Most of my early Church memories center around Sunday School (I think that we did not “stay for preaching” very often). The small Baptist church that we attended was about a mile from our house and was conveniently connected by a railroad track, generally inactive on Sundays. My older brother and I often walked along the track on Sunday mornings when the weather was pleasant. The earliest Bible verses I can recall were learned in those classrooms. One of those was Psalm 122:1: “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the House of the Lord.’” No doubt, our teachers wanted us to remember it and return the next Sunday. That is how my young mind understood the verse.
Of course, the Scriptures have layers and layers of depth. I could only think of the small, white church down the tracks and the older ladies who taught our classes. I had no stories, as yet, of the House of the Lord in Jerusalem, nor the place of a pilgrimage for Jews to go there (perhaps only annually). It would be many years, indeed, before I learned about the House of the Lord in the soul, and the Secret Place deep within it.
My brother and I had a companion on those tracks, one who would become very important later in my life. I had a small Bible, covered in white leatherette, that was given to me by my mother’s Sunday School class when I was born (as was done for other children as well). It was King James, with onion skin paper and gilded edges. It was mine. My brother tells me that we fell into an argument one day as he taunted me for carrying my Bible. “You can’t read yet. Why do you carry it?” (I had to be no older than five at the time). He says that I replied, “It doesn’t matter. It’s the Word of God!”
Our companion was in the very front of that Bible. Its frontispiece was the Virgin and Child, painted by Raphael (the “Sistine Madonna”). It was the only bit of color in the entire book. I would learn much later in life that a print of that Madonna hung over Dostoevsky’s writing desk and was his favorite. I can remember no conversations about her, or her presence in my Bible. No mention was made in Sunday School about Mary. She was not part of my family’s religious consciousness. But she was there.
I think to myself now that she was there like the little Bible was there. I did not understand anything of the mystery that dwells within her, her intercessions for the faithful, and such. I did not understand the words in the Bible itself. But the Bible was the “Word of God,” and she, the “Bearer of the Eternal Word – the Theotokos.” The presence was sacramental and iconic rather than rational.
I have long thought that devotion to the Theotokos was sown in my child-heart by that Madonna. I did not discover that devotion until I was in college, as a part of High Anglicanism and the rosary. When I did discover that devotion I remembered the picture. That little Bible was extremely worn by the time of my college years. It was my companion during the Jesus Movement, acquiring a hand-made leather cover.
She comes to mind for me at this time of year. The feast of her Presentation in the Temple is tomorrow. As a child, too young to read, she is brought to the House of the Lord. There she took up a ministry among the young virgins. This is described in the Protoevangelium of James, and, not surprisingly, is treated with skepticism by modern scholars. I choose to accept the story and the mystery that surrounds it.
The first great mystery in this matter is well-noted in the hymns of the feast. Mary is the “Ark of the Covenant,” she whose womb will contain God-in-the-flesh. Her entrance into the Temple is the return of the Ark to the House of the Lord. As is true of so much else, there are layers and layers of meaning in that event. The feast invites us into them.
Today, my thoughts are about the “inner Temple,” the “Secret Place of the Most High,” that lies within the deep heart. Today, she will enter that place, and as a little child will dance in the presence of the Lord. Today, she will take me by the hand and tell me that she has longed for this Day when I would join her there and dance in God’s presence, happy that she is there, and that her womb will make Him present for all, the salvation of the world.
I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the House of the Lord.’
Introibo ad altare Dei.