with this Mary began with my grandmother, Marie-Louise, who years ago taught me to light candles and offer special prayers to Mary at St. James. Fortunately my new job across the street from St. James makes it convenient to take a break from work and visit Mary.  In the first four weeks of my job I’ve had three phone calls from friends requesting that I run over to offer special intentions to Mary for them.

           In December I remember another Mary, one who is not spoken of often: Mary the strong and brave. After having my own children I realized Mary was exceptionally physically strong. Traveling to Bethlehem by donkey and foot during the last month of pregnancy must have been unbelievably uncomfortable, not to mention giving birth to her precious little boy in a stable. Mary’s courage, confidence, and strength are qualities we should emulate.

           I’ve always known Mary is near to help me make good decisions and offer solace whenever needed. I pray to her daily and have been grateful for her help through life’s many challenges and joys.

Jeanne Flohr

           When we asked our children about Mary, Tony and I received various answers according to their ages. Diego (age 6) loves the beautiful blue and white robe she wears in the statue in our home. JJ (15) thinks of a maternal figure and forgiveness.  And of course, baby Miguel just smiled. Tony reflects on the fact that Mary always stood by her son, never wavering in her love and support when others abandoned Jesus.

           For me, my earliest childhood memories are of the much repeated story of  Mary’s appearance to Juan Diego in Mexico. This was a great source of pride for my abuela (grandmother) since much of our family was originally from Mexico. She would tell me over and over about the miracle of the Sevillian roses, miraculously appearing in winter, brought to the bishop by the humble Juan Diego of Tepeyac.

           Upon receipt of this gift, he was asked to build a basilica on that very spot. As a lasting reminder, Juan Diego left his own tilma (serape) with the bishop, which had the image of Mary upon the rough fabric.

           It was with my grandmother that I later visited the holy shrine in Mexico City and saw with my own eyes the tilma of Juan Diego emblazoned with her beautiful likeness upon it. I can still see the hundreds of people making their way to the basilica on their knees in supplication and reverence to the Blessed Mother.

           Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe holds a special place in the heart of all Latinos, because she showed herself to an Indio and not one of the ruling Spaniard class.  She looked like our mothers, brown skin, black eyes and the same sense of compassion and strength that defines Latin women.

           In my own life, there have been two occasions our family absolutely needed her intervention and grace. On each occasion, she was there for us.

           Mark Contratto

Dearest Mother Mary,

           Remember the first time I became aware of your presence?  It was just before I entered kindergarten, when my mother would take me to Our Lady of Perpetual Help church on Wednesdays for the 7:00 pm Mass and novena prayers.  How I loved watching my mother and the thousands of devotees praying and singing hymns with such tender devotion, their eyes closed and their heads tilted upwards pleading, thanking, praising you, our Mother, the Queen of Heaven and Earth.  I knew even then that you are the Mother of Jesus, but I did not realize until much later just how much your intercession meant.

           Then, there was our annual family pilgrimage to the Antipolo Church, sixty miles from where we lived in Makati—the church where you, the Patroness of Peace and Good Voyage, are venerated by your children.  You looked very beautiful in your blue and white gown with the bright, diamond studded halo around your face.  I never asked my mother why we went there every year, on her birthday, but from her excitement and her insistence on the annual pilgrimage, I grew to learn that you were very much a part of her life.

           Thank you for being part of my life also. You cried with me and comforted me in my moments of grief.  I felt your presence when my children were growing up, patiently guiding me to be a good mother.  And when I have to make important decisions, I turn to you for inspiration and direction.  I love praying the Hail, Holy Queen and the Memorare.  Those two prayers have saved my sanity so many times!

           What better lesson in humility than to know that the Mother of God, the Mother of the King of Kings, the Mother of the Messiah, gave birth to and raised her only Son in the most humble of surroundings!  You never called attention to yourself.  When I feel harassed, I remind myself of your quiet and serene support of Jesus. When I am angry or hurt and want to rant and wail, I think of you at the foot of the Cross, standing strong, and silent in the midst of His crucifiers.  Two thousand years after you lived among us, you continue to be modest and simple.

           Mama Mary, I want to share with you my joy at learning that my granddaughter will soon be baptized.  This is the answer to my daily prayer to you since the day she was born four and a half years ago.  My prayer is for you to be a living and loving presence in my granddaughter’s life, as you have been in mine.  I pray that your name will be on her lips the moment she wakes up and before she closes her eyes to go to sleep.

           Your daughter, Alma Kern

           Christmas is my favorite holiday of the year. There is nothing more special to me than being able to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ here at St. James Cathedral every December. As I write this reflection, one particular image comes to mind as I remember a time when I attended 5:30pm Mass on Christmas Eve.

           That year, I, along with several other children, was chosen to push the cart that carried Mary to the altar. I was so excited! What could be more special than being in charge of the cart of Jesus’ Mother? The cart with the barn animals was certainly not as appealing to me, that’s for sure. As the time to go up to the altar approached, I was nervous and eager all at once to do my part.

           When we slowly started moving, I just happened to look up at the statue of Mary for the very first time that night. She was kneeling and held a look of quiet contentment on her face. The artist’s rendition was beautiful of course, but more importantly, it got me thinking about Mary’s pivotal role in the Gospel and in my life.

           To me, the image of Mary will always be the gentle mother. She is loving, caring and quietly looking after everything in the world. When I reflect on the words of the Hail Mary, I pray that she will guide me to follow in her footsteps from the big decisions in my life, to seemingly everyday actions.
So this year, when I walk into the pine scented chapel and see Mary kneeling in the beautiful nativity scene with her gaze upon little baby Jesus, I pray that she will help me focus on what is important and to welcome Jesus in any way I can.

           Catherine Nguyen

           Standing in a circle around the altar with the other Cathedral Choir men, I close my eyes in anticipation of the Marian antiphon about to begin:

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum;
benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus.

           As an adult convert to Catholicism, I am still learning about and exploring the resonance of Mary in my adopted faith. When I think of her, it still makes my head spin to reconcile the “mother of Jesus” and “Mother of God.”

Maria dixit: Ecce ancilla Domini;
fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.

           The music swirls around my head as melody, harmony, and prayer converge. I am grateful to witness and participate in this community’s—my community’s—thankful offering.

Et verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis.

           Singing of and for Mary reminds me of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I have sung in Spanish of Juan Diego’s vision and Mary’s message of love and compassion. I have sung in the native Celtal language of Chiapas, Mexico, as well. I am continually amazed by the infinite ways Mary reveals herself to humanity.

Sancta Maria, mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae, Amen.

           I am grateful that the antiphon compels me to ask for Mary’s prayers for myself. My needs are many, but I often feel that in a world of need, mine are unimportant. I am reminded that Our Lady of Guadalupe assured Juan Diego that she wanted him (“the smallest of my children”) to carry her message to the bishop.

           Standing there, I can feel our voices rise and fall; moving forward and resolving in chords that lift the congregation’s prayers up into the rafters. Together, as children of Mary, we give musical voice to the prayers of our brothers and sisters:  Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum; benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesus.

John Jarrett

           On our wedding day, my husband and I received a beautiful statue of Mary as a wedding present. While I’m a “cradle Catholic” who has embraced my faith through most of my life, I had no idea how important—how symbolic—that statue would become. For you see, it accompanied me to the hospital for the births of my daughters…

           In the summer of 1997, I whispered Hail, Mary! through each contraction as Isabelle Marie came into the world.

           Dearest friends and family prayed Hail, Mary! when my daughter Lindy Marie was stillborn six years ago.  As I grieved the loss of Lindy, I spent many hours so angry with God, but never with Mary. I felt somehow that she was making that journey of profound loss with me, as she had done with the loss of her son.

           Finally, Hail, Mary! echoed through my pregnancy with Sadie Marie three years ago; I asked our Holy Mother to intercede and prayed that all would be well. Hail, Mary!—a prayer of joy as I lay in the hospital after Sadie’s safe arrival.

           Mary is my mentor as I mother my children; their shared middle name is a tribute to her. My girls and I visit the Mary shrine at St. James nearly every Sunday to light a candle (taking care not to burn anyone’s hair in the process!). The Cassiopeia constellation painted on the ceiling of the shrine is the same constellation where Lindy has a star named after her.  This coincidence—or is it?—causes me to feel close to my daughter in heaven, reminding me that even in death, we are close to those we love.

           It is a great comfort to me, knowing that Mary is with me through all of the joys and trials of my life. I am truly blessed. Hail, Mary!

           Katherine Berry

           The prayers honoring the Blessed Virgin are simple, beautiful, and direct: we say, “Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women…” We call her Queen of Heaven and Star of the Sea; we ask her to intercede when we confess our sins. And Mary herself prays: “My soul magnifies the Lord…”

           Set to music and surrounded by artwork and graceful statuary, these prayers in honor of Mary take on an even deeper dimension of reverence: they are themselves magnified, amplified, and enriched, carrying us even further into the mystery of the divine. So many times—as when singing Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria with the Cathedral Choir, or when processing out after the Sunday evening Mass with the unearthly sound of the Women of St. James Schola enveloping me from behind—I think, “This is it. This is really it. In this holy prayer I am in the presence of God.”

           Of course, with Advent upon us and Christmas rapidly approaching, the prayer most prominent in my mind is Mary’s Magnificat. In it, Mary expresses her gratitude to God, for he has called her to bring into the world a perfect manifestation of the divine, God Himself in human form.
Sainthood, as Father Ryan has said, has to do with answering God’s call. It means doing all I can to be the person God intended me to be. It means resisting the temptation to give up when I am discouraged, and it means resisting the temptation to claim glory for myself when I succeed. Because of this, I have made Mary's prayer my own: for who is not called to bring goodness, beauty, and truth into the world? And who would want more than to glorify the God who created us? Is this not what God calls each of us to do? As we manifest the Holy Spirit through our unique gifts, is not each and every one of us giving birth to Christ?

Ward Johnson

           Mary has always been an important person in my life.  I remember a gaudily painted statue of Mary that had a prominent place in my bedroom when I was very young—sometimes with scrunched up dandelions at her feet.  The Hail Mary was one of the first prayers I remember saying—followed not long after by the Memorare which was often said by both my parents in times of need and of thanksgiving.  The family rosary was important, especially during October, Advent, Lent, and May.  We knelt around the piano bench because there was a statue of Mary, Our Lady of Grace, above.  I remember being especially impressed by a family story of a cousin named Marian.  Marian said the rosary every night before bed, and one particular night she died.  When she was found a day or so later she was still kneeling upright with rosary in hand!

           Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary have a very special relationship to Mary.  We all received a form of the name Mary when we received our religious name—I was Sister Mary Leonore.
There was a beautiful statue of Mater Admirabilis in our Novitiate Room—a sacred spot where we laughed and cried, prayed, discerned, did our spiritual reading and darned our stockings.  Mary was our model and “to Jesus through Mary” became a motto.  The Memorare, so important in my childhood, continues to be an important prayer for members of our community.  As SNJM’s, whenever we get into a car for even a short trip our journey begins with a prayer, “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary...” 

           It was on December 8—Feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception—that our foundress, Mother Mary Rose and companions, established our community and professed their Vows of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.  To this day, we Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary continue to renew our Vows on this great Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Now that I’m mostly retired I am very happy to have the time to just sit with Mary, my Mother.

Anne Herkenrath, snjm

Holy Mary, Mother of God, the portal, the chalice.  Our Mother.

      And as our Mother, Mary represents the fundamental dignity and nobility of every woman, and every woman a small mirror—a magnificat—of Mary.  For through her fiat she brought Christ into the world, and through Him, the Church.  And every woman chosen in Christ to bring new life into the world participates in nothing less than the extension of the mystical body of Christ—the Church—in space and time.  For if we are His body—if we are the Church—then each new life ensures the Church’s expansion in perpetuity.  And there, as it mysteriously stretches out forever, we encounter Mary once again in every woman.

       Is not Mary in this way a supernova in history, appearing on the scene inconspicuously enough, and yet through the Holy Spirit, acting as a lightning rod of God’s will and thereby altering the very fabric of the universe?  Surely our Marian alcove at St. James places her under an azure firmament of golden stars, and the candlelight of so many “suns,” as if in symbolic testament to this truth?  I like to think each woman, in seemingly so small a way, also arrives on history’s stage to enact that same will of God; like Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah, consenting to life, called to mystery.

           Each time I pray the Rosary with my family, those words “Blessed art thou among women” leave me wanting to add “and every woman after thee.”

Matthew Bruno

           “I don’t understand why Catholics worship Mary.”  While she said this, her eyes darted back and forth over the table-top that separated us.  She sat erect in the chair but fidgeted as if she were confessing something and hoped that I wouldn’t be offended.  Clearly, this issue had been bothering her for a while, and she had been waiting for the right time and, perhaps, the right person with whom to address the topic of Marian devotion.

           As an RCIA team member at St. James Cathedral, I hear statements like this frequently.  My knee-jerk response was to unleash my inner-professor and give her a theological lecture contrasting hyperdulia and latria in an effort to convince her that the honor with which Catholics esteem Mary is very different from the worship we owe to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  However, I reminded myself that the RCIA process is not a theology seminar but an apprenticeship in faith.  So, I began telling her about my faith journey and the role that Mary has played in it.  I noticed her relaxing after she realized that her question was the same one with which I have struggled for years.

           In the Baptist and Methodist churches of my youth, Mary was only mentioned in December.  She was pulled out of the basement, dusted-off and propped-up next to a bearded Joseph amongst a menagerie of animals all gazing at the blonde-headed, blue-eyed infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and resting in a manger.  Sadly, the theological implications of Jesus’ incarnation and Mary’s very special role in it were never explored.  On December 26, Mary was consigned, both literally and figuratively, to the church basement, and she was not to be heard from again until the following December.  In the churches of my youth, Mary was definitely a bit-player.

           Later in my life, I began to feel an emptiness, a “God-sized hole,” that I have since recognized in the lives of many people in the RCIA process.  The Spirit led me to embrace the faith of the Catholic Church.  The sacramental life of the Church captivated me, and the Eucharist became and remains the center around which my life revolves.  However, my view of Mary remained similar to that of my childhood: a bit-player in salvation history.

           Later, as a graduate student in San Antonio, I began attending St. Ann’s parish, which was a poor church staffed by Dominican priests in a predominantly Latino neighborhood.  It was during this time that I began to question my assumptions about the role of Mary, who was called Nuestra Señora.  I met women and men who were so devoted to Nuestra Señora that their enthusiasm could be overwhelming.  And what stories they shared with me!  I vividly remember a woman who told me of the years during which she dealt with her husband’s alcoholism.  Sometimes, she would awaken her children late at night and take them to her mother’s house so as to shield them from his drunken rages.  This revelation was shocking to me because she and her husband were very faithful parishioners who were each involved in several ministries.  Her husband had stopped drinking seven years prior, and she credited his sobriety to the intercession of Nuestra Señora.

           Her unwavering faith led me to question my “side-lining” of Mary. I was faced with the question, “Who is Mary to me”?  My answer is still evolving, but over the years, I have found myself coming closer to Nuestra Señora.

           To me, Mary is the primordial disciple, the perfect example of a human being who fulfilled God’s will completely during her time on earth.  Mary serves as a teacher of faithfulness who demonstrates to us how to cooperate with God’s grace.  Mary is also a teacher of prayerfulness and serves as the model par excellence of contemplation in action.

           My journey to an understanding of Mary and her role in my faith has been long.  I still do not feel a strong affinity for many popular Marian devotions.  Perhaps this helps me to be sympathetic with those who come to the RCIA process uncertain about Marian devotion.  Nowadays, I’m much better equipped to address the statement that began this essay: “I don’t understand why Catholics worship Mary.”  I can reply, “We don’t worship Mary.  We learn from Mary how to be more prayerful and faithful.  Ultimately, we strive to imitate Mary in her closeness to God.”

           Nathan Standifer

           In the Magnificat, Mary’s joy is resplendent, light and full of challenge to all of us who feel our imperfections keenly, daily.  Her leap to perfect joy appears complete, without struggle or doubt. In her prayer, Mary is describing the peace and joy at having made her decision to accept the Angel’s message.  The prayer does not describe the very human moments before her decision was made. Throughout the centuries, artists have worked to depict the perfect, yet human beauty of that moment of decision.  From Giotto’s painting of the Annunciation in the late 13th century, to Fra Angelico’s Annunciation in the 15th century, we see deeper hints of the threshold that had yet to be crossed, a division between the waiting human Mary and the divine message being delivered.  The moments before the Magnificat leapt forth from Mary’s heart, were a singular threshold:  first human—full of fear, doubt, pride, curiosity and then, having crossed the threshold: fully divine—filled with wonder and joy.   The humanity of her choice—to give herself up the words of the Angel or not?—is as human a moment as any of us experience in our daily relationship with God, as we recite the words of Our Father: “…thy will be done.”

           As a smaller space within the whole of the Cathedral, the vastness of the Cathedral is left behind upon crossing the threshold into the intimate Marian Chapel.  As visitors to the Chapel, we cross our own threshold, into the Chapel, where the lights from the tawny beeswax candles of the Chapel envelop us upon entry.  We are surrounded by their flickering, ancient firelight, their translucent glow, their honey smell.  But the humanity of that crossing is not left behind, for below, the earthen blackness of the floor resonates with the dim darkness far above to create a space of light that gathers around ourselves and Mary’s image.  The lights’ richness within the darkness centers around us, around Mary’s image in the Chapel, to reassure us that Mary’s darkness was no less than ours, her light no more.

           Susan Jones

           My devotion to the Blessed Mother grew with my own motherhood. As a child I had put pink cherry blossoms in egg cups in front of a statue of Our Lady on my windowsill but, as I grew older, I lost this childish devotion and soon forgot about Her.

           Even when my four children were small, I seldom gave Her a thought. The fact that Jesus was an only child, not to mention a perfect child, seemed remote from my own experiences and trials. There would have been no tantrums in the Holy Family, no disobedience or arguing, no refusal to share. It seemed to me that the Holy Mother’s vocation was a pretty sweet one compared to mine.

           Then one day my husband and I received a phone call from a paramedic who was working on one of our teenage daughters. She had been in a head-on collision with another car and there was one fatality at the scene. As far as they knew, Helena seemed fine but could we meet them at Harborview Medical Center right away.          

           As it turned out, Helena escaped with minor injuries but she was kept in overnight as a precaution. The day we were to pick her up from Harborview, my husband and I attended the ten o’clock mass at St. James. After communion I went to the tiny Lady Chapel to say thank you for preserving Helena’s life and to pray for the soul of the other driver. As I stood there in the womb-like dark of the chapel, warmed by the flames of Her votives and the innumerable gold stars in an azure firmament, I was suddenly overcome by an absolute conviction that the Blessed Mother was truly present, watching over my children and this poor, broken world. I experienced such a piercing stab of gratitude that I broke down completely.          

           Since then, I always go and visit Her in Her beautiful, tiny chapel to thank Her and ask for Her protection over my children and the children of the world. I realize now that she is our Mother, the one who will never abandon us and will keep vigil in our lives until our death, as a loving mother sits with her sick child through the night. Because: “Never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, and sought thy intercession, was left unaided.” (Memorare).

           Suzanne M. Wolfe

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