Our Lady and the Snow
A maternal meditation during a record snowstorm
By Carrie Gress, Ph.D.
My husband hates the snow. In it he just sees bitter cold and heaps of work to shovel up. While I have sympathy for his disdain of winter, my own experience has given me a much different perspective.
I grew up in Oregon, close to the Cascade Mountain range. My family has a small cabin in the mountains and at some point in college I started going there by myself for weekends. Sometimes I was lonely, but I never quite felt alone. I was at a stage in life where I was searching for God and there were few places I felt him more closely than in the silence that can only be found in a snowy forest. I spent hours just walking, listening with attentive ears to the deafening quiet of the snow around me.
I couldn’t get enough of it, once even venturing out for a five-mile walk through a foot of it when recovering from pneumonia. I saw coyotes in the distance; I could smell the crisp fresh scent of the outdoors, occasionally mingling with the smoke from a nearby chimney; and I heard the crunch of my steps through the snow. This was my classroom for contemplation where I learned to hear “the still, small voice.”
There is something enigmatic about snow. Often, it arrives silently, without ceremony. One scarcely knows it is there. Only over time, does it reveal itself. The accumulation brings with it a blanket of beauty. Everything becomes different, suddenly pure, calm, quiet, and glistening with wonder.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Our Lady of the Snow is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – devotions to the Virgin Mary. Around 350 AD, during the pontificate of Pope Liberius, the Virgin Mary miraculously showed where the Basilica of St. Mary Major should be built by creating a snowstorm in the middle of August. The church was built exactly where the snow fell – measured by those who drew the boundaries before the snow had a chance to melt.
Miraculous snowstorms notwithstanding, Mary, in her maternal goodness, like all good mothers, performs small, almost indiscernible acts of love without anyone noticing, at least until there is some accumulation. Even the rosary mimics this snowy pattern. One bead at a time – how many lives have been transformed in dramatic ways through those humble whispers?
I just finished reading The Secret Garden to my daughters. I was struck at how much of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic tale is a story about mothers. In short, it is a tale about a sad and sour orphaned girl who finds herself in a big manor with little to amuse herself, until she discovers a secret garden and her poor sickly cousin Collin. The story begins with one bad mother, who shirked her duties in favor of parties, even to the point of exposing her entire household to cholera. Another mother, who died much too young, leaving behind a bereaved husband who could scarcely look at his son with his mother’s eyes. And finally, a quiet, simple common woman, Mrs. Susan Sowerby, mother of 12, who helped bring the two orphans back to life again.
Quietly and without any fanfare, Susan’s small gestures, many of them performed remotely, change the lives of the spoiled, sour, sickly, orphaned cousins. Her part is so subtle, she doesn’t even appear in the 1993 Francis Ford Coppola film version, but anyone who knows the book can scarcely imagine the story’s end without the small interventions of prudent, wise, and loving Susan Sowerby. Like small snowflakes, her many acts of kindness culminate in two very different children from the story’s start. Yes, the secret garden helped, but she and her children are the real gardeners of the story.
So while many of us living on the East Coast have contemplated the trouble and inconvenience of two feet of snow, it is good to look, like St. Bonaventure, at the ways creation reflects the goodness of God – and, in this case, his mother. There is a Polish saying: “Quiet water does more damage than loud water.” How true. But as experience shows, quiet water – particularly the frozen kind – can do an awful lot of good, too.
This originally printed at Catholic World Report, 2016 before two feet of snow blanketed the East Coast.