A couple of weeks ago, I needed space and time to pray. I was on my way to the gym and decided to stop off at the Catholic Church immediately opposite the gym where I was headed. The elderly women who staffed the church were pleasant, if a bit guarded as
they contemplated a big Black man in a somewhat rough neighbourhood asking about access to the building. The main church building itself was locked; only the office was open. The ladies directed me to a grotto on the property and said I may pray there as long as I wished. I thanked them, and walked over to the less than impressive section of the church’s grounds, sat down on one of the two rocks available, folded my hands and lifted up my eyes only to be greeted by an even less impressive statue of Mother Mary.
Now, one must understand that though I emerged from the Protestant stream of Christianity – indeed, the fast flowing Pentecostal stream – I have never had the aversion to Catholic iconography, statuary, and ritual that many others have. For reasons I cannot delve into here, these have never bothered me too much. Indeed, I have always found them beautiful and uplifting in their way. I have fond memories of watching the Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome with my mother. Beyond this, my work within a broadly evangelical and largely white Christian ministry has broadened my exposure to forms of spirituality that may be traced to Catholic traditions, particularly contemplative practices. Despite this affinity for the aesthetics of Catholicism, and my appreciation for what I’ve gained from their contemplative tradition, I must confess, I have never connected on a spiritual level with their use of statuary and iconography.
Given this, I had no expectation that sitting in a poorly designed grotto, and looking at an even more poorly sculpted statue of Mother Mary would be in any way significant. It was, quite simply, a quiet – if uncomfortable – place to pray.
I was mistaken. As I lifted my eyes to the statue of Mary, I was met with an overwhelming sense of presence – a presence I shall come to describe in more detail shortly – and also a deep awareness of a truth which is not in any sense that profound at all.
Jesus had a momma. Of course that Mary was the mother of Jesus is nothing new or surprising. But in that moment, it was not a biblical idea that seized me. It was, rather, that Jesus had a momma – and a momma is different that a mother, despite the etymological similarity of the words. Momma is an informal term, a form of address that denotes intimacy and connection. It is a child’s term that teenagers ache to graduate from to the even more casual ‘mom’ to distance themselves from the deep feeling of dependence and weakness that ‘momma’ entails. And Jesus had a momma. Mary was his momma.
Irma was mine.
Now here I must return to the sense of presence I spoke of earlier, for, despite my theology, my Pentecostal Protestantism, and yes, perhaps even my prideful assumption about what prayer is or ought to be, I was met by an overwhelming sense of presence of my own momma. It is difficult to say more about what that experience was like, and certainly I cannot tell what we discussed, but it was in that moment that I understood why people pray to Mother Mary. There is something about maternal presence that draws out of us that which otherwise would remain buried. We who have been blessed with good relationships with our mothers, and with fond memories, even when those memories and relationships are tinged with the inevitable brokenness that marks all such human relationships, we know something of that closeness one only feels in the presence of momma. So momma and I had a talk; I talked to her, and she with me. You could call it a prayer; Mother Mary stood beside in silent witness to those moments.
I do know, of course, that all Christian prayer is directed to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, our intercessor and Lord. Nothing that occurred in this moment of prayer in time has changed that truth nor my affirmation of it. In fact, my affirmation of the reality of Christ’s intercession was strengthened in those moments as I was confronted with the profundity of His own identification with us. In his weakness and infirmity, Jesus too had a momma. He needed his momma. She was there when he performed his first miracle, and in fact she was the one who gave him opportunity to do it. It is no surprise that when his disciples ran away at the end, his momma was there – watching, making sure her baby was okay, even though she knew that he wasn’t and even though his sacrifice was for her too.
So it was with me in that moment. I needed momma, so she came. I talked/prayed to and with momma and she shared her wisdom with me as only she could.
After a while, my prayers ended. I had to take a call from a work colleague. The moment passed. I let the elderly women know that I was done with my prayers and thanked them for their hospitality. And I left, grateful to God for the time spent.