[11 December 2002]
“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on or you will be taught how to fly.”
Right up there in popularity these days—along with abductions by aliens, sightings of Bigfoot and Elvis, “shadow people,” Area 51, the date of the end of the world, and the upcoming havoc to be caused by Planet X—are visitations to earth by heavenly personages.
The two top stars of the New Testament gospels are making headlines all over the place. Forget the Shroud of Turin—Jesus’s face is now popping up in X-rays, in the whorls on trees, on the side of a soybean oil storage tank, in the brick wall of a doughnut shop, in the scorch-marks of a burnt tortilla, and in a plate of spaghetti on a Pizza Hut billboard in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
His mother, The Virgin Mary, is clearly not about to be upstaged. She has been making some pretty spectacular appearances of her own for the last few years in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, where she reportedly turns silver rosaries into solid gold ones, messes around with meteorological phenomena, and generates spontaneous physical healings. She’s also said to have shown up in a yucca tree, a privet hedge, a field of cabbages and onions, in the tinted windows of a Clearwater, Florida finance company, and on the floor of a Texas auto parts shop. She’s even been spotted in the dents and rust of a Camaro fender.
(Buddha, Krishna, and Mohammed have apparently decided to keep a low profile—or perhaps it’s a case of all the best places being already booked by the Holy Family.)
Whether we admit it or not, we’re fascinated by the supernatural. Even if we aren’t devotees of Art Bell, John Edwards, and Sylvia Browne, or interested in the fulfillment of Nostradamus’s prophecies and the real identity of the Antichrist, we are suckers for movies in which George Burns plays God as broadly as only an old vaudeville comedian could, and angels come to earth who look just like Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, not Botticelli’s chubby cherubs.
In Diane Schoemperlen’s delightful novel, Our Lady of the Lost and Found, the Mother of God materializes in the living room of a writer on an ordinary Monday morning. She’s an average-looking woman wearing silver hoop earrings, a fashionable turquoise necklace, a blue trench coat, and Nikes. She has a suitcase-on-wheels like a frequent flyer, and a purse full of credit and long distance calling cards.
The purpose of her visit? She needs a vacation, for heaven’s sake! Putting in miraculous appearances all over the world and answering the prayers of desperate and needy people, day after day, century after century, has worn the poor woman right out. And rather than check in at a glitzy resort on the Riviera or a B&B in the California wine country, she’s decided to have some homey R&R with an ordinary mortal in a boring town who’s not only not a Catholic, but not much of a believer in anything.
“This is a work of fiction,” Schoemperlen states as a disclaimer in the opening of this charming and gently reflective book. And well she should—this author writes so convincingly about the Mother of God that readers might easily believe that this work borrows from personal experience. Fortunately, the holy visitor in her book is a far cry from the off-putting apparition who, historically, shows up to issue dire warnings, make statues weep bloody tears, and give the dubious gift of the stigmata to a few believers.
The Mary of Schoemperlen’s imagination is a considerate houseguest, a witty conversationalist, an avid reader, a breaker of diet resolutions, a shrewd shopper, and a congenial companion. She enjoys coffee and a little red wine, and hasn’t acquired a taste for olives. She likes pretty crockery and fresh flowers, hot showers and home-cooking, long walks and mall crawling, pet shops and the color blue and cracking irreverent jokes. She uses oatmeal soap, wears makeup, buys vitamins and worries about not getting enough fiber in her diet.
And she gets tired. Very tired, doing what she has to do.
In short, despite her super-powers and connections in really high places, she is someone with whom all can identify, a point that the author beautifully makes, as she describes a weary and rather unimpressive Mary eating a tomato sandwich at her kitchen table and muses upon just how heartbreakingly human her visitor from the Great Beyond actually is:
I could see?the lines on her forehead, and on either side of her mouth. I could see that fatigue that all woman of a certain age are prone to, that bone-deep weariness that can only be caused by life itself. By all those hours of smiling and frowning, laughing and crying. By all those days of explaining and regretting, hoping and housework. By all those nights of yearning and longing, searching and praying. By all those weeks of loving and caring, worrying and waiting. By all those months of wondering where does the time go. By all those years of aging and changing and staying the same.
By all those years of keeping the faith.
?How it wears you down, like water dripping on a rock. How it puts gray in your hair, wrinkles in your brow, a knot in your stomach, a slump in your shoulders, an ache in your throat, and a stone in your heart.
I could not imagine how it must feel to have been living a life for two thousand years.
This book is remarkable for several reasons. It handles the delicate and controversial realm of the miraculous without awe, hype, reverence, religiosity, a recognizable agenda of any kind, or the main banes of popular media when it undertakes numinous subject matter—that is, cuteness, sentimentality and shtick. This is definitely not Touched by an Angel or Oh, God!. Schoemperlen’s style is wryly humorous, approaching a denominational icon and the devotion surrounding her from a gently detached and thoroughly secular perspective. The characterization of this enigmatic figure of religious history is fully-realized and fascinating—and so thoroughly convincing that it’s enough to make a reviewer who has a healthy skepticism (and a clear understanding this is fiction) end up talking about the book as if Mary were, well, umm, real.
The author manages to pull off an incredible juggling act, combining the narrative of her character’s week in the company of the Mother of God with philosophical and historical musings that cover two centuries and comment upon feminist issues (in an article about the 100 most famous people ever born, poor old Mary doesn’t even make the list), political problems, religious practices of various belief systems, the space-time continuum, the thinkers whose works comprise the Harvard Five Foot Shelf, the existence of evil, the human soul, the meaning of life. And all of this is done so effortlessly that the reader moves from past to present to future and back again without a bump or a seam. Along the way, we also learn about bizarre but compelling curiosities from the lives of saints and mystics, such as the miracle that decided the outcome of the War of 1812 and the amazing (but alas, invisible) engagement ring received by St. Catherine of Siena from Jesus after she’d betrothed herself to Him (it was a huge diamond surrounded by four big pearls—hmm, not too shabby, huh?)
Though these weird factoids may strike us as the spiritual equivalent of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, they do possess a certain power to make one wonder—and even a little jealous, as we are gently (and always objectively) led to consider the width and breadth and depth of experience that is not ours. This is vicarious living of a most fascinating sort, a fictionalized version of William James’s classic text The Varieties of Religious Experience. Obviously, you and I might well be embarrassed and dismayed if the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet and our heads suddenly started mysteriously bleeding in miraculous simulation of the wounds of Christ. Supranormal events are both transcendent and terrifying at the same time, as those who have undergone them uniformly testify. But reading Schoemperlen’s accounts of the bliss experienced by some saints, described as so intense as to be almost unbearable, even diehard doubting Thomases might pause and consider just what we’re all missing out on here.
Schoemperlen is the consummate storyteller, and it is a pleasure to travel with her down the paths she chooses. She takes readers of every flavor and persuasion along on her mystical wild ride, and it doesn’t really matter what you believe or don’t believe. In the end, you buy her premise, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy her literary and spiritual excursion.
Our Lady of the Lost and Found is an utterly unique book, quite unlike anything else you have probably read. As its title states, it’s “A Novel about Mary, Faith and Friendship”—but it’s about whole lot more, too. For a book that could easily be mislabeled as “For Believers Only,” it has remarkably universal appeal, as evidenced by glowing reviews from sources as diverse as Elle, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Orleans Times & Picayune.
If you are a spiritual seeker, you’ll nod as you read the book and say, “I knew it would be like this!” If you’re undecided in the metaphysical area, you’ll more than likely come away thinking, “I wish it were true?” But even the hard-core devout debunker of superstitious crap of every sort can enjoy Our Lady of the Lost and Found as an entertaining diversion with descriptions of behavioral excesses at least a little more interesting than, say, Anna Nicole’s.
Carl Jung wrote, “The decisive question for man is: is he related to the infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life. Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities and upon all kinds of goals which are not of real importance.” Call it what we wish and search for it where we might, we can’t help but long to have faith in something bigger than ourselves.
In their own idiosyncratically creative and thought-provoking way, works of “mystic fiction” like Schoemperlen’s Our Lady of the Lost and Found, as well the recently reviewed Life of Pi, offer encouragement and hope to a post-9/11 world grappling with the age-old conundrums of human existence. This life-affirming and joyful book makes you sit up and take notice of the simple pleasures and small blessings in life—and be doubly grateful for the bigger ones.