I was raised evangelical, which means I was raised to be suspicious of anything resembling adoration of Mary, the Mother of God.
Also, we weren't supposed to call her the Mother of God.
She was just Mary, "No more a saint than you or me!" as my dad explained it.
Funny thing though: in our heavily Catholic region in south-central California, there was a Catholic channel that was freely available to all with a TV and antenna. And, when our 80's sitcoms or cartoons weren't on the air, and we were really, really bored, my sister and I would watch it.
And from that channel, we learned to pray the prayer they call "Hail Mary."
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.
Now when I say we learned to pray it, I really mean we learned to say it. Because of course we weren't supposed to "pray" to anyone but God, even though Hail Mary isn't a prayer to Mother Mary so much as asking her to pray for us. But we weren't even trying to do that. We were just memorizing something cool and slightly foreign to our stripped-down, Protestant sensibilities.
The words of the Hail Mary lay dormant in my brain until the last of my four miscarriages, when I stopped being able to pray (except in public as part of my job). And please don't think there was some sort of hypocrisy at play; I wasn't pretending when I spoke to God publicly, and I wasn't pretending when I couldn't speak to Him in private. If there was any hypocrisy it came from the cells of my body which allowed and disallowed prayer at their own will.
(Do cells have a will? Maybe not, but trauma does things to cells that make it seem that it is so.)
In private, I looked away from God. He was there, but I couldn't, as it were, stare Him in the face and talk to Him. I could look to His side, around Him, away from Him. But I couldn't look at Him in prayer, which of course is what we're doing--turning our full selves to this Creator we love or fear or trust.
In looking to God's side, I caught a glimpse of someone I could talk to: His Mother. I saw her in Bible stories (which I could still read), alternately encouraging and pleading with Him, wrapping Him in swaddling clothes as a baby or nagging Him (and I mean that in the best, most honourable way) to perform miracles when miracles were clearly what was needed.
Mother Mary came into my side view, and I felt I could trust her. So I turned my full attention her way, trusting that if I started talking to her, the Mother of God, she could in turn talk to her Son (who I trusted and yet clearly didn't trust enough). I said the words I had learned as a child, over and over again: Hail Mary, full of grace...
And I felt something like peace. Something like love and rest and calm.
When I first went on medical leave last year, I couldn't say any sort of rote prayer: not the Lord's Prayer, not Glory Be, not Hail Mary. I spoke to God in short, desperate cries: "God help me! Please help me!"
I knew that others were praying for me too. And, without any plan or intention, I started enlisting not only Mother Mary's help in praying but also the departed of my friends and family. In church-speak we call these people part of the "Communion of Saints." A month into leave, crying while walking home, I called out to members of that Communion whom I had known and who had died: my father, my grandfathers, some of the parishioners I had pastored and buried. "Dad, pray for me! Grandpa, pray for me! Cloe, Lena, Ernie, pray for me!"
C.S. Lewis once wrote on this very action: "There is clearly a theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead." (Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly Concerning Prayer) I read his words long before attempting the practice, but they came to my mind when I did.
Of course I can't prove that those of the dead I asked prayed for me, and some of you may think we are so firmly in bizarro land that you can't believe I could think they did.
Still, I asked them to pray. And I felt confident that somehow, nearer to the Throne, their prayers were doing good on my behalf.
As a mother four times over, and as one who laboured all of Christmas Day with my firstborn son, Mary looms large in my mind every Advent and Christmas season. In a world where courage and bravery tend to be framed in physical strength or violence, a teenager giving birth in a stable is a striking counter-image.
This year on Christmas Eve, I lay in bed with my youngest two as their electric anticipation mellowed into soft, rhythmic breathing. And I pictured myself, laying down next to Mary in her post-partum recovery in that stable. I didn't want to bother her, or take her attention away from this Child to whom she had just given life (SHE gave life to God! What magnificence!) I simply wanted to be near her; to companion her in her weakness and mighty strength. To watch her care for God.
We had multiple illnesses and one tragic death hit our family this season. For each one of these beloved, I would go to sleep and re-awake in the night asking Mary to pray for them. At this stage of recovery I trust God--fully, completely. And I trust His Mother--fully, completely. Just as I ask my friends and family to pray when loved ones are hurt, or sick, or dying, I ask Mary--Theotokos, God-bearer--to pray for them too.
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with Thee.
Blessed art Thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.