Helma was very old. I used to bring her communion on the first Friday of every month.
She held her rosary in her hand, fingering the beads as she told me about the only love she had and lost, a man to whom she was engaged and who died before the wedding. She told me that story every time I went to see her. And she always ended it by telling me that the Blessed Mother had given her comfort all through the years.
Anne went to daily Mass. She called me one morning during a torrential downpour. In a panicky voice, she said she was right then looking out her window and the walls of her swimming pool were caving in. She was praying to Mary, she said, but the walls still gave way.
Later, much later, I told her that perhaps Mary had other plans for the gaping hole in the backyard. Anne agreed. There is now a shrine to Mary where the pool once was.
There was a Greek man. I used to see him walking along the streets, arm in arm with a very pretty young woman. He was much older. He used a fancy-looking walking cane.
I visited him once. He lived in an apartment. He had built a shrine in one of the rooms, a shrine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was made of many little lights, the kind you see on Christmas trees, and there were plastic flowers, ribbons of many colors and votive candles, all carefully arranged around a statue of Mary. He told me that the young woman was a distant cousin who lived with him and I wondered about that.
Then there was Agnes who walked to the noon Mass every day, carrying in her arms a small and beautifully carved statue of Mary. She had no children. I had dinner at her home and met her husband and noticed the exquisitely carved woodwork that seemed to be everywhere I looked — the cabinets, the table and chairs, picture frames.
Agnes saw me looking and told me that her husband was a skilled carpenter who created custom-made furniture for the Rockefeller and Kennedy families. Her husband, who spoke very little English, smiled and bowed his head. Then I knew that he had carved the statue carried by Agnes.
I was tempted to consult a commentary for the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary since I realize I am kind of rusty when it comes to knowing much of a scholarly or theological nature about Mary. There are thousands of books and I know they must offer a lot to ponder.
But I tend to fall back on the commentary that is human life, things and people I remember, people who found warmth and comfort in the Mother of God and prayed to her, carried her, enshrined her, offered their sorrows to her.
I suppose in that way, through these people, life has been for me a steady text. It is a very rich text, filled with all kinds of people who love Mary and have taken her into their lives.
It is a text of flesh and blood, of human need, human hopes and sorrows. People asking Mary to be with them as they struggle with the loss of innocence, the loss of purity that burdens any human life.
That is what we celebrate on the Feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A woman who was among us and still lives and loves in our midst.
I think that the scholars who write the commentaries would agree. I just like to add some telling footnotes from the vignettes of life.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.