Of Many Things

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!”

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8 years 7 months ago
It bothers me to see this magazine encouraging superstitions.
While Mary herself may help us in our times of woe, a tacky plastic statue will not. I really do not understand why the church fosters this sort of thing. It reeks of idolatry to me and I sincerely believe it is most certainly not something to teach our children!
Maria Verlengia
8 years 7 months ago
LOL! This story made my day. Now what Matthew really needs is a Mary night-light.
8 years 6 months ago
Dear Fr. Jim,
So happy to read of your continuing pilgrimages to Lourdes!  I remember reading of your first encounter with the classic film, Song of Bernadette, and of your first visit to Lourdes, assisting with the Malades in the baths.  My first (but hopefully not final) visit to that holy place was in 2006.  Yes, there was a great deal of "kitsch" accented with assorted "smaltz," but there were also many beautiful sacramentals and images of Our Lady.  My favorite was a statue of Mary, dressed as a French peasant woman, her hair tied up in a kerchief.  She was seated on a small wooden bench as she lovingly cradled the Infant in her arms.  Superstition?
I teach Theology to high school juniors.  This past February 13, I displayed a statue of OL of Lourdes in my classroom with a small dish of water from the spring (we arrived home shortly before all liquids were banned in flight!) After discussing the feastday and St. Bernadette, I invited the students to come forward if they wished, and bless themselves with the water from Lourdes, explaining that this may be the only opportunity they may have to do this.  Some were very enthusiastic, and some were passive.  Others were outright cynical.  However, all reverently dipped their fingers in the holy water and blessed themselves, making the Sign of the Cross.  A few months later, one of my less than enthusiastic students came to tell me quite enthusiastically, that her parents had just returned from Lourdes with the Knights of Malta, and had brought back some of the water.  Her face was beaming as she was telling her news.  I knew that her mother was not well, and was glad she was able to make the trip.  Superstition? No, it is called Faith!
Keep up the good work, Father!  Hope we are both blessed with many more visits to the place where "Heaven kissed the Earth."
richard benitez
8 years 6 months ago
I often think of the glowing jesus i won in 1st grade for going door to door (what's a 1st grade kid doing going door to door)selling sheets of stamps with holy images. it was only honorable mention prize at st joseph's. I had no idea it would glow in the dark. it scared the crap out of my younger brother who hid under the covers. for me, it was greatest thing. i prayed and prayed. to this day, i never complain about kitch and corney catholic things people do or buy. Even today I embarrass myself when i catch my devout sentiments and prayers. i know that God is truely merciful having to listen to some of the dumbest complaints and requests.
Craig McKee
8 years 6 months ago
To poster #1:
As the author of a children's book on IMAGINARY FRIENDS titled: "A Peacock Ate My Lunch," I think that you need to lighten up a bit! Catholicism is an INCARNATIONAL religion, and what may appear to be mere SUPERSTITION to a sophisticated adult such as yourself, can be very REAL to the average five year old child...just as real as the MONSTERS under his bed that Mary protects him from. For somethuing really different, try reading the stories of the child Jesus from the apochryphal Gospel of Thomas, especially the one where he made clay toy birds fly to amuse his friends.
Why just this very afternoon on the subway here in Hong Kong, I was lucky to watch a wonderful "teachable moment" when a young mom -complete with piercings and tattoos- was reading a storybook to her young son about Jesus' very first MAGIC TRICK: the wedding feast at Cana. 
Bless you, Uncle Jim!
Stephen O'Brien
8 years 6 months ago
Delightful vignette.  Actually, five-year-old Matthew is quite sharp.  Aren't the Devil and his comrades the real monsters?
susan russell
8 years 6 months ago
You are the best!  What a lucky nephew to have you as his Uncle; especially when he gets a beautiful statue of Mary.  Pretty nice for a young child to be able to relate to the Blessed Virgin Mary at his age.
One of your BMI committee members at St. Thomas More.
Susan Russell
Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 6 months ago
My father, a devout Catholic and farmer who prayed Lauds with the monks of Gethsemani every morning, was what I called a "water man".  He firmly believed in the healing powers of water.  I can remember hiking into the hills of Kentucky to a spring where he would insist that we all drink the sulfur-smelling water bubbling up from the ground.  He also collected waters from the shrines he would visit.  We had in our cupboard a bottle labeled, "water from the River Jordan", and when a child was sick, he brought out that water and blessed the child with it.
Now, in later life as I reflect on my childhood, I don't think of my father's piety so much as superstitious as profoundly holy.  My father had a sense for the mystery of life, and he deerly loved his children.  In some strange way my own sense of the mysterious holiness of life comes from my father.  In his later years he was able to visit the grotto at Lourdes, and he went down into the water as one who humbly knows how much he needed the healing that could come from that water.


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