by Bronwyn Elsmore
The first time the Blessed Virgin appeared to Clare she seemed to be in a pastoral setting, even though the place of the vision was C3 the maths room, and she was actually just to the right of the blackboard, about half-way up. Sister Thomas, who was explaining simultaneous equations by means of strings of chalked symbols, did not seem to notice the divine vision less than a metre away. From a lack of appropriate reaction around her, which she imagined should at least have involved most of her class-mates abandoning their calculations and falling to their knees in a chorus of ‘Hail Marys’, Clare assumed that no-one else in the room did either.
On the way home Therése was sceptical.
“Why would the Blessed Virgin appear to you? She’d be much more likely to come to me.”
“You didn’t see her then?”
“No, and I don’t believe you did either. You couldn’t – you’re not even a Catholic.”
“What did she look like?” Therése asked next day on the way to school.
“Who, Mary?” asked Clare.
“The Blessed Virgin Mary – that’s what you should call her. You’d know that if you were a Catholic.”
“Just like the picture on your bedroom wall.”
“In a blue gown? With a gold crown on her head?”
“Yes, and with her hand on her heart, like this.”
“I still don’t believe you saw her. You can’t.” Therése’s judgement was definite.
Each of the following appearances was similar. The Blessed Virgin simply sat looking at her for some minutes, benevolently Clare thought, before slowly fading from sight.
“Doesn’t she say anything?” asked Therése.
“No, she just smiles.”
“You see,” pronounced Therése “if you were Catholic she’d give you a message – like she did at Fatima. You could meet the Pope, to tell him what she said. But I still don’t believe you.”
“She wouldn’t, would she, Mum?” Therése demanded confirmation of her judgement as the two girls sat at the kitchen table.
June Cecilly Martin, named a little short of four decades previously for her two grandmothers, but only ever referred to, or answering to, Julie, in order not to give any measure of preference to either, considered the several significances of the question.
“Why wouldn’t she?” she asked.
“Because Clare’s not a Catholic. The Blessed Virgin would come to me, not to her.” In evidence and support of her claim Therése followed with a flawlessly delivered, if somewhat rapidly rendered:
Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
She dipped onto one knee and crossed herself.
“There,” she concluded, reseating herself on the rimu-look chair made environmentally-acceptable by the fact that it was actually pine treated to a rimu finish.
“Well, now,” said June Cecilly, aka (always known as) Julie, “we wouldn’t want to suppose, would we, that the Blessed Virgin is true only for Catholics?”
The next time she-who-is-blessed-among-women showed herself she not only smiled but lifted her hand from her breast and held it out in a gesture of blessing.
“I know,” said Therése two days later between classes, “the Blessed Virgin thinks you are Catholic. I mean, she would, wouldn’t she?”
“Why would she?”
“Because you’re at St Mary’s.”
“Lots of people here aren’t Catholics.”
“Then there are your Christian names. Clare Elizabeth Mary. All saints’ names.”
Therése, whose other given names were Mary Stacey, was acutely aware of the presence of an unsanctified interloper among her own list.
“I don’t think my parents knew that,” said Clare.
“That makes no difference.” Therése had it all worked out. “And when is your birthday?”
“August the fifteenth. You know that.”
“There you are – the Assumption of Mary. The Blessed Virgin’s own Feast Day. Besides,” she added, “she would think so because you’re my friend. We’re always together, and she knows I belong to the Church.”
Therése, triumphant in her epiphany, linked her arm through Clare’s and kept it there till they were in the door of C3 and at their desks.
“Why did you call me Clare Elizabeth Mary?”
Emma Nicola Sanderson, who had never experienced any notions of disappointment, disapproval, or even discontent over her own given names, and therefore, on the occasion of the naming of her own daughter, had no strong views on what was or was not advisable, had taken a line of minimal resistance when faced with family pressure.
“Clare because I liked the sound of it, Elizabeth for your father’s sister who died as a baby, and Mary because Nana Cochrane would have been very hurt not to get a look in there somewhere. You were her first great-grandchild. I’ve told you all this before,” said Clare’s mother, “why are you asking now?”
“Therése says they are all names of saints.”
“Well, that could be, but I didn’t know it at the time, so it’s just a coincidence.”
“Are you sure we’re not a Catholic family?”
“Quite sure. Why?”
“And Dad’s family? They’re not Catholics?”
“I’m even surer about that. You know your Uncle Robert.”
“So I go to St Mary’s just because it’s closest?”
“That, and because Sister Elizabeth is the best music teacher in the region.”
“Do you think the Blessed Virgin Mary could make a mistake?”
“What sort of mistake?”
“Not know something – get something wrong?”
“I’ve no idea. You’ll have to ask one of the Sisters. Now set the table for me.”
Sister Julian, having secretly harboured a desire to have her own baptismal name, Christine, considered not only acceptable but even appropriate for one entering into a lifelong commitment as a Bride of Christ, had spent the first half of her years in the order trying to overcome the sin of resentment and accept the name given to her on ordination. The eventual resolution had been assisted by meditation on the collected works of Dame Julian of Norwich, judged suitable for study since the sweeping changes following Vatican Two.
“Well, Clare, that’s an interesting question from one of our girls who is not of the Catholic family.” Sister Julian smiled at Clare to show she meant no offence. “Would this be prompted by some argument on a particular point of doctrine?”
“No, Sister, I was just wondering. Could Mary, I mean the Blessed Virgin, mistake me for another person. For instance,” she added.
“So, just a little human error – is that what you are asking?”
“I suppose so, Sister.”
“Let me see.” Sister Julian steepled her fingers and took a moment in thought before she responded. “You know that in the view of the Church the Blessed Virgin is the Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our Gracious Advocate who answers all who call on her?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Then I don’t suppose she would be likely to make simple mistakes, do you?”
Therése, who had since thought through the implications, and was now adamant in her rejection of anything that might suggest less than one hundred per cent infallibility in the Mother of God, despite the fact that she was herself the initiator of the notion, agreed.
“So Sister said the Blessed Virgin wouldn’t make a simple mistake?”
“There you are – nuns don’t tell lies.”
The fifth appearance occurred during Friday afternoon art period when, under the tutelage of an ageing Sister Carmel who had long since ceased to remember that she had ever been called anything else, the girls were dispersed around the perimeter of the playing field with orders to capture the likeness of various trees. This time the B.V.M. was seated about a third of the way up the Gingko. Clare’s pencil paused over her art-block as she wondered for a moment whether she should include the figure in her sketch even though the instruction had been to depict only the tree itself, giving particular attention to its shape.
Clare opened her mouth, then shut it again as she stopped to wonder if it was proper to speak to a divine person and, if so, what was the correct form of address. Therése called her The Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, and Holy Queen of Heaven. The Pope was His Holiness, the Queen was Her Majesty, but Clare was sure the very Mother of God would outstrip any worldly rank. She scrambled from her cross-legged sitting position and knelt on the grass.
“Your Holy Majesty, Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Holy Queen of Heaven,” they all tumbled out as Clare attempted to cover the bases, “I’m Clare Elizabeth Mary Sanderson.”
The blue-clad figure raised her right hand from her breast, and extended it towards the kneeling girl.
“Excuse me, but I’d like to know, if you know, that I’m not a Catholic?”
The Virgin’s hands clapped together in front of her heart, her eyes widened and her mouth opened a little. Then she was gone.
Clare raised her hand and knocked on the door which, true to its appearance, was oak varnished to a golden gloss. A trinity of lies weighed on her conscience. The first was telling Sister Carmel that a bad headache was the reason for her abandoning Friday’s art class with no result on the sketch block. The second was repeating the same story to Therése three hours later to avoid their trip to Cinema 8. Tom Cruise, she had surprised herself by thinking, would still be there next weekend. At the time she was not so sure about Therése. Clare was not sure whether telling a lie to a nun was worse than fibbing to her closest friend, though she felt sure Therése would think so. It was Therése’s feelings, however, which concerned her most. So lie number three, the one which had occupied her thoughts all weekend, the big one in theological terms, remained untold, to become a sin of thought rather than commission. Recanting her past claims, saying the visions had been a figment of her imagination, had at first appeared the easiest way out. The only way out, it seemed. Until Sunday night when Clare knelt by her bedside.
“Your Holy Majesty, Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Holy Queen of Heaven...,”she started again.
Sister Julian motioned towards the chair at the side of her desk. The weekend had been a particularly busy one with her chairmanship of the regional conference of secondary schools principals, followed by a full day of teaching made necessary by staff sickness. She had been standing in class all morning and now wanted to rest her own feet so invited the girl who had knocked at her study door to sit. Besides, she was intrigued by the fact that this was the Protestant girl who had asked her a question regarding church doctrine a week before.
“Now then,” she asked, “what can I do for you?”
“Sister Julian,” said Clare, “I’ve been thinking about what you said last week. About the Blessed Virgin not making a mistake,” she added, in case there should be some doubt.
“I remember. Go on.”
“In that case, Sister, I think I should become a Catholic.”