Sunday, March 5, 2017

Hail, Mary

I just finished my second book by author Beverly Donofrio. I'm a big fan of the movie that's based on her 1992 book, Riding in Cars with Boys, and I read that book last summer. I liked it, but it didn't really dawn on me to read her other books until I saw one at a thrift store. The cover caught my attention, and then I realized who the author was. I should have bought it then,  but for some reason I didn't. It's been on my mind ever since though, and one day I finally thought to put it on hold. It arrived last week, so as soon as I finished The Handmaid's Tale I dove into Looking for Mary (or, the Blessed Mother and Me).

This book recounts her personal journey rediscovering a religious icon after decades spent renouncing Catholicism. At first, Donofrio started collecting Virgin Mary pictures and statues because they're kitschy and because she delights in the irony of a lapsed Catholic girl such as herself housing them. But it becomes more than a few casual purchases at tag sales; she starts hunting for them in earnest and making her home a virtual shrine. One of her neighbors remarks on her Mary cathexis, and that's when she realizes how much time and energy she has invested in an idea which appeals to her and mystifies her.

So she sets out to learn more about the Blessed Mother. She talks to everyone who has directly or indirectly influenced her religious upbringing, priests and visionaries to her own mother, and first completed a documentary for NPR. She documents her pilgrimage to the holy city of  Medjugorje, where Mary is said to begun appearing regularly in 1981.

At first, Donofrio is comforted by the symbolism represented in renderings of the Immaculate Heart: the flames represent passion, the sword represents pain, and the roses represent joy and beauty, while her heart itself is the symbol of her motherhood. 

Interpreting the symbol in that basic way, I can fully understand how Mary and her life and significance could draw any woman in. Everyone, particularly any mother, experiences times of passion, pain and joy, sometimes simultaneously. The birthing process is the perfect example of how such sensations co-exist.

I remember my great-grandmother, a very devout Catholic, had two huge paintings in her bedroom; one was of the Sacred Heart and the other was of the Immaculate Heart. I always thought the Sacred Heart was scary looking, with the thorns encircling his burning heart. Mary's heart was also spouting flames, but her face was so serene and the roses were so reassuring- even as a young child I understood on some level that while a heart on fire was painful, that the flowers were meant to somehow soothe that pain. 

A couple of years ago I acquired one of those porcelain Mary night lights, the kind that are often sold in church shops. They're simple and undetailed, and a small light bulb gets inserted in the middle. The light I acquired didn't have the cord or the bulb fixture anymore, so it was basically just a small bust or Mary.

I loved her crown of delicate pink blossoms, and the way she cradled another one in her hands, lovingly looking down at it, so it only seemed natural to place her in the garden where she could be among the flowers:

Maybe I'll look for more renderings of Mary, now that I've learned more about her and what she represents.

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