Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mary was a Real Mother

I was talking yesterday with a woman whose son died in a carelessly started cabin fire when he was 12. That was twenty years ago. She told me her story after I commented on her brilliantly colored tattoo featuring a name, her son’s name, surrounded by turquoise rays of light emanating from an eagle, his favorite bird. One ray embraced a heart with a piece missing. She recently got the tattoo after all this time to honor his memory. And to let go, in a way.

As I listened to the story, I was struck by several things. First, you can talk to someone for a long time without having any idea about that person’s deep story. The story that matters. Second, tragedy is both personal and universal. I have grieved and still grieve over my son’s autism. Chronic grief. It is not the same as her grief which was heart-exploding catastrophic. I can’t imagine hers. She perhaps can’t imagine mine. But we share a mother’s grief.

I have often felt guided and protected by Quan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy and compassion. But when my heart has been torn apart with pain that seems unbearable, I turn to Mary. As a therapist once said to me, "She was a real mother." Quan Yin is always serene, never born as a human being, never suffering as a mother. Mary is so often portrayed with a serene, radiant, sublimely loving face, a Quan Yin face. But I don't think that is what her face really looked like much of the time.

What did her face look like when her wayward preteen disappeared, only to be found days later teaching in the temple, shrugging his shoulders at his parents’ worried consternation? Or when he refused to acknowledge her in front of the crowd, instead claiming the people around him as his family? (I remember telling my mom once that I wished the next door neighbor was my mom. She promptly told me to go see if Mrs. Beasley wanted any more children and locked me out of the house.)

What did Mary’s face look like when her son was being ridiculed and hated? Not a mother’s proudest moment. What did she answer when all the moms got together to brag about their kids and asked her, “And what does your son do?”

But I’m sure none of that compared to what her face looked like as her son was arrested, tortured, and killed right in front of her. I don’t care how strong your faith is. That is not something any mother should have to endure. And yet so many have. Before yielding to God’s will, Jesus asked for the cup to pass from him. How many times did Mary pray this prayer? How many times have I?

I don’t pretend to understand the meaning of such suffering. Or of any suffering for that matter. But I know that some of my most fervent prayers have been to Mary. The prayers I pray when I don’t know how to cope, where to turn, how to face another day, or even another second. No, I’m not Catholic, but I think that’s okay with her. After all, Mary was a real mother.

The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. –Joanna Macy


  1. Mary is a role model to follow. She intercedes on our behalf because she understands our pain. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Hello! I think I found your blog through (in)courage. I just wanted to say hello, and let you know that this was an amazing post. What Mary went through as a mother... wow, I can't even imagine.

    I wanted to ask... your 10 steps... are they YOURS, or did you find them someplace? They're amazing, and probably dead-on! I was thinking about posting them and if I do, I want to be sure to give proper credit.

    You may email me at FirefliesAndHummingbirds at gmail dot com.

    Have a great day!

  3. Thanks to Rosario and Chrissy for the lovely comments. Yes, the 10 steps are "mine" in the sense that I selected them and put them in this order. However, the individual steps are not original. I would love to take credit, but the concept of forgiveness, for example, has been around for a long time! Readers are free to repost anything, but please include an acknowledgment of the source and a link to the blog. And of course, please pass the blog link to anyone who might be interested. Thanks!

  4. I had never thought of it this way before...but you are so right. We are feeling pain that is unique to us, and only us, yet we share the pain in so many universal ways too. My freind cries at what I am enduring with my son, yet hse has a son with diabetes and this chronic illness will never leave...I am hoping am will be cured! I marvel at her strength, I marvel at yours. We each have our own way of dealing with them but your "10 Steps" are a revelation in helping me see a way forward. Mothers endure beyond reason...because we are mothers. But we also get the most joyous of gifts, the love of our children.


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