The cry, interrupting the stillness at 3 a.m., was no surprise, but I still resisted it.
“Can’t she just learn to sleep through the night?” I complained mentally. “Why does she have to keep getting up and why does she have to get up on my birthday?”
All of the helpful advice I had received about my 18-month-old daughter’s sleeping was stacked in my mind, at that instant, as proof of how hard I had it. Her cry was not an opportunity for me to embrace my vocation, but an interruption of precious sleep. It was not the face of Jesus in my everyday life, but just more proof of the stark gap between how I thought things should go and how they were actually going.
I wasn’t happy to go upstairs to get my 18-month-old. I didn’t quite stomp, but I’m pretty sure my husband knew I wasn’t happy (he probably wasn’t too happy about it either, though that didn’t occur to me at the time). I scooped her up, intending to carry her downstairs and let her sleep in bed with us.
In the old farmhouse where we lived, the staircase was twice as steep as those in newer houses. The depth of each step was also deeper. They were beautiful wood stairs, as rough-hewn as the rest of the house and a remnant of how things used to be built. It was a perilous set of steps, one that I respected and faced regularly. My toddler could climb the steps, and she could go down them too, because I had been careful to teach her.
That morning, though, I was breaking two of my own rules for the stairs: I was wearing only socks, as opposed to slippers or bare feet, which have gripping power, and I was carrying my toddler. I’m not sure exactly what happened to cause it, whether my foot slipped or whether she squirmed and threw me off-balance, but at the halfway point, we fell.
I remember screaming for my husband, and somehow I blocked my daughter’s fall with my arm. My husband later told me that he could only pray, helpless to do anything else as he scrambled to get to the bottom of the stairs. He carried us to the bed in our room, and I woke up a bit later. I passed out twice, and eventually stopped insisting I was fine. At the doctor’s office, they sent us on to the Emergency Room, where my husband’s suspicion about a broken arm were confirmed.
In the six weeks when my arm was in a cast, I learned an important set of lessons about humility and acceptance. I found myself forced to accept help, from housekeeping to babysitting. I never knew, until I broke my arm, that it takes just as much humility to accept help as it does to give help. I always understood humility as doing the acts of service — taking dinner to the new mom, running to the store for a neighbor — and never once considered the humility that’s involved in sitting still, in smiling, in saying only “thank you,” without a polite “no” in front.
Instead of encouraging others in their pain, I was the one in pain and receiving gifts of dinner and graces I wouldn’t have thought to request from God. My slower pace pressured me to think differently about how I would chase down my ornery toddler. The exhaustion I felt, so alien to my normally high-energy approach to life, made me slow down at work, re-prioritize my duties, and start spending an afternoon a week with my grandparents. It took breaking my arm to accept my life, to embrace the redemption of suffering, to follow God’s gentle nudges.
The day I turned 30, I broke my arm and my life changed. Sometimes I complain that my faith journey doesn’t have enough fireworks, but breaking my arm gave me plenty of excitement, and the weeks of recovery — six weeks with a cast, six more weeks gaining strength — gave me plenty of chances to turn to God in ways I never before had.
When Jesus turned 30, His public ministry began. It was then that He left His quiet life in Nazareth and became Who He was destined to be. Did He glance back over His shoulder? Was Mary standing at the doorway waving to Him and smiling, with a pang in her heart as she encouraged Him?
When I gaze at Mary as she’s depicted as Mother of Perpetual Help, I see an expression I know: it’s the face of a mother interrupted, perhaps at 3 a.m. by a crying toddler. She looks at me solemnly. Seeing that look, I can’t help but feel sad, and yet safe. Her Son is leaning in her arms, seeming to duck away from danger. He has turned to His mother for comfort. One sandal dangles in a way that’s so familiar to me. His feet are curled together, just the way my kids curl their feet when they’re scared or upset.
According to the symbolism of the image, Jesus ran to His mother after receiving an intuition about His Passion and death. Over His shoulder, two angels — Michael on the left and Gabriel on the right — hold the instruments of His death. Jesus’ face is that of an adult, with a high brow and a knowing look, and yet, He also looks concerned.
“What does it mean?” I can hear Him asking His mother.
Did she know? Could she explain it to Him? Would He understand?
Those are questions for theologians, I suppose. But the image of Mary as Mother of Perpetual Help inspires many questions like these, at least for me. It makes me think about Mary as a mother to run to, as a safe shelter in my own fears.
The history of this ancient icon of Mary and Jesus is one of the most elaborate you’ll find. The painting was originally on an island in Crete, where it had been venerated for, by some accounts, up to 300 years. It was known as the place to go for miracles, whether a cure or a special favor.
Around 1495, through unknown circumstances, a merchant who was returning to Rome took the picture and hid it among his belongings. Had he stolen it or was he protecting it from invading Turks? We don’t know, but we do know that while his ship was sailing, a life-threatening storm cropped up and everyone on board thought their end was near. The sailors didn’t know about the hidden icon, but they prayed to Mary, loudly and persistently, for help. The ship reached Italy safely, despite the odds.
It wasn’t long after arriving home that the merchant became ill. He told his best friend, a fellow merchant, about the picture, and his dying wish was for the picture to be enshrined and reverenced in a church. After his death, the second merchant shared the details with his wife, who insisted on keeping the beautiful icon. She hung it in her home, and there’s no doubt she enjoyed it very much.
Mary, though, was not happy with this outcome. She scolded the merchant in a dream, and he related this to his wife. His wife, though, was not convinced, becoming angry and accusing her husband of superstition. Can’t you just hear her, reminding her husband that they were good Christians, that plenty of people had a chance to see the lovely picture in their home, that there was really no reason to take it to a church?
The merchant had another vision of Mary, in which she told him he would be punished for failing to obey her request. Not long after, he became sick and died. Mary appeared next to the merchant’s daughter, repeating her request for the icon to be properly venerated in a church, and telling the girl to tell her mother and grandfather that “Saint Mary of Perpetual Help wants this.”
The new widow was shaken by these events, and confided in a close friend. Her friend mocked her and offered to take the picture, but then became very ill, nearly to death.
Mary had made her point, and the promise was made. She appeared to the young daughter, indicating that she wanted the icon to be placed halfway between the basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. On March 27, 1499, St. Matthew’s, the church that then stood in the prescribed place, became the home to the Mother of Perpetual Help icon for almost 300 years.
When the French troops occupied Rome in 1798, the general mandated closing and destroying many churches, including St. Matthew’s. The Augustinian fathers took the sacred painting with them when they moved, tucking it away above a side altar at the church of St. Maria Posterula.
Brother Augustine would tell anyone who would listen about the history of the beautiful madonna in the alcove. The altar servers probably wondered when they would ever need the information, but one young boy, Michael Marchi, kept it in the back of his mind. Later, in 1853, the priests of his order were discussing the new house they were to build in Rome, halfway between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran.
“It’s too bad that famous image was destroyed,” I imagine one of them saying, when there was a shout from nearby.
“It is not lost!” Marchi interrupted his fellow priests. He recounted the history of the hidden Mary and Son.
This information inspired the general of the Augustinian order to obtain a private audience with the pope. The Holy Father, Pope Pius IX, listened to the story and must have remembered praying once, as a young boy, in front of the Perpetual Help icon while it was still at St. Matthew’s.
The image was returned to the midpoint between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, the new St. Alphonsus church, on April 26, 1866. During the procession, two miraculous cures were reported: the cure of a boy who had been gravely ill with meningitis and a girl whose paralyzed leg was restored.
News of those healings spread quickly, and people began flocking to the new church. It didn’t take long for the canes and crutches to pile up, because they were no longer needed by those who were healed. Two weeks after the procession, Pope Pius IX went to visit, exclaiming, “How beautiful she is!”
Few images of Mary have received as much papal attention as this icon of the Mother of Perpetual Help. Pius IX, after visiting the new shrine at St. Alphonsus, received and enshrined a copy of the image. His successor, Leo XIII, kept a copy of the picture on his desk, allowing him to see it throughout his workday. Pius X, the next pope, sent a copy of the Mother of Perpetual Help icon to Ethiopia’s empress and granted an indulgence of 100 days to anyone who prayed, “Mother of Perpetual Help, pray for us.” Benedict XV, who followed as pope, placed the Perpetual Help picture directly above his chair of state in the throne room.
The special attention of this image hasn’t all been papal, though: many famous bishops and cardinals have proclaimed her their patroness. The Redemptorists, the order responsible for the image, has taken to heart the mandate given by Pius IX, to “make her known!” In 1870, the Roxbury section of Boston became home to the first church dedicated to the Mother of Perpetual Help. Since the first copy of the icon was made and touched to the original, over 2300 copies have been sent throughout the world to Redemptorist houses.
This image of Mary and Jesus is well-known and recognized. It speaks to me as a mother and as a child. I have been the child, running with my arms held out, longing to be comforted. I have been the mother, scooping up the child, humming lullabies to calm them.
When I see the Mother of Perpetual Help, I see what I need. Sometimes, she’s the one gathering me into a hug of hope; other times, she’s encouraging me to be compassionate and loving to one of her other children.
Mary, Mother of Perpetual Help, holds Jesus and each of us. She embraces our suffering with us, serving as a refuge even as she helps us to face the facts. She offers miraculous cures, though the miracle might be a changed heart, one open to accepting the graces of God, instead of a release from physical suffering.
Mother of Perpetual Help, we come to you today as your loving children. Watch over us and take care of us. As you held the child Jesus in your arms, take us in your arms. Be a mother read at every moment to help us. Intercede for us, dear Mother, in obtaining pardon for our sins, love for Jesus, final perseverance, and the grace to always call upon you, Mother of Perpetual Help. Amen.
Copyright 2019 Sarah Reinhard