Posted by: Peadar Ban | April 25, 2019

Our Lady

How long ago, and how old must I have been when I first heard about Our Lady. But it must have been when I was very young. This is a memory, one among the first: both my Grandmothers with their rosary in hand every day, and their lips moving ever so slightly as they prayed. Why do I love her more and more?

There isn’t much more to say other than, “Because!” It’s a kid’s answer to a lot of big questions, “Because!” But, it has long seemed to me the best one there is. You can weave a story later that comes after your “Because!” Often when I asked the typical kid’s question, “Why?”, the only answer I got was, “Because!” Again and again. And then, sometimes years went by, before the rest, the information contained in “because” like it was some kind of DNA, became very clear.

In school one of the first prayers we learned was the Hail Mary, the nuns telling us that she was our mother, too; the Mother of the Whole World, and the Queen of Heaven and Earth. But, still, she was, somehow, my own mother in heaven. These were the things we “believed”; knowledge on a higher level, of a different kind, than everyday facts and figures. And, we did believe it; still do.

Everywhere we went, when I was a little one, there was some reminder of Mary; in homes, in conversations, and around the necks of boys and girls, men and women, and most assuredly in Churches, at Mass, in her many songs of joy always tinged with sadness, in the statues, the paintings the beautiful windows.

We would not go swimming in the very polluted waters of the Harlem River in New York City near home, even my few non-Catholic friends, without something of Mary’s protection around our waste or neck, a rosary or medal of some kind. We had no doubt she would protect us. That I am writing this now, more than a half-century after those hazardous days it seems to me is proof enough that she was interested in her “spiritual” children’s physical health and well being as well as their spiritual health and liveliness.

Things changed as I grew older, and Mother Mary became less a part of my life. I have no doubt now, though, that she had not forgotten me, though I may have wandered far from her. Too many subtle indications of her care and concern, and of her ready ear for pleas to help in one thing or another make me ever more aware of her loving interest.

This is, perhaps, a description of a long journey back to her warm lap, to her company and care; certainly after its first beginnings some years before. Long ago, visiting relatives with Sheila, mother of my children may she rest in peace, we were at Mass in a church in another town. It was a Marian Feast Day, and a Holy Day of Obligation, one of those days when Catholics go to Mass that isn’t the Sabbath. Such a bother one might think. The celebrant and pastor addressed us in a sermon that must have begun, not in his brain, nor in his soul, but in a very upset and angry stomach. I thought it, really, not in good taste. The good man complained that the present day was yet another one on the Catholic calendar devoted to Mary. His complaint was, I remember, that she had more feasts, a simple woman, and mother, during the year’s turn than her Son, the Redeemer of the world. I wanted to defend her, but then thought of my own neglect down the years.

The thought came then, and lives now that without that young woman’s simple yes… Well…

Calm returned after being told the pastor was a convert, allowances are called for, and one must never punch a priest in the nose. Poor guy, I have since thought with a smile, he probably went swimming in some ghastly place with no special protection when he was a kid.

Let me back up. The long curve round to Mary began earlier than that and continued into and through college. A Freshman course opened my eyes to the wide world of Catholic culture, often referred to as Western Culture. But, really, we know just whose culture it is. Well, one of the first things this course brought to eyes and mind was beauty in places I hadn’t ever thought about, and hadn’t ever dreamed could be as rich and, well, beautiful; music and art. You see, it was the 1960’s and art was, well, you know for a street urchin, a term my mother used from time to time. We avoided, more or less, art and left it to be where it should be, in museums and stuff which were filled with strange things and stranger people guys like me would rather stay away from. You might catch something there.

Nevertheless, we were required to go into such places and expose ourselves to “Art”, and to take what may happen like the men we already thought we were. Surprise was the first thing.

Who knew?

After my first trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a few lectures back in the classroom about what I had been asked to pay attention to I found myself one day in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, home base so to speak for Catholicism in my home town. Having been there several times as a young child with my parents, the church building was familiar. Now, it was different. Then I had no “big” ideas about culture and art, or what they meant, or why they were. Things were just there and were what they were. I might stand in the middle or before the altar and look up, or all around at the place, and even like it. But, understanding was beyond me, or better not even thought of by me. Can a small child tell itself or anyone else it’s meaning, purpose or usefulness. Christ, of course, and He did over three days once. I probably cannot do that even now; but I have my own ideas.

So, on that day, St. Patrick’s “told” me something about itself, about me and about the rest of the world. I was surprised again, and enchanted, overwhelmed and, strange thing, thankful. It was a little embarrassing.

Back to Sheila, now, the woman who chose me. We were wed in St. Patrick’s. She was a student of the Cathedral High School which gave all graduates the privilege of being married there. Ours was a small wedding, in the Lady Chapel behind the main altar, in front of a beautiful rendering of Our Lady (Notre Dame). Being married there was something Sheila had dreamed of since, well, perhaps forever.

That memory of mine joined the others of St. Patrick’s in my heart and mind, and, as memories often do, befriended the knowledge I had gained of those things from school, the ones about art, and reverence, beauty and that strange word, Dulia, in my mind and heart.

We have a tradition in Catholicism, a tradition we call “making a visit”. It may be a dead one these days. But, when the doors of Catholic churches were kept open always not so long ago, they were never empty. We regularly visited to talk to God, and to His saints, especially His Holy Mother. Visiting praying to, and paying one’s respect to the saints even had it’s own word, Dulia; an old Latin thing, perhaps. There’s a special Latin word reserved for such a thing done to God, Latria. You can look it up.

There has long been a desire within me to drop in, sort of on Mary in those other places one may go to “make a visit”. I recall one in Poland years ago, in Częstochowa the great center in that country of her devotion. It was there that I encountered her during a pilgrimage and among thousands of others on her Feast Day, the Black Virgin painted so it goes by St. Luke almost the same as the other Polish one, at Montserrat, each time, becoming more connected with the “person” behind the image. Same person. Different place.

There was nothing more than a desire to fulfill a decades old wish that led me to Notre Dame when I finally went to Paris about two years ago, and to walk inside the place which had occupied my passing thoughts for years. So, the day came. But, I had already been there in my imagination so frequently that upon entering the church there was a moment of “let down” rather than a thrill of “finally”.

It did not last long, certainly not as long as the wait outside to get inside. But, I was, nevertheless, there. And, I waited, I suppose, to hear a voice calling my name, or see someone approaching me; my Mother. That soon left me as Mariellen and I wandered around inside an ancient beauty.

In the subdued quiet of the place I felt very much at home. I have always had a sense of welcome and peace in every Catholic Church I have ever entered, small or large, around the world. But, here, was something different for me. After a few minutes, I felt at home. Really at home! Maybe it is the name.

Now, it is gone. I actually wept when I learned of the fire, Wept and prayed, prayed and wept.

Oh, I am happy that so much has been saved. And, I pray that it will sometime be restored to the way it was in every respect. But, though I can remember almost every step in the all too short time we were there, and that is a consolation. I do not think I will every see it again..

That is what makes that morning so annoyingly poignant for me. You see, I had been thinking about the visit to Our Lady, going over it almost step by step, and taking pleasure in thinking, too, about the next one….

Now…?


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