When I was 12, our family left the Episcopal Church for various reasons and landed in a Word of Faith (charismatic) church. I despised it. I thought they were disrespectful towards God, and I couldn't stand the sermons. When the Sunday School teacher asked me to lead the class in prayer, to his horror, I prayed the Our Father. When he said that the Trinity was not very Biblical, I got so upset I yelled. Eventually, my parents stopped making me go to Sunday School. They did decide though to invite the pastor and his wife over for dinner . . .
"Emily, can sing, pastor. She takes voice lessons. Why don't you sing for the pastor, Emily?" my Dad suggested kindly, hoping to break the ice between his argumentative daughter and the pastor of the church he was hoping to join. At that, an idea broke through my sour mood and made everything light.
I quickly ran to get the accompaniment cassette (remember those?) my voice teacher had made for me and popped it into the stereo. I grinned from ear to ear as the introduction to my favorite song soared through the speakers. I took a breath, dropped my jaw, and sang, "Ave Maria! Gratia plena . . ."
It was Schubert's Ave Maria, and I had it completely memorized because I loved it so much. The pastor, however, felt differently about the song. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, his face turned shades of red, and his bearded cheeks puffed out in outrage. Finally, he waved his arms while he wildly shook his head no. He gasped out, "Uh, I can't listen to this. I don't care for this song. It's not right!"
Inside, I was happiest I had been all day, but I let my face fall and eyes widen in mock confusion. I spoke with all the meekness I could possibly fake, "Oh, but why not? You aren't afraid of Mary are you? The song is not about worshiping her. It's just . . ." He wouldn't let me finish. He cleared his throat and turned his appeal to my parents. Their faces were stone still. My Dad recovered first and tried to brush it all off with a laugh. Then told me I should choose another song.
"But why?" I asked. I had a bone to pick with the pastor, and I didn't want to let this go. "You told me Ave Maria was perfectly all right. That Protestants misunderstand . . ." I couldn't finish. The adults in the room were trying to settle things. The pastor didn't want to hear it. He didn't care what the reasons were behind it, and I needed to be respectful. So I sang something else.
Anglicans tend to be more comfortable with the Blessed Virgin Mary than most Protestants. In the petition for the intercession of the saints during the Holy Eucharist, as well as in other prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, she is included. Still, there's an element of forbidden mystery that surrounds her.
In Evangelical circles, she's rarely in a sermon, unless someone is preaching on one of the few passages where she's mentioned. Often, they throw in all the scriptural reasons that they believe Mary and Joseph really did have relations and that Jesus was the oldest of many children.
I didn't think this was correct growing up. However, when I was an adult, I decided it was childish of me to believe that Mary was perpetually a virgin. Thankfully five years ago, a good friend steered me back in the right direction. She encouraged me to look at what the Church Fathers had to say about Mary, Theotókos, the "God-bearer."
It was around the time of that conversation with my friend that I found again (for I was always losing and finding it) the medal pictured above. I discovered it the summer before I turned eight. My mother was trying to get ready to go somewhere, while I was busy at one of my favorite pastimes--digging through her jewelry box.
"Oh! Mom! Look at this! Why don't you wear it?" my little heart raced as I held up the medal with its gold chain.
"Emily Ruth! Stop playing in my jewelry box!" my mother shouted from her bathroom as she brushed her hair. She was understandably exasperated. I was undaunted, though.
"But Mom! Look! You should wear it," I said as I ran into her bathroom. carefully carrying the medal, grinning from ear to ear. I was sure I had found something important, something that she probably thought was lost. My mother's shoulders slumped when she saw it, and she heaved a sigh.
She explained that a Catholic friend had given it to her when she was eleven, in 1961. She didn't wear it because she wasn't Catholic. I argued that Mary was holding baby Jesus and that Jesus was all by himself on the other side. This meant that it was Christian and not just Catholic. I didn't realize that the image of Jesus on the back was very Catholic, the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Since she still refused to wear it, I begged her to let me have it. My mother was a deeply honest person, so she warned me that to wear the medal would be like telling a lie because I was not Catholic. But she relented and let me have it anyway.
I rarely wore it. After a few months, I gave up and stopped wearing it all together. After all, I didn't want to mislead people. Instead, I put it in my little jewelry box and only took it out now and then to admire it. It stayed with me through all the many moves of my life. It would surprise me by turning up in a pouch here, a jewelry box there. The chain broke somewhere along the way. When I found it again five years ago, I replaced the chain and started wearing it, again.
Four years ago, in the wee hours of December 7th, I had a dream about Mary for the first (and so far only) time in my life. I told my brother about the dream, and he would remind me about it as he went through RCIA and in the subsequent months. "Don't forget that dream, Emily. You need to become Catholic, too," he'd say.
I pray every day to learn more about the Blessed Mother, and I do have a lot to learn. (One of the things I love about being Catholic is that it's perfectly normal to be a perpetual student.) Catholics say that knowing more about her leads you to know more about her Son, and I've found that to be true. She is not a Christian version of the Greek goddess Gaea; she is the historical, real Mother of God. She is not someone the Medieval Church vaunted for the sake of love poetry; she has been venerated since the time of the Church's beginnings. There is no Christianity without Emmanouēl; there is no Emmanouēl without Theotókos.
©2016 Emily Woodham