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Catholic Activity: Mary Shrines and the Angelus



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May is Mary's month, and during the May in Mary's Year, we decided to do something twice as special in her honor. The very best thing of all seemed to be shrines.


Right here is the place for me to make a confession of sorts. I have never been terribly enthusiastic about transforming my house into a shrine. Not that I have anything against shrines nor, I think, that I lack a right devotion to Our Lady; but sometimes shrines seemed to end up more shrine than living room and the effect on callers as well as the family has been slightly dampening. People light cigarettes uneasily in the presence of too many vigil lights, and an ordinary family fracas about playing allies on the living-room floor, with small boys to be hauled apart and given a word or two about wrestling in the house, seems far more sacrilegious than the occasion merits when performed in front of an altar. That, it seemed to me, was not the purpose of shrines: to make everyone uncomfortable.

Then too, much of the shrine material available left something wanting, and I was forever telling myself some day we would get to work and make the kind of shrines we would like for our house. Apparently Our Lady decided that her year was the time, and it didn't take much ingenuity after all. We made shrines from things we had around the house and they are quite lovely.

There is Our Lady of the Kitchen. She stands in a square glass dish about 4" X 4" on a window sill above the kitchen sink. In front of her is a tiny donkey resting after all the trips to Bethlehem, Egypt, the hill country in Judea, Jerusalem, and back to Nazareth again. Around them is a bit of green moss from the woods and some delicate fernlike trees that happen to be carrot tops Grandma Reed sprouted. Everyone knows about sprouting carrot tops. You cut them off about a half inch above the green stalk from which the leafy tops have been removed, set them in water for a week or ten days, and they will sprout. Sweet potatoes will sprout the same way, though they take longer. Both have a beautiful lacy foliage that is very Mary-like.

Jamie made a shrine for Our Lady of the Dining Room. He took his idea from a little Mexican wall shrine of Our Lady of Soledad, which means Our Lady of Solitude — and everyone laughs about that in a house with two parents, two grandparents, and seven children. It is a dear little glass and tin shrine, like a tiny showcase with ornamental tin around it the way the Mexicans do. Inside is a Mexican madonna in black and gold with gaudy foil flowers decorating the background.

First he carved a little Mary out of soap (with some help, but each time they need less help; and the result need not be perfect in any case). He made her simple and block-like, somewhat as Jean Charlot makes Mary. He painted her very gay colors: royal-blue skirt, fuchsia blouse, tangerine veil with a yellow cross on it; like all Latin-American color schemes which sound wild on paper, it is perfectly lovely to see. Her face is not modeled at all but a flat oval on which we painted her features with a small brush. Then we took a little wooden box which used to hold dried codfish (a cigar box without the cover would do), covered and lined it with aluminum foil, and tucked in a little scalloped cuff at the top. Inside the shrine above her head at the back is a garland of tiny artificial flowers and bells, tied with a small black velvet bow (part of an old boutonniere). And there she stands, very cheerful on the dining room wall, bidding everyone enjoy their meal and hoping that because of her presence the children will eat nicely.

Monica made a shrine for her bedside table with a print of a Hans Memling Annunciation, post-card size, and a small wooden box with a hinged lid and stood on end to open like a diptych. Cardboard boxes with hinged lids would do as well: the kind that hold cigarettes, vitamin pills, various kinds of drugs and cosmetics; but these should be painted first. The Annunciation she used had the figures far enough apart that it could be cut in two with Our Lady pasted in one cover of the box, Gabriel in the other. She mounted the two pictures on gold paper first to provide a narrow rim of gold around each. Finally, she treated the whole box, pictures and all, with white shellac.

Another bedroom shrine was once an empty cornmeal box. It is made the same way as a doll''s cradle from a cornmeal or oatmeal box, but this time it stands up on one end. We removed the top lid and cut a piece out of the front of the box, a little less than half the circumference, leaving the bottom rim intact. Then we lined the box with yellow construction paper, replaced the top lid and taped the seam. Next in a wallpaper sample book we found a lovely blue-green paper with a small medallion which seemed Mary-like, and this we pasted over the entire outside surface of the box. Inside stands a slim little figure of Our Lady. The shrine is very nice on a wall bracket over a child's bed.

For our living room we have a shadow-box shrine. An empty baby cereal box was cut to fit the back of an old gilt frame, lined with a soft deep-blue paper and taped to the back of the frame. This we hung with a gold ribbon against a drape of sapphire blue velveteen. We change the arrangement every month or six weeks. Sometimes we hang a miniature of the Immaculate Heart in it, sometimes a woodcarving of Our Lady with a small blue ceramic turtle who loves to look up at her; sometimes we install the soap carvings of Mary and the Infant — part of our crèche group but so beloved we like to bring them out more often than once a year. This is where the family says the Rosary. With a pot of ivy on the shelf below, and a candle that moves her shadow so softly that sometimes she seems to be really moving, the effect of this shrine is just right It dampens no spirits but keeps her present in a tender, warm, comforting way.

The more we worked, the more ideas came to us. For example, she isn't just our Mother in our house, but the Mother of all men, and we ought to have a shrine to remind us to pray to Our Lady, Mother of the Russians. We mounted a reproduction of an ikon with a Russian Mary and Child (if you can't find one, a print of Our Lady of Perpetual Help does beautifully) on top of a shallow cardboard box cover that had been covered with gold paper. A plain box cover would do, painted one of the colors in the ikon — perhaps the lovely brick red, or a shiny black, or varnished with dark varnish. With poster paints we did a decorative band on either side of the print and on the sides of the box and then covered the whole with white shellac. It is so light that it will hang on a thumbtack. If Stephen is around, he will remind everyone who passes to "Please ask Our Lady to help the Russians find God."

For Christmas that year Monica received a beautiful oblong basket with a hinged lid which was made in Indo-China; so we made a shrine to Our Lady of the Orient with that, to remind us to pray for her help with the missions there. Standing on one end with the lid open like a door, it is a small tabernacle, and its character is so oriental no one could possibly mistake its meaning. We found in the wallpaper book a handsome sample of an oriental paper, elephant grey background with a design of a willow tree and a little oriental gate. Cut to fit as a background, Our Lady stands against it, very oriental indeed. We fitted this shrine in between books in a bookcase in still another room.

Last of all, we decided to have a shrine for Our Lady of Africa, and she is the one I love the most. She is fine and slender, white china — not very expensive when she was bought long ago. And when my father lay dying of cancer, wrestling with the Faith, thinking one day he had the right desire, wondering the next, she stood on the bureau facing his bed "watching over him." When the men came to remodel the little house from which we would soon have to move, and started to blow insulation into the walls, someone took her down for fear the vibrations might shake her too violently and she would fall and break. Suddenly he was calling in a poor sick voice: "Where is Our Lady? Who took her away? Put her back — she is there to watch over me."

So we put her back, and she never did fall down. And after a long struggle with terrible pain and terrible doubts, together with her Infant Son she called my father back from the doorway to death and he asked to be received into the Church. It was a glorious Mass, his requiem, and a real joy in the midst of sorrowing. Long afterward she did fall down, but my mother glued her back together. And now we have her in a shadow-box shrine. We painted just her face and her hands black, and as a black madonna she is so beautiful.

We lined her macaroni-box shrine with straw matching made from place mats bought from the Five-and-Ten, but woven in the Orient. We cut one strip of the mat to curve in back of her like a niche, fitting against the sides of a natural wood frame. Small pieces were cut to fit as floor and ceiling to the box, and other pieces were glued to the outside, taping them firmly in place overnight while the glue dries, then removing the tape the next day. At her feet are three tiny carved elephants — treasures Granny Newland has saved for many years. Two are trumpeting in praise, one is resting quietly, and all three are dwarfed by the grandeur and power and beauty of the Queen of angels and of men.

I cannot describe the effect of this black madonna in her African niche with the usually enormous beasts now so small and creature-like at her feet. It is the whole conversion of Africa. It is Africa's hope. It is by the love and Motherhood of Mary that these and all men will finally come to Christ.

With so many well-loved shrines, we should certainly pray very well. A prayer that always goes with shrines in a special way is the Angelus, the prayer recited morning, noon, and night at the sound of the Angelus bell.

No one seems to know exactly how the Angelus began, but it is supposed that in conquered countries where a bell was rung for curfew as a signal for lights-out (a precaution against meetings and conspiracies), it became quite naturally also a signal for night prayers. A similar custom developed in the monasteries from the recitation on certain days of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin, which includes the salutation of the Archangel to Mary and the versicles now incorporated in the Angelus. "The people began to use these as ejaculatory prayers, and recited them as a part of their evening devotions at the sound of a bell."

A custom in the fourteenth century ordered the recitation of three Our Fathers and three Hail Mary's at the sound of a bell early in the morning; and at noon a bell called the faithful to the ancient practice of meditating on the Passion of Christ at first only on Fridays, eventually on every day.

Possibly all these customs and more wove themselves together around devotion to Our Lady so that today we have (although infrequently recited in modern times) the Angelus.

The Angelus

The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary,
And she conceived of the Holy Ghost.
Hail Mary.

Behold the handmaid of the Lord;
Be it done unto me according to Thy word.
Hail Mary.

And the Word was made Flesh,
And dwelt amongst us.
Hail Mary.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
That we may become worthy of the promises of Christ.

Let us pray. Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ, Thy Son, was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His resurrection. Through the same Christ, our Lord. Amen.

From Easter until Trinity Sunday, the Church substitutes the recitation of the Regina Coeli:

The Regina Coeli

Queen of heaven, rejoice, Alleluia.
For He whom thou didst deserve to bear, Alleluia.

Hath risen as He said, Alleluia.
Pray for us to God, Alleluia.

V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary! Alleluia
R. For the Lord hath risen indeed, Alleluia.

Let us pray. God, who through the Resurrection of Thy Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, hast vouchsafed to make glad the whole world, grant us, we beseech Thee, that, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, His Mother, we may attain the joys of eternal life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen

If someone had told me, touchy as I am on the subject of shrines, that one day there would be shrines all over my house, I'd have very politely objected. I should explain that it's a very big house; so they aren't all crowded together in one room. At that, there are many — but not too many, and each one reminds us of a different thing and brings Mary very close. One shouldn't be so surprised that old antagonisms in regard to shrines could be overcome like this, for with all her other titles she is, in addition, Mother Irresistible.

Activity Source: Year and Our Children, The by Mary Reed Newland, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, New York, 1956