As a musician, my father was seldom home in the evenings, but on his nights off he often led us in saying the Rosary. My mother, her two sisters, and I would sit in the dining room while he walked up and down, beads in hand. The Rosary consists of five Our Fathers and fifty Hail Marys. How long does it take to say all those prayers? If you’re a kid, half your life.
“Why do I have to say those same words over and over?” I ask my mother.
“You’re supposed to meditate on the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary,” she says.
“But it’s boring!”
“Shhh. Your father’s about to begin.”
I stare at the bread crumbs from dinner that litter the yellow tiles under the table. The maid is waiting in her room for us to finish saying the Rosary so she can sweep and go to bed. I glance at my mother’s stockings, which she has rolled like donuts around her ankles to keep them from getting runs, and decide that when I’m allowed to wear stockings I will never roll them like that. I envy my father, who is allowed to walk while he prays, instead of having to sit still.
After the last Hail Mary is said, however, there is a reward: the Litany of the Virgin Mary, a list of fifty epithets of the Mother of God, which my father recites in Latin. After each name, we respond in chorus, ora pro nobis (pray for us).
Here is a sample:
Speculum iustitiae (Mirror of justice)
Sedes sapientiae (Seat of wisdom)
Causa nostrae laetitiae (Cause of our joy)
Rosa mystica(Mystical rose)
Turris eburnea(Tower of ivory)
Stella matutina(Morning star)
I don’t know why this list of names thrills me. Years later I realize that they have something in common with Homeric epithets such as “white-armed Hera,” and “bright-eyed Athena.” At age nine, though, I have not yet heard of Homer, and I don’t know Latin. I can make out a few words, but even if I understood all of them I would find them puzzling: what is a tower of ivory, or a mirror of justice, and what do they have to do with the Virgin Mary?
But I love the rhythm of the Litany, my father with his raspy smoker’s voice pacing in synch with the names, and us responding ora pro nobis, ora pro nobis. On and on go the names, Mother of our Creator, Virgin most powerful….And this extraordinary collection of praises is dedicated to a woman—one who as a teenager was visited by an angel, which was just the first of a series of amazing things that happened to her.
And now that She is in Heaven, sitting between God the Father and her Son, Jesus, with the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove hovering above her head, She looks down upon me kindly (Virgin most merciful) and with special understanding, because she was once a girl like me.
The presence of this quasi-divine Lady in the heaven of my childhood gives me something that the images of God the Father, with his white beard, and God the Son, with his brown beard, could never give me: a sense of identification with the divine feminine that puts me in the ancient lineage of females—Babylonian girls praying to Ishtar, Egyptian mothers praising Isis, Greek wives sacrificing to Hera—who, from time immemorial, have sought help and consolation from the Mother of us all.