I have memories, as a little person, of a travelling Mary statue. Travelling Mary would be at my grandparents’ house once a year for a week. During that week our family would drive each night to Nana and Grandad’s house where, along with some of the local parishioners, we would pray the rosary. At the conclusion of the rosary, it was customary for the people in the room to move forward and to touch the Mary statue.
I thought travelling Mary was quite beautiful. She was tall, dressed in blue and her face was framed by a white edged veil. She was positioned on a table (which my grandfather had made for these occasions) upon which the particular lace cloth for these occasions had been placed (the edging of which had been crocheted by my grandmother). Travelling Mary was calm. And sometimes during the rosary, in the half light of the evening, I thought I saw her eyes soften and come to life and I wondered how she felt, listening to our little prayers.
This experience is an example, perhaps, of what noted American sociologist Andrew Greeley would describe as entering into the Catholic imagination. He writes that Catholics are part of ‘an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures’ (The Catholic imagination, 1980). At the heart of this is the capacity for sacramental imagination—an imagination that reveals the presence of God to us through the visible and the invisible.
From the earliest times people have used artistic mediums (music, iconography, painting, sculpture) to give form to the unexplained, to make the invisible visible and to enflesh the imaginary.
I wonder if gazing up at travelling Mary as a little girl helped to form my religious imagination. When I looked up, I didn’t just see a statue—I saw something that helped me to understand a little more about the roles that the special people from our religious history played for us. We honoured Mary for her role as the mother of Jesus and as the woman of faith who bore a son and journeyed with him to the cross and beyond. Her faith, I learned, gave her a particular place in our collective religious history. For a beginner little Catholic, it was also an introduction to the world of the mystical.
I think Oscar Wilde understood about religious imagination. In the story of the (not so) Happy Prince, the elaborate gold statue of the Prince has the capacity to see and respond to human suffering. The Prince is befriended by a lonely swallow and gradually, at the instruction of the statue, the swallow strips the Happy Prince of all that is of human value: the ruby from the sword, the rare sapphires which were the eyes, and the gold leaf gilding. Finally, the swallow dies and the lead heart of the Prince, we read, breaks. I wonder if Wilde was using a statue to remind us that for believers, statues are not inanimate objects.
And maybe that’s part of the beauty of imagination when it comes to statues. Be they marble or bronze or lead, religious statues can withstand any confidence that is offered to them. They can be touched and they can bring us to our knees. Perhaps they can even enable people to see God working in their lives. And that’s why I remember travelling Mary: for those moments in time as we knelt and prayed the rosary, I began to understand that generations of people had known and loved Mary, who knew and loved Jesus, who knew and loved God— and I was included in the story too.
Cathy Jenkins is the Director of the Archbishop's Office for Evangelisation. This article originally appeared in Melbourne Catholic (May 2017).
Image: Sculpture of Mary by Leopoldine Mimovich