Oct 20, 2015

In college I loved to decipher, or attempt to at least, the symbolism in the paintings we studied. The musical instrument, a cabbage, a recently extinguished candle, the little dog underfoot, a unicorn in the distance, a map of the world, all spoke volumes about the main characters and the drama unfolding in tableau.

We studied paintings depicting the Virgin Mary as the archangel Gabriel tells her of God's plans for her future. In most cases she takes the news pretty well.

In these paintings, there's usually a representation of the holy spirit somewhere, a beam of light, a glowing dove. Often an open book, conveniently turned to Isaiah 7:14 ("therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son...") which might be why Mary hasn't fainted dead away...she saw it coming. Sometimes there's a vase or another vessel of some sort symbolizing that Mary will carry the yet-to-be-born savior. But perhaps the most common is the lily, symbol of purity.

I remember the day my drift away from religion really picked up speed. Ironically, it was at a church retreat. Searching, like many of us do, for some sort of spiritual ballast, I was attending classes at a local Episcopal church which brought me to the retreat. A small group of us sat on wooden chairs near the altar of a small chapel. The priest confessed to us that he had a hard time swallowing the virgin birth story. I was astounded! This guy? How could this be? The validation I was searching for dissolved faster than the host on my tongue.

Since that day I've come to describe myself as a "cultural Christian" which basically means that I celebrate the holidays and still find my moral compass in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I'm just not that keen on the whole organized stuff. And I'm highly suspicious of a book written by men who claimed God whispered in their ears. I think God, if there is such a being, has a whole lot more to do than ghost write a book for a few carbon units on one of a gazillion flecks of dust blowing through the universe.  But I digress.

When I see a lily I can't help but think of Easter, or of Mary's world being knocked off its axis. But I also can't help but think about the loving touch of a mother and of the sacrifice and servitude that goes along with that territory. I think about a warm and loving woman named Lily Mae -- long, long since gone -- who made my sometimes lonely childhood days a little less so. I can't help but think about the miracle of healing that happens at the kiss on a skinned knee. Lily Mae kissed quite a few.

People turn to the Virgin for intercession, for compassion, to hear their small woes. I talk to my beautiful sisters and the many women who have made my journey lighter by carrying some of my troubles in their pockets. And so, for Lily Mae, and for all of my miraculous sisters who carry on after receiving unwelcome news, whose kisses heal, who persevere, who laugh and stumble and ache and triumph, I dedicate this painting. I love you all.

Painting: Lily Mae © Lissa Banks 2015