I was in the Virginia Museum of Fines Arts on an “artist date” a la Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” I was in the medieval room. I have always loved medieval art, especially the early stuff; saints with strange expressions and too big eyes, their heads turned at impossible angles to their bodies. Baby Jesus a perfect little man perched on Mary’s knee. They all look so solemn and weird that it makes me smile. She was not from the early period, but from the time of full flower -- the 13th century. She was an altar piece taken from a German Cathedral, carved of wood. She was flanked by two men, a saint I cannot remember and a guy with a mitre, some bishop I suppose. The VMFA had mounted them high on the wall as they would have been in the cathedral and while the two men stared out with their wooden eyes into the vastness of space or heaven, she had been made to look down at those who looked up at her. I stood beneath her and for one numinous moment, perhaps only the blink of an eye, as I looked up at her, she looked back at me. I was seen, regarded by the Holy Mother. Time stopped….a breath in and out, and then it started again and she was merely an altar piece made of wood, but I understood for the first time in my thoroughly Protestant life the value of icons and statues -- they can be a window into the holy. For many years I did not tell anyone about this experience for fear that I’d be labeled some kind of religious nutcase. But then I read that towards the end of his life the great 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas had an experience before an icon of Christ that changed his life. While some, including one of my seminary professors, say that he had a “psychotic break”, I prefer to think that Thomas had a sneak peek into the holy too. When he was asked what had happened with the icon, he said, “everything I have written is straw.”
I first wrote about this experience in Valley Haggard's creative non-fiction class. I have visited the Holy Mother a number of times since this happened, but alas she has not "visited" me in the same way again. Visit me at www.storiesbydenise.com.