Until I joined the church, Mary was a far off concept that I could not grasp. Was she the mother of G-d? Or the mother of Jesus? Could she be both? And how was she Christian and head of the church on earth? She was Jewish. It was all very confusing.
When I began my journey in the pews, I had no plans apart from listening, and looking inward.
The church is the Immaculate Conception, another concept I couldn’t grasp, but having Mary as patron gave me more opportunities to explore her.
Above the doors of the church is a beautiful stained glass window depicting Mary. Every time I enter the church, I look up, and there’s Mary. I always pause, even if for only a moment, an acknowledgement between us, each time building on our relationship.
I was easily drawn to her.
She was Jewish like me. She was a mother like me. She followed her heart and her spirit, and did what she needed to; things that I wanted for myself.
By the time I went to Ireland this summer, I had spent five years getting to know Mary, and my education in the RCIA program and now three years after taking my sacraments, I can say that I’ve only grown closer, seeing her as someone like me, but also divine; someone ordinary like me, but also extraordinary. We flew to Ireland on the 15th of August – the Assumption of Mary; a holy day of obligation, which I missed because I was on an airplane over the Atlantic.
I so wanted to be there, to commemorate the day that Mary was assumed into Heaven. At the foot of the cross, Jesus assigned her as Mother to us all, and her Assumption into Heaven was reward for bringing Christ to human life, but also raising her to watch over us all.
When we went to Ireland, there were only two mothers on my mind: my mother-in-law who we were laying to rest and Elen, my confirmation saint. Elen is sometimes, often confused with St. Helen, the Empress, but my Elen is from Wales, so I built in a short pilgrimage to her holy well in Dolwyddelan. The rest of the visit was spending time with family and being tourists.
Mary had other plans.
I thought this was the Protestant side of the family, so I was surprised to find so many religious iconography in our cousins’ home. There were books and artwork that they’d gathered on their travels. One piece in the stairwell stood out to me, probably because its shiny, gold base fabric, probably linen, of two saint looking people I did not recognize. There was also a linen piece reminiscent in they style of the Bayeaux Tapestry.
No religious statues that I recall, but once I sat at the kitchen table and got a good look around I noticed a rosary hanging ont eh side of the refrigerator.
That was my first reminder of Mary and it was also on the day of her Assumption. It was also then that I realized this must be the Catholic side of the family. I had to reorganize my thoughts. Even as we got some family history, I never thought to ask. That may have been because we were in Northern Ireland and things still felt a bit awkward to me. Every time we sat down for a meal, I glanced over and saw the rosary. I started most days there planning our day under the guidance of Mary’s rosary.
A few days later, we traveled up the east coast from the Larne exit heading towards the Giants Causeway. We never actually made it to the Causeway itself; time and weather decided we’d return home so our cousins didn’t wait too late for us to have tea – their version of dinner,. Our day, however was well spent as we wound our way on the coastal route, stopping one or two times to simply stand in the wind and breathe, take photos and be reminded of my mtoher-in-law. There are so many moments of transcendental peace and mindfulness that it almost seems cliche to continue to mention it. It was not precisely the way Wales makes me feel, but it was relational. It created contemplative time and not so quiet meditation as well as the knowledge that G-d is ever present. I felt Him inn all of the days and Mary just as much.
After refuelling both the car and its occupants, we were at Ballintoy, one of the filming location sites for Game of Thrones. Our intention was to cross the rope bridge to xxx Island. I even considered going along despite the height, despite the water, the cliffs, and the lack of guard rails.
Unfortunately, our parking spot was literally as far away from the bridge as you could possibly park. I know it would be impossible for me to walk that far, uphill, and then go over the bridge and back. I opted instead ot hike in the opposite direction. While my family headed for their adventure, I slowly climbed, pausing to take photos. Again, the moments were ever present to just stop and be. After several photographs of water rippling against the rocks below, the blue sky meeting the blue water of the North Atlantic, fo the wind blowing my hair across my face, I found a flat stone to sit on.
I’m not sure what was here in ancient times but despite this not being specifically the Giants Causeway, it was clear that they had carved out the space for themselves to sit, legs hanging down, seeing the glory of G-d and the world.
I pulled out my rosary and prayed. I didn’t have my rosary guide, so I didn’t know which of the mysteries this day was. Instead I chose five things to meditate and pray on while reciting the rosary prayers. It was easy to think of others and to express my gratitude for so many things of the past few years. I closed my eyes and worked the beads, opening my eyes now and then to savor the glorious beauty of the place, the time, the history, and the future of it, me, and my family – all of them through the ages.
As I looked down at my rosary, made for me by a friend, I saw its colored beads blending into the land, sea, and sky, the colors matching and complimenting each other to really join time and space in a way that made it remarkably timeless.
I held onto that feeling, not imagining that there would be more encounters with Mary. My home parish is the Church of the Immaculate Conception and I have less encounters with her, or so it seems. It took us forever to find our hostel in Dublin, but judging by the tolling bell, the Whitefriar Street Church was nearby, walking distance at least. It was hard to tell on the tourist map. We started out on the corner from Starbucks, and it took us about twelve seconds, maybe less to discover that the Whitefriar Street Church was directly across the street from the door to the Starbucks, which was the same building as our hostel. I could not believe the coincidence. The boys headed one way to look for the comic store, and my daughter and I entered the church. I didn’t have any idea how lucky I was going to be. While I discovered that the church had nine shrines with more than one to Our Lady, they were also about to begin the morning mass.
I was beyond excited.
We celebrated mass, I took the Eucharist, we visited the shrines, I lit a candle at St. Therese of Liseaux’s shrine, and prayed at the Our Lady of Lourdes replica. The chapel had a red glow to it from the wood which appeared to be cherry hued and the stained glass windows with the sun streaming in through them. Set apart by a wrought iron fence, but still left open for visitors was Our Lady of Dublin. She was beautiful.
Before we walked into the former Carmelite convent, we had to pass between two statues – one of the disciple whom Jesus most loved and on the opposite side of the doorway, Mary. Once inside we come face to face with the Shrine for Calvary, containing Jesus at the crucifixion with that same disciple and his mother Mary as well as Mary Magdala. As a mother, I can imagine nothing worse than that image for Mary.
Walking around the church after mass, I was enthralled with the shrines and statues. I am by nature a picture taker, and as I took the pictures I felt a reverence that remained with me throughout the day and even longer, enjoying the mysteries of Mary, the shrines, so many in one place, a communion of saints as it were. I traveled from one to the next, spending more time with some rather than others. I turned and turned and didn’t know where to start my journey. I was in awe and subdued excitement, like a kid in a candy store but it was incredible. There was Mary as a child at her mother, St. Anne’s shrine, followed by the Sacred Heart of Mary and Our Lady of Fatima and along the other wall Our Lady of Lourdes complete with a piece of the grotto from the original that was built there for pilgrims. Back around to Our Lady of Mount Carmel and the largest of Our Lady, Our Lady of Dublin.
High on her throne, the dark wood shining under the lights and the gold and the white marble, carvings, statues, the blue sky behind the two large thuribles suspended from the ceiling, Mary’s crowning portrayed above the statue.
I didn’t want to leave despite my daughter’s impatience.
I only saw the windows form afar, being more interested in the many shrines. The stained glass windows, restored in the 1990s also depict several moments of Mary’s life. Beginning at the back of the church and places over the Stations of the Cross are the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, four windows of the rosary – the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, and Assumption. there is an additional Mary window representing Our Lady of Fatima.
We took a quick wander through their gift shop where I was extraordinarily pleased to find a charm of Mary, Untier of Knots. The picture was of the painting in Germany. I have had a fondness for her for several years now. It speaks to me. I believe I originally discovered it through Pope Francis’ devotion to her. I have certainly seen her popularity grow in the States judging by the availability of prayer cards and medals that weren’t available not that long ago. I’ve seen advertisements for a specific Untier of Knots rosary that I am considering getting, but I’m also very happy with the one I use regularly. Still, the idea that with a little patience, a little contemplation, and a little faith, the difficulties in our lives can be untangled and smoothed out. It is truly the message I try to impart to my children, and to other listeners: it can be undone with just a little determination and motivation. And it doesn’t hurt ot have Our Lady by our side. It also fits well with my own philosophy, brought even more clearly by Julian of Norwich, “all will be well.”
Our last Ireland visit with Mary was as equally as unintentional as all the rest. Our cousins told us about a holy well near their house that we should visit adjacent to church ruins in Cranfield. Just up the road and left. Most Irish (and Welsh for that matter) directions are like that. We followed the road ot the end of the lane. It was dusk, and the sun was setting. We passed a sheep farm, and when we followed the road, we ended up at a boat slip and a brilliantly expansive lake – Lough Neagh. I had seen it on the map,but hadn’t realized how close (or how big) it was. But…there was no church ruins. We piled back into the car and drove back up, and saw the gate that we had slipped by, not noticing it next to the driveway next to the nearby house. Upon entering, I looked up to notice the back of a statue of Mary, keeping watch over the graveyard and looking out towards the lake, the ruins between her and the lake. She appeared to be standing guard, especially when looked at through the doorway of the church with the setting sun at her back.
That was our last encounter on that marvelous and miraculous visit. I was truly overwhelmed to have discovered so much spiritually when I was only looking for one moment, and to find Mary in so many places made my heart happy.
Today is the Solemnity of Mary, the acknowledgement and celebration of Mary as Mother of G-d, Theotokos she was called (since 431AD). I think my encounters showed her more as intercessor and companion, but that is her beauty and appeal: she is everything, something for some, other things for others, always fitting in where she’s needed, just like a mother would be.