December 10, 2021
WN: The entire article is deeply moving.
Hail Mary, full of grace
Though I’ve only been a confirmed Catholic for a little over a year, I first prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary not quite thirty years ago, when I was six. I was cast as the Star of Bethlehem in my Baptist church’s Christmas musical, and I was nervous because I had my first solo, a few lines about being proud to show the world the holiness of the baby Jesus. When I told my mother this, she comforted me by telling me that lots of people get nervous when they have to do something they have never done before, and that if you are brave and trust God’s plan for you, things usually work out in the end. When she told me that, my six-year-old brain immediately turned to Mary, who had been brave and trusted in God’s plan when the angel Gabriel came to her and told her she would give birth to Jesus, even though it was scary. So, just before it was time to strap the five-pointed yellow sandwich board over my peak-early-’90s jumpsuit, I prayed: “Please Mary, help me be brave like you so that I can help tell people about Jesus.”
Just as my earthly mother had said, everything went fine. I didn’t forget any of the words to my song. Decades later, as I look back at that moment, it’s with deep affection for my tiny, incredibly earnest self, looking for female spiritual models to follow even then, and more than a little ironic humor at the fact that such a small prayer was the beginning of a long journey.
The Lord is with thee
The older I got, the bigger the crises I faced. Most people experience adolescence as a time of deep insecurity and uncertainty, but for me, as a teenager with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, I felt the physical changes, bodily awkwardness, and hormonal shifts times a thousand.
I was tired all the time because I balanced physical therapy appointments with school and extracurricular activities, not to mention the effort it took just to get through the day. I struggled getting up and down stairs while changing classes, agonized over the way my body looked carrying books, and felt both grateful and ashamed every time the gym coach told me to run a few laps less than all the other girls. “What if I’m not wearing the right clothes? I’ll never be able to dance the way the other kids do. Did that cute boy dance with me because he wanted to, or just because he feels sorry for me?” I wondered at events and parties. These spiraling thoughts sometimes felt overwhelming, and no matter what choice I made, I felt guilty.
While this connection waited for me to discover it, I kept coming back to Mary. My favorite story in all of Scripture is in Luke 1, when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth is pregnant with the baby who will be known as John the Baptist, and Mary is pregnant with Jesus. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). Elizabeth is so moved by the significance of this moment that “in a loud voice” she utters words I now know as part of the Hail Mary: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” I start and end every day with that prayer. Before I get out of bed each morning, and before I settle in to sleep each night, I pray for a different group of friends, family members, or members of the church body. Focusing my spiritual energy outward helps me turn away from selfish impulses, and repeating the words of a prayer that bonds me to the generations of believers that have come before, reminding me I am just one in a holy community of many.
As a teenager who felt like she didn’t quite fit in her body, her school, or her world, I was deeply gratified by Mary’s assertions that the power of God is made manifest in his inversions of worldly hierarchies. Someone who seemed mostly known for her meek adherence to God’s plan reveled in a radical vision of a God who takes care of those the world undervalues, and humbles those that world elevates. This helped me recognize all parts of myself – spiritual and physical – as having been created in the image of God.
As I reflected on these experiences, I felt most at peace when surrounded by female relationships that shared the vulnerability and compassion I recognized in Mary and Elizabeth. Friends like Katie, with whom I shared an office in my graduate program; fifteen years later, she still calls me “officemate.” We got married a year and a day apart from one another, and she is the only person other than my husband and my mother who has never missed wishing me a happy anniversary. She was the first to congratulate me when I finally earned my doctorate, and I cried more during the livestream of her doctoral graduation than I did at my own.
…Before we all took bread and wine together, Rev. Kerlin Richter gave a Eucharistic sermon that will stick with me for all of my days. She spoke of being drawn to tables in many churches, feeling moved by the presence of God in sermons and hungry for the miraculous “poetry of the wafer on my tongue.” She spoke about how she cut herself as a teenager, seeking relief from soul-deep pain through the locus of pain she could identify. I thought of my own self-harm scars, right where my over-rotating hips connect to my waist. She reflected on how we must sift through negative cultural messages about our physical selves to grasp the importance of our spiritual purpose as Christians. She concluded with this reflection on the incarnate Christ: “I struggled to hear good news about my body until I met the Good News who had a body.”
. . . reminding me I am just one in a holy community of many.
Something within me broke open at those words. That sermon convinced me of the holiness of my disabled body. For the first time I felt free to create space for my whole self – my messy, embodied self – within my spiritual journey. In that moment, so many other things that had given me comfort started to make sense in a different way. The women I was drawn to in the Bible spoke to me not only through their faith, but through the ways their faith was physically embodied. These days, every time I enter a Mass, touch the cool holy water to my forehead, and unify the four quadrants of my body by covering myself with the sign of the cross, I glance down the aisle to the crucifix over the altar, grateful for the Good News with a body who allows me to remember the good news about my own.
…There are adaptive technologies in some cases, but they are mostly for wheelchair-using parents, and as an ambulatory disabled woman, I exist in a strange liminal space. My husband and I talked it over. A lot. Then we talked to our priest. Ultimately, we decided that it would be best to forgo children, and we were given dispensation to listen to medical advice. I accept that was the right decision, but the grief over what I did not choose has been enormous.
She concluded with this reflection on the incarnate Christ: “I struggled to hear good news about my body until I met the Good News who had a body.”
When I confessed to my therapist that I sometimes felt pulled underwater by the intensity of my sorrow, she (another adult convert to Catholicism) didn’t miss a beat. “What would Mother Mary say to you, dear one?” As soon as she finished the question, I was struck by the words that leapt to mind: “Mother, behold your son. Son, behold your mother.” We talked about Jesus presenting Mary and John to one another before the Crucifixion and how powerful it is that Jesus uses familial terms for the relationship he is encouraging. We talked about Mary’s description of God in the Magnificat as a God who upends binaries. She told me that my desire to expend maternal energy was holy and good, and asked me to think of ways I could do that for all the people I loved. That day, the idea for my daily prayer calendar was born, and I made a commitment to supplement it with an additional external action at least once a month. Sometimes that looks like buying gifts for my nieces for no reason. Sometimes it looks like having dinner delivered to a sick friend, or helping an elderly neighbor navigate online Christmas shopping. Staying aware of these opportunities to serve dulls my grief and lets those people know they are loved and seen.
Please click on: Mary’s Song: My Journey With Disability