Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

Encountering Grace

Author: 
Judith Dupré

I can’t see angels, not one, but if I squint, I can al- most make out the Holy Family. What kind of faith does it take, I wonder, to see angels everywhere?

Full of Grace attempts to trace – through doctrine, history, art, and memoir – the many ways in which the beloved figure of the Virgin Mary flourishes today in faith, imagination, and fearsome everyday experience. Usually, the completion of a book marks the end of a journey, but in my case, it is proving to be a first step toward deeper understanding.

Surrendering to the Message

When I began the book six years ago, my goal was to distill the troves of Marian art and scholarship in a readable way. Given that more ink and paint have been spilled on Mary than on any other woman in history, that would be challenge enough! Certainly I had no intention of sharing my personal relationship with Mary with readers. But soon it became clear that she wasn’t going to let me off the hook with an aloof third-person narrative. As I researched, I was bombarded by chance encounters, words, and images until I finally realized that my primary job was to surrender – and let Mary show me the book she wanted, one with many doors and windows that would allow glimpses of her compassion, love, and fine sense of humor, and would welcome readers of every description. Over time, however, I’ve come to understand that what she wanted most was my own change of heart.

Hundreds have shared their firsthand experiences of Mary’s merciful intercession with me, opening my mind and melting my heart with the ways that she remains mysteriously yet vibrantly present. As a scared child, proud parent, grieving mother, and beloved icon, the Virgin Mary has become an indelible part of individuals’ lives. Her wholehearted leap of faith has inspired others to do the same.

In conversations and by email, I have heard countless stories, not about quick spiritual fixes, but accounts of lived faith, dramatic testimony to the grace that springs from believing long after life seems to give no more reason to. Near strangers have revealed their struggles: “Am I going to really believe that God is in charge of my life and knows what’s best for me?” And their convictions: “The Blessed Mother is the light in the harbor for all of us.” Generously, they include me: “There’s a line in Patty Griffin’s song about Mary that kept playing in my mind as I was reading your book that says ‘She leaves her fingerprints everywhere.’ I think you understand what this means, too.” 

Repeatedly, I have witnessed faith far greater than mine, bestowed on those who would never dream of writing about it themselves yet who freely share this grace with me. It’s humbling to be in the presence of your spiritual betters.

At book signings, women stand at the table, their arms wrapped around my book, holding it to their chests as though it were a breastplate, a talisman, or a comforting pillow. They pour out their stories and reasons. One is giving the book to a friend who is terminally ill, who needs hope. Another copy is going to a recent divorcee, who needs hope. Yet another to the parent of a disabled child, who needs hope. I know that their requests, whispered and as personal as prayers, have nothing to do with me – they are clinging to Mary herself. But my book somehow became a bit of flotsam in the great roiling sea of spiritual hunger out there. How can this be?

Where Earth and Heaven Connect

A poet once compared Mary to the very air we breathe –“wild air, world-mothering air, nestling me everywhere.” And to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ apt description of her effortless, all-enveloping presence, I would add that she is also like the horizon line – that distant but ever-present and reassuring marker of the place where earth and heaven connect, where people come together in all their vulnerability and mystery.

There’s no telling where she will leave her fingerprints. A 76-year-old grandfather and Green Bay Packers fan wrote in a spidery hand about keeping the Marian feminist perspective alive. A Los Angeles movie producer of cutting-edge special effects sent a poem, his first, inspired by Mary’s ancient goddess antecedents: “A visage yielding, perfect marks moving in space, flawless placement/conjuring visions of deities praised for centuries/Details are blurred, contact is made/Like finding you are home unexpectedly.”

Church, Home, Kitchen

Something about Mary stirs people to imagine her presence as a room, a home, a temple. Because she bore the body of Christ, theologians have allegorized her as the Church, the sanctified Ark of the New Covenant, and the table at which faith sits. In the venerable Litany of Loreto, she is extolled as a house of gold, a tower of ivory, the gate of heaven. Mary, who once sheltered Jesus, now shelters the vast numbers who long for comfort and meaning beyond what can be seen. Medieval artists conjured this longing in depictions of “Our Lady of the Mantle” or Schutzmantelmadonna, in which Mary stretches out her cloak, enfolding and protecting those who huddle underneath it. It’s not surprising to learn that the Statue of Liberty was conflated in the minds of arriving European immigrants with this particular image of Mary, a beloved protectoress, a giantess of compassion, who welcomed them at the portal of the new world.

Mary invites such leaps of imagination and grand architectural metaphors, just as she seems to in- habit every room of the house. The idea of being “at home” with Mary came up during a conversation with a wise Jewish man. We were talking about Mary’s ubiquitous presence, and the extraordinary pull she has exerted across 2,000 years of Christian history. When he asked me where I felt her most, I re- plied immediately, the kitchen. Women of all stripes, levels of education, and professional accomplishment have told me they feel Mary’s presence most strongly there too, during those quiet hours when they are cooking, cleaning up the Chinese take-out, or emptying the dishwasher. As Kathleen Norris beautifully expressed it in The Quotidian Mysteries, there is something about the sameness of those obligatory routines, unfolding in the most familiar room of the home, one’s breath slowed to a meditative rhythm that can unearth the transcendent.

But I also feel Mary in my dining room with its big table, thinking of the happy times when friends and family have gathered around it. And in the living room, where my son plays piano, his sweet notes wafting upstairs while I’m puttering around the bedroom and transforming even the making of a bed into a joyful task. I feel Mary in my garden, especially in October, when most of the flowers are gone except for one or two persistent roses that I count on seeing every autumn.

Mary is here, right now.

Full of Grace became a hymn in honor of the Virgin Mary’s presence in the many literal and metaphoric rooms of my life, as well as a prayer that I would continue to feel at home in her company. Not because I am worthy of it, but because her example helps to clarify and deepen my faith. I keep looking at that blurry Nativity photo. Sometimes I think I can see the angels, sometimes not, but I know I will keep trying.

Judith Dupré ‘11 M.Div. writes about art and architecture, and consults on the design of public building projects that foster community and uphold the human spirit. Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life was published last year by Random House. 

Issue Title: 
Women's Journeys: Progress and Peril
Issue Year: 
2011