It was a difficult year, tumultuous, and confusing. I was young, but I didn’t feel young. My life abounded with blessing and opportunity and yet, I ached. I was deeply fearful. I couldn’t see the road ahead.
I had recently ended a long relationship with a man who did not love me, who some days, barely spoke to me, and I was gutted. I had wasted my life, I thought, dragging myself through unhappiness year after year. And I wasn’t loved. And I hadn’t loved.
I was at a crossroads but I didn’t know which path to choose. Both ways looked steep and dark.
I found solace in the used bookstores of the west village. I knew them well and beelined for the spirituality section where I ran my fingers across the spines of worn slender volumes until something leaped out to me. More often than not, a book about Mary.
I loved to read about Marian miracles and devotion. I loved the images, the woman with the peaceful face, robed in sky blue. A woman who had known great pain and earth-changing love. Mary, the Mother of God.
I didn’t go to church, but I believed in God.
And I believed in miracles. And mystery.
Mary seemed to stand at the crossroads of those three devotions, offering her outstretched hands, her tender gaze.
I had a friend. He was decades older than me. His sister was once a novitiate nun, a young girl, navigating the sixties. Now she and his mother, also a devout Roman Catholic, were deceased.
He was not religious, but he had in his possession the rosaries and prayer cards and holy objects that had belonged to these women, beloved women, and he gave them to me.
It was too grand and deep a gift.
I didn’t deserve these things, this love.
But I bought a little book about praying the rosary and I studied it. Some of the prayers were difficult for me. I stumbled over the idea of calling myself a sinner.
I had never believed in original sin.
The words of patriarchal religion felt stern and unyielding in my mouth.
But I held one of the rosaries in my hand and I recited the prayers, bead by bead, because I wanted to know. I wanted to enter. I wanted to call to her and to please her. I wanted to know her better so that I could know God better.
And I wanted these things, not for any noble reasons, but because I was scared and in pain. I was lonely and I didn’t want to be.
Over time, the prayers stopped sounding harsh to me.
I began to say the Hail Mary as an incantation. Over and over again as I lay in bed at night, as I lay in my bath.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
The prayer was like a key that turned an old and rusted lock in me.
It was a blanket of protection, a warm embrace.
And it still is.
Now, all these years later, I am religious. I attend a liturgical church.
I have a completely different understanding of why we recite old, even archaic, prayers – of the power in doing so.
I have a completely different understanding of what it is to be a sinner. A sin, I believe, is simply missing the mark – a moment when we turn away from God – which we each do, sometimes multiple times a day.
We change, God doesn’t.
God never condemns, never stops loving.
It’s we who must remind ourselves to turn back toward love.
And the rosary helps me do that.
Episcopalians pray the rosary in a different way than Roman Catholics. I pray the Catholic way, because that is how I taught myself and so there is a sweet and comforting familiarity now to those words that once seemed harsh.
And for Mary. To honor her. To name her.
I’ve saged and cleared and given thanks for the rosaries and pendants and holy medals gifted to me. I still don’t take it lightly that I’ve been entrusted with them, and I do think now and then how the two women who once held these beads and prayed would likely not think much of my theology.
In fact, I remember my friend telling me that his mother used to warn him about Episcopalians. “Be careful,” she said, “Their churches look like ours, the service is so similar, you could get confused. You could end up there by mistake.”
But it’s really only here on earth that we divide ourselves, affixing labels to our faith. On the other side, I believe, we go back to oneness. The peace which passes all understanding.
So I like to think that maybe they enjoy seeing their rosaries in use.
I like to think we are forming a chain, linked together like the rosary itself, women honoring women. Women finding God within ourselves. Women giving thanks to a girl who said yes. Women the only ones who can truly know the stories of other women.
All those years ago in my confusion and sorrow, Mary saw me.
She sees me now.
And I see her in the face of every young girl I meet, even the one who lives in my own heart.