Holy Mary, Mother of God

This week for Lent, I vowed to work on my selfishness. From the outside I can give the appearance of quite the opposite, which makes it worse. I’m not as selfless and caring as I appear. I won’t go as far to say it’s a lie, but when it comes down to it, I’ll instinctively elevate myself over others. I’ll jump out of the fire to protect myself rather than push my companions out first. I’m not proud of this.

It’s been a struggle. How am I supposed to work on not being selfish, when by the very act of working on myself I have to think about myself? And when someone pointedly stated this week that something I’d done was selfish, it was the last push for change. The very next day I was in daily Mass, thinking about not thinking about myself, mindlessly staring at a statue of Mary.

Then I got it.

It’s said that the Virgin Mary is the most difficult dogma for converts to grasp. Sure, she’s important. She was chosen by God to bear His Son. But beyond Christmas, there’s hardly any mention of Mary at all. She did her duty and went on her way. I’m not exempt from this viewpoint—in the year or so since I first considered the Catholic Church, I’ve struggled with why she has so much prominence. I was raised to belief those Catholics worshipped her, like they do God, and as a result avoided her so I didn’t fall into that same wicked deed they do.

But all this time, I’ve felt her at my periphery. She’s been waiting, both patient and impatient (as a mother does). I’ve sent up a few Hail Marys in response, trying to appease her (as a stubborn child does). Not to say that I haven’t studied her—in the Bible, in the Catechism, and through Sacred art—to try to understand why she’s highly favored. I got it, but it still had nothing to do with me.

Until I stared at that statue, in all its serene femininity, in a church that literally bears her name: outside Jesus Christ himself, Mary is the crowning definition of selflessness.

The Blessed Virgin gave all that she had to bring God into the world. The angel of the Lord declared, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee.” (Luke 1:28) Elizabeth cried out, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” (Luke 1:42) (Sound familiar?) This isn’t about not being selfish. Mary didn’t have to take the time to put herself aside. She didn’t spend months trying to fit God into her busy schedule. She simply accepted, at that very moment, and offered Him her entire life.

The purpose of prayer is often skewed. God is viewed as a magical genie, one who grants every wish. (Spoiler: That’s not how it works.) And when I first learned the concept of praying to Mary, it was offered in the same way: She will intercede for you. She’s do something for you. Which is fine, but not the point. It’s not about sending up additional prayers to get what you want. Rather than “pray so I may achieve this specific thing,” it should be, “Mary, pray that I may be more like you.” When I understood that, I truly understood why she is highly favored. Not just among people, but by God.

We don’t really know what she was thinking when the angel visited her. I imagine she was frightened, and confused, being a young virgin who was suddenly pregnant. But she was willing. I don’t have to be brave. I don’t have to be strong. But I have to be willing. May I be more like Mary.

“For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” —Mary, Luke 1:48

Talkin’ ’bout Work

Work isn’t often a topic that pops up on a God blog. For a place where most of us spend the majority of our time, it’s not a place we often think of Him at all. Religion is a private affair, and has no place in the office. This has bothered me for a while.

I love what I do. I’m in Children’s book production, which (in short) means I’m the one who gets books printed. I know the approximate price of adding glitter to a cover or using a special paper. I brainstorm with the editor and designer over what works best for each title. I talk to the printers to get the best quality book for our budget.

I know God was in my career path from the beginning, because I had no clue what I wanted to do in publishing—only that I wanted make books. It had to be divine intervention to fall into Production “by chance.” Ten years later and I’m still here, and still 100% into what I do.

But I wasn’t using that gift for His sake, and over time felt more and more weird about it.

I wasn’t necessarily job searching. I was happy enough where I was, waiting for that big promotion (that probably wasn’t happening). I even ignored that one job listing that required my exact experience, which seemed to be open forever. Until I realized it was in Christian books.

I imagine there was Heavenly rejoicing, a collective sigh of relief when God and His angels could finally push me along after I’d applied. Because everything after that moment happened so quickly. In a mere week, I had an interview. In another three days, I had an offer.

Not only was the position in Christian books, but Children’s books—my pride and joy. It’s the same business. I still quote books, and requote books, and plead with printers to improve ship dates. But it’s for Him. Piled on my desk, I have board books retelling Bible stories. Picture books declaring the love of Jesus. Children’s first devotionals. One day, I had this massive tome on my desk: a 600-page, hardcover, Bible graphic novel. This thing is a brick. It looks epic. Someone passed by, glanced at it, and said, “If this was around when I was a kid, maybe I’d still be going to church.”

It made me sad, but also a little hopeful. The Bible isn’t this old, dry book you’re forced to read in Sunday School. It’s awesome. And we’ll keep on publishing different versions of the same Bible stories, because each kid is receptive in a different way. Maybe someone is drawn to that graphic novel. Maybe someone else needs a bullet-pointed introduction. I pray that someone, somewhere, who maybe isn’t convinced about this God thing, sees this cool-looking book and and starts thumbing through it. Maybe this kid starts to think that God is pretty cool after all.

I get to be a part of that. Books help define me. I’m blessed to have been dropped into a field where I can create them. And to create books about God? I’m the one who cries just holding a Bible. The unchanging, eternal Word. The literal words of God on paper, beautifully bound and maybe gilted in gold, with a ribbon marker or two, whether it’s cased in leather or cloth or sheepskin…

Once, I illegally snapped a photo of the Gutenberg that’s on display at the New York Public Library (no flash, I promise).

Later, my friend asked, “Is that like visiting Mecca for you?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Or, you know, Jerusalem.

On Patience, and Coming Home

As I look over my paper journal for the second week of Lent, there’s an unplanned overarching theme: Patience.

“O Lord my God, be patient, as you always are, with the men of this world as you watch them and see how strictly they obey the rules of grammar which have been handed down to them, and yet ignore the eternal rules of everlasting salvation which they have received from you.” —St. Augustine

Following Mass, after I’d spent an hour in the pew crying over every word uttered, the priest offered me a gentle reminder: Spend some quiet time with God. At that moment, it occured to me… I hadn’t. I’d been studying. I’d been reading everything. But I’d spent little time in prayer. I’d been so wrapped up in “doing good” for Him, that I’d neglected to talk to Him. On the drive home, in the monotony of a mostly-empty highway, I remained quiet. Little by little, my mind was purged of the crushing weight of concerns; I thought not of the upcoming week or all the things I had to do. Finally, I allowed Him room to enter in again. Finally, we had our quiet time.

As a result, over the week, He spoke to me.

The next morning, a verse immediately came to mind: Ezekiel 3:22. It hovered there, taunting me. I couldn’t remember a thing from Ezekiel; he had nothing to do with anything I’d been reading recently. So I looked it up.

“And the hand of the Lord was there upon me; and he said to me, “Arise, go forth into the plain, and there I will speak with you.”

Easy enough: Arise, go forth. Wait for Him to speak.

Actually, it’s harder than it sounds.

Listening is tough. Being still enough to listen is an act of meditation, of taking time to let Him speak rather than constantly rambling to Him. At the time, I didn’t understand what this verse had to do with anything. But it was what I had to do: Get up. Go forth. Listen.

During adoration, another ping from God: Jesus, I know that I am a sinner.

We’re not merely talking about the sinner’s prayer, saying the magic words that get you into Heaven. I’d heard the phrase so many times at so many invitations, but this wasn’t just that blanket statement. This was every sin I’d ever committed. Every prideful, wrathful, lustful thought and deed; every moment I’d denied Him or failed to stand for His truth. It was awful. Like I hadn’t cried enough this week already. But in that… His patience.

“Await God’s patience, cling to him and do not depart, that you may be wise in all your ways.” —Sirach 2:3

When Jesus was a child, Mary and Joseph lost him during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was three days before they found him, where he was preaching in the temple among the scholars. Mary was worried sick, but Jesus said simply, “Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?”

We lose him, too. Mary and Joseph didn’t realize he was missing at first, and I do the same. I go back, search for him, wonder what had happened. And when we finally reconnect, he asks, “Didn’t you know where I’d be?” It’s a glorious reunion every time, the relief at finding him again. He doesn’t reprimand me for wandering off. He is simply patient, reminding me that he’s been there all along. Jesus didn’t lose his parents, after all.

Even in the midst of this journey, with all I’ve been reading and learning, I can still lose sight of him. I can feel lost. But Jesus is in the temple. Jesus is here. He is home. May I have a fragment of His patience. He’s been eternally patient with me, who constantly wanders off and doesn’t bother to listen. The very least I can do is show the same for Him, and for the people I interact with every day.