One of the most treasured items of my 1960’s era Catholic childhood was a white plastic, glow-in-the-dark Mary with a faintly greenish tint. She occupied a place of honor on my nightstand, under my lamp. I always read before falling asleep, and so she had some time to absorb the lamplight. Although she was not a nightlight, Mary continued to glow even after the lamp was turned off. How safe I felt in the dark, and if I did not, I simply looked at her shimmering figure. As adults, it is not as easy to go there. I myself often long for security from external sources, but do they truly fulfill that need?
After I made my confirmation in 8th grade, I “graduated” from church. It felt so liberating! I was angry with my once beloved church. A nun had told me that my recently deceased Jewish father could not be with Jesus as I imagined – after all he was a Jew, and divorced to boot. In what may have been my first act of conscious and willful disobedience, I knew that Sister Josefa was wrong, totally wrong. I had simply stood there, defiant in my disbelief, although I had revealed none of that to her. She was not mean, just about age 90 in 1970, a product of her own time. That said, I could not reconcile that the very Jesus that she had spent so much time teaching me about was the one who had kept my no-longer-alive dad out of heaven. He was there. Life had not ended, only changed, right? At least, that is what I chose to believe, making it a relief to stop going to Mass.
That was in 1971, and I never looked back. Until I did. And yes – I did look back. Blame the glow-in-the-dark figure from my past. Oh yes, there is something about Mary dang it, there truly is. And thanks to that something, she ended up being the one who lured me back into the fold. Nightstand glow achievement accomplished.
Frankly, I was seemingly happy adrift. I spent most of 9th grade focused on my boyfriend. In 10th grade I decided that I wanted to connect with my father’s Jewish roots, and even talked to my friend’s rabbi about converting, although I never followed through. My mother, still untethered from reality and awash in grief was unhappy about it, but she had no strength to stop me. My father’s aunt bought me a Star of David necklace. I liked thinking about being Jewish, but lacked the will, so that’s where that ended.
Next came some brief flirtation with returning to church in college in 1975, but the Newman Center Mass, complete with a stereotypical cool priest with longish hair and a guitar, left me cold. I continued to talk to God and to Mary, but always from a distance. By 1981 I was deep into my early New Age era, delving into books about all kinds of spirituality. A few years later I had become some sort of junior Shirley MacLaine. Yet Mary was always near. I acknowledged her whenever I could, often stopping by the Lady Chapel at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which was near my office. For me, there really was something about Mary. It was just that I did that I spoke to her in secret, while I talked openly about my new age passions.
When I look back I see that I was in such a hurry, racing through my own life to avoid being who I was. This sprint through all kinds of spiritual exploration left me both exhausted (which I interpreted as exhilarated), and alone, lacking any community. How perfect was that, I thought. How wrong I was. In some way I think I wanted to out myself, but what would that mean for my wildly liberal lifestyle and crazy quilt of beliefs? It would never work.In 1987 I was flipping through the pages of a new age magazine and was startled to read about visions of Mary in some place called Medjugorje! I was over the moon. Finally my two crazy spirit lives might get knit together! Surely this was a sign from God. Or Mary. Or whoever. It had to be, right? Soon I began to research everything I could, and the next thing you know, I started to drift from Shirley MacLaine and head towards Scott Hahn. Today I think of that as a delayed adolescence. I read everything I could about Medjugorje and about Mary, even when I did not like what I was reading.
Eventually I made plan to visit Medjugorje, completely insistent that I was not, nor would I ever be, Catholic again. I was an ardent defender of pro-choice politics, and I had so many gay friends. Saturday night meant skulking around dark, smoky, slightly dangerous clubs on the Lower East Side before it became cool. It was simply dangerous. Who had time for church?
But there was Mary, practically stalking me. Practically? She would not leave me alone, and what made it worse was that she was not inducing guilt, but just always present and full of something I now understand as love. It seemed oddly scary and attractive back then. I prayed my rosary every day, trying to keep Mary close enough – but not too close. Jesus? God? I was terrified to consider any male god at that time. I had done too many bad things. I was sure I was in deep trouble, but I trusted something in Mary.
Imagine my journey in 1990 – my pro-choice, gay friendly, far left self, on a tour bus with about 15 other rosary-carrying pro-life honest to goodness Midwest Catholics. I was the sole New Yorker, and the only single traveler. Couples, families, they were all there. Me? I was an interloper. Truly, I felt like an imposter and regretted the journey – until I did not. It was not some magic moment, but for once I went along with something I was not that thrilled about. There was no turning back, and how I hated that! I recall sitting on a bench in front of St James Church, looking up at the sky, deep in conversation with God, whom I had personally avoided for a long time. I tried to persuade him that I was not a good candidate for return. What about abortion? What about my gay friends? Deep in my interior I felt Mary smile, and God was simply silent. OK, no lightning strikes. I might just stick around.
And I did stick around. It did not take long for me to find a parish and take on a church family. Or rather, they took me on, seemingly not bothered by where I was on the journey. My return to God was slow, but certain, and Mary was always there urging me on. It has been a long time now, but I am still ambling along. Even now, I usually feel a little out of step with the rest of the group – but then Mary urges me on. Again.
God asked, and Mary said yes, and because she said yes, the skin and bones of God’s own son flourished and grew in her womb. This all reminds me of my little plastic statue under the lamp. As I consider how the divine light was absorbed by Mary, I think about how she glows, and shares that light with me and everyone today. Mary is a true light in the darkness, her presence glowing as we trip, stumble, fall, and struggle in the dark. When we say yes to, and nurture that light of Christ, we bring Christ into the world. All these years, and I’m still working at it. However unenthusiastic I may feel at times, I am always trying to say yes.
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn is a writer, retreat leader, and speaker living in the Albany, NY area.