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.
Trusted adults advised me to turn to prayer and faith during tough times, so I began reading the Bible more often and keeping a daily prayer journal. The Bible stories that gave me the most calm and comfort were always the ones that offered pictures of women of faith going through adversity – Mary of Bethany’s faith after the death of Lazarus, Sarah’s belief that she would be blessed as God promised, despite her age, and the bleeding woman in Matthew 9 who had the courage to risk further social ostracism because she believed that Jesus’ power was stronger than her stigma. I read these stories over and over, setting them off from the rest of the text in my Teen Study Bible with hearts, stars, and fluorescent highlighters. Though I did not realize it at the time, all three of these stories involve women navigating the relationship between their spiritual faith and their physical bodies. No wonder these were the stories I couldn’t stop reflecting on as a young teen navigating a world that felt too narrow – for my huge emotions, for my awkward, uncontrollable body, and for my always-questioning mind.
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.
When I first became drawn to that passage, I was bowled over by the scriptural exploration of a close relationship between two women. The shared understanding of the women is more implied than spoken, rooted in a shared embodied experience. Mary, who is coming to terms with the dizzying implications of being chosen as the Mother of God, seeks out a female relative who is also in the midst of a miraculous pregnancy. They may be the only two women on Earth who have this experience in common at this moment. Even when we are told of John’s in utero response to the holiness of the as-yet-unborn Christ, we are told of it in a way that foregrounds Elizabeth’s bodily experience of the moment and validates the common experiences of centuries of pregnant women who follow after her. Having fought for many years to establish a healthy relationship between my spiritual and physical conceptions of myself, I find great comfort in the way this passage grants holiness to that struggle.
Mary responds in a passage (Luke 1:46-53) often referred to as the Magnificat:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
After these lines, which straightforwardly express her recognition of the important path God has laid out for her, Mary’s Song takes what seems at first to be a bit of a left turn:
He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
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.
Blessed art thou amongst women
Over the next decade, I survived college and graduate school. I got married. I worked at grown-up jobs. I left the denomination in which I was raised and searched for a church that better fit my developing faith. As I passed these milestones, I felt accomplished, but I still sometimes struggled to feel like a real adult. Though I did things that typically delineate adulthood, like get married and get a job, these were often tempered with condescending responses from the people around me. I did not know what to say to people who congratulated me on my engagement, then praised my husband-to-be for being willing to take care of someone like me, or to an interviewer who said I had “done a lot for a handicapped person” and called my accomplishments “inspiring.”
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. I know that she will like all my Facebook posts from a given twenty-four hour period every afternoon when her youngest are napping, and that she loves gin drinks because they “taste like Christmas trees.” She is the first person I ask to pray for me whenever I’m going through a hard time. I know I can share all my anxieties with her, and that she will never call them silly or tell me I’m making something out of nothing (even and especially when I am). I pray for her, her husband, and each of their four children by name at the same time I pray for my brothers, sister, in-laws, nieces, and nephews. They are all my family.
A significant turning point for me happened in 2015 at the “Why Christian?” conference in Minneapolis. I was moved by its mission to contemplate the difficult parts of our faith in the safety of the community provided by fellow believers. 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.”
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.
Around that same time, I became friends with Emily, who was a student of my husband’s at the Christian college where he taught. Emily lives with lupus and chronic pain, and we bonded over our coping mechanisms. Having someone else who understands the ways my disability and its accompanying pains and insecurities affect my daily life is an endless blessing. She is one of the only people in my life who doesn’t need extended explanations when I talk about muscle spasms, or the annoyance of rediscovering daily rhythms after a medication switch, or what it means when I’m wearing my pain pants instead of my cute pants. Emily has pain pants too.
Eventually, we began to talk with Emily and her boyfriend Wesley about what it means to navigate inter-abled relationships. It is a very special kind of give-and-take to weather the joys and trials of marriage with someone who doesn’t fully understand how you experience the physical world. You develop a deep respect for the vows “in sickness and in health” when those things are in the here and now rather than in some nebulous, aged future. It requires a great deal of communication, as well as an ability to articulate your limits and laugh at your limitations. All marriages require those things, but inter-abled marriages require them in different ways than most. In mine, it looks like planning vacation itineraries with built-in rest breaks, preparing for high-pain days by stocking the freezer with ready meals, and learning over and over again that I don’t have to apologize to my husband when my body and its limits cause us to change plans.
When Emily and Wesley got married, my husband and I were honored to be asked to perform the special readings during their ceremony. When Emily vowed faithfulness “in sickness and in health,” she looked straight at me, and I wept as my heart overflowed with the joy of being known and the excitement of a future full of unknown blessings. A year later, we were asked to serve as godparents to their future children, if and when they arrive. When the time comes, I’ll do everything I can to teach them that they are valued children of God, body and soul.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
In the summer of 2019, my gynecologist recommended that I undergo genetic testing due to high occurrence of colon cancer in my family. The battery of tests showed that I am a carrier for the gene that causes Lynch syndrome, an inherited mutation that impairs the body’s natural DNA-repair impulses. This mutation means that my lifetime likelihood of colon cancer is in the 50 percentile range, as is my lifetime likelihood of endometrial cancer. On an uncomfortable loveseat in my doctor’s office, nervously clutching a folder of printouts I couldn’t really make sense of, I heard her say, “I’m recommending a complete hysterectomy for cancer prevention. If you’re planning to have children, you should do it now.” For all I know, she conducted the rest of the appointment in Klingon.
That day reawakened years of worry and uncertainty surrounding the possibility of my giving birth. Because of issues with balance and muscle tone stemming from my cerebral palsy, I always knew that it would be difficult for me to go through the physical demands of pregnancy, and that all the crouching and carrying it takes to parent babies and toddlers would likely rule out adoption as well, at least of young children. But knowing that it would be difficult and being confronted with a moment where I finally had to make a decision are two different things. My doctors have said that giving birth would result in months of bed rest and unknown amounts of recovery time. 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.
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.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death
When I tell people I do not plan to have children, they often ask about my distant future. “Who will take care of you when you are old?” “Aren’t you scared of not leaving anyone behind after you are gone?” Depending on our relationship, I vacillate between being annoyed and disappointed – annoyed because those questions are deeply personal, and disappointed at the asker’s general lack of imagination. When questions like these imply that procreation is the only valid way to impact future generations or maintain relationships with younger people, they do not consider the bonds of friendship or mentorship. They do not leave room for my devotion to my as-yet unborn godchildren, the first of whom is expected in the spring. They miss out on the grace I give and receive in prayer. When Christians (including still, sometimes, myself) employ this narrow mode of thought, it is doubly disappointing, because they – we – do not seem to remember the God that I know: the God who stretches labels, inverts hierarchies, sees strength in what the world calls weakness, and adopts all of us into his family as dearly beloved sons and daughters.