Each day I am at Belize Central Prison, I pray a Hail Mary during my walk from the youth facility to the rehabilitation center.[1. I have written about my ministry here in two other articles in recent months: Prison Ministry and Beginning Again and Walking the King’s Highway at Belize Central Prison.] Sometimes, I pray more than one. But at the very least, as soon as I part ways with Ian, my fellow Jesuit regent and companion, “Hail Mary, full of grace” emerges from within. I do not have many regular devotions that I keep, but this is one. Beginning on day one at the prison, I feel an almost instinctual need to call upon Momma Mary.
Sometime around the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the IT support staff members at the prison is in the rehab center’s office tinkering with my coworker’s computer. He finds out that I am in formation to become a Catholic priest. He is not Catholic. All of a sudden, I am on the receiving end of pointed questions, most of which have to do with Mary:
Why do Catholics pray to Mary?
Isn’t Jesus the only intercessor we need?
Mary is just a vessel for God to come into the world, right?
I go through and try to explain intercessory prayer – that of the saints and that of Mary. That we do not walk this journey alone, but rely on those around us and on the communion of holy women and men who precede us to show us pathways of discipleship. That Mary, as Jesus’ mom, knows him in a way that no one else does; that she is a great companion for coming to know Jesus.
But the last question disturbs me. When he asks it, I feel a rush of anger rise within. The question seems dismissive, even misogynist: Mary is just a vessel? I muster out a response: but who do you think taught Jesus how to pray? How to read scripture? How to love and how to be compassionate?
My responses do not seem to elicit much, if any, change in his thinking. But the conversation leads me to wonder: who is Mary? for me?
When I entered the novitiate almost five years ago, a good friend of mine sent me a postcard. He wrote on the back:
May Our Lady be with you through her intercession and lead you more closely to her Son who leads us all to freedom.
I must admit that my first response was to recoil a bit from the piety of my friend. I did not yet know Mary outside of the various devotional practices I’d grown up with at my Catholic grade school, practices that often felt more mechanical than prayerful. Mary seemed removed, outside of reach, distant.
Still, I tucked the postcard into my breviary, where it still remains.
From the novitiate until now, I have gotten to know Mary through the devotion of fellow Jesuits, good friends, women and men I have met in ministry, and in my own prayer. I have wrestled with and pondered the various ways the Church portrays Mary and speaks of her. I now treasure her companionship deeply as well as the complexity and wonder of who she is. To me…
…Mary is ponderous, gathering memories like freshly cut wildflowers and holding them close to her heart. During my 30 day retreat, I sit next to Mary as she lulls the toddler Jesus to sleep with the story of the shepherds’ visit. I notice Mary pointing to a shepherd’s crook in the corner of the room; a gift I’d seen the shepherds give to her for the infant Jesus in an earlier prayer period. I marvel at her intentionality, the gentle way she is drawing her son into a sense of who he is and who he is to become.
…Mary is a poet, her words emerging from the centuries of God’s covenantal love and the mere years of her own life, interwoven into the song that proclaims God’s greatness and fidelity in
her Magnificat. Mary sings of a God who has shown up in the past and who shows up now, in her life and again in the life of Israel: to overturn expectations in favor of the lowly, the hungry, the powerless. Her prophetic words resound just as much now as they did when first uttered.
…Mary is courageous. My awe at Mary’s youthful courage only grows as the years go on, as more and more I come to terms with the trouble she took on as an unwedded mother who likely had to endure a small town buzzing with whispered gossip of the “everyone knows everyone else’s business” variety. Between that and the prescription of stoning that Joseph could have invoked, Mary’s yes to God’s plan – then and throughout her life – shatters the otherworldly, passive plastic image I often encountered as I grew up.
One thing is for sure: Mary is no mere vessel.
Those Hail Marys as I walk towards the rehab center give way to deeper prayer.
One morning, I watch in my imagination as Mary walks into the prison and begins to visit with the men there. She takes their faces into her hands. She embraces them. She grasps their arm with the tenderness of someone who knows exactly what they are experiencing. And then I notice that Jesus is there too, with the same gentleness and tenderness; the same compassion. They both look at me, then: “look at them and see them. See through their personas and toughness. See their hearts. And help them know that we see them as they really are.”
Another day, I am with Mary in prayer and she is older, living in a working-class neighborhood. Her apartment is non-descript; the cabinets in her kitchen are clearly from an earlier era in interior decorating. In the apartment building, she bakes cookies for the numerous kids and looks after the younger moms, a surrogate auntie. Several times a week, she visits the young moms’ boyfriends and husbands, who are in prison, saying off-handedly to me: “we all need tenderness and love.” I nod in agreement. But then she sneaks her arm underneath mine and threads her fingers through my own. I suddenly intuit that “we all” includes me too. She tells me how Jesus sees these men at the prison as his brothers. How he sees me as his brother. And I realize that I am surrounded by Mary, Jesus, the men at Belize Central Prison. We are family.
I am slowly discovering what it means to be part of this family.
Martin approaches me after our support group one day. He begins to tell me how much he appreciated getting a chance to share how he is feeling and what he is thinking about. He mentions that he does not have any family and that he appreciates how our group was there to listen to him. How I was there to listen as well. To be with him in his feelings of loneliness, isolation.
A couple of weeks later, I mention in our support group that I have been struggling that week with anger. Our support group ends its time together and again, I am talking with Martin. He also struggles with anger. I ask if I can pray for him, but he doesn’t hear me correctly. He says, “Ok,” and our knuckles bind together into a locked fist bump, a kind of laying on of hands. Before I can say anything, Martin is praying for me. Towards the end of his prayer he says, “I pray that you help Mr. Dan hear your Spirit, that your Spirit will help him with his anger.” My eyes water. Graced.
I know then that because of Christ, Martin is my brother. And I am his. And Mary is right there, beaming.
Mary has indeed led me to be closer to her Son. The closer I am to him, the closer I am to the men he calls brothers. And he has given me the freedom to see and name that this is so.