Our Lady of the Workbench

I did not grow up in a household of churchgoers.  When I was a child, if I wanted to go to church – and I did, to the local Methodist church – I was on my own.

So imagine my surprise when, while cleaning out my parents’ home, I came face to face with this icon of Mary hanging above my father’s workbench.

It was shortly after my mother died, just ten months after my father’s death. Suddenly my brother and I were confronted with all of our parents’ earthly possessions – far more than we could possibly keep.  We set aside the items we wanted and had the remainder auctioned off, including our parents’ house.

A few days before the auction I did a final walk-through of the house. This included my father’s garage workshop – his personal space.  I had a pretty good idea of what it contained: lots of tools.

But as I stood in front of his workbench I froze.  There on the wall, next to a nondescript calendar, was this icon of Mary in a cheap gold frame. Madonna.  Mother.

My father never showed outward signs of being religious.  But the members of his extended family? Well, that was a different matter altogether.  His parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were all immigrants from what is now the Czech Republic.  They were decidedly Roman Catholic.

Family lore has it that my father’s father had a falling out with a priest which resulted in the end of churchgoing for him, his wife, and young children.  Apparently, this didn’t sit well with his in-laws. But Grandpa didn’t care. He was done with church.

Even so, I could tell that my father was no stranger to Catholic rites and rituals.  Every time we attended a family wedding or funeral, he seemed right at home.  He knew when to stand, sit, or kneel.  He knew when to genuflect and when to cross himself.  He knew all the prayers that most Catholics know in their bones.

I learned a lot from my Catholic relatives.  Whenever we stayed with them on weekends, they took me to mass.  And I loved it! I loved the stained glass and the icons and the candles and the mystery of a liturgy in a language I didn’t know – either Latin or Czech.

It was during these regular Sunday services that I learned that Mary, Mother of Jesus, wasn’t just for Christmas.   For us Protestants, Mary only appeared once a year – at the annual Christmas pageant, played by a young girl.  And, of course, she was always featured prominently in any creche.  But once Christmas was over, she was packed up with the manger, and the sheep and cows, the shepherds, Joseph, and the magi. Along with the others, she spent the majority of the year in the attic waiting for Advent to roll around again.

But in my cousins’ Catholic church, Mary proudly stood holding her infant right next to her earthly husband, Joseph, all year long.  And I learned that you could light one of the candles that burned at her feet and say a prayer to her.

Still, none of those things explained why my father had hung this icon above his workbench, or where he got it in the first place.

Not knowing, I was free to make up stories.  First I imagined that the icon belonged to Dad’s mother, a vestige of the faith her husband forbade her to practice.

Or, maybe it served as a sort of substitute mother for my father.  By all accounts, his mother wasn’t capable of being a real mom to her family.  She suffered from mental illness that required on and off inpatient treatment. No one has ever explained the cause to me, though I know she faced a series of devastating losses.  Did Mary bring her comfort and courage?

My theories are likely way off the mark.  But I’m sure of this: the image of Mary has a power all its own.

I once provided spiritual care for a seriously ill woman who was determined to recover enough to make it home in time to see her terminally ill daughter who had only weeks to live.  Some years earlier this woman had held her son in her arms as he passed away from this world.

I asked how she coped with these losses and what gave her the courage to face each day. “The Pieta,” she whispered.  The image of Mary cradling her lifeless son was what sustained her.  But she didn’t want to say that too loud because she was a Protestant, and she was sure that if her church friends ever caught wind of this she would be shunned.

Today, committed Protestant though I am, I find myself surrounded by icons of Mary.  I’ve collected them over the years, starting with my dad’s once mysteriously displayed icon.  She reminds me that in this world that can be filled with pain, suffering, and cruelty, there’s still a touch of tenderness. Even in the face of unspeakable loss.

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