"That's the most sacrilegious thing I've ever heard you say, Sarah. Seriously rethink that." said my husband. For context, I had just called him from the parking lot of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. However, I had referred to it as The Church of Mary Who Got Knocked Up by God. Growing up Protestant, I never understood "the Mary thing." As someone who likes to chat with God directly—do not pass Go, do not collect 200 bucks on the way—I've consistently had a hard time understanding why there would need to be someone in the middle of that connection. Why a middleman? Or middlewoman in this case? Little did I know I was about to get smacked in the noggin again for my contempt prior to investigation.
The Basilica is the largest Roman Catholic church in North and South America combined. And it's also one of the ten largest churches in the world. Yet, I had never heard of it. Luckily, a fellow seminarian said, "Yo, you should go see the Basilica." (She might not have said "Yo." But in my hindsight brain, she did.) But what absolutely ignited my interest was her next sentence, "Especially the crypt." A crypt? Hell yeah. In a previous life (or alternate reality), I am convinced I dated a vampire...
Both the lower and upper levels of the Basilica are brimming with chapels—70 in total. And each chapel has a Mary. As I traipsed through chapel after chapel, I found my emotions were on an unanticipated roller coaster. Some Marys were creepy. Others awe-inspiring. Some dark and dreary. Others luminescent and uplifting. I found myself sitting in some chapels, in intense reflection. Other chapels I could not leave quickly enough.
The most astounding surprise was the depth and breadth of Mary ethnicities. I recalled when I was working on my first book, Void if Detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality Through My Father's Old Sermons, I went through a phase where I rejected any images of Jesus that did not look Middle Eastern. I reveled in the websites that compared the Jesus of Renaissance paintings to Cesare Borgia, and the tv special that determined "What Jesus would really have looked like." And so as I began to view the many Marys, I started with a "Mary wouldn't have looked like that" frame of reference. But soon the Marys won me over as I read the descriptions in each chapel. Our Mother of Africa. Our Lady of Ephesus. Our Lady of Brezje. Our Lady of Siluva. And then Mary, Queen of Missions. Our Mother of Good Counsel. Mother of Perpetual Help.
Under one shining mosaic chapel dome, I said my first rosary, using the Buddhist prayer beads on my wrist. (Luckily the words were in the ceiling. Kudos to that chapel designer!) Then I stood for what seemed like an eternity before Our Lady of China, and the mosaic letters underneath her, "Pray for us." Post-election and pre-inauguration, these words bounced around in my heart.
From the ceiling of the North Apse, a giant glittering Jesus looked down on me like an immense Zeus from Mount Olympus. I found it magnificent and freaky, all at the same time. After a few hours looking at Marys, I was a little irritated that Jesus seemed to be stealing the show. I was beginning to like Mary for her own merits. For herself. For not just being Theotokos, God-bearer (as decreed in 431 CE at the Council of Ephesus). And I realized that was because the majority of the Marys I had been hanging with all morning were sans Jesus. No baby feeding on the breast. The Marys I had been hanging with were either pre-baby or empty-nester. They were like me.
Yet I was not prepared for what happened next. In front of a white-as-can-be, flowing brown hair Mary, I found myself on my knees. Now, to fully explain the gravity of this act, you need to understand I do not "hit my knees". I sit on a zafu. I talk to God while hiking. My father prayed when he jogged. We are not knee-hitters. But here I was, on my knees, saying to the Mary that looked just like me (and doubtless nothing remotely like the "real" Mary), "I'm sorry I called you 'Mary who got knocked up by God.' I get it now."
What did I get? I couldn't find the exact words for it until I read these by Nadia Bolz-Weber from her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People: "There is a reason Mary is everywhere. I've seen her image all over the world, in cafés in Istanbul, on students' backpacks in Scotland, in a market stall in Jakarta, but I don't think her image is everywhere because she is a reminder to be obedient, and I don't think it has to do with social revolution. Images of Mary remind us of God's favor. Mary is what it looks like to believe that we already are who God says we are.”
So yeah, now I can legitimately declare: There's something about Marys.
Read more from Sarah Bowen in Void if Detached: Seeking Modern Spirituality Through My Father's Old Sermons.