Virgin Mary by El Greco (courtesy of Wiki Art)
The other day I came across El Greco’s masterpiece painting of the Virgin Mary and I saw something for the first time. Oh, it went beyond a sixteenth century rendition of a slight girl under her white and grayish-blue head covering. To be sure. I encountered gently pursed lips, an unfurrowed brow and endlessly deep eyes. Though she is young and beautiful, Mary somehow conveys something wise and timeless. There isn’t a hint of haughtiness, though her experience is unparalleled. There isn’t an element of despair, though she knows raw suffering. In this face of innocence and purity and experience and tragedy, there is something that transcends the commonplace. And as I peered deeper and deeper into this thin girl’s eyes, I found that the gaze she returned to me is knowing – painfully and wondrously knowing.
And then it dawned on me.
That gaze is the gaze of a mother.
Unlike anyone in the world, mothers know the joy of their child being fully one with them. They physically and emotionally (and selflessly) undergo changes (many of which are unpleasant, if not painful) to prepare the way for the life to come. Mothers sustain their child – literally giving their own blood with every beat of their heart – at the expense of their own comfort, convenience and, at times, physical constitution. And then, in finally ushering their child newly into the world, they do so with an indescribable mix of agony and joy.
Mothers protect fiercely and comfort angelically. They nurse and whisper and rock and bounce. Mothers recognize the cry and sense the hunger. They sacrifice sleep and food and time and pleasure just to give them to their child. They chasten and love and teach and comfort. And as first smiles become first words and first steps become first falls, mothers are always there.
And as children grow, they know (or should know) that their mother knows something about and feels something for them that no other human being could ever fully understand. The mystical connection born out of the proximity of pregnancy can only be marveled at, yet never fully explained. As a father, though I understand this (and recognize the deeply unique role I have in my children’s lives), I can’t help but feel a bit jealous of it. For only Adam could comprehend a mother’s bond with her child when he said of Eve,
“This one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.”
– Genesis 2:23
But it wasn’t until years ago when I attended the Living Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, that I truly began to grapple with that haunting gaze found in Mary’s eyes. For as Mary watched her beautiful baby boy, whom she swaddled and cooed and chased and loved, as he was mocked and beaten and impaled upon a tree, surely she saw it and suffered as a disciple of our Lord.
But she was also a mother.
And so in that gaze coming from El Greco’s work, that penetrating but profoundly loving look, was the wisdom that to mother – to willingly experience the heights of love and the depths of tragedy, to give beyond any measure a love beyond any description, to be truly full only in emptying oneself for another – is the greatest of all callings, the fullest of all vocations.
So to my mother and my wife, my stepmother and my mother-in-law, to my sisters and friends who wake up every day and retire every night with limitless (and, at times, trying and exhausting) devotion and inexpressible love for their children, thank you and Happy Mother’s Day.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.
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