HAVING grown up in what I would call a rather Waspy milieu in New York’s Upper East Side, my youthful aesthetic sensibility was, to some extent, predetermined. My mother took me to see the classics of art history at the Metropolitan, but she also took me to the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. I was surrounded by the austere simplicity of High Modernism; that slow ascending spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim was as much a part of my mental landscape as it was the cityscape of my neighborhood.
In those childhood years, we attended a Christian Science church, so my religious aesthetic was similarly shaped by a sort of minimalist neoclassicism. When we switched to the Congregational Church in my adolescence, I could detect no real change in architecture and only a modest expansion of liturgical possibilities.
Even in my college years, when I had become an Episcopalian and an ardent believer in the centrality of sign and sacrament for the life of faith, I tended to like the spareness of stone cathedrals, with their gray verticality. It was only when I went to a cathedral in England that I learned that medieval stone churches were painted in vivid colors, that they were, in fact, a riot of sensory stimulation. This was a blow, but it made me realize that I had treated Gothic stone more as a proto-modernist achievement than the sensual, organic thing it really was. So I began to not ice other architectural styles, including the Baroque, and to actually pay attention to statuary, the depiction of saints, angels, and gargoyles.
My aesthetic was beginning to yield, and with it my faith. When I was a child, my spirituality, echoing the architecture around me, seemed to consist of ethical simplicity, the recollection of ancient but enduring ideas—something to be experienced in the head, rather than the heart. Perhaps one of the legacies of my early immersion in Christian Science was a feeling that the human body was something of an embarrassment, if not a prison. But I wasn’t satisfied with this. I didn’t want to be a ghost in my own flesh.
So began a journey that eventually led me into the Roman Catholic church. Not surprisingly, the Virgin Mary did not play a large role in my religious search. I found Marian kitsch—the gaudy popular Catholic representations of Mary, in plastic and plaster—so alien and off-putting that I wondered if I could ever become a co-religionist with the people who made and venerated such things. Deep cultural programming told me that the folks who came up to these figures—leaving flowers at their feet, hanging rosaries on the outstretched hand of the Christ child, touching the base of the elevated statues so that the paint rubbed off the toes of the Virgin—were more like primitive pantheists than civilized believers.
It took years for me to realize that what kept me away from Mary was not merely a disdain for popular Catholic devotion, but my own abstracted and overly cerebral faith. A slowly developing hunger for the sacraments—for the grace of God to be not merely understood or even felt, but actually touched, in the common stuff of life, including bread, wine, water, and oil—slowly brought me closer to Mary. For she was the human vessel whose womb and breasts and arms and tear ducts were the necessary conduits through which the Son of God became the Son of Man. I no longer felt satisfied thinking about God; I needed to feel his touch on my tongue.
And then I looked again at all those representations of Mary, from hideously bejeweled plastic dolls to numinously beautiful alabaster statues, and I could see one message conveyed over and over again. As Our Lady holds the child, simultaneously protecting him and presenting him to the world that would crucify him, she seems to say to us: Please Touch.
Representations of Mary seem to revel in paradox: as Virgin she is untouched, but as Mother she is constantly touching others. In all those paintings of the Annunciation, Mary is depicted as praying or reading at the moment she receives the message from Gabriel, but even in contemplation her body language is eloquent—she recoils and assents in one complicated gesture. At the foot of the cross she receives her son into her arms once more. As refuge of sinners, she spreads her mantle around gathered humanity, protecting and consoling.
This came home to me once when I was praying in El Santuario de Chimayo, the New Mexican chapel that has become known as the Lourdes of America. Chimayo is the place where the Virgin appeared to a local farmer and answered his prayer by blessing the barren earth and making it fecund. This, too, is about touch, for the earth is the skin of the world.
As I was praying and daydreaming a Hispanic woman came toward the front of the chapel. She paid no attention to the magnificent nineteenth-century painted reredos in the Spanish colonial style, but approached a small, mass-produced plaster statue of the Virgin. Wracked by sobs and streaming tears, the woman was inconsolable. It was impossible to tell what she mourned. But over the next ten minutes she drew close to the statue and touched it with her outstretched fingertips, with a strange combination of reticence and compulsion. She would touch and then withdraw a number of times in an agonized dance that somehow seemed to me at that moment to be steps taken from the choreography of heaven. Eventually a friend guided her out of the sanctuary. I couldn’t be sure but I thought that she had experienced some small measure of consolation, that some exchange had taken place in that dance, that hesitant, confident touching of the Mother.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.