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Pity & Piety: On Seeing Mary Anew

January 5, 2022


It was on Christmas Eve in a small town church in North Dakota that I saw Mary. No, no, I’m not talking about glimpsing a ghostly apparition or espying a radiant vision. But there in the alcove adjacent to the chancel stood a statue of Mary, and it completely gripped me. Garbed in the simplest tunic, her shoulders were those of the slightest girl. Her lips were pursed, her face unlined, and her gaze was cast downward. She seemed simultaneously present to the miracle before her and lost in the deepest of interior places. 

To be sure, this moment of serene repose does not embody the entirety of Mary’s existence. Her life was tumultuous. A Jewish peasant in a Roman-occupied world, a girl in a man’s society, a child in an adult’s culture, Mary seemed to have anything but freedom, anything but agency. And yet Gabriel the Archangel appeared to Mary, a lowly figure according to all of man’s standards, asking her to play the supreme human role in the divine drama—to bear and raise God on earth. Do you know any thirteen or fourteen-year-old girls? How do you think they would respond to the Annunciation? I’m sure, like Mary, they would be terrified, but I think it profoundly unlikely they would say, “Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum,” that is, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

From her exuberant visit to Elizabeth to her patient travel (heavy with child) to Bethlehem, from her anxious relocation to Egypt to her loving discipline of her “lost” child found in the temple of Jerusalem, and of course, from the lost years raising the Christ-child to the initial anxieties as he went forth into the unkind world, Mary’s life was an unparalleled swirl of trial and triumph, uncertainty and trust. What is it like to have an ancient man and withered prophetess glory in your newborn child [“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel. . . ” (Luke 2:34)], while offering a dark “by the way” [“and you yourself a sword will pierce” (Luke 2:34)] to you? How would it feel to see your son, whom you know is God Incarnate, dismissed and threatened by your own faith community? How could we imagine our own son nailed (nailed!) and hanging on a cross as he whispers “Woman, behold your son.” (John 19:26) Recently, my wife and I marveled that if Mary gave birth at fourteen, she was forty-seven when her son died. My wife and I are forty-eight and nowhere near composed enough to have endured her trials.

Before I was Catholic and before I had children, Mary, in my eyes, was a noble soul who simply assented to what God asked of her. But once I became Catholic and had two children of my own, I began to understand just who Mary is. Watching our parish’s Living Stations of the Cross during Lent, I was utterly crushed. I was pained by the crucifixion of Christ, but I was leveled seeing it through the eyes of Mary, through the eyes of a parent. 

Years ago, my wife and I visited St. Peter’s Basilica and saw the Pietà. Exquisitely carved from Carrara marble, the limp, lifeless body of Jesus—God and son—is cradled in the loving, oversized lap and lithe arms of Mary—Mother and disciple. It is here that I truly met Mary. At the limits of what a human can endure and consumed in what I could only describe as a personal hell on earth, Mary simply was. Such poise, such composure, such faith is truly otherworldly. Michelangelo decided not to portray the unrelenting tears that undoubtedly poured forth from this young mother’s eyes. But he captured her wordless anguish and enduring faith in her pursed lips, her unlined face, and her downward gaze. In 1972, an unbalanced Hungarian man attacked the statue with a geologist’s hammer, striking it fifteen times and scattering a hundred shards of marble across the basilica floor. Pictures of the vandalized face show no change in the expression of sorrow, no diminishment in strength of faith. It was as if she quietly and simply endured. “What more can be done to me with my boy laid waste in my arms?” she seemed to say, “Lord, thy will be done.” In Italian, the word Pietà means pity and in Latin, piety. Pity and piety—how profoundly apropos. 

To be sure, Mary points to Christ (as she did at the wedding in Cana) saying, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5) She is the first to insist that there is something wondrous about the narrative in which she is playing a part; but it is not about her. For those concerned that Catholics worship Mary, we don’t. We honor her. And if you charitably consider Mary for a moment, you can see why. For in the life she lived, the suffering she endured, and the faith she possessed, there is something we can all gain from the motherly intercession and noble model of Mary. Beneath the quiet surface of that young, unlined face, those pursed lips, and that downward gaze, are oceans of holy depth—a depth I could sense gazing at that statue on Christmas Eve. It is a depth I need in the tumult of my life, the uncertainty of my days, the flabbiness of my resolve. Be still, she soothes, and have faith. Be strong, she encourages, and say yes to God. And love, she whispers, even through the agony. Because in the end, Julian of Norwich’s words could very well have been Mary’s own: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” 

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.