My journey to baptism started with a plunge into water. My wife and I were awakened late at night by an odd sound. We stumbled downstairs to investigate, but finding nothing amiss, went back to our room. Then we heard the crash. We jumped up and peered out the windows, but saw only the dark and empty street. Our kids were still fast asleep. My wife suggested we check outside, “Just in case.” When we opened the door, we heard a faint cry coming from the bridge over the canal by our house. As I ran, the voice became clearer, more panicked. I saw a car in the water beneath the bridge, almost entirely submerged. Someone was trapped inside, banging on the rear window, screaming for help. I swung myself off the bridge into the dark canal.
There was a moment in the water that seemed to stretch out into eternity. The night was pitch dark, except for an eerie glow from the car; piercing cries cut through the quiet. My hand grasped at the rear door handle, but the door didn’t budge. I felt sure the person inside was going to drown in front of me. I moved to the front door and managed to open it. Reaching into the car, I felt an arm in the murky waters and pulled out a young man. When my wife reached the bridge moments later, he and I were embracing in the darkness and the car had been swallowed up by the water.
In the days and weeks that followed, I kept replaying the events in my head. Driving was difficult. I often broke down in tears when I entered the car. My wife and I wrestled with what had happened and all the circumstances that had made it possible. I was supposed to be on an international work trip that night, but my flight had been cancelled. What was the odd sound that had woken us up before the crash, enabling me to get downstairs and outside in time? How did I get the car door open? We decided to meet with our priest, Fr. Swantek, who had brought my wife into the Catholic Church and married us. We discussed what had happened and delved into my struggles with faith. He encouraged me to pray to the God I didn’t believe in for the faith I wanted.
A few weeks later, I felt an overwhelming call from Mary. It made no sense to me. I had been raised as an agnostic and was really an atheist in practice. In high school, I had briefly converted to Christianity and attended an evangelical and then a mainline Protestant church, but Mary was never mentioned outside of Christmas services. My wife is a Catholic convert, but Marian devotion was not part of our household. Like many converts, my wife had struggled with the teachings on Mary. Yet here I was, with this profound calling in my heart, and a certainty that it was from Mary.
I needed to discover who Mary was, so I dived into research. She came to my aid, providing me with insights that came with a clarity and certitude I couldn’t explain. Her voice was mysterious and forceful, gentle and seemingly irresistible, like a call of the conscience.
See how much I love my son.
In the months before the crash, I’d been listening to Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on the psychology of the Bible. Peterson observed that Michelangelo’s Pietà represented a fulfillment of the Abrahamic sacrifice. Abraham offered up his son to the Highest Good, yet ultimately saw him spared, replaced by the ram. Mary, in her way, likewise offered up her son when she accepted the responsibility of bringing Jesus into the world and proceeded in faith despite the warning that her heart would be pierced (Luke 2:35). She acted out of the depths of her love for Jesus; she longed for him to fulfill his purpose, nurtured him on faithfulness to the Highest Good, encouraged him to begin his public ministry in the first miracle at Cana, even knowing it would come at a cost—and then witnessed his brutal crucifixion and death. Yet unlike Abraham, Mary did not see her son spared, for her son was the sacrificial Lamb.
I began to see that Mary’s pain at her son’s suffering must have been matched only by her joy in what he achieved. In the Pietà, she holds her dead and brutalized son—her God, her Lord and Savior—for all to see, with one hand open as an invitation. I started to understand what she wanted to show me: Look what he has done for you.
See how much my son loves me.
Marian devotion was entirely new to me. I barely knew the term, and it seemed a case of misplaced priorities. Mary was human, like the rest of us. Even Jesus seemed to downplay her importance by dismissing her as “Woman” (John 2:4) and rejecting the idea of her being “blessed” because she was his mother (Luke 11:27–28). But as I searched for answers to these objections, I found that the Church Fathers had supplied them long ago. Marian devotion was not invented by the Church but practiced and taught by Jesus.
What did Jesus himself think of his mother? As a faithful Jew, he honored her, of course, and in Hebrew, the word “to honor” also means “to glorify.” Then it struck me: What does it look like when God, beyond all time and understanding, glorifies his mother? Jesus could have been fashioned out of dust; instead, he chose to take Mary’s flesh as his own.
One of Christ’s ways of glorifying Mary had a particular influence on me. At the Annunciation, the Angel addressed Mary not by her earthly name but by her name in Heaven, Kecharitomene: “Full of Grace.” This word is unique in the Bible; it means that Mary is full of grace in the past, present, and future. When I had doubts—and I had many—God pulled me back to the Annunciation. Her new name reassured me that Mary had a special place in God’s divine plan, and that the call I felt was real. It also signaled a momentous time when all of heaven awaited, with bated breath, Mary’s answer, for God made his plan of redemption dependent on her full “Yes.” Her name, like all her titles, would preserve core doctrines about God and her son. God gives Mary glory, and she magnifies (Luke 1:46) and returns that glory to her son.
Mary is in the mind of God from the beginning (“I will put enmity between you and the woman,” Genesis 3:15) and appears at the end (as Queen of Heaven in Revelation 12:1). She is woven through the whole story of redemption in various foreshadowings, and she is essential to Jesus’s story. Gospel texts often taken to disprove Mary’s centrality actually prove it. She is “Woman” not because she is unworthy of the title of “Mother,” but because she is the New Eve. As the New Eve, she was instrumental in bringing forth the new creation: In the Incarnation, in bringing the Holy Spirit to John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41), in encouraging Jesus to start his public ministry (John 2:3), and at the coming of the Holy Spirit and creation of the Church at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). She is “blessed” not only because she is Jesus’s mother, but because she was the first disciple to do God’s will and love Jesus, and the only one to do it perfectly.
I came to understand that Christians are called to imitate Mary and entrust themselves to her for a simple reason: because Jesus did first. Our Lord and Savior chose to place himself in her care, to become fully vulnerable in her womb, to be cradled in her bosom, to be nurtured on her prayers, to learn faith from her knowledge and example, and to be “subject” (Luke 2:51) to her. Jesus spent three years in his public ministry, but he gave Mary the first thirty years of his life, to grow together, pray together, and love each other. As St. Maximilian Kolbe put it, “Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”
See how much my son loves you.
As I wrestled with my call to faith, I sought advice from a friend. I couldn’t make sense of the seeming absurdity of my love for Mary as Mother of God, coupled with my skepticism about God’s existence. My friend assured me that Mary should be my way into faith, since she is Mother of the Church. This was a revelation to me, and it brought me back to the Cross. Jesus—in his last moments of agony, when every word spoken would have been excruciating—gave us the gift of his mother. Scholars have long recognized that the “beloved disciple” represents all Christians—all disciples of Christ. As his dying request, Jesus asked us to take into our homes his beloved mother, which John does “at that very hour.”
Hans Urs von Balthasar reflected that our understanding of Mary’s role as Mother of God has grown with our understanding of the bond between mother and child. We now know that the mother’s gaze is central to awakening the self-consciousness of her child, that the mother beholds the child and then awakens the child to behold her. God chose Mary’s loving gaze to be the force that awakened the self-consciousness of the Incarnate Word. And so it is with us. Mary beholds us first (“Woman, behold, your son”), and only then can we behold her (“Behold, your mother”). And now she was beholding me. It was the day after the Feast of the Assumption. On my way home from work, I found myself sobbing in the car. That night, I told my wife I was going to enter RCIA.
Love my son.
It’s hard to describe what that call from Mary felt like. It wasn’t spoken; there were no visions. It settled into me like the calm and at times painful certainty of truth. I knew what she was asking of me: Love my son. Mary’s love for her son demanded that she meet him on the road to Calvary and follow the path soaked in his blood; it asked that she stand at the Cross, when almost everyone else had abandoned him. It seemed only right that Mary should teach me to love Jesus. Who could love him more than his own mother? My love for my children is an ache in the deepest part of my soul. But witnessing the way my wife loves our children, I see how special a mother’s love is, and how physical it is. Mother and child are tethered together for nine months; they share the intimacy of breastfeeding; and we now know that a child’s cells and DNA remain physically in the mother for the rest of her life. Yet Mary calls us to follow her steps and love Jesus with the same depth, and the same physical longing. And I started yearning to receive him in the Eucharist.
Behind all this was another unspoken message: See how much I love you. In her darkest hour, with her son dying on the Cross, Mary accepted us as her children. And as her children, we are surrounded and pursued by darkness (Rev. 12:17), but we can always find comfort in her love and intercession. This gift—like all the others flowing from the Cross—seemed almost too gratuitous to accept. God gave me the gift of an abiding love for his mother, which still seems inexplicable, even miraculous. I knew that love for Mary would lead me, as it had many others, to her son. All my brand-new revelations were simply ancient truths of the Church: Ad Jesum per Mariam. To Jesus through Mary.
After the accident, I would often go out at night and stare into the dark waters. It was as if I were staring into the abyss of my mortality, which had haunted me as a child. When I jumped in, it was a plunge into the emptiness of death. But, by the grace of God, we had both emerged with life. And on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, almost exactly a year from when I had made my decision to join the Church, I was baptized into the death of Christ and entered into new life. I was welcomed into his loving family on earth and in Heaven, with Mary as my mother. God may have used me to save a young man’s life that evening. But God also used him to save me.
Darren Geist is a lecturer at Princeton University and a practicing attorney.