Our Lady

I have written about my conversion. It was a lengthy process and many people had parts in it. But one who not only played a part in my conversion but who has played a bigger and bigger part in my life since, was not mentioned. The reason for that is simply that I was unable to identify when it was that she started to have a positive, not a negative, influence on my muddled thinking. She is of course Our Lady, our Saviour's mother, the Virgin Mary.

One is taking a risk to speak of Our Lady as having a negative influence on anything and to do it in the first paragraph of a short piece about her might seem reckless! What better way of putting off those who might want to read what one has to say? But though in truth she wasn't, and isn't, she has been turned into a controversial subject in the division among Christians that makes a Protestant's becoming a Catholic (or vice versa) a move from one faith to another.

During the Reformation in England, the time of "the stripping of the Altars", the incoming Protestants, as distinct from the Politicos supporting a King in his conflict with the Pope though they could also be the same people, felt they had to identify things about the Catholic Church and her teachings that they could describe as blasphemous or contrary to the teachings of the Bible. The Word (correctly had the term been used correctly) was put centre stage and everything else questioned and often discarded. And through the centuries and into my own time this struggle has continued. At first it was ruthless and cruel; humble people had their local or locally loved saints torn off their altars and burned, paintings torn down, and anything that diverted attention from the Word, or rather was represented by the politically correct police of the day as being capable of it, destroyed. Into this brutality a ghastly mix of cruelty was added by the throwing of images, even crucifixes, onto the fires being used to burn Catholic "heretics" at the stake. Figures on the walls of churches were defaced by hammer wielding zealots and the results can still be seen on the lower walls of some of the fine pre-reformation church buildings in this country.

So Mary, venerated by all good Catholics and central to the Gospel Story was an obvious candidate for abuse, though there must have been some fairly agonised tooth sucking at Christmas when the Story of the Nativity must have been allowed. The point however was that a statue of Our Lady could not be allowed, as that might encourage her worship, as with other saints, or so the line went. And while you are knocking down all the statues, and destroying rood screens, why not belittle the role of the people behind those statues? I can remember in my own time, indeed in my children's, that family members considered the concept of Mary's central place in the Christian faith laughable and the Hail Mary unknown or unheard of.

At some stage, and when is what I cannot really remember, I came to realise what nonsense, indeed what intentional misinformation this all was. With it came a lot of other ill conceived but highly effective propaganda  such as the superiority of something called "enlightenment" over faith and the belief that it was impossible to have faith and knowledge, that science disproves so much, if not all, that is in faith. These are not the views of all those who hunger for knowledge or who think they think, but they are very commonplace among the less gifted and intellectually idle.

The English also found a home in this debate for their natural reticence about anything bright or hopeful! So the word gaudy was added to those used to describe images of  saints and particularly of Mary. By then a snobbish elite had managed to break the art of the great masters away from religious purpose so the bright colours, if not the hope, in the famous and presumably increasingly valuable pictures they painted were allowed but the vast majority of statues, ancient and modern, were doomed as beneath artistic contempt. Clearly I am exaggerating in order to make my point but there is some truth in my claim, for it is based on experience, that gaudy was a big put-down for anything not wanted and then not familiar. Fortunately many beautiful  pre-reformation churches were adopted by the Church of England and now are not only admired and loved by their congregations but revered as sacred places. But in those early days awful things were done to them and to other buildings, especially of course monastic buildings, and to their contents.

So brought up in that tradition I did undoubtedly find it difficult to see Our Lady for who and what she is.

At the same time as I started to get myself sorted out over Our Lady I, unsurprisingly, began to enjoy the Holy Family. My work took me to Madrid and one day I found myself, spellbound, in front of Rubens' picture of the Holy Family with St Anne. It was actually St Joseph who really stole the show for me as he gazed adoringly at the baby and I wondered just what he was thinking then, at that very moment (as if a photograph was being taken) of his role in the upbringing of this child upon whom so much depended. I then allowed myself to enjoy Holy Pictures for what they were and not just art and in a junk shop, in a cardboard box in a corner, I found  a copy of a beautiful (there I go again) picture of Our Lady by Fra Filippo Lippo, her head bent in prayer, radiating an extraordinary stillness and peace. I bought it, for next nothing I am sure, and wanted to put it in the middle of our house, where it remains to this day on a landing window sill. This  Christmas, it is the place for the Crib, as it has been for years gone by, for our children and now our grandchildren.

Theologically Mary has her place and in the hearts of men and women she has that place and a home-made one too. Sometimes these two places have to be carefully arranged! I can only speak for myself but as a non-Catholic perhaps, rather then as a Protestant, I went, twice to Medjugorje a place of Marian Apparitions. It was fairly early and the "children" were still relatively young. I went with an open mind and a determination not to allow prejudices to sway me either way. But in such places that is impossible. All sorts of prejudices step into one's path, from a dislike for being elbowed out of the way by an Italian Nun to make way for her group to a display of gaudiness that equivalent places in India would have trouble keeping up with. But as to the claims? Well there was no doubt in my mind that something very profound was happening and when I look back at it I have absolutely no reason to change that view. Since then, and I terminally ill, my wife and I have been, as individuals and not part of an organised pilgrimage, to Lourdes. The circumstances were very different to those of our visit decades before to Medjugorje or then on a subsequent visit with one of our sons to out of season Fatima so it was not perhaps surprising that the effect was completely different.

Even now, a couple of years later, if I pray to Our Lady I can hear those children, St Bernadette and her companions, playing at the water's edge. I can hear their laughter and the water tinkling through the pebbles. But then what is this praying to Mary? It took me some time to realise that it is perfectly all right to pray to Mary. Prayer is not, or need not be, worship. Worship can be part of prayer but a conversation is not worship and of course how could one ask a saint, whether that term is used to describe the more formally appointed saint of merely a person who by death has gone to heaven, to intercede for us without having that conversation? And when my wife and I pray to her it is often blessed by water we brought back from Lourdes.

Over the years Mary has become a real person for me and not just an historical one. I see her as the Mother of mankind not only of Jesus (but principally as that). Surely the child she conceived and bore made us again? Are we not new? And the way she is portrayed in the Gospels allows us to see her as a whole woman, someone who loves as a woman, suffered as a woman, lived a mother's life as a woman. Can I not claim her as  my mother? If so then she surely walked with me through my conversion.

So for me she has changed. AND Her blue has become softened and beautiful - not a trace of gaudiness is left!