Teresa White FCJ reflects on a 16th-century sculpture of the pregnant Mary Here is Mary, needle at the ready, caught in stone by a nameless 16th-century sculptor. He has carved her lovingly, depicting a woman somewhat older than in many of the traditional portrayals of Mary. She is young, but clearly not a teenager, beautiful, but not in the classic style. Perhaps the model was the sculptor’s wife or sister. Her clothes tell us that he sees her as a woman of his time. Her stature is not grand, not queenly; she has no crown, no sceptre. Nevertheless, her longsleeved dress, her brooch, plaited girdle and hanging tassels are not the simple garb of a peasant woman. La Vierge cousant (the Virgin sewing) is depicted as a woman of substance. The heavy cloak with its embroidered edging is surely a sign that the bleak mid-winter weather has come. The first Christmas is near at hand.
So many mothers during pregnancy – even today, when there is a Mothercare store in every high street – take delight in making clothes for the expected new baby. They hand-sew tiny nighties, crochet shawls, knit miniature vests and bonnets. Mary, here, is apparently similarly occupied, her attention fully engaged in this labour of love. Her expression is gentle, her fingers supple and deft. This woman is full of grace. The Lord is with her, the Lord is within her.
What is so arresting about the figure is its peace-filled aliveness. Many years ago, on my first visit to the cathedral in Chartres, I was drawn to this tender scene. As I looked at it, other tourists passed by, including a couple with two children. The mother, who was pregnant, drew the children’s attention to the panel, and they stood there, staring at it intently with the unblinking solemnity of childhood. Then the older child, a boy, said rather crossly: “Mais où est l’aiguille?” (“Where is the needle?”) I don’t remember the answer, but I was struck by the question. The posture of Mary is so vivid, so natural, that though in fact there is no needle, the action of sewing is unmistakeable.
Mary was, according to Luke (2: 51), a “ponderer”. She is pondering here. Her Bible lies open on her lap. No longer frightened or perplexed as she was at the time of the Annunciation, she is blessing God for his goodness. Perhaps she is repeating in her heart the line from her Magnificat: “The Lord has done great things for me. Holy is his name.” It is probably true to say that all believers sense a special closeness to God when a child is soon to be born. Here, Mary seems to be bathed in silence. Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish mystical theologian, memorably wrote: “Twofold is the meaning of silence. One, the abstinence from speech, the absence of sound. Two, inner silence, the absence of self-concern, stillness.” In this image, Mary has entered into that sacred, calming stillness. Her inner gaze is fixed on God.
The homely scene of a mother preparing a layette for her child is a reminder that at the heart of Christian spirituality is a search for God, for holiness, in the here-and-now. It is in ordinary, everyday events and material things, as well as in prayer and the scriptures, that we find God. Ignatius of Loyola called it “finding God in all things”. We believe that our complex, fragile and loveable world can reveal God’s presence, for those who have eyes to see. Francis Thompson put it well: O world invisible, we view thee, O world intangible, we touch thee, O world unknowable, we know thee, Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
And this viewing and touching and knowing and clutching of the sacred takes place in the midst of the ceaseless clamour and frenetic stimulation that surrounds us. It can be easy to sense God’s presence in our joys and successes, in the special moments and red-letter days of our lives. It is harder to believe that in our failures and defeats, in our sorrows and disappointments, in the ordinary, humdrum times when we often struggle to keep faith in him, God also keeps us company.
To see the divine in the ordinary in no way diminishes God’s transcendent grandeur, which, as Hopkins says, “will shine out, like shining from shook foil”, even in unlikely places. It simply means that though many human activities may be everyday, run-of-the-mill things we all do almost without thinking, they are part of the divine mystery in all our lives. Whether we laugh or love, walk or wait, eat or weep, scrub or sing or sew, God is with us. We just have to open our eyes, and our hearts and minds too. God is not invisible. If we look closely, we can find traces, “sparkles”, of his presence hidden everywhere. The festival of Christmas reminds us of this, for Jesus, born at this time, has another name: Emmanuel, God-with-us.