Category Archives: Images of Mary

Mary of the week: I need an Our Lady of Efficient Grading

We’re in the final throes of the school year here, and holy cow, I’m ready for vacation.  Stick a fork in me.   I’m done.

But then again, I’m not done, because I still have papers to grade.    With the exception of eight weeks in summer, I always have papers to grade.   Always.  The psychic toll this takes on a person simply cannot be denied.

So I really need a Mary called Our Lady of Efficient Grading.  I could use her prayers right about now, as I wearily polish off the final stacks.

Or I could use an Our Lady of Packing, because I’m doing that too: packing up the contents of my classroom and department office desk for a move to a new building.   I am unearthing fascinating things, like papers from students I taught in 1998.  That would make them … how old now … thirty?   Dang.   I’ve been doing this a long time.

But since I can’t find any icons of Our Lady of End-of-the-School-Year Pursuits, I’ll just share this image instead.  It is a soothing and lovely image for any week, especially a frazzled, moving-at-lightning-speed week like this one.  May it bring you peace, too.



Song of the Angels by William-Adolphe Bougureau

Mary of the week: Star of the Sea

It’s a week until the end of the semester, which means my life is pretty darn hectic right about now.   I currently have grading piles that rival my laundry piles (and believe me, that is really saying something).  So today’s post will be a re-run of a post that I first wrote in — can it be? — 2009.   Enjoy!

Stella MAris

I’m picky about beaches. I’m not really a fan of the sunny, Baywatch, surf-n-sand ones. My ideal beach is foggy, windswept, dramatic: the kind we have here in Northern California, for instance. There’s something so evocative and romantic about strolling along the sand on a gray day, shoulders hunched inside my coat, few other people around to intrude upon my thoughts.

Those thoughts always turn to the immensity of the ocean. It’s impossible to look at that horizon and NOT feel humbled. It’s a good kind of humbled, though. It makes me realize that there is so much out there in the world, beyond my own perspective. Looking at the huge sweep of ocean, I can’t help but think of the courage of people who brave those waters and literally sail into the unknown.

Maybe this is why I love the title Stella Maris — Star of the Sea. It’s an old name for Mary, one that emphasizes her role as guide. For centuries, the stars have helped sailors find their way through the treacherous ocean waters. Mary plays a similar role for us landlubbers. When you’re lost in the choppy churning waters of any kind of problem, try thinking about how she navigated the stormy seas of her own life.  There’ a power in pondering her example, and in asking for her prayers.  She can get you back on the right course. She can keep you from drowning.

And I truly believe that Mary, like all moms, wants us to grow beyond ourselves. She wants us to explore the world and especially our own potential — but she wants us to do it safely. As we sail beyond our comfort zones she’s always there, watching us, cheering us on, and hoping we’ll look up whenever we feel lost at sea.

Holy Card from my own collection (isn’t it a beauty?)

Mary of the Week: Why I now love Our Lady of Guadalupe


On a spring day about seven years ago, I was interviewing my friend Mary for my book Mary and Me: Catholic Women Reflect on the Mother of God.  We sat in the living room of her bungalow-type home, which was filled with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in every imaginable place: painted on a cabinet, on a refrigerator magnet, on a decorative tile in the glassed-in hutch in the dining room.

Mary – I’ll refer to her as “my Mary,” to distinguish her from the Virgin Mary – explained to me her history with Our Lady of G, whom she’d loved ever since she was a child.  Our Lady of G had been a huge comfort to my Mary during the uterine cancer she’d had several years before, a cancer which meant she could never have children of her own.  Throughout that awful diagnosis and the recovery, throughout Mary’s subsequent engagement and wedding to her husband Tom, throughout the travels Mary adored and the teaching job she loved, Our Lady of G was there.  “I feel like she’s always been watching out for me,” Mary told me on that day in 2006.

I’m not sure I paid much attention to Our Lady of G before knowing my friend Mary. Growing up in California, her image is ubiquitous, but I’d never felt much of a personal connection.  And yet there was something in my Mary’s fervent love for her that made me take another look.

My Mary loved the earth tones of the skin of Our Lady of G.  She loved how Our Lady of G spoke to the hearts of many people in the Central Valley farming community where Mary grew up.  And through Mary’s eyes, I started to see something special in Our Lady of G, too: an earthiness, a real-ness.  I liked that she looked at home in any context, both on a church altar and on a tattoo.   I started to understand why people loved her.

Now she’s in my house, too.  She’s in the center of the folk art cross that I bought at the Carmel Mission last year, and which I have hanging by my prayer desk.


She’s on a small desk clock that Scott found in a dime store in Chinatown.  She’s on this T-shirt that I found at LA Congress, a shirt of which my Mary would heartily approve.


As it turns out, I wrote about Mary – my Mary – in my second book, too.   She’s in the chapter about heaven.    In 2010, her cancer came back, this time to her bile ducts.     It ravaged her body, stole her strength, made it difficult for her to eat, and caused her great pain.  This time, in spite of all efforts, it was terminal.   It’s been a year and a half since she died, and there is no fancier way to say it than this: I miss her.  I miss her so much and so often.

But this loss made Our Lady of G settle into an even deeper place in my heart, because the day that Mary died was December 12, 2011.  December 12 is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  There was – and there is – such a unique comfort in knowing that Mary’s struggles ended on that day of all days.  I’m not normally given to flights of fancy, but it feels so natural to picture Our Lady wrapping Mary in her cloak and, after a lifetime of love, leading her to a place where she would suffer no more.

“I feel like she’s always been watching out for me,” Mary said in 2006.  It’s bittersweet to read those words now, knowing what happened later.  But at the same time, those words are truer than any of us could have predicted.  And that is why I love Our Lady of Guadalupe.


The guest book table at Mary’s celebration of life

Mary of the week: The Mary who looks right at you

In Catholic tradition, May is the month for honoring the mother of Jesus.  For the next few weeks, I’m going to get into the spirit by sharing a favorite image of Mary every Friday.  ( She is the  woman of a thousand faces, so I have lots to choose from.)  Enjoy!

There are some images of Mary that are just hard to forget.  They’re especially beautiful, or striking, or they resonate in some emotional way that is difficult to explain.  For me, this is one of those pictures.


It’s the work of the Austrian artist Marianne Stokes, who painted it in 1907-1908.  The costume is the traditional dress of Dalmatia, which a region on the Adriatic Sea (yes, I had to look this up.  Oh, by the way, it is where the dogs come from.)  Stokes used a local girl as a model, and apparently the thorny bushes in the background are meant to foreshadow Christ’s Passion.

Isn’t it gorgeous?  And it’s more than gorgeous, too, I think.  Something in Mary’s gaze is very moving to me.  Maybe it’s because so many traditional images of Mary show her with downcast eyes, looking humble.  I like how she looks right at you, meeting your eyes: she seems very confident.  At the same time, there’ s a rather dreamy, introspective quality to her expression that just gives it all the more complexity and depth.  And if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about Mary over the past several years, it’s that she’s a lot deeper and more complex than I ever used to think.

Madonna and Child by Marianne Stokes

This is a re-run of a post from April 2010.

For all who mourn

Mary in Two Minutes

Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

If you don’t know what that is, check out this brief video below, from  It tells you all about Mary, in two minutes (more or less).  I helped work on the video, so it’s really fun to see the finished product.



Why we celebrate her

Today is the birthday [observed!] of a very special lady, who is such a huge part of my spiritual life.

Happy Birthday, Mary!  You are a reminder that when you raise a child, you raise the potential to change the world forever.

Courage, mom-style

Here’s one thing I’ve realized over the last five years: you can never really prepare for parenthood.   Yes, you can buy the motherhood books and mine the wisdom of your friends and offer to babysit for their kids, thereby acquiring some level of competency in how to change a diaper or support a floppy newborn head.    But nothing really gets you ready for the life-altering, universe-upending, all-consuming reality of parenting.   It’s only when you are right in the thick of it that you realize how utterly exhausting — and jaw-droppingly beautiful — it is.

This certainly describes my journey.  Prior to having Matthew, I had no idea that I could be so exhausted, physically and mentally.  I had no clue that I would have to function for days on spotty, brief,  grade-D quality sleep.  I also had no idea that the smile of a newborn could make me want to cry with happiness, or that being in the firm circle of a toddler’s hug would make me wish for time to stop right there, so I would never have to feel him let go.

I couldn’t have imagined any of this, really.  I just had to live it and find out for myself.

And as we celebrate the Annunciation today, I feel a strong sense of kinship with Mary.  She could not possibly have imagined in advance what being the Mother of God would be like.  When she said yes, she must have known, on some level, that she was going into it blind.  She could not possibly have anticipated the glorious highs, the terrifyingly abysmal lows, and all the little graces in between.

But she was willing to find out.   And — to echo Robert Frost — that has made all the difference.

Annunciation by Domenico Beccafumi

Touching Mary

After Mass today, we stopped by the grotto in the parking lot so the boys could say Hi to Mary.   This has become a weekly tradition, one that the boys look forward to as much as I do.  There are beautifully-tended flowers blooming all around the grotto, with a winding brick path leading to the statue of Mary.  I always love the dramatic contrast between the rough stone walls and the smooth glass sides of the votive candle holders that people leave at Mary’s feet.

As we drew closer to Mary, Luke suddenly said, “No touch!”  He was referring to the candles in their glass holders, white and hot, which I’ve warned him about in the past.  “No touch!” he said again, obviously pleased by the fact that he remembered my words.

As we headed back to the car, I realized that there was a time when “no touch” would have seemed like a pretty appropriate way to talk about Mary herself.    I would have looked at her, white and sky blue up on her pedestal, and thought: That is a woman who is nothing like me.  She’s pure and perfect and practically inhuman.  For years, she seemed pretty darn untouchable — more like a snow queen than a flesh-and-blood woman.

But that was before many things happened in my life to make her become totally  real to me.  Most of all, it was before I became a parent, and  discovered the overwhelmingly physical nature of being a mom.  Motherhood is a full-contact sport, really, one that involves all kinds of touch, and Mary must have experienced all of this herself.  Before Jesus was born, she surely felt him fluttering inside her, stretching and unfolding his limbs.  After he was born, she would have fed him with her own body.  She hugged him, bathed him, cuddled him, brushed back his hair, and probably kissed boo-boos away.  And years later, when her son was dying on the cross, she was probably going out of her mind wanting to touch him and hold him and comfort him, but he was too far out of reach, and she couldn’t.  I think this is part of the reason why images of the Pietà are so powerful to me:  she’s holding her dead son on her lap, just as she did when he was a baby, because a mother wants nothing more than to cuddle her kids, to feel their warmth and weight, and even death doesn’t kill that desire.

I love every image of Mary, including the beautiful queenly statues standing on pedestals.  But the ones I love most these days are the images of her where she looks ordinary, human, touchable.   I love the pictures where she looks like a real woman and a real mom, a comfortable lap that you can climb into where you can hunker down, safe and warm, just as her little boy did.

No touch?   No.  Touch.

Holy card from my collection . It’s a detail of Song of the Angels by Bouguereau.

One reason why we love these paintings


What are Raphael’s Madonnas but the shadow of a mother’s love, fixed in permanent outline forever?

– Thomas Wentworth Higginson



Tempi Madonna
Madonna and Child (Small Cowper Madonna)