August 15: Feast of St. Mary
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in you, O God my Savior, for you have looked with favor on your lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed: you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your name.
I saw you there, sitting across from me. We were both mothering our newborns in the great glass fishbowl of the NICU. The swaddled eight pound bundle of red-faced crying baby that I carried looked suddenly so big next to others so small. You sat outside the plexiglass womb, the tiniest of babes being nurtured into life by something more complex than either of us could understand. I resented being there, feeling more hostage than home. I rocked my daughter and thought, “let us out! we are fine!” and I argued with the nurses who wanted to tell me how to do what my body, mind, and soul were trying to piece together organically. I wanted to be anywhere else; wished that they had never noticed my daughter’s imperfections; wished that my body harbored no bacteria that I could have accidentally passed to her. But, all the wishing in the world didn’t change that we were here, and not at home. A tiny IV in her tiny foot, antibiotic that would be deadly to me dripping into her for healing. I was paralyzed with fear. Then, I saw you. Across from me, but in a whole different world. You were no where else but in this moment. Your gaze was fixed on that child, your world forming around all the potential of those tiny lungs to breathe, to cry, to claim his space in the world. Your face was calm, your smile was gentle. I felt my heart shift when you looked at me. Madonna in the NICU, you gaze at your child and we can all see the face of heaven.
You have mercy on those who fear you from generation to generation.
I think of the scene often: a small apartment, an empty place at the table, other children running and playing and laughing and crying, parents stunned from the sudden cruelty of death too early in life. Your eyes held back tears as you scooped up a surviving sister and held her close, telling her it would be OK. You were reminding yourself, too. Death can be devastating and senseless. Injustice can be palpable. You wondered out loud if there was a reason, but you knew there was not. You wondered out loud if you could survive this, but you knew that somehow you would. Nothing prepared you to say good-bye to a child. Nothing prepared you to keep loving those who remain, while feeling the deep stabbing pain of the one who is gone. But, you tell me, you pray. You have his clothes and his pictures and the indelible memories that cannot be erased. You pray to be reunited; you pray for his comfort; you pray for peace; you pray for mercy. I cannot fix your pain. I can simply sit with you and pray with you. Madonna of those who mourn, in your mercy you comfort those of all generations whose prayers reach heavenward.
You have shown strength with your arm and scattered the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. You have filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.
You were standing outside in the cold, waiting for the pantry doors to open. I opened the doors as soon as I came in, letting everyone inside for warmth. When I said good-morning, you looked me right in the eye and said, “Praise God, yes it is, I am blessed!!” and before you could even sit down, you added, “how can I help?” I was the first one there that day, and I knew we were short-handed. The shelves and canned goods needed to be stocked; bags needed to be set up; all the donated bread needed to be sorted, sliced, and bagged. I knew I was supposed to do that before opening the doors to let people in, but it was too cold to follow that rule with all of you outside waiting. The rules also say that you can’t pick up food and volunteer on the same day. But, those rules do not recognize that we are one community, each one giving and receiving. But you…you realize that, and that makes you strong, stronger even than the ones who make the rules. I stepped out of your way, and you stepped in with the knowledge of she-who-has-seen-and-done-it-all-before. While I was still getting everyone in the door, you had assembled your crew, who were gloved and ready to be put to work. We laughed together when we both said at the same time, “…many hands make light work.” We all looked to you as you effortlessly led with love and grace. You laughed and smiled, and warmth filled the room. When we were ready to begin serving, you asked if you could say a prayer to welcome everyone to our pantry, this place where miracles happen every week. You stood before us and proclaimed how God has done great and marvellous things for us all. The Holy One was indeed in our midst. You were blessed, and you blessed me. I took in the meaning of “ministry with” a little deeper that day. Madonna in the food pantry, you have blessed us with abundance.
You have come to the help of your servant Israel, for you have remembered your promise of mercy, the promise made to our forebears, to Abraham and his children for ever.
I have thought many thoughts, and prayed many prayers sitting in the quiet awe of your presence. I have wandered in the wilderness, and laughed liked my ancestral namesake. I have scoffed, and protested, and tried to flee, but I have never been alone. God’s mercy endures in ways too marvellous for words, in moments of the daily serendipity that baptize the ordinary with greatness. I sit, humbled, imagining the glimpse you may have seen in the God-child that you nurtured. I imagine there were times you second-guessed your own recollection of events, and then were stirred to faith by a glimpse of divine purpose which likely came for you as they do for me, at the moments least expected and most needed. I imagine the power of your own yes-saying, taking on the divine role of emptying oneself to the fullness of possibility. I imagine your strength of purpose, the inner conveyance of call that would be with you from giving birth, to witnessing death, to experiencing the power of resurrection. Mothering is filled with acts of mercy. I have seen them, and in those moments have glimpsed your enduring and merciful presence.