A Goodness that has no limits: Mater Admirabilis
Note: To see a larger, more detailed image of the thumbnail of the beautiful painting above, see Mater Admirabilis
In these times of so much turmoil, Our Lady of Goodness - titled Mater Admirabilis - "Mother Most Admirable" by Blessed Pio Nono - offers unlimited hope and help to all who call upon her intercessory aid. The miraculous accounts of this miraculous image are enhanced by Marian's own story.
It was May 1989, thirteen years ago, and a small group of pilgrims stood at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome. It was a hot afternoon, right after lunch, "siesta" time when no Roman with any sense would be found traipsing the streets. The Italians have the very Catholic custom of taking naps after the midday meal. One lady in our group was insisting that we climb that mountain of stairs to see the beautiful fresco of Mater Admirabilis in the Daughters of the Sacred Heart convent, the Trinita dei Monti. And so we climbed.
The little nun who ushered us in took us straight to the small convent chapel. My first impression was astonishment over the great number of silver heart ex votos that lined the walls, almost one on top of another. Ex votos (from Latin, out of a promise), are the offerings made in pursuance of a vow or as a token of gratitude for favors and miracles granted by Our Lady, another excellent Catholic custom.
Then my attention turned to an image of a serene and gracious young woman wearing a soft rose dress and ivory veil. She was seated with a distaff at her left and a lily in a vase at her right. In her hand, folded in a meditative calm on her knee, she held a spinning spindle. At the side of her footstool rested a basket of books. Twelve gold stars encircled her face.
I was taken aback. I had never seen a portrait of Our Lady like this, portrayed as "working" - spinning, and at the same time, in calm meditation. Here before me was a model of Our Lady I had never considered before: Our Lady showing us the perfect balance of work and prayer, an archetype par excellence for young girls and women who live in the world, not in Carmelite convents. Our Lady spins - and prays. One is not neglected for the other. Her meditative spirit makes her work itself a prayer.
I was also impressed and moved by her great serenity. Her gravity of bearing is the opposite of what the revolution presents as an ideal for today's modern woman, who is trained to celebrate spontaneity, action, and levity of spirit. Her gravity indicates a mentality and way of being habitually turned toward high thoughts. It is a gravity that confers serenity, because such a person is not the prisoner of her moods. She has an ordered way of being, thinking, and acting.. If something unexpected happens, she already has all the interior resources ready to face it, analyze it, and act. She has a repose that is not nervous or anxious. Here, in this simple picture, one realizes that the Wise and Immaculate Heat of Mary is an abyss of serene gravity.
A small voice seemed to whisper in my soul: "You have something to learn here."
The little Italian nun, still in a habit, was more than happy to relate in a broken English the story of the miraculous fresco. Her copious and expressive hand gestures more than compensated for her "not-so-good" English. In 1844, a young French novice, Pauline Perdrau, received permission from the Reverend Mother to paint Our Lady in a niche in a corridor that opened on the cloister. Now, Pauline was a very determined, but a "not so good" painter, the sister explained to us, and she had never done a fresco before. So even after spending hours every day for months on the image, the completed work was also "not so good." In fact, the sister assured us, it was so ugly that the Mother Superior hid it from sight by covering it with a curtain.
Two years later, on October 20, 1846, Pope Pius IX was visiting the convent. On the tour, in curiosity he drew back the curtain on the wall. Voila! There was the painting of Pauline Perdrau, transformed and beautiful. "Mater Admirabilis!" the Pope exclaimed. "Why do you cover such a wonderful work?" These first words of the Pope, "Mother Most Admirable," became the title that she bears to this day.
Word spread quickly of the beautiful fresco of Mater Admirabilis. Under this title, Our Lady began to work miracles and grant favors. The first miracle took place only one month later year when Father Blampain, a missionary of the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary, was given the power of speech that he had completely lost. Indulgences were granted to the pilgrims who came in ever increasing numbers to pray there, and. Pope Pius IX gave permission to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass before the miraculous picture. So evolved the Celebration of the Feast of Mater Admirabilis on October 20th to commemorate the Pope's visit. It also became a custom of the Order to place a copy of the fresco in all the convent schools of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, so that Mater Admirabilis might inspire the young ladies studying there with her shining example.
. Now this struck me as a wonderful story for several reasons. At the time, I was principal of a fledgling Catholic girls' school in Texas. Here was an image that could serve as a model ideal for young ladies, I thought.
As a secondary point, the story offers great hope for budding artists who have more enthusiasm to tackle difficult subjects than the skill to carry them out. It planted a hope that perhaps one of my own "pious" paintings that had ended up "not so good" and hidden away in a closet might someday be pulled out transformed. This has not been the case to date, but Mater Admirabilis worked a different miracle for me..
The miracle and the lesson
Most of that summer passed with me flat on my back in my bed in my parent's home in Kansas. The pain from a back injury from a horse fall had become constant and debilitating, leaving me finally unable to lift my arm past my shoulder. At the end of August, I returned to Texas with the unpleasant prospect before me of telling the parents that I would be unable to continue teaching. Several days after my return, I unexpectedly encountered one of the ladies who had been on the Rome pilgrimage, the same lady who had insisted we climb those stairs. She handed me a medal of Mater Admirabilis, and said, "Pray to her." I did, almost mechanically: "Mater Admirabilis, pray for me." I put the medal on and said the short prayer again before I went to bed. Nothing more.
The next morning I woke up from the first sound night's sleep in months and easily got out of bed. No pain. I lifted my arm. No pain. By the end of the day, I was carrying books to the classroom and preparing for the opening day as if I had never had a back problem. Mater Admirabilis had cured me - completely. I didn't have the slightest doubt it was she. I also had a strong interior sense that She was trying to teach me something with this great kindness she had showed me.
It is so very easy to become involved feverishly in a work, even a good work done for the greater glory of God. I had been working to the point of exhaustion to make the school a success - as if I personally could make it so. It is an illusion easy to fall into, especially for Americans, who gravitate toward concrete action as the solution to all problems. It is very simple to forget all but what is tangible and immediate, to lose touch with the supernatural, to put aside the life of prayer and contemplation that sustains every action. I understood that Our Lady had returned me in full health to a life of action, but she was asking me for more prayer and confidence, and less reliance on work and action. She was reminding me not to become nervous and distraught in face of the unexpected or in case things not succeed. We have to do what we can, all that we can, then serenely and confidently leave the rest to God. Later, I was not surprised to learn that the grace which seems to be a special gift of Mater Admirabilis is an invitation to the interior life.
A goodness that has no limit
There was another lesson I also learned from the miracle Our Lady worked for me. It was to understand better the absolute goodness of our Heavenly Mother. She is a Queen in everything - including her goodness. In her is a goodness beyond the imaginable, without a name. For her there is no obstacle. When she wants, when she is ready, she can free persons from any sickness, any vice, any impossible situation, even should we only merit punishment.
I am sure many readers have experienced those small and great acts of kindness and goodness from Our Lady. We need to remind ourselves at times of these graces and gifts and miracles, especially in moments of trial and difficulty, to revive our hope. These are difficult times for the Church that also can cause discouragement for the faithful. Our Lady also offers a hope also for the her deliverance in her present crisis, a situation that appears to be a self-destruction, a hypertrophy of evil. For Our Lady, human evil does not pose decisive obstacles. One way or another, if She so desires, she will conquer human badness. And, if at a certain moment in the History of Humanity, Our Lady wants to practice an act of great generosity, of supreme goodness, not in relation to just one man, but to a whole group of men, or to all the man of a certain continent, She will do it. With her sovereign goodness she will conquer. Even in face of so many trials and betrayals inside the Church, we should not lose sight of these perspectives.
Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.
For past columns by Dr. Horvat in archives, see www.DailyCatholic.org/2002tru.htm
October 10, 2002
volume 13, no. 113
TRUE ECHOES OF CATHOLICISM