My deeply devout French- Italian Catholic Grandmother held my hand as we walked into the village at dusk. We were going to see the crèche. I recall feeling very excited. I loved the story that she had just told me about Mary birthing Jesus in a manger surrounded by animals and doves while Joseph looked on.
I was eight years old. Until this Christmas I had never spent any time with my paternal grandmother. This year things were different. My parents were in Europe for a year and I had also been separated from my little brother who was staying with my maternal grandparents while I attended school in the east. My grandparents had sent me back to stay with my great aunts because they didn’t want me to go to Catholic school in California. I missed my little brother so much it hurt. My grandmother’s sisters were kind to me, but I was in a state of perpetual longing… How I ended up staying with this unknown grandmother remains a mystery to this day.
It was almost dark when we reached the crèche. I remember nothing beyond being cast into the middle of a living myth. Light seemed to be coming from every direction inside the thatched wooden structure. Mary was cloaked in blue and there was a baby in the straw manger that looked like a doll. Everything else was moving! Joseph held a long wooden staff, and three strange men were coming and going from the manger offering gifts to the baby; they were dressed in extraordinary clothing. Lots of gold. But I was glued to Mary who kept watch over her baby. Beautiful songs floated around us in the air. I can still hear the chords of Silent Night. I gazed up at the sky at some point. Brilliant stars seemed to be falling all around me. Where was the luminous one my grandmother said was in the sky this night? Was that when I saw the animals? Donkeys, cows and sheep, dogs, doves, bears – there were so many – animals of all kinds. I couldn’t name them all! They kept circling around the crèche. Oh, the animals were keeping the family safe from harm! Suddenly, I too felt safe, wrapped in Mary’s cloak, embraced by this Mother of All…loved and protected by the animals.
Afterwards, walking home with my grandmother, I wondered about why she hadn’t told me about the animals. And where was the star? I was too shy to ask.
Later, I watched my grandmother unwind her beautiful long silver hair. Did she let me brush it? She wore it like a crown during the day. My sweet little grandmother helped me change into my nightgown; that night I was going to sleep in her bed. When she tucked me in my grandmother told me that Mary was going to watch over me all night long. And then, Mary appeared for a second time as my grandmother lit a small light with a figure that glowed pale blue… I remember the deep comfort I experienced knowing that She was in the room with me, as I fell sound asleep.
Postscript: This is the only memory I have of being with my paternal grandmother during my childhood, except for occasional family holidays when she was always busy caring for masses of relatives. The fact that this experience has stayed with me my entire life suggests its importance. I may have been physically separated from this grandmother because of family conflict but she was the one who made Mary real to me. Until that Christmas I had only experienced this ‘Mother of god’ in a convent that I snuck into almost every day when I walked home from school. In that convent I met Mary surrounded by roses and doves in a beautiful walled garden. The nuns first told me the story of Jesus’s birth. I kept these visits a secret although I was only in kindergarten when I began going to the convent garden.
In retrospect I see that I received a tremendous gift from my very devout grandmother the one time I spent with her. Mary lived, and lives still. My relationship with her has sustained me over a lifetime sometimes in the guise of other goddesses. I expect to meet her at the threshold of my death along with the animals and trees I love so much.
I have no explanation for seeing so many animals that night at the crèche, but again, in retrospect it is clear that I had a powerful spiritual experience that included animals in a very important way. The animals created the circle of protection not just for the Christian story, but for me. Then and now. Animals taught me how to love the earth and then my body; immanence is as sacred as transcendence. We need both. It’s probably no surprise to the reader that I have lived with, and loved animals all my life, or that I need them more than they will ever need me.
The war between my parents over Catholics in general must have been won by my mother early on. How else would a five year old know that she could never reveal the secret garden, the place where Mary lived?
Unfortunately, family stories repeat for good or ill and I have lived through another generation of forced family separation and loss.
Just recently I have been reunited with my cousin, my dad’s nephew, a joy I never expected to experience. A whole new story is writing itself into our lives.
BIO Sara is a naturalist, ethologist ( a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.