When I was a child, May was Mary’s month. My mother demanded that we children convene after dinner and say the rosary every night. We complained, cut corners, giggled, and misbehaved. But for the most part, we did it.
How could I have known that 40 years later, I would be saying the same Rosary with my mother as she lays in bed at 86, struggling for health. Some days, speech is difficult for her and walking impossible. Some days, it’s all she can do to raise her head.
But even on those days, the words of the rosary come easily.
“Do you want to lead Mom?”
“Yes. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee…”
In the traditional language of religion, Mary is her “devotion.” And for her, Mary became not just an object of veneration but also a guide for how to raise children, how to work, and how to live a life of meaning. Mary is my mother’s role model.
I can understand how many of today’s mothers shy away from such devotions. Many mothers today feel that they should not force religion on their children. Many feel that traditional devotions like my mother’s are out of date and represent the most arcane of spiritual practices. Many emphasize emotions like empathy and compassion instead of devotions like attending church and following rules like the Ten Commandments or the moral codes of religions.
But I can hardly begin to capture how much meaning and purpose my mother’s devotion to Mary has given me. The rosary was my first exposure to the power of repetitive prayer and led me to study the meditative practices of all religions where mantra and repetition form a pathway to silence and peace. Those beads in my fingers still create an almost biological reaction: “calm down” they seem to call out no matter the moment. Move to your center. Be still.
Mary was everywhere in my house as a child and also set the tone for a resolute belief in the importance of women. My mother pushed and pushed for women in politics, in science, in religion, in advocacy. I find myself over and over again asking if there is a female perspective on a problem that I’m missing, a women’s role that is being overlooked.
Mary was our symbol of struggle too. My mother taught me to be a fighter for those with special needs, to be resolute in believing that Mary’s message was that every child was valuable, that all life pointed to the giver of life, that we should allow no one to diminish the dignity of the vulnerable. Mary’s words remain with me almost daily: “My spirit rejoices in God, my savior. For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”
Now, my mother is struggling with Mary’s most difficult lesson: acceptance. For 86 years, my mother’s life has been restless and engaged. I can still see her in the pool, teaching swimming to a child with special needs. I see her in meetings, directing her frustration at those who move too slowly for change. I see her on edge, in the battle, in control.
But it’s not so now. She is no longer in control and the most difficult words of Mary keep washing over me: “Let it be done to me according to thy will.” It’s no longer my mother’s role to lead the charge. Now her role is to learn to let go and do what her role model did: Trust that despite the pain and fear of life, God’s will be done.
Hopefully, I have learned the lesson of her devotion. My mother now needs to be mothered herself, and at such times, even a man can try to “mother.” So I try to repeat the lessons of my mother’s devotion — to pray, to honor her, to side with the vulnerable, to accept God’s will. I try to be as Mary would and love.
My mother’s devotional religion may be out of fashion these days. Today’s mothers are more physically and emotionally expressive than my mom was, and they tend to be less prescriptive too. They tend to emphasize following a tradition less and figuring it out for yourself more; following rules of behavior less and searching within for whatever works for you more.
Much of this shift seems healthy—a way of creating more emotional safety and honesty between mothers and children; a way of removing some of the burden of conforming.
But in a way, we may be coming full circle. Today’s young people who have been raised by mothers who have left many of the big decisions to them are searching too. They’ve been given the gift of great opportunities and open pathways to find their place. But my unscientific survey suggests that many of them want a devotion. They’re looking for role models. They want to know who to follow as they try to find peace and purpose.
Maybe few will end up on their knees saying the rosary or practicing a devotion to Mary or to a spiritual figure from their own tradition. But they could do a lot worse.