When I was ten, my favorite movie was Mary Poppins. As it begins, British siblings Jane and Michael Banks write an advertisement listing their requirements for a new nanny. Their father — a curmudgeon who prefers investment banking to parenting — shreds the heartfelt proposal, throwing it in the fireplace and into infinity. His children’s wishes reach Mary anyway; she sits perched contentedly in the sky, as if waiting for them. With the snap of her fingers, Mary Poppins could transform a routine bunch of chores on a mundane Monday into an eternal summer Sunday afternoon at the carnival. Truly, Mary was capable of the miraculous.
Twenty-five years later, I found myself seeking Mary again. This time, it wasn’t Disney’s bohemian nanny that I yearned for, but Mary the Mother of God, who is capable of making miracles happen in real life. I hoped I’d find her in France.
As I sat in the San Francisco airport waiting to board an eleven-hour flight to Paris, I thought back to the many events that led me to be embarking on eight days of volunteer service in Lourdes, along with 15 strangers and a priest. As the North American Lourdes Volunteers brochure stated, “Volunteer pilgrimages are profound spiritual journeys in which one experiences the Gospel message of Lourdes and then lives the message in service to others.” Help! I imagined that my first solo European trip would be more along the lines of a Contiki tour for thirtysomethings seeking all-inclusive drinks, museum passes and a date. Instead, I had reluctantly chosen what was to be a serious pilgrimage for serious Catholics. I was bound not to fit in.
Though I attended thirteen years of Catholic school and a Jesuit University, my faith had waned in early adulthood. I spent my 20s in New York City and California, chasing my dream of becoming a writer and an actor. I became the type of Catholic that shows up on December 24th and Easter Sunday. My relationship to the Church had become akin to my subscription to The New Yorker; it was always there for me, once a week, but I usually didn’t have time to read it. Paying my dues twice a year would have to suffice. Being a commercial success that lived on both coasts was important to me; being a Catholic was not.
All of this changed in September 2006, on the fifth floor of St. Peter’s Hospital in upstate New York. The fifth floor is known as “The Inn,” a euphemism for “Hospice Ward.” My mother’s sixteen-year battle with cancer would end here. As I paced the fifth floor, nothing eased the panic or the pain, the fear of losing not only my mom, but also the life of our family, which would never be the same again. I began making desperate deals with God to let my Mom live. I became certain that if I stayed awake, my Mom could not die.
It was around 3 a.m. one sleepless morning that I turned to Mary. It was the only night that I had been alone with my mother in her room. Though she could no longer speak, the sound of her breathing kept my anxiety at bay; and I reached in my pocket for the set of wooden rosary beads my father had given me that afternoon. “I have no right to ask you for anything,” I found myself saying. “But please help me anyway.” For the next several days, the beads did not leave my hands. I began praying the Hail Mary nonstop, finding solace and serenity in the repetition of every word. Each prayer became its own destination, its own reward.
It didn’t take long to realize that the beads had power. The anxiety attacks abated, replaced by an unexpected sense of calm. Three days later, I finally fell asleep on the couch in the day room down the hall from my Mom’s room. At 6 a.m., I awoke to find my father standing over me. “We lost Mom,” he said softly. The reality of his words, and what they meant, was ineffable; yet in the midst of the anguish of that moment, I realized that it was the morning of my mother’s 60th birthday. She had died shortly after midnight, her journey in this world now complete. Though her body was broken, the cancer couldn’t destroy her soul, which was now soaring elegantly toward eternity.
In the aftermath of my mother’s death, I couldn’t ignore the many inexplicable signs that Mary was now a part of my daily life. I was drawn to books, photos and statues of her, and found myself seeking refuge in the stories of her various 20th century apparitions, in Mexico City, Fatima and Medjugorje. Things I normally would have written off as coincidence kept parading into my consciousness: names and dates with connections to my mother and to Mary. I had two mothers now, and while I couldn’t be with either of them in this life, feeling their presence kept me alive. Then, I found out about Lourdes.
In 1858, a “beautiful lady dressed in white” appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a 15-year-old French peasant girl whose life would be unalterably changed when she received seventeen subsequent apparitions, after which many miracles occurred. The town she lived in was Lourdes; the beautiful lady was Mary. ” Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou,” she said. “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Mary instructed Bernadette to dig in the ground, and a spring burst forth. These waters began to heal and cure townspeople with varying degrees of illness and paralysis. The waters essentially became the “proof” that Bernadette was not lying, and that something outside the scope of human capability was indeed happening. To date, over 6,000 medical miracles have been documented at Lourdes.