I heard something downstairs, on the first floor of our house: the sound of breaking glass, or was it chimes blowing in the wind? I sat straight up in bed, while the other members of the household remained quiet and still, deep in sleep. They had heard nothing, it seemed. Then I heard it again: breaking glass or music, one or the other; I could not tell which. Still, I sensed no danger; no dogs barking; no cries of alarm bells. As I went downstairs to investigate further, I heard what sounded like the lightest blowing of the breeze through the living room window. But how could that be? This was a cold night, on the cusp of winter, never to be spring it seemed. There was no window open, and the storm windows were still securely in place, and would be for a while yet.
At the foot of the stairs, I turned right toward the living room, and looked toward the window in the corner. And then I saw that light, bright and shining as a thousand suns, with an intensity that drove me to my knees (a place to which I am not driven often). Finally, out of the light she appeared: a young woman with a veil as white as clouds and a long, flowing gown as blue as the sky. I watched as her heavenly aura returned within her being. With a smile, she bid to arise and sit by her on the couch.
“You’re Mary, aren’t you?” I asked.
She seemed relieved by my question. “Very good!” she said. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to recognize me or not. It’s been a long time since I visited anyone of your particular faith. Henry Adams was the last time, and that must have been over a hundred years ago now. But you have read widely, I see from all these books hanging around here. At least I can save time in introducing myself. It gets tedious after a while; I’m not one who likes blowing my own horn, after all. But then, we all have our crosses to bear. Yes, I am Mary, mother of Jesus, wife of Joseph, Empress of Heaven, Virgin of the Poor, Seat of Wisdom, Queen of Peace. There are other titles, too—94 according to the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and I think they missed a couple. But we haven’t got time to go into all of them. This will be my only chance to visit with you, I’m afraid.”
Just one visit? I was a little disappointed. After all, at Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina in was said that the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of young people every day for over ten years, from June 1981 onward. Before this, the most times she had ever been reported had been 33 times in late 1932 and early 1933, in Beauraing, in southwestern Belgium. At Medjugorje, the normally circumspect and reticent Virgin had become as garrulous and loquacious as a Rotarian, in the words of one commentator on matters religious. I would have only one visit, but still I hid my disappointment. After all, one apparition is better than none.
It did not surprise me that Mary spoke English. I knew from what I had read on past visitations that she always spoke in the language of the people she visited. What would be the use otherwise? At Medjugorje, she conversed in Serbo-Croatian; at Fatima, she spoke Portuguese; at Lourdes, French. There was almost a mix-up once: they say that when she appeared in 1846 at LaSalette, near Grenoble, high in the French Alps, she began speaking to two young shepherds in Parisian French. They could barely understand a word she was saying! The Blessed Virgin realized her error, and quickly switched to their local dialect. (It is nice to know that not even Mary was perfect.) In 1879, at Knock in western Ireland, where almost an entire village claimed to have seen her, she spoke not a word at all. She just stood there, a comfort and a help to a sad and sorely afflicted people. Sometimes, we do not need words; our presence is enough, and we hear with our hearts.
The fact that Mary spoke English is not what surprised me. It was, rather, that she spoke it with a Southern accent! This confused me at first, but then I surmised the reason. Could it be that in this apparition of the mother of Jesus, the Mother of Faith, I was hearing the Charleston drawl of my own mother? Was Mary choosing to sound like her? There is at least one irrefutable fact in matters of faith, it seems to me: We discern the workings of the Spirit through the lens of our own experience. The voice of the Spirit always speaks to us through the voice of our own culture in general and the voices of our own personal histories in particular.
“Why have you come to me?” I finally found the strength and courage to ask.
“You are as good as any other,” she replied. “My voice is speaking always. But there has to be a willingness to listen, and many people will not listen to my story anymore. For one reason or another, they don’t understand me. Some Catholic authorities want to turn me into just a tamed and domesticated mother figure, sort of a cosmic Donna Reed—full of sentimentality, nice in pearls, but not much else. The Protestants think even less of me. They dust off my statue once a year at Christmas, but as far as they’re concerned, I’ve never left the manger. I want you to help me and let people know: I can mean much more than that; there are important lessons that I can still teach the world.
And so we began to talk. I do not know whether it was for a long while or a short time. She told me of her life—or should I say, her lives?
Of her personal life, there was little that was remarkable, she said. “I was, after all, just a simple Jewish girl, growing up far from the big cities. But somehow, I was called to play this great role. That’s the way it is so often. The Spirit does not usually move among the great and famous, perhaps they are so busy being great and trying to hold onto their fame and their riches and their power. So the Spirit has no place to move in their hearts. But in those who are not the best and not the worst, the Spirit has a place to grow. So their souls can magnify the Spirit. That’s my story: that God chose a simple handmaiden to bear this child who would change the whole world.”
“What was Jesus like as a child?” I heard myself asking. “He, too, was not the best and not the worst,” Mary answered. “He was a good boy, a very good boy. But he had a will of his own, and that didn’t make it easy for Joseph and me. But we knew from the very beginning that there were special powers in him. We knew it when we found him in Jerusalem that day, discussing things with the elders of the temple; we knew then he was destined to be a great rabbi, a great religious man. In time, as we watched him grow, we started to think, “Maybe he is the Messiah—who knows?” And we always treated him as though he was the child of God. For we knew that, whoever he was, there was something of God in him. But then, there is something of God in all children, you know; something of God in each and every one of us. So that is the way we need to treat each other, especially the children—as though we were sons and daughters of God.
Then she continued: “But as he grew older, he kept to himself a lot. He was never really at ease with people. It was as though the Spirit was working so deeply within him that he found it difficult to find a way of letting others know that. He was awfully stand-offish at times; he didn’t want to get involved, especially when he was a younger man. Of course, he knew where it would all have to lead. And that frightened him—it had to—especially given his gentle and quiet nature. But I knew he had to continue, and I knew I had to help him do what he was called to do.
So here’s how it started. One day, we went to a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and—wouldn’t you know it? – they ran out of wine. I felt so bad for the host; he was a good friend of the family. Is there anything more embarrassing than having guests—his daughter’s wedding, no less—and running out of wine? I thought to myself, Jesus has got to show his stuff sooner or later; this is as good a time as any. Why not help the poor father out? So, I mentioned it to Jesus, and he wasn’t too happy with me. ‘O woman,’ he said (he was always calling me ‘woman’ when he got mad at me; as I said, he wasn’t always easy to live with). ‘O woman. My hour has not yet come,’ he says. Can you imagine that? ‘My hour has not yet come.’ Well, I knew that his hour had come—I’m his mother, after all—and not a minute too soon! The world needed him and needed to hear what he had to teach. So that day at Cana, he turned the water into wine. That was the miracle that got things started; people noticed him after that. It might seem kind of a silly reason to do a miracle, but it seemed important at the time. Sometimes, it’s the things that seem less important at the time that turn out to be more important later on.
“But there were many times when I came to regret it, and long for those old days back in Nazareth when he was playing in his father’s carpenter shop, or off by himself, under an olive tree, just thinking. And when he died, that was very hard. I was there watching, and there was nothing I could do; that was the worst of it. There is nothing that kills you more than losing a child. Maybe that’s why some people pray to me and ask me to help especially when they are in pain and brokenhearted. They know that I have felt what they are feeling, that we have something very deep in common, something to share.”
We were silent for a little bit, and then Mary went on: “I never wanted honors and titles. I never asked for anything. But in time, because of the place I had in the whole story, I somehow became more than that simple Jewish girl. I became a symbol of something much greater. Jesus did too, really. We all did. And as symbols, we took on new lives of our own, which might or might not have much to do with who we were in the first place. I became a symbol almost from the day I died. (And I don’t even remember when that was for sure. Most people say I died in Jerusalem, around the year you would number 63. But others say I went to Turkey, with my son’s friend John, and died in the city of Ephesus. I can’t remember; it was a long time ago, after all.)
But it was in Ephesus, long after my death, almost four hundred years after that, that a council of the church met and proclaimed me theotokos, the God-bearer. The men were completely in control by this time. That’s not the way it was at first; the early church had many more women in positions of power. Strong, powerful women like Priscilla and Nympha; they were as powerful as bishops, I tell you. (I’m the only one they pay any attention to now, and not always for the right reasons!) But anyway, at Ephesus, there was talk that some of the men on the council thought I was getting a little too much attention and that this distracted from their Father God and the glory of my son. So they were going to write me out of the creed! But the people of Ephesus gathered all together, and they surrounded the church where the council was meeting and kept shouting: ‘The goddess! The goddess! Mary is the goddess! Give us our goddess! Give us Mary!’ (Remember: Ephesus was the city of the great temple of the goddess Diana—one of your wonders of the world, I believe.) The people there knew that it was important for the spiritual world to include the power and wisdom of women, and I became the symbol of that for them, whether they saw me as the goddess or not. For many people in the years after that, I represented the feminine face of the church, maybe even the feminine face of God.
“During the Middle Ages, the people felt even more deeply about me. In France, every cathedral built during the 13th and 14th centuries was dedicated to me: Notre Dame, Our Lady. I was proud that my power could unleash such awesome creativity. That was another time of powerful women in the church, too, women like Julian or Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena.
But then came the Protestant Reformation. And maybe it had to come. Certain parts of the church had grown lazy and corrupt; things had to change. But the leaders of Protestantism—Luther, Calvin, and most of the others—had little use for me in their beliefs. They were mostly interested in gaining power and forcing a change over the face of Europe. They saw their God in the same way that they saw their prince: high and mighty, instilling fear and trembling, and 100% male. Soon, the church would be divided and only the Catholic side would have any placed for me. I am now like a mother who has two children, but is only on speaking terms with one of them.”
Mary looked a little sad as she said that. But then, the radiance of her smile broke through again, and she continued: “But now, the whole world is changing again, more rapidly than you can imagine. You are finally learning that to be holy means to be whole, and that the church, all churches, all religions, need to include both women and men if they are to be whole. I think I can become a symbol again for people in your changing times. Maybe I can give the world something of the warmth and caring of a mother who loves them when all else seems lost, a mother who stands by them when they are alone and don’t know where to turn next. Maybe I can be of comfort to those who are poor and hungry and without power. Do you think that it is an accident that, when I appear, it is usually to those who haven’t got very much? There is something in my story, something in my spirit, that speaks to them still. You remember my Magnificat in Luke’s gospel. I didn’t write it, of course, but I love the words anyway:
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
and exalted those of low degree;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
I can speak to the poor still and remind them: The way of an unjust society is not ‘God’s way’, no matter what those with wealth and power say. There is always reason to hope and pray and strive for justice.
“And there are other lessons I can still teach you, lessons you need to learn (for your times are full of danger). Through the years, you have come to call me ‘Queen of Peace’, a title of which I am especially proud. That is, perhaps, another part of the wisdom that women can bring to the church and the world. Peace. Reconciliation. An end to war and violence and the need to dominate and control. Accept one another. Love one another. Quit dividing things up. Like I said at Medjugorje, it is you who draw the lines between one another. Don’t blame me, and don’t blame my son. You draw the lines between people who have different religions than you do, or speak different languages. We never did that. My son was a man who wanted to bring different people together and wanted people to be all at peace within themselves and with God. People have dared to make such terrible divisions and do such dastardly things in his name. This must stop. Especially in your dangerous times, this must stop.
“And perhaps there is one more thing that my spirit can teach your age. Simple people have always identified me with the Earth goddess and with the goodness of the Earth. Perhaps this was the role I played, even within the church: to keep alive people’s connections with the cycles and seasons and life-giving spirit of this wonderful creation. I could touch the Earth more closely and arise out of the Earth more sensitively than a detached and distant Father God off somewhere in Heaven.
“I am glad that in your time more and more people are discovering that this Earth is alive, and that this Earth is the mother of all of us. Just as I, Mary of Nazareth, gave birth to the Jesus of history, so, perhaps, may Gaia, spiritual mother of all Earth’s children, give birth to that wisdom that can lead you away from poisoning the Earth and lead you toward living to heal the Earth and living in peace with all your brothers and sisters, human and nonhuman alike.
“’Hail Mary, full of grace,’ they pray to me. ‘The Lord is with you.’ But I don’t want memorized prayers and empty ritual. I want your lives to be like prayers, living prayers of justice and reconciliation. Ritual is beautiful and powerful, but I yearn even more to see the inner ritual of a change of heart empowered by love. When these things happen among any members of my human family, then I am blessed among women, and then I, Mary, Woman, know that the fruit of my life has blessed the Earth.”
And then, I was asleep. When I awoke, I ran to the window, desperately hoping for just one more look at this beautiful woman. Gradually, the winds outside died down. I knew that my magnificent visitor was gone, back into the sky and clouds from where she had come. The stars in the sky were smiling their benediction upon me, and a morning star in the east had just appeared. Before too many hours had passed, a new day would dawn, and I thanked God that I would be there to see it. But for now, in these hours between dark and daybreak, I was left alone with the moon.