Statues Aside

Looking for Maryby Beverly DonofrioViking Compass. 246p $23.95

What really got under my skin about Beverly Donofrio’s Looking for Mary came toward the end. Returned from Medjugorje to Los Angeles, she has stocked up on rosaries she brought to one of the (alleged) apparitions so she can hand them out as souvenirs and good luck charms.

The souvenir part, I got; the three rosaries I own were brought back from trips to Rome, Knock and Lourdes. But good luck charms? Wasn’t that a big no-no, especially since it implied the simultaneously divine and terribly human act of prayer also had an air of superstition about it? Well, as anyone who has ever really wanted somethingwhether it was a job, recovery from an illness or just a sense of clarity and directionknows, fight as we might against such impulses, sometimes when we pray it’s for the magic more than the grace.

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That this is something Donofrio, a sharp and honest writer, never quite grasped until she was pushing 50, is one of the things that makes Looking for Mary so compelling and intriguing at the same time. There’s no question Donofrio was reared a Catholic; she grew up in Wallingford, Conn., a blue-collar enclave not far from New Haven. Her father was a police officer; her mother was long-suffering. Donofrio was one of those girls my own mother inevitably described as hard. She wore makeup. She rode in cars with boys. She got pregnant and was married at 17.

In her late 20’s she received a gift: the chance to hone her talent and get a degree from Wesleyan University. Whether Marian intercession was involved isn’t known, but Donofrio’s vocation as a writer had asserted itself. She wrote a funny, brittle memoir, Riding in Cars With Boys, that became something of a cult hit and is now being made into a movie (with Drew Barrymore, no less). A few years ago, Donofrio did a series for National Public Radio on Mary. I had heard a few of the broadcasts and thought: she’s got her tongue in her cheek, I can hear it.

What Looking for Mary chronicles, however, with a directness and naïveté that are downright beguiling at times, is how Donofrio’s tongue was liberated from her cheek.

Well, mostly.

Her interest in Mary evolved out of collecting kitschy images of the Blessed Mother. She’s impressed, at first, by the simplicity and goodness that radiate from so much bad religious art: I was struck by a powerful urgethe same feeling I get when I’m handed a kitten or an adorable baby, she writes. I just wanted to eat her up.

Meanwhile, I wanted to hunt Donofrio down and give her a good shaking. I wanted to yell that Mary was not cuddly, passive or cute; she was the single strongest image of womanhood the Catholic Church has in its spiritual arsenal, which might explain why those insulated clerics in Rome are so terrified of her and keep trying to redefine her as a way of keeping women in their placewhatever that might be.

But Donofrio knows better than that. What at first is a cultural fascination becomes genuine curiosity. She goes to Medjugorje with a writer’s eye and sense of detachment, which don’t stop her from getting caught up and, with utter credibility, in questioning what’s going on in her own soul. I didn’t think I believed in God anymore, she writes. Yet in my heart I was still a Catholic girl convinced that God had willed my pregnancy to ruin my life, that premature motherhood was my punishment for daring to have sex.

That she is often heart-wrenchingly open to what can happen when she makes her pilgrimage is what redeems Looking for Mary from the avalanche of lesser books by women who have written about how they turned their lives around. Interspersed with her experiences in Bosniathe conservatism and fervor are understandably off-putting; primitive spirituality has a way of making those with well-trained intellects rather itchyare scenes from her own life of 20 and 30 years before.

She got divorced, moved to New York, struggled with raising her son on her own, and never for a minute thought maybe there was a reason things were happening this way. She is mad at her parents, herself, the world. She needs some serious reconciliation, and the sheer emotional honesty of what’s going on in Medjugorje provides her with that opportunity. (She never mentions that the church is skeptical about the reported sightings of Our Lady, or why it is.)

She goes to confession and receives Communion for the first time in 35 years, and as much as you want to dismiss these rites as the posturings of someone caught up in the moment, Donofrio doesn’t let you. She’s far too intelligent to come off as a lapsed Catholic suddenly gullible from all the guilt built up inside her. Instead she begins to understand the real meaning of faith.

It has far less to do with piety and going to Mass than it does with opening yourself so completely to the presence of God in your life that the only thing you can do is become fully the person God intended you to be. She comes to terms with her failures as a mother and a daughter, and begins to try and heal the wounds she has inflicted.

While she still seems a bit too caught up in seeking signs and miracles, in the end you can’t really blame her. Her spirituality, dormant for so long, is finally waking up. Like Rip Van Winkle, she’s got some catching up to do, but her honesty, humility and joy inspire both patience and compassion.

Where Donofrio will be in another five or 10 years should make for an even finer memoirand Looking for Mary is very fine on its own.

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