Guest post by Gayle Neusch.
Recently, the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage came to us through an anonymous benefactor working with our parish priest. Before the trip we met with “Bill,” who actually came with us to the Holy Land. Although I was unaware of it at the time, another gift that would change my life awaited me there.
On one of the first days of the pilgrimage we had mass at the Church of the Visitation in Ain Karem. Mary and Joseph traveled here to visit with Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and it is here that Mary proclaimed her “Magnificat.” Before mass started, a young man and his father walked into the church. The father asked Father Peter if his son, who had Down Syndrome, could be an altar server. During the Mass, I watched this young boy, his face so sweet and open. After mass the father asked if his son could play the viola for us. Still dressed in his cassock, the young man faced the altar. He placed the bow on the strings of the viola and a calm, a pure, “Ave Maria” filled the air. When he finished, he slowly raised his hand with the bow in it and pointed upward toward the heavens, and I thought, what a lovely tribute to Mary. The boy’s name was Emmanuel. Unknown to me at the time, I had just seen an angel pointing me toward Mary.
We made our way to the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, one of the holiest shrines in Christendom. Just inside the entrance of this Church lies the Stone of Unction, the rock where Jesus was prepared for burial. Before going to Mass, we approached the dry stone and placed our hands upon it and prayed. After Mass, I placed my hands once again on the stone, and it was wet. I brought my hands to my face, and the light scent of myrrh rose from my palms. I felt as if my Lord was passing by, leading me somewhere.
I’d been searching for Mary for many years. In my youth, a priest had abused me. After the abuse, I’d go out to the statue of Mary, enclosed in a fenced grotto in the schoolyard and pray to her, to ask Jesus to make the abuse stop. But each day it continued. Eventually, in my child’s mind, I felt Mary wasn’t listening, and my relationship with her ended. But now, without knowing it, I was on the road to find her.
On the last day in Bethany, we visited the last church on our pilgrimage, the Church of St. Lazarus. Inside, bright lights shined down on the altar in front, casting shadows on the sides of the church. Painted on the rounded wall above the altar were the figures of Mary and Martha pleading with Jesus. I walked further in and sat down in a pew on the last row. Over in the shadows to the right of me, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the silhouette of a man dressed in blue clothing. He’d knelt down on one knee, placed his left hand over his heart, and bowed his head, looking almost like a knight taking a knee out of respect and love in front of his Lady. I turned my head to get a better look. As my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I saw it was actually Bill kneeling and praying before that altar. The altar had a white cloth trimmed in the same deep winter blue I had noticed Bill wearing. In the center of the altar, a fresh arrangement of flowers with large waxed green leaves, framed a pink rose in perfect bloom. Behind the plant, on top of the altar attached to the original walls of the church, was a large glass case. Inside the case I saw the Mary I had been seeking for many years, the actual face of Mary sculpted in the lines of that five-foot tall statue.
Mary, simple but exquisite, looked as if the person who created her had as his model an ordinary woman just like me. Over her hands clasped together in prayer were more that fifty rosaries draped over them. I felt drawn to her as tears streamed down my face. In a land so far away from my own home, I found the Mother of my Lord. Just as Lazarus was coming back to life for Mary and Martha in the painting above this altar, the Blessed Mother had come back to life for me.
Through Bill, my quiet and prayerful knight, on the last day of our trip in the very last church we visited, Mary came to me. This gift I will cherish for the rest of my life. God, Jesus, and an angel had been leading me to our Blessed Mother. But Bill, through his love of this special Lady, showed her to me. I finally saw the face of Mary who was a mother like me, a wife like me, and a woman like me.
Gayle Neusch is a writer living and working in the Texas Panhandle. This essay is written in memory of Dr. Mary Vanek, her mentor, editor, and dearest friend. Her husband is in the Deacon Formation class of 2020.