I never fully understood Mary when I was growing up. As a cradle Catholic, I memorized the “Hail Mary” by the age of 6, and knew that she was a special woman chosen to be the Mother of God. She was blessed and courageous. My pastor told me Mary was most likely only a teenager when she was visited by the Angel Gabriel and presented with God’s plan for her. I marveled at her ability to say “yes” to God while still so young. I wanted to be like her but didn’t see much connection between us.
Years later, tragedy struck my dear friend, Clara. Her daughter arrived stillborn, and it seemed like even Jesus couldn’t ease her pain. I accompanied Clara to a counseling session at her church. The charming French spiritual director offered this piece of advice: “The Virgin will comfort you, madame. She, too, lost a child.” He lovingly handed Clara a statue of the Holy Mother, but it felt like little comfort for her pain. Clara wanted her baby healthy and whole, not a fragile statue of the Virgin Mary, which fell to the floor and shattered as she wept.
Whenever someone’s going through a difficult time, there’s a generic, almost scripted response that Christians’ typically give: “God knows what you’re going through.” Those words didn’t provide me much solace when I was plagued with an undiagnosable virus this past winter. My body became foreign to me as I hunched over a bucket for weeks on end, unable to eat or keep anything down. I know God didn’t abandon me during this time, but it was difficult to feel his love when there was seemingly no end in sight. I asked some friends to pray for me, and their response was that God could relate to what I was going through because he actually lived it.
I believe that Jesus was subject to every human suffering and temptation. Jesus was made of flesh like me and knows nearly every pain I could ever go through. Nearly every pain. God’s human experience was that of a man, not a woman. Now, I know that God isn’t limited by gender, and my incomprehensible, all-knowing God still understands my pain as a woman. But that’s not the same as having lived it.
God didn’t inhabit a woman’s body, but there’s someone we can turn to when we’re suffering who did. That someone is Mary. She’s a comforter I can rely on when I’m facing a health issue unique to my female body or when I’m struggling with my relationship with my family. She models obedience, strength, gentleness, and solidarity. She also understands the grief of a mother in mourning, having lost her own son.
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After more time and reflection, I can see the wisdom in the spiritual director’s words to my friend. Clara’s tragedy actually taught me to turn to Mary, talk to her, and ask her to pray for me. I tried this when I was ill, knowing that Mary could not only offer me the love of a mother for her child, but she could also see me through my pain. Her love could help me get through my health challenges.
Mary understands me in ways that only a woman can. I often question my place in society, the Church, and God’s family. I wonder how I can serve God as a woman who isn’t called to religious life. Mary assures me of my own worth in the Kingdom.
Mary’s example of accompanying Jesus through his suffering on the Cross inspires me to support my own friends and family with the same compassionate presence. She stayed by Jesus’ side and never left. I can only hope to be there for my dear ones in the same way.
By the grace of God, Clara gave birth to a rainbow baby and named her Faith.
Faith is what I strive for. I want to have faith like Mary, to follow her example, and to talk and pray with her more. In the end, I’ve learned that it’s not so important for me to understand Mary. What really matters is that she understands me.