As students in Rome in the 1970s, Timothy Dolan and John Sheridan, now respectively archbishop of New York and bishop of Colorado Springs, visited the chapel in Paris where Our Lady appeared to St. Catherine Laboure in 1830. Displayed prominently in the sanctuary is the chair where Mary sat and embraced St. Catherine with motherly tenderness.
By the time Dolan and Sheridan arrived that day, it was evening. The only remaining visitors were a mother and her young daughter, who had Down syndrome. The mother asked one of the Sisters to allow her daughter to sit briefly in Mary’s chair. Her request was refused, but she remained undeterred. Returning to her daughter, she coaxed her in a whisper to seize a moment when the Sister was busy, slip under the rope, and sit on the chair. The child, reluctant at first, eventually complied and ducked under the rope. To her mother’s dismay, however, she did not sit in the chair but knelt before it and rested her head sideways. Soon spotted, she was shooed away to her mother, who scolded her for failing to follow through. “But the beautiful lady sitting there told me to put my head in her lap,” came the response.
Two Sundays ago, we marked the first World Day of the Poor, and, this coming Sunday, Advent begins. The miracle witnessed by Cardinal Dolan bespeaks the blessed poverty that links both celebrations. In his message instituting the World Day of the Poor, Pope Francis explains poverty as “having a humble heart that accepts our creaturely limitations and sinfulness and thus enables us to overcome the temptation to feel omnipotent and immortal.”
The poignancy of the mother-daughter story lies in the juxtaposition of the strategizing adult with the receptive child. The adult had a plan — a good one. In fact, its very boldness suggests an admirable, childlike simplicity. Yet in her disappointment at the plan’s failure, the mother missed the miracle. Is that not often the way we approach God and our daily work? We think we know what should happen and how, and in the process of making it happen, we miss the infinitely greater goods God wishes to lavish upon us. In the words of a hymn written by one of our own Sisters, “Only hands that are empty find God is all.”
In contrast to her mother, the little girl approached without any expectations, and she was gifted with the vision of Mary, the embrace of a Mother to whom the little and the weak, the poor in body and spirit, are of special value.
The first weeks of Advent focus on Christ’s second coming in glory, not on His nativity in Bethlehem. Yet the disposition required for us to receive Him both as a Baby and at the end of time is the same: a poverty of spirit that asks with courage, while remaining ever cognizant that the divine plan outstrips any of our wildest imaginings. This is the poverty that is blessed.
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.