A while ago, just as summer was ending, I went to an art opening at Yale University. I met a student, a young girl about 18 years old, who possessed the kind of guileless beauty that needs no embellishment. As we talked in the heat of the crowded galleries, she took off her jacket, revealing to my surprise that she was covered, neck to wrist, with tattoos. Inscribed into her body were beautiful, artful images of flowers and storybook characters — several of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things crept along her upper arm, Ariel from the Little Mermaid swam cunningly on her forearm, the rag woman Sally in Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas peeked from behind her elbow. These characters were the ones she loved best from childhood, she said, inflecting her words as though her youth were decades past.
We continued to make small talk, and eventually drifted off into conversations with others, but the memory of her painted skin and quiet beauty stayed with me. I was overwhelmed by the feeling I had been looking at the Virgin Mary, who bore the wounds of the world as her own.
I never saw the girl again, but the encounter was an awakening. Like a door thrown open, it made me realize the sacred, especially as it is revealed through Mary, can be found in unlikely places, usually when least expected. I began to experience what Aristotle called the”joy of recognition” — not merely recognizing what is already familiar, but seeing the familiar, now illuminated, in its essence. Everywhere, it seemed, some part of the gospel was playing out before my eyes. Before me were the forgotten, the wounded, the addicted and the broken, as well as the kind, the compassionate, the joyous and the brave. This wasn’t due to any special insight or holiness on my part, but came about once I had committed myself to seeing God’s hand in all things — however pleasant or annoying — without exception.
Thanks to the tattooed girl, I became a detective of sorts while writing Full of Grace, on the lookout for those unexpected moments when grace appears out of the blue.
Loving and letting go
I began to consider love’s commonplace, rare and sometimes complicated expressions. Because in the end, I came to understand that Mary’s was a love story. Not just one, but many stories about love in all its nuance and variety that the Virgin Mary — as a scared child, soul sister, proud parent, grieving mother, beloved icon — has inspired. Through her, we can better understand love. Mary tells us about the love between two people; and about love as the wine that makes life worth celebrating and eases the dark edges of loss and sorrow. She tells us of the love that builds a home, and the love that picks up the scattered pieces left after divorce. She reflects the terrible tumultuous love at the end of life when the dying must say goodbye to everyone and everything they have ever loved, and those left must love enough to let go.
Mary knew a lot about letting go. For starters, God asked for her very body, to contain the Christ child. But throughout her life, which was impoverished and uncertain under Roman rule, she had to accept that certain things were going to be taken away — her social identity as a pregnant woman who was unmarried; her homeland when the Holy Family was forced to flee to Egypt; her pride when Jesus asked the crowds,”Who is my mother?”; and, finally, on Golgotha, her maternal right to protect her child.
I’ve felt closest to Mary during the darkest periods of my life. When I’ve had to surrender my hopes. When something I’ve counted on has evaporated. When my expectations weren’t met. When there seemed to be every good reason to believe, and then suddenly there wasn’t.
No one wants to talk about loss during the Christmas season. After all, it’s a time of anticipation and good will. But it’s also a time of darkness and letting go. As we await the birth of Christ, and the gifts and parties that accompany that celebration, we are also asked to let go of our expectations and walk on faith. Mary shows us how.
Mary, who was ordinary in many of the ways that we are ordinary, illuminates the depths of faith and love that are available to us. Hers was and remains a wounded beauty. Wounded in the sense that she was scarred by life, and beautiful because she allowed the pain to transform and not disfigure her soul. It was not that she did not experience sorrow and loss — she was spared nothing — but that she turned, repeatedly, toward kindness, patience and forgiveness. Full of grace, beloved by God, as we are also beloved, she possessed an indelible goodness, and wore it lightly.