Matthew, my 5-year-old nephew, has an unusual Mariology.
In May I returned from a weeklong pilgrimage to Lourdes, the shrine in southern France where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. It was my fifth trip as a chaplain with the Order of Malta, and the town was filled with knights and dames from around the world. They had come as companions to the malades, the sick who were seeking physical and spiritual healing.
It was the coldest pilgrimage anyone could remember, or that I care to experience. Almost every day we pilgrims awoke to driving rain and near-freezing temperatures. At times one wondered whether escorting the malades to the Grotto of the Apparitions in a rainstorm would help or hurt their chances of recovery. Nothing is impossible with God, so I came down on the side of “help.”
Along with accompanying the malades, I had another mission this year: Find a glow-in-the-dark statue of Mary. Matthew, my nephew, had missioned me by voice mail. In his message, when he spoke of the object of his desire, he talked so rapidly that I had a hard time deciphering his words. “Uncle Jim,” he said, “when you go to France don’t forget to get me a…glowinthedark Mary!” His older brother, Charles, had such a statue, which Matthew had borrowed for his bedroom.
It wasn’t hard to find one. Outside the area surrounding the Grotto of the Apparitions, Lourdes is the capital of kitsch, with shops selling Marian ashtrays, oversized soup spoons with St. Bernadette’s image and ballpoint pens in whose liquid-filled barrel Our Lady of Lourdes miraculously descends into the grotto and then ascends again.
The weekend after I returned, I gave Matthew his long-awaited statue. “Oooooh,” he said. Then I presented him and his brother with a surprise. Matthew and Charles unwrapped the blue-and-white striped paper to reveal tiny, plaster, glitter-covered statues of Our Lady of Lourdes, colored a lurid pink. “Ooooh, it’s so sparkly,” said Matthew. “What is it?”
“It’s a statue that changes colors with the weather. When it’s cold, she turns blue; when it’s hot, she turns red.” Matthew’s eyes widened. “Really?” Yes, I said, recalling that when I was in the Arctic—er, Lourdes—she was cerulean. “Put her in the refrigerator!” he said. When that was nixed, Matthew stood her on the sun porch and waited for the Blessed Mother to blush.
In the kitchen a few minutes later, I heard a high-pitched squeal. “Oh NOOO!” shouted Matthew. “Sparkle Mary broke!” In a clumsy handoff, the statue had fallen from his mother’s grasp. “That’s okay,” his mother said. “Daddy can fix her.” Then I heard something you don’t hear every day: “Where’s Mary’s head, Matthew?”
I decided to focus on the originally ordered statue, which was still intact: the plastic, glow-in-the-dark Mary. “Let’s put her in my bedroom!” said Matthew. We bounded up to his room to replace his brother’s statue with his own, new one. Matthew placed her reverently on his nightstand next to the water bottle. “Why do you like her there, Matthew?” “Oh,” he said. “Mary protects me.”
I liked that. All who had journeyed to Lourdes this year had hoped, in one way or another, for Mary’s protection. Most prayed for physical healing, many for spiritual healing. Some simply hoped to feel closer to God. A few didn’t know what they might find. But even in the driving rain, in ridiculously cold weather, they hoped that Our Lady, somehow, would protect them.
Matthew, though, had a different Mariology. “What does Mary protect you from?” I asked.
“Oh, Uncle Jim,” he said, as if I were a dense student. “Monsters!”