It's fascinating how important dates sometimes blur over time and repetition. For instance, yesterday afternoon I casually mentioned to a co-worker that it was Pearl Harbor Day, and he replied that was the first time he had either seen or heard mention of it all day.
A couple of days ago, December 6, was (I'm pretty sure) the anniversary of my mother's death. Little did I realize at the time that two days later, December 8, would be one of the great feast days of my adopted mother, Mary. Being a lackluster Protestant I didn't have much knowledge of Mary, other than that she was Jesus' mother. I didn't have the bias against her that some non-Catholics have. (As I've mentioned before, I probably wasn't a very good Protestant, since I had virtually no trouble accepting the teachings of the Catholic Church.)
Mary became a figure of great interest to me at that point in my life. Seeing as how I didn't have a mother of my own, it would seem natural that I would gravitate toward her. And I was taken with the concept of introducing someone that important to my own theological way of thought, which had in the past been confined to God and Jesus, and perhaps a vague understanding of the Holy Spirit. Since I wanted to be a good Catholic, I immediately took up the idea of offering prayers to her and asking for her intercession.
Some people have had very intimate, mystical encounters with Mary, even seeing visions of her. I can't say that this has ever happened to me. My strongest connections to her, in fact, came during and just after that period of time when I was taking instruction in the faith. I remember her early intercessions came very much in the form of those that a mother might be expected to make; nothing earth-shattering, just a slight interference in the normal activities of my day that was, I could see, for my own benefit (the spiritual equivalent of making sure I had my coat buttoned and my hat on).
There were only perhaps three times I can recall that I ever had what could even be remotely considered a mystical experience with Mary. The first two occasions were quite similar, times when I found myself driving in unfamiliar areas, lost and frightened. (Having been involved in accidents before, I have an innate fear of not being in control while behind the wheel. Being lost does not, to me, constitute being in control.) Nearly at my wit's end, and in desperate danger of missing my appointments (at the very least), I called out to Mary, aloud, for help in finding where I was. Each time, almost magically, I noticed freeway signs pointing me in the proper direction - signs that I had been looking for but, I would swear, I had not been able to see. Perhaps concidence, perhaps not.
The third and (to this point) final time that I can recall was a number of years ago, while I was riding the bus home from work. I was feeling low about something (with that job it could have been anything), and had a pretty poor view of myself. (Now that I think about it, it might not have had anything to do with work; it could have been some typically boneheaded thing I'd said or done during the day. At any rate, suffice it to say that I was down on myself, and looking for some evidence of my worth.) Again, perhaps I was simply forming the words in my own mind, or perhaps I was truly open to what happened. What did happen was that I distinctly heard words - not out loud, in the sense that they might have come from the person sitting next to me on the bus, or that they were being broadcast on the radio. They were not out loud, but I heard them nonetheless, and I was equally sure that they were being said with a feminine voice, from Mary. The message was simple: "You know, He loves you very much." And that was that.
Was it a life-changing experience? I can't say that it was. I wasn't suddenly awash in light, or floating on a peaceful sea. But it did make me feel better, reassured that I had some worth to someone. Again, maybe I imagined the whole thing, created the words out of my own subconscious because I needed to hear them. Or maybe not.
I haven't had any real encounters with Mary since then, and for that I take full responsibility. I've grown somewhat lax in my devotionals over the last few years, for which I've offered the typical excuse that things have been "too busy," and that I'd change my ways "as soon as things quiet down a bit." I don't mean to suggest that I've blown off my obligations, just that I don't dive into them with the fervor that I once did. And because of that I've grown comfortable with Mary and the saints, comfortable in the same way that you do when you're in a relationship and you start to take the other person for granted. To be sure, you'll have a harder time driving away Mary than you would a friend or spouse in the same situation; but you find the day-to-day interactions to be less than they once were.
The fact that I take her for granted, however, does indicate in a strange way the value I still place on her, for I know that she is always there, to be called on for help. And that reminds me of one last encounter with Mary, that took place much more recently - perhaps in the last four years or so. I was, again, riding on the bus, worried about a friend who was facing a potential threat from some situation or other (the details aren't important now), and I prayed to Mary that she would take my friend to her and help that friend through this particular situation. At that moment, I did feel a peace come over me, a certainty that things with this friend were going to be all right. Typically, beng the worrier that I am, I soon began to fret that I'd imagined the whole thing - but I hadn't. As soon as I got to work, I got news that my friend had faced the situation in question, and that everything had turned out all right. In fact, it had probably occurred right around the time I received the peaceful reassurance.
With that, I received another reassurance - one that I carry with me to this day. It is that Mary does not ignore me, does not let me fade into the background, even though I may treat her that way at times. Like her Divine Son, she is always there for us whenever we need her. She stands ready and willing to look over her family, and to offer her prayers and intercessions to her Son. Often as I stand in the line for confession, preparing for my turn in the box, I call on her for help in making a good confession; and as I look around, seeing her image in statues or icons, I know that she will be there, helping me along, rooting for me, giving me the mother's assurance that everything will be all right. I pray to her often, for my mother and other deceased friends and loved ones, and for a growth in my own faith and devotion, to her and her Son.
The first time I ever attended Mass on this day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (I wasn't even a Catholic yet, although I was in the process), the priest asked how many really understood what this day was all about. Because of its proximity to Christmas, and because many don't really understand the true nature of Mary, a lot of people think the Immaculate Conception has to do with Jesus. (It doesn't help that the readings tend to focus on the Annunciation, either - but that's the best we have to go on.) Well, the priest continued, that's not what this is all about. He proceeded to explain what the Immaculate Conception really was, and I carried the understanding to this day. And it's appropriate that it should come during this very joyous time of year, for it is an occasion that adds to our joy. Even as we anticipate the birth of our Savior, we also can anticipate the birth of the vessel who brought Him to us.
So this is indeed a day for us to celebrate, with all the hope and anticipation that the season brings. We should know that Mary remains an active participant in our lives, a dear mother to us all, one who loves us in spite of the pain our sins have inflicted and continue to inflict on her Son. (One might say that we are creatures that only a mother could love - and a Son whom she brought up likewise.) For my part, I want to thank Mary for all that she has done for me, and to let her know that, however imperfectly, she remains an essential part of my faith. That my love for her may continue to grow and mature over the years, I most humbly pray.