The Madonna in my bedroom

About a year ago, I put up a picture of Mary in my room. It’s a print of Botticelli’s “Mary with the Child and Singing Angels.” In the image, the young mother gazes at the viewer with a gentle tilt of her head. The smooth outlines of her cheeks reveal her youth, but there’s dignity about her, too—resignation, even something like tiredness in her honey-brown eyes. In her lap the Christ child is reaching for her breast, implying the reason for his mother’s seriousness. She’s waking up in the middle of the night to feed him. The Mother of God gets no rest. 

I don’t know why I chose the picture for my wall. At first, I think I simply recognized it as “pretty.” I certainly wasn’t drawn to the image because of an interest in Marian devotion. In fact, I’ve spent years being resistant—even distrustful—of any kind of unusual respect for Mary. Most likely, that’s due to the influence of the churches I’ve attended my entire life. Their views on the subject, formed in opposition to Catholicism, could be summarized simply: Was Mary specially chosen by God to be the mother of our Lord? Absolutely. Does she exemplify admirable virtues like chastity, submission, and self-sacrifice? Of course. But paying her attention outside the month of December was almost unheard of. Speaking of her with any particular reverence would be equally strange. 

My discomfort with the Lord’s mother is ironic, considering my name. Growing up, I sometimes felt a need to explain when I introduced myself to someone. Especially if I mentioned the fact that I have six siblings, my new acquaintance would invariably ask, “Oh, are you Catholic then?” No, I was not Catholic. In fact, I was very much not Catholic, and would gladly engage you in a discussion about predestination if you gave me a chance. As a result, my internal response to the subject of Mary was one of negation. I knew more about what I didn’t believe about her than what I did. 

In college, I was exposed to a multitude of views on Mary. I made friends who thought about her often—friends who carried rosaries in their pockets or little icons in their backpacks. I remember one friend who set up a small array of icons around her laptop whenever she was writing an important paper, including one of the Lord’s mother. I also sang in the college choir, and learned a Russian Orthodox hymn, “Bogordice, Devo, Radusja ,” that thrilled me with its majesty and warmth. It translates to the Magnificat: “Rejoice, virgin mother of God, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…” All these experiences impacted me, and I wondered if I could hold her as an example in my mind. If the Scriptures bless her, and say that all generations will bless her, could I bless her as well?

Over time, I began to consider the fact that Mary is alive. A strange thing, but I had never really thought about that before. If I believe in a life after this one, I believe that Mary is alive, and not only that, but that she is close to her Holy Son. Like the apostles, she knew Him on earth and knows Him now with an intimacy I can only hope to have someday. If she is alive, then she stands in His presence. And perhaps, as she did at the wedding at Cana, she speaks with her Son, and carries the needs of His people before Him. 

I don’t have answers, but I do know that I am asking different questions than I once did.

In sharing these thoughts and experiences, I don’t intend to make any kind of scholarly argument for any particular side. People wiser than I am have disagreed about her place for centuries. They have argued about her Immaculate Conception, her virginity, her sinlessness, her assumption into Heaven, and the earliest dates of her veneration. They have argued about the translation of the angel’s salutation to her and questioned what level of honor it denotes. I don’t have answers, as I am just beginning to look into all of those things, but I do know that I am asking different questions than I once did. Can I say something positive about Mary, other than to explain “I don’t worship her”? Before minimizing her, can I understand her vital role in the history of my salvation, and perhaps her continuing role today?

I think that some of those questions will be answered through study, but I want to open my heart in this process as well as my mind. My life experiences—from years of Protestant sermons to conversations with my friends—have led me to ask these questions, so I want to address them experientially as well. In addition to my reading of the Scriptures and other sources, I want to talk to people who are older and wiser than I am. I want to look at art, and music, and poetry. And also, I just want to see what happens, see where I am led, if I am being led. The question of Mary is only one of the many questions I have. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once urged a young protégée to “live the questions,” so that’s what I’d like to do. 

Tonight, as I looked up at Botticelli’s Madonna while writing this, I saw something in the picture I’d never noticed before: a golden crown suspended above her veiled brow. I thought about this morning in church when I blessed her in the words sung by centuries of Christians: “It is truly meet and right to bless thee, O Theotokos…” Theotokos—Godbearer. A beautiful title for a beautiful example to all Christians. If all goes well, I’ll meet her, my namesake, some day.

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