For the past five years or so, I’ve been followed by an icon. Specifically, it’s the icon of the Virgin of Vladimir, or “Our Lady of Tenderness”. I’ve seen this icon so many places I’ve lost count. It showed up in classrooms, in retreat houses, on my bedroom wall. Last year a colleague gave me a copy, without knowing my history with this icon, because she “just thought I might like it”. That copy is now on my desk at work, so I see this icon every day. After all these encounters I started looking at the icon more closely and wondering: what is it really trying to say? What does it really mean?
Henri Nouwen writes about the icon in his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord. He focuses specifically on Mary’s eyes and hands and makes beautiful statements about how these emphasise her motherhood. In this icon, Mary looks outward, but she doesn’t look at us. Her expression is thoughtful and mysterious but, as Nouwen says, she is “truly seeing us”, because “She sees us with the same eyes she sees Jesus.” Mary looks at Jesus with the eyes of mother and of disciple. She looks at him with the loving tenderness of a mother and with the eyes of faith and hope. Similarly, she looks at us with love and trust. She loves us and invites us to come closer to her Son, to whom we belong.
Mary’s gesture in this icon is truly beautiful. She holds Jesus with one hand, while with the other she gestures towards us, the viewers, and it’s this gesturing hand which is at the heart of the icon. This gesture touches me the most. With her hand, she invites us to let go of all our fears and obstacles and simply come to Jesus. Nouwen writes that this gesture really reveals Mary to us as our mother. “She simply invites us as someone who fully knows our fears, hesitations, agonies, suspicions and insecurities. She is the patient mother who waits for the right time to receive our ‘Yes’.”
These qualities of love, trust, invitation and patience are at the heart of motherhood. They are qualities I think of when I think of my own mother, of how she has journeyed with me, guided me, encouraged me and challenged me to be the truest version of myself. They are qualities which I am also invited to take up as a consecrated woman, a vocation in which I can be a “spiritual mother” to many, and even in my ministry as a chaplain. They are qualities which Mary holds in her heart when she looks at Jesus, when she looks at you and me.
This month of May, the month of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the month in which we celebrate our mothers in a special way, may you feel so close to our Mother who looks upon us with tender love. May we also remember and celebrate the love and care of our mothers, near and far, living and deceased.
By Sr Sophie Boffa csfn