Monday, July 11, 2016

Finding peace in the midst of sorrow: The Virgin Mary is our model

There is a statue of the Virgin Mary in my kitchen, where I spend the majority of my day. Washing little hands, scrubbing dirty faces, making meals, doing dishes. Because our family spends so much time there, this is also where the kids fight over Tupperware, spend agonizing minutes in timeout, and where I most often find myself frustrated, something boiling over on the stove while the toddler shrieks for another cookie and her brother chews on a tennis shoe. And the Virgin Mary is there through it all.

Virgin in prayer (1640-1650) by Giovanni Battista Salvi
The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary always recalls one thing: peace. She is never angry. She is always serene. This transcendent peace, which extends beyond circumstances and hardships, can be easy to dismiss or to overlook. When someone is peaceful, it's tempting to assume they have an easy life. Obviously. They have a huge support system, make lots of money. They have the house/car/vacation we want/need/dream about. But life is hard. And the more we love, the more we open ourselves to the accompanying loss and grief.

The Virgin Mary did not have an idyllic life by secular standards. As the prophet Simeon said upon seeing her with her infant son: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Consider the events of her life: the Annunciation, conception by the Holy Spirit, delivering her baby in a stable, exile in Egypt, life in poverty, seeing her only child tortured and killed. Many of us spend our lives in regret and depression over much less.

That’s what I always missed when I saw statues of Our Lady draped in flowers in Italy, ensconced on the manicured lawns of cemeteries, or stuck to the dashboard of someone’s car—I missed her actual life. Not the stylized version on a Christmas card, the stable all aglow, Jesus swaddled in a white sheet, but the realities she faced in her daily life, living out her vocation, her calling, her fiat. 

For she is both Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Peace. Like all believers and followers of Christ, she took up the Cross, and was also promised peace. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matt. 16:24). The Virgin Mary gave her fiat, again and again, yet maintained her peace. 

We tend to view peace as something that occurs in a vacuum, outside the scenes of our everyday life. Vacations are peaceful. Cabins in the mountains without cell-phone reception or internet are peaceful. Death is peaceful. It can’t be expected that we will maintain our calm in a world so fallen, with its daily horrors and nonstop assault on the Faith. There is struggle even in the daily drama of family life and the hardships that come with loving another: sickness, death, suffering.

It’s tempting to think that because she was God’s most perfect creature (or because she had only one child), we can’t achieve her kind of peace—certainly God does not expect that from us? But peace is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, promised to all in virtue of our Baptism—even the fallible, tired, frustrated mother: “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). 

The Blessed Virgin has known both the unbridled joy and the incredible sorrow of our lives—she relates to our struggles in a most intimate way. She did not live her life removed from the world, floating above the fray, but in the midst of it. And her statue in my kitchen, sunlight illuminating her halo, eyes gazing downward, hands in a position of prayer, is a constant reminder of what God can do in our life, and the peace that only He can give, if we surrender our lives to Him and His Immaculate Mother.