Things were going downhill fast. There had been an unsettling phone call from a relative, and when I tried to gently offer advice, she hung up on me.
It was early morning on a cloudy day, and I felt a deep yearning to go to Mass, but my local parish doesn’t have morning Masses during the summer – so I decided to head to St. Joseph Maronite, an Eastern Catholic Church, which I had visited years ago.
I dressed quickly and checked online to get a map. Since daily Mass was at 9 a.m., I left home at 8:30, so I wouldn’t be late. Of course, when I got to Ponce de Leon, traffic stalled to a crawl, but I followed the map carefully, and three miles later, there it was: a lovely little brick church with an old-fashioned courtyard.
Getting out of the car, I spied a toddler running away from his mother. The little guy was naked, having somehow escaped his diaper, and he was clearly enjoying himself immensely.
The mother and I exchanged one of those smiles that say, “Babies! You never know what’s next,” and then I headed to the church. By then she had cornered the little fellow and replaced his diaper, and she took a moment to show me which doorbell to ring.
As I waited, I heard her tell him, “If you’re good, we’ll go to the zoo.” I knew this was one of those bribes moms routinely offer children, but it seemed to work, and the twosome headed down the block.
A smiling priest answered the door, and he seemed kind and welcoming.
“I’m here for the 9 a.m. Mass,” I announced happily.
It was then Father Dominique Hanna, the pastor, gently broke the news to me. You see, it was the Feast of the Transfiguration, a big event in the Eastern Catholic churches – so Mass would be celebrated that evening.
“Is it OK if I say a few prayers?” I asked, and he graciously ushered me inside.
Stunning stained-glass windows, polished pews and an awe-inspiring altar: The church was as exquisite as I remembered. Praying, I concentrated first on the crucifix and then on a statue of the Blessed Mother, clothed in vivid blue. My prayers were simple: “Oh, Lord, please help me! Mother Mary, pray for me!”
Back in the courtyard I found myself drawn to a large stone Madonna near a fountain. There was something about her that intrigued me, but what was it?
It took me a moment to realize that she was smiling!
So many portraits of Mother Mary have her looking so serious, which is understandable when she is pictured with the crucified Jesus lying in her arms. But when it comes to scenes featuring Jesus as a baby, I sometimes wonder why she doesn’t look happier.
Yes, I know she had an inkling of the sorrowful swords that would pierce her heart, but still, she was a mother, and surely there were many moments of joy.
And now here she was, smiling mysteriously at me. And I imagined what she would say.
“I’m sorry you missed Mass, but at least you had time to pray. And you saw that little boy, who cheered you up on this gray day. You know, there were times when my little one ran from me – and yes, I would secretly smile at my friends.”
After a few moments drinking in her presence, I got back in the car and headed home. But, sadly, I have no sense of direction, and the one-way streets confused me – and I got terribly lost. Soon I was driving around downtown Atlanta, praying, “Mary, help me find my way!”
I kept her smiling face in my mind. I heard her say, “Calm down, you’ll get there. You’ve been lost before, haven’t you?”
She was right, and soon I was in my kitchen, drinking coffee, and reflecting on my adventure.
Since that day, the Madonna’s smile has remained with me. It’s a reminder that there can be humor even in the most trying circumstances.
Even if someone hangs up on you, even if your toddler escapes from his diaper and even if you get lost, there is reason to laugh.
And if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his Blessed Mother, you’ll always find your way home.
Lorraine’s books include two wild and wacky mysteries, “Death in the Choir” and “Death of a Liturgist,” featuring Francesca Bibbo and a hamster named Ignatius. Artwork is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com).
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