An Angel Unawares:

How a Protestant Girl Grew to Love Mary  

I dodged the potato chunks side-armed out the backdoor of the Retreat House and took cover behind the screen door in case the thrower planned a second volley. Deciding to wait out the thrower’s next move, I watched the potato chunks roll down the compost pile, their sprouts snagging on random egg shells, coffee grinds, and orange peels. Maybe a weekend retreat – a silent one to boot! – wasn’t such a good idea, I worried as I fidgeted with the handle of my suitcase. “Well, don’t just stand there!” a commanding voice called out, “Come in!” In seconds I found myself standing in front of a silver-haired woman dressed in nondescript clothes and slippers eyeballing me up and down. “You missed dinner, but I saved you a plate,” she said as she turned on her heels and headed into the shadows of a dimly lit kitchen. I followed her, little suspecting that this would be the beginning of a friendship that would rattle my preconceived notions, whet my curiosity, and soften my heart. 

Sr. Mary Pellicane eased me into a practice of prayer and contemplation after catching me leaving the grounds of the Retreat House to have random conversations with strangers milling about the grounds of the West Virginia capitol. “How, ” I asked her, “can a state that feels so “Northern” act so “Southern?” Rather than answering my question, Sr. Pellicane invited me to get up early and read the Charleston Gazette with my morning coffee.  “We’ll talk later about what you read,” she said. “And don’t forget to leave my paper by my plate.” Such a simple suggestion, and one that led to impassioned discussions over years about a range of social justice issues and what people of faith can do to be “the hands and feet of Christ in a world.”  Once I asked Sr. Pellicane why she talked politics with me and ‘religious-y stuff’ with my friends. Her response made no sense to me. “It’s the way you are,” she said after eyeballing me up and down.

We could agree on Jesus – the Jesus who befriended the poor, the shunned, the overlooked, the suffering; the Improbable One Revealing the Kingdom of God in his words and actions.  One year, Sr. Pellicane waited for me at the door of the Retreat House as I began my annual post-Easter retreat weekend with my Presbyterian pastor friends. Before I could drop my suitcase, she placed a research paper she had written in my hand saying, “Read this. See if you agree with me that Jesus was crucified because he was a criminal.” I was not ready to add that descriptor to Jesus’ title. Yet, her words, her exegesis, her conclusions rocked my settled theological world, and I spent my time away contemplating the the truth of an abrasive grace that would, little by little, chip away at my carefully constructed identity and leave me bewildered and befuddled in a place without words.

A year, maybe more, went by without a word between us. Sr. Pellicane may have been bewildered and befuddled by my silence, but the day before I began the long drive to Charleston for my weekend retreat, she called me out of the clear blue. “You ready to talk about the Mother of the Criminal?” she asked, catching me off-guard with her intensity. I could feel her dark eyes staring at me through my cellphone screen, and I mumbled some forgettable response before hanging up. All through the winding roads of the West Virginia mountains I tried to imagine a conversation I knew I could not avoid.  Sr. Pellicane would not let me off the hook, I was certain, and the next morning the two of us sat outside on ice-cold metal chairs chatting about the landscaped garden, the weather, the condition of the mountain roads, my family, the elections, everything and anything other than her research paper. Waving her arm through the air as if to hush any more small talk, Sr. Pellicane reached into the folds of the sweater hanging loosely around her shoulders and pulled out a small card and white leather pouch embossed with black curlicued letters, My Rosary. 

“We Protestants don’t do the Mary thing,” I blustered as I took her gift. Eyeballing me up and down, she responded, “Did you ever ask yourself who made that rule for you Protestants?” Then she gave me a card with the words of the  Hail Mary, Full of Grace’ prayer and coached me through how to pray the rosary. Fascinated by the way her arthritic hands fingered the blue-glass beads, I listened attentively, my skepticism giving way to curiosity. Our eyes met as Sr. Pellicane pulled her walker close and struggled to stand. “Memorize the prayer,” she whispered as she shuffled up the ramp to the Retreat House.

I did not realize then that this would be our first and last conversation about the Mother of the Criminal, but I took Sr. Pellicane’s wisdom to heart, and found myself pondering the words of the Hail Mary prayer at odd moments. For me, the prayer became a promise, a solace, a mantra, a touchstone for a changing faith in the midst of heart-wrenching situations that altered the landscape of a long pastoral ministry:  

*  A frantic late-night call from a desperate parishioner led to hours of sitting on unforgiving gray metal chairs in the dull, mind-numbing institutional lobby of the Georgia Diagnostic Center with a mother of a young man convicted of second degree murder who was undergoing psychological assessments before entering the prison system.  Folding her arms across her chest and rocking back and forth, she wept, “My baby, my baby!”  

*  Months later, I slipped into the last row of worn wooden benches in a rural Georgia courtroom to be with another elderly parishioner during the sentencing of her middle-aged alcoholic son convicted of vehicular homicide. Tears streamed in rivulets down her face as families of the teenage victims took the stand to talk about their losses, their suffering mingling with hers. I could barely breathe in that room filled with such unimaginable private agonies.

*  Lonely, your daughter is so lonely,” I confided to the undisputed Jasper County Senior Center bingo champ cinched upright in her wheelchair. At her request, I had visited her daughter incarcerated in the Hardwick Prison for Women for the distribution of drugs. “They don’ take kindly to no handicapped,” she admitted when I questioned her about my going instead of a family member. “Besides, you a pastor. They like your type. Figger you won’t sneak in, what’s the word? Contraband.  You know, drugs and such.” The woman’s daughter was in isolation because early that morning, the guards found her bleeding after trying to cut herself with a plastic knife she had stolen from the cafeteria. I did not have the heart to share that news, but, after giving me a hard look, the woman suspected I was holding something back. “Lonely, you say?” she quizzed me. “Ain’t nuthin’ compared to what her kids feel.” 

*  I raced to the local jail after receiving a call from the sheriff’s deputy that my teenage parishioner was threatening to kill herself. Early that morning she was pulled over by the officer for erratic driving and arrested for possession of drugs. Frankly, I was shocked because in that small town, the ’embarrassments’ of the wealthy were handled personally, privately, and discreetly by the sheriff himself. Ushered to her cell by the sympathetic arresting officer, I sat down on the bench next to the young girl in the throes of sobering up and hiding her head in her hands. “Mom is going to kill me! She’s just going to kill me when she finds out what I’ve done!” she groaned. I did not know what to say so I wrapped my arm around her thin shoulders and nestled her weary head close to my cheek, wondering about her mother’s response to her daughter’s fear. A day later, I got my answer. “She’s no daughter of mine,” her mother snarled. “Our family doesn’t do that sort of thing.”                 

In her book, Waiting for God, Simone Weil writes, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”  Every time the heavy metal gates of prisons and jails clanged shut behind me, closing me off from the outside world, I hailed Mary for a miracle that would calm my fear. I dreaded what I might encounter behind bars. If I could just have a mustard seed of the courage that carried the Mother to the foot of her Criminal Son’s cross, I reasoned, then maybe I could stay in my skin long enough for conversations with my incarcerated parishioners.   

Despite my hurried prayers, pastoral visits in those institutional gray places with their attendant indignities never became easier. I struggled with the suspicious questions, the emptying of pockets, the opening of purses, the searching of gifts, envelopes and, sometimes, letters, and the dropping of keys, cellphones, and ID’s into shapeless baskets. The incessant cacaphony, the plexiglass panels preventing human touch, the sea of inmates in ill-fitting orange jumpsuits, and the uniformed guards with their readied weapons standing sentinel on the perimeter made me shudder. Even so, in those dimly-lit corridors of despair, I sensed a knowing…words cannot describe it… invisible eyes watching my every move with compassion and a strong hand on my back steadying my walk through a no-man’s land where the weight of pain and the depth of human suffering were palpable realities.  

I cannot say for certain when my relationship with Mary, the Mother of the Criminal Son, changed. Despite the words in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that visiting the imprisoned is a work of mercy, I wrestled to make peace with an unexpected, unintended, unwanted call to serve prisoners and their families peppering the closing of decades of pastoral ministry in churches. With every conversation monitored by corrections officers, the reality that some mistakes cannot be undone, some wounds cannot be healed, and some breaches cannot be repaired only deepened my grief, an intense grief that proved relentless and isolating.

Several years into retirement from ordained ministry, I sometimes wander back to the breath-taking words of the young French philosopher and political activist. I think it a lofty claim to say that my capacity to give attention to the sufferer behind bars was a miracle. I cling instead, to the promise uttered by an angel who hailed the teenage Mary, “The Lord is with thee.” She pondered those words deep in her heart, words that sustained her, consoled her, and strengthened her as she leaned against the upright of her dying Criminal Son’s cross and flooded the skies over Golgotha with an anguish the disciples never heard. It comforts me to imagine Sr. Mary Pellicane, sans walker, hurrying to the side of her abandoned friend and wrapping her arms around the mourning Mother’s thin shoulders as together they listen to the strains of a heavenly choir singing their shared grief for all who would pay attention to sufferers, “Pie Jesu”.

Rindy Trouteaud is a retired Presbyterian pastor who cherishes her relationships with the WVIS  Sisters and Associate Spiritual Directors who encourage her to imagine an upside-down, humpty-dumpty world where “God Can”. Currently she serves as the curator of Thema and a WVIS FaceBook administrator. Her blog, Epilogue: a weekly e-letter for those considering next chapters is available by e-mailing her: