When I was younger, I always loved going to mass with my grandmother. She would sit with my sister and me and show us the stories illuminated by the brilliant stained glass windows and etched into the statues lining the sides of the church. Though Biblical stories enchanted me—the rough sea upon which Noah’s Ark plunged precariously, as well as the exotic paradise of Eden, invited me to enter into ancient and wonderful worlds—I particularly loved the saints, especially those whose quiet lives seemed to slip inconspicuously into my own. St. Francis of Assisi, surrounded by white birds, directed me towards a tender servitude that I was just beginning to understand. St. Bernadette of Lourdes, through her many visions of the Virgin Mary, reaffirmed my belief in the invisible and improbable. St. Therese of Lisieux, the “little flower,” carved out in my often stubborn and selfish will a deep desire to love simply and with childlike abandon.
Unlike many of the stories of the Old Testament, which I read and re-read continuously just as I did my beloved collection of D’Aulaires’ Greek myths, the stories of the saints were real to me because of the way in which they incarnated the New Testament promise of a Kingdom of God not only in Heaven but also here on Earth. The lives of the men and women who truly believed in Christ’s message, and learned to align God’s will with their own, proved to me that an ordinary life can be made extraordinary through Christ. Moreover, the canonization of new saints from Jesus’s time to the present made the Christian path more accessible, somehow, as though it was well-tended rather than overrun with weeds. The path towards God, who could often seem distant, dark, and cold, was lit up by the lives of the saints: they were my vanguards and guides.
As I grew older, I longed for the more tangible advice of an older sister, a young woman like me whom I could trust blindly to lead me closer to virtue. Even Bernadette and Therese and Jeanne d’Arc and Clotilde became figures too distant from my own life. So I turned to my high school math teacher, Maria, a loving confidant who is now a close friend. Of course, she is not a saint—or at least not yet—and I realized that I could not rely on her exclusively. But somehow her guidance helped me stumble into the arms of Mary, Christ’s mother, who was the most perfect mother figure I could ask for. I read, over and over, the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. And in the face of the Mary draped in pink on a stained glass window in my church, I could see an unconditional trust in God, and the unconditional love of a mother for her child. Mary offered me her love quietly, unassumingly, and wholly. All she wanted, I understood, was for me to give myself to her completely so that she could bring me to her Son.
The summer after senior year of high school, I developed a strange love of the Ave Maria, playing it from my computer nearly on repeat as I packed for college. And then, without really understanding why, I was on my knees in my room, surrounded by half-filled boxes, crying “je ne sais pas”—“I don’t know.” Mary’s unconditionality both terrified and strengthened me; her resounding “yes” to God was a motto and a model, and her maternal love for me made it easier for me to live by that word. But I did not know if I really had the courage to live so fearlessly, and to say, too, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.”
That Bible passage remains the passage I turn to most often in prayer. Mary’s humanity often makes her a more accessible guide to me because, like all the saints, I know that she trusted in God without ever being fully aware of his plan. She was human. Though she knew that “from now on all generations will call me blessed,” (Luke 1:48), she did not know, at the moment of her “Fiat,” what it would personally cost to carry and raise the Son of God. She did not know, when she lost him for three days at the age of twelve, where he had gone, and she did not know that she would have to watch him die on the cross. Moreover, she did not understand the overarching plan of his life. In his fourth meditation on the Stations of the Cross, the newly canonized St. John Henry Newman explains Mary’s unimaginable pain at meeting Jesus’s gaze as he carried his cross to Calvary:
Mary would rather have had all His sufferings herself, could that have been, than not have known what they were by ceasing to be near Him. She had known Him beautiful and glorious, with the freshness of Divine Innocence and peace upon His countenance; now she saw Him so changed and deformed that she could scarce have recognised Him, save for the piercing, thrilling, peace-inspiring look He gave her.
Mary’s proximity to Christ is unparalleled; she shared not only a tangible but also a physical bond with him, and she trusted and loved him completely even when she could not know his pain, and could not understand the beauty of his sacrifice. Mary, though so close to God, was kept in the dark just like I am. And though she could not even fully see the light which her own life would bring to the path towards God, still she embarked upon it.
Sometimes it is difficult to try to emulate the lives of the saints—ordinary lives made extraordinary—because it is so clear that there can be no other mother of God, no Jeanne d’Arc or Bernadette of Lourdes. Sometimes I am so acutely aware of the fact that I am not a saint that it seems futile to even try. And in these moments, I turn to the final passage of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, whose protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, shares in Mary’s unconditional trust. Dorothea’s “Fiat” is idealist, it is an intense impulse towards joy and intimacy, made clear to me in the line: “I cannot help believing in glorious things in a blind sort of way” (Eliot 271). Eventually, as Dorothea grows older, her abstract idealism tempers into true, simple goodness deeply anchored to her own time and place. Whenever I turn to her, Dorothea never fails to remind me of the beauty of a human life—a quiet life; a Marian life—a life that is resplendent with light, and yet kept in the dark about its own full meaning:
A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.1
Aliénor Manteau ‘22 is a joint English and Philosophy concentrator in Dunster House.
|↑1||Eliot, George. Middlemarch. First Modern Library ed., Modern Library, 1984, 371.|