Sometimes it seems pathetic that I have to use laundry as an excuse to stand still and look around. It’s often my peaceful time, whether I’m at the line in the backyard or standing in front of my kitchen table. It never ends, though I may pause in it every now and then. But I love the rhythm of it, the reminder of life continuing, and the opportunity to do something with my hands that doesn’t involve glue or tissue paper.
I picture Mary, sometimes, standing there with me at the line or at the table, helping me. Laundry was very different back in her day, and so, with my mental meanderings, I often picture her in the here and now, with a little boy in her care, taking care of her family’s laundry.
Did He “help” her by unfolding everything in the basket on the floor? Did He laugh merrily as he used the baskets for boats? Did He hold the clothespins and insist on standing beside her, touching every article of clothing with His grimy hands?
I’m sure she wouldn’t have denied Him any more than I deny my little helpers. They have to learn, after all, and though Jesus was a boy, and wouldn’t have been expected to know how to do laundry, I’ll bet she gave Him an appreciation for how much work was involved in such chores.When the chores seem like they’re piling up faster than I can knock them down, or when my to-do list has grown so long that it’s taller than my four-year-old, or when my mental state demands that I get away from it all — it’s in those times, in those struggles, that I can most confidently turn to Mary. It’s when the wind is knocked out of me, when the sailing is roughest, when the outlook is hopeless that I can turn to Mary as Help of Christians.
Christians have been imploring Mary’s help since the wedding at Cana. In the first centuries of Christianity, the Fathers of the Church referred to Mary with a Greek word meaning “the Helper.” In the 16th century, following the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571, when the triumphant warriors returned from a miraculous victory, a victory credited to the pope’s call for everyone to pray the Rosary, it’s said that they visited the sanctuary at Loreto, Italy, and used the title “Help of Christians” for the first time.
Fast forward several centuries. Pope Pius VII was arrested by Napoleon I’s military forces on June 5, 1808, and held as a prisoner for three years in France. He was set free on March 17, 1814, the feast of Our Lady of Mercy. As he marched back to Rome, he visited many Marian shrines, crowning her image and attributing the Church victory to Mary. On May 24, he entered Rome to the cheers of crowds, and it was that date he chose to use as the feast of Mary, Help of Christians. The feast of Mary, Help of Christians, set for May 24, was not declared until 1815, after he had fled in the face of another attack and capture.
Though I may find peace doing my laundry, I’m often stressed by the five million other things on my plate. It is then that Mary, Help of Christians, comes to my aid. When the preschooler awakes two hours early, ready for her day, when the grade schooler just will not settle down for bed, when the day feels like it should be over and yet we still have a late practice — during those times, and so many others, Mary stands beside me, reminding me that her Son will help me in every little thing.
She isn’t limited by time or space, by activity or place. Jesus’ mother is my mother…all the time, no matter where I am. She smiles at me from around the world, even from the far “down under” of Australia.
In Australia, Mary is held in special honor under the title Help of Christians. In the mid 1800s, when the Catholic Church in Australia was mostly priestless, the rosary was the tie bonding the faithful together. When the first assembly of bishops held in the British dominions since the Reformation chose Mary, Help of Christians, in 1844, as their principal patroness, they were the first country to make such a proclamation. Though it had not officially been approved by Rome, due to a bishop’s misplaced suitcase, the feast was being celebrated as early as 1844 in Sydney.
Fr. J. J. Therry was the first Catholic chaplain in Sydney and dedicated his church to St. Mary in November, 1821. The universal feast of Mary, Help of Christians, was brand-new at that time and inspired a lot of interest from Catholics. Twenty-three years later, when the bishops adopted her as the patron of the country, British settlement in Australia was 50 years old and the transport of convicts was ending. The first elections had been held only the year before, in 1843, and the Church was involved in the social problems of land, immigration, and education.
In a land so big, and so far away from everything else considered civilized at the time, Mary’s help must have been invoked in a far different way than I invoke it in my daily life now. Was the life of an Australian wife and mother comparable to Mary’s life in its hardships? Was there fear pervading daily life, even as there was excitement and beauty? What part did Mary play in a culture where priests were a rarity and faith a necessity?
Imagine how she must have tucked her rosary in her apron pocket, that woman of the 1840s Australia. She had a pile of work and perhaps a child or two. Was she a first generation settler? Were there convicts nearby? Did she embrace her vocation and enjoy the tasks at hand?
Maybe her voice was raised on those particularly tough days, as mine is, pleading for help from someone, anyone, in heaven or on earth. Perhaps she gripped her rosary and plodded through the prayers, asking for the grace to make it through the day alive, intact, sane. Possibly she just sat, carving silence for herself, and let Mary hold her in her struggles.
I think Mary had a lot to do with the compassion Jesus so often showed to women throughout the Gospels. He would have seen His mother at work, with joy and exertion, with pleasure and fatigue, with diligence and knowledge of the process repeating again and again and again.
Sometimes, there’s comfort in the repetition of daily activities. And sometimes there’s not. Throughout it all, though, in the midst of every single trial, Mary stands looking at me, arms outstretched, Help of Christians and a beacon to my weary struggle through the mundane in life.
Copyright 2019 Sarah A. Reinhard
This originally appeared in The Catholic Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.