Monday, January 22, 2007

Lady Of La Leche

Recently, I went on a weekend trip with my family to St. Augustine, Florida. We visited the Lady of La Leche shrine, the first Marian shrine in the United States. I heard that the site of the shrine is a wonderful place to visit. There is a meandering path back to the site of the shrine, under tall trees dripping with Spanish moss. There is water almost completely surrounding the site, which includes a chapel, an outdoor altar, a cememtary. It is a peaceful place. I was surprised to find that the shrine had to be rebuilt several times throughout its nearly five hundred year history, due to battles and hurricanes. Inside the tiny chapel, there is a statue of Mary nursing the infant Jesus.

I have heard that many women (especially Roman Catholic, though certainly not limited to) have a devotion to Mary, as they feel close to her. In conversation with these women, I have discovered that she is adored as a woman who is near the God-head, more easily identified with than God. Indeed, she is the mother of God; the God-bearer. Perhaps there is a logic, here: if one has something to ask of Jesus, what better way to ask than to ask his mother. After all, when Jesus changed water into wine, his first miracle in the book of John, he may have been inspired to do it by the prompting of his mother. To my deep distaste, much emphasis has been placed on Mary's virginity in Western Christianity. Her virginity emphasizes the fact that her specialness has something to do with her being chaste, holy, perfect, good. Even more disturbing to me is the Church's teaching that she is a perpeptual vergin. It is a closely guarded secret that Jesus had brothers and sisters, though it says so plainly in the gospels.

I have never felt a closeness or connection with Mary. I could never identify with her, as I never experienced myself as especially good. In my experience, the icons or statues of Mary depict a serene, holy, pious, virgin. I could not identify with these. The nursing Mary is different, for me, than any of the depictions I had ever experienced before.

As a lactating woman, I felt a special connection with this Mary. Mary has breasts! Sometimes, I look for a discrete place to nurse, because I want to avoid raised eyebrows or behavior that tells me that people are uncomfortable. Here is the mother of God, nursing her baby before adoring pilgrims of the shrine. I noticed that the baby depicted in her arms is about the size of the baby in my own arms. As I nursed our daughter on a bench outside of the shrine, I feel bold to say, I felt like a living icon. This simple human act of nursing became holy. In these moments, I saw the infant Christ in our daughter in a special way, and I felt a kinship with Mary. I felt comforted and nourished being in that sacred space. I felt at peace. As we were leaving the shrine, we encountered a family. Among them were two children with special needs, one in a wheelchair. The children asked to pet our dog. As we stood there, I saw the child Christ in those children, and I saw the parents seeking health and wholeness and nurturing at the bosom of Mary. I experienced Mary in a new way.

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