Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Finding God Through Mary, Personal Essay by Cecilia Brainard #religion #Catholic #Marian #Christianity #spirituality

I'm sharing my personal essay which was published in the book, Finding God: True Stories of  Spiritual Encounters (Anvil 2009), edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard & Marily Orosa.  The book won the prestigious Gintong Aklat Award for 2010. 

The book is available from -

Finding God through Mary
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

I am not sure when exactly I strayed from God because I had always turned to Him even when I was a child. I remember how, after my father’s death I tried to understand that I’d never see my father again, that he was now in heaven. My concept of heaven then was fluffy clouds and a bearded old man as God, but I had a difficult time seeing my father in that setting. Even though I didn’t know where he went, I believed in the afterlife and hatched the idea of writing to him to update him of my life.
His death left my life in chaos: my mother, frantic about how to take care of her four children; my siblings taking off to other countries to study. I turned to the nuns in my school and to the Catholicism they taught me. The nuns’ rules and Church’s rules helped give my life a framework. I did well in school; I went to Mass and prayed. The prayers were childish: give me this, give me that, a constant focus on I, me, and myself, not realizing I was a pinprick in the universe.

Really, God should have grown tired with me and dismissed me as a silly, selfish girl, but there He was, nudging me along. I am sure it was God’s prompting that made me leave the Philippines, go to America, and start a new life. Ironically it was in this new life, in this faraway land where I slowly surrendered the rituals of my religion. The Rosary, Mass, Communion, and other Sacraments were put aside. I have forgotten if this happened from sheer lack of time since my family demanded a lot from me and like many other women during the Women’s Lib days I tried to juggle family and some kind of career. I am excusing myself; I would have found time if it had been important to me.
Later when things went wrong, that is, when my brother died, when family troubles erupted shortly after, I turned to prayer. Praying comforted me. The sheer act of saying the Rosary rests the mind, breaks the negative tape running through one’s mind. Indeed it is restful to turn to God, when everything seems dark and desperate and confused. I had a dream then of swimming in a pool littered with skeletons and muck—and clinging to Him to remain calm, sane, to have strength, and not to surrender to destructive thoughts of anger, hatred, bitterness.
But it wasn’t until 1999 when my husband and I visited France when something happened that affected my relationship with God. It was not so much finding God as it was being summoned by Him. This was what happened.

In August 2003, my husband and I were on a three-week holiday in France. I must thank God here that even though there was trouble in my family in the Philippines, my life with my American family was in order. My husband and I and our three children were fine. He had even blessed me with a career as a literary writer and teacher. In Paris, I did a literary reading in Shakespeare and Co., which turned out to be one of those magical moments of minds joining in unison in a standing room in the heart of Paris. While doing my talk and reading, I could look out a window straight at the awesome towers of Notre Dame, which gave me some sense of affirmation about this path of writing which I had taken.
After several days in Paris, my husband and I rented a car and drove around France, seeing Chantilly, Rouen, Normandy, Mont Saint Michel, Dijon, Saint-Remy and Arles. The number of churches and abbeys throughout France, all elegant and beautiful, impressed me; even abbey ruins were turned into park-like settings. One of the things I liked was that many churches had iron grill doors near the front doors through which one could see the altar and the rest of the church, even after closing time. I recall the prismatic colors of the stained-glass windows in Sainte-Chapelle, Notre Dame, Rouen, and Chartres that cascaded down on you, like a huge kaleidoscope. And there was this tiny church, whose name I no longer remember, that was filled with relics; we were told that during the French Revolution (1789-95), when the new government confiscated church property, the churches hid their relics, and this little church was one such hiding place. It was chockfull of glass cases with saints’ skulls, bones, reliquaries, and there was even a veil that reportedly belonged to our Lady. These reliquaries made me ponder why Catholics venerate reliquaries—I think they are tools to leading our minds and thoughts to what is good.
Everywhere we went, I could see that France and its rulers had been avid Catholics. France had been a major power in the Catholic Church in olden days, which explains why Avignon had been the Papal residence from 1309-1377. But I noted that while France did take care of its churches, the French people did not crowd these churches. Some old women and men were there, but very few young people.

Our schedule was tight, driving from place to place. My husband did all the driving; he enjoyed studying the map in the evening and figuring out where we would go the next day. It was he who insisted we drive to Lourdes. We were in Sainte Remy en Provence, where Van Gogh had lived, when he showed me the map. We would be heading for Rocamadour, in Southwest France. Lourdes in Carcassonne, was near the Alps and out of our way. I said we didn’t have to go to Lourdes, that it wasn’t important to me. My husband—a Methodist—insisted that Lourdes was important to me, and that we’d drive to Lourdes and spend two hours there, before hitting the road once again.
All my life I’d heard about Our Lady appearing to Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes. The image of a girl kneeling before Mary in a cave was etched in my mind. The convent schools I attended had grottoes with Bernadette kneeling in front of Mary. I had heard about the numerous
miracles that happened in Lourdes, the lame walking, people with cancer spontaneously healed. I knew about the miraculous water of Lourdes. The house I grew up in had bottles of water from Lourdes, and when we were sick, we were given sips of Lourdes water. The bottles (in the shape of Mary) stood with the Easter Sunday palm fronds, talismans to evil. Yes, my husband was correct: Lourdes was important to me.
After driving for hours, we arrived in Lourdes. It was midafternoon when we parked in the street and emptied our water bottles. Carrying the bottles, we walked through the gates and headed for the grotto. I remember feeling rushed; we could only be there for a short time and there was no time to lose. Countless pilgrims were there; some of them were in wheelchairs, some in crutches, and others clearly infirmed—broken. Volunteers took care of them. There were more pilgrims lined up in front of the grotto where Mary had appeared. I stood in line; my husband hung back with our camera, ready to take a picture of me. While he was enthusiastic about visiting old churches, abbeys, religious sites, he did not pray nor venerate as Catholics do. As the line eased forward, something happened; without any reason at all, tears welled in my eyes and I found myself crying. I felt embarrassed and I tried to hold my tears back but the tears fell. I could not pinpoint exactly what brought on this crying-spell. The actual seeing of the grotto did not seem monumental. The line eased forward, when it was my turn, I kissed the marker, and moved on. I still had tears in my eyes when I joined my husband, and I remember laughing in embarrassment.
We went to the faucets and filled our water bottles with spring water from Lourdes. Following other pilgrims, I splashed water on my face, my neck, my head; I did not have time to take a bath as other pilgrims did. Carrying our precious Lourdes water, we visited the huge Basilica, which seemed a blur to me. There was no time to tarry and we hurried to the car, placed the water bottles inside, then we went to one of numerous stores in Lourdes where I bought two dozen Rosaries to give away.
After that, we returned to our car, and drove to Rocamadour, which I would later learn was a major pilgrim site. From there we went to Ambois, Tours, and Chartres—all charming and beautiful, all touched with religiosity, if you kept your eyes open.
It was not until we were back home when something else happened. I gave away the Rosaries from Lourdes, even to my non-Catholic friends. They were crazy about them. I recall that someone begged for one more for her Protestant friend who really wanted one, but unfortunately I had run out of Rosaries. This person went on eBay to find a Lourdes Rosary. I found their fascination of the Rosary interesting and I myself started to admire the Rosaries, I saw how lovely they physically looked. I found myself gathering my old Rosaries and handling them in another way. I noted the materials they were made off, how sturdy they were, details which I had ignored in the past. I favored one Rosary, a crystal one, which I had bought in Rome and blessed by the Pope, and kept it by my bedside. I found myself reading about the history of the Rosary, and how to use it to meditate on the life of Christ. I started to pray the Rosary.

Another mystifying thing happened. My car radio was usually tuned to an FM station with Oldies music, but one day it was on a Catholic station. To my knowledge, no one had changed the station. The program was about healing the family tree or generational healing. This topic was precisely what I needed in terms of understanding what was going on in my family in the Philippines. From this talk show, I got the names of books about healing the family tree, also referred to as generational healing. One weekday, I felt the urge to stop by St. Monica’s Church, and noon Mass was just starting. The church was not crowded and it was very serene and peaceful. To my surprise and delight, Mass was followed by a Rosary said by a handful of people. Not too long after, I learned of a priest who said Healing the Family Masses. Reading about generational healing, praying, attending healing Masses helped me deal with my family in the Philippines.

I also started to buy biographies about saints. I especially enjoyed diaries, and was totally awed by The Diary of Sister Faustina, the apostle of Divine Mercy. I stumbled upon—or perhaps was led to—writers such as Thomas Merton, C. S. Lewis. The Bible became comforting and interesting, a source of infinite images and stories, lessons to draw guidance from, words and phrases that would pierce my heart as if spoken by God directly to me.

Still another intriguing thing happened: I was so fascinated with Rosaries, I found myself dreaming of Rosaries made of fine materials—ivory or coral or gemstones. That is, in my imagination, I actually designed the Rosary and figured out how to construct it. One day, I tried making a Rosary, and through trial and error learned how to make Rosaries. In between taking care of my family, writing, editing, teaching, traveling, I found time to make Rosaries! It was relaxing, it was comforting, and I found satisfaction in creating beautiful Rosaries.
And so it went, my being called back to the Church. I can trace it all to that visit to Lourdes. I call it a miracle—nothing dramatic, although there was mystery involved. I still don’t know who switched my car radio to that Catholic station. And I still can’t explain that obsession over the Rosary that gripped me. I think it was Mary who took me by the hand and in her wordless way got me back to praying and to the Church.

Tags: #Catholic #religion #Mary # spirituality #Marian Mama Mary, Christian, Rosary, Lourdes, Fatima, prayers, devotion

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