Friday, May 9, 2014

The Queen of the May

Bring flowers of the rarest,

Bring blossoms the fairest,

From garden and woodland and hillside and dale.
Our full hearts are swelling,

Our glad voices telling

The praise of the loveliest flower of the vale.

                             -- Traditional Catholic Hymn

     We are told very little about her, and what we are told is cloaked in myth or doctrine.
     She was approaching 50 when she held vigil at the foot of the cross, and after a peasant’s lifetime at the loom and grinding stone, in the fields and olive groves, likely bent and gray. Veiled in public, she’d have dressed in plain tunics and mantels she no doubt wove herself, and worn for adornment perhaps only a wide belt.
     She watched her son step onto a precarious stage, having certainly seen other young man before him do so and die. She heard him called a lunatic by some who’d known him all his life, and denounced as a traitor and heretic by others who hadn’t but wished him silenced and gone.
    Time and worry would have lined her dark features. Daily hard work  -- the business of preparing bread consumed three or four hours each morning – no doubt left her loving hands gnarled and rough.  And what sorrow she learned on Calvary would have been written indelibly on her face.
     And yet, despite more realistic recent artistic and literary renderings, for many of us, in our mind’s eye, Mary remains ever youthful and beautiful. We envision the willing handmaiden of the Annunciation; the solemn girl settling the swaddled newborn in a manger; the Holy Mother miraculously risen, clothed in glorious, heavenly excess of gold and gemstones.

     But no blank slate of a mother raises a child who changes the world, one so bold as to challenge an occupying authority and the teachings of their faith.  No submissive, empty vessel inspires a son to champion the ‘weaker’ sex or the pariahs on society’s fringe deep-rooted laws and traditions kept firmly in check.
     “The mother’s heart,” said Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist and social reformer, “is the child’s schoolroom.”
    Mother’s Day approaches. Feasts in honor of maternal goddesses and celebrations of motherhood are as old as time, of course.  In the aftermath of a late Easter and a later true spring here in the North Country comes a welcome May, the month the Catholic Church dedicates to Mary, a custom that dates back many centuries. In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer makes the association between May, the month of flowers blossoming into fullness, and the Holy Mother; in many lyrics of the Middle Ages, Mary is often referred to as the flower of paradise, or symbolized most frequently by roses or lilies.
      Our American holiday was born, appropriately, from attempts to honor the sacrifice of fallen soldiers’ mothers and to promote peace in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Though our current commercialized incarnation bears little resemblance to what the earliest promoters had in mind, flowers have been an integral part of the commemorations since 1914, when the second Sunday in May was officially established as Mother’s Day.  We spend more money on our mothers on their special day than on our valentines on theirs; only Christmas and Chanukah keep florists busier.

     What flowers might Mary have encountered in Nazareth? Hyacinths perhaps; anemones, irises, and daffodils, as well as the yellow flowers of mustard, and the tiny blooms that adorn the misappropriated spiny hawthorn: these might have kept her company on her walks to the well. Humbler sorts though hardier than the lily and the rose, among the many cultivated centuries later in her honor.
     Of her celebrated flower paintings, Georgia O’Keeffee reportedly said, “I found I could say things with color and shape that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”  Furthermore, her reasoning for zooming in close on the vibrant petals and stamen was that no one actually “saw” flowers; no one took the time.  The month of May -- with its wealth of associations both spiritual and worldly, with nature in glorious, fulsome bloom -- provides many opportunities for doing just that.

This column appears in the May 2014 issue of The North Star Monthly. Check out their site:

Information on flowers in the Holy Land was found on

All illustrations are works on display this summer in the New Mexico History Museum's exhibit, "Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World."  From the top:  Our Lady of the Lote Tree, 1716, by Melchor Perez Holguin. Our Lady of Copacabana with Saint Joseph and Saint Peter, 
Unidentified artist, Peru or Bolivia, early 17th century.  Our Lady of Bethlehem, Unidentified artist, Cuzco, Peru, 18th century. Our Lady of Saint John of the Lakes
José Aragón (active 1820-1835), Santa Fe, ca. 1825.  Follow this link for more information:

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