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Spring Books

Mary shares her stories

By Diane Schoemperlen
Viking Penguin, 349 pages, $24.95


When Mary the Mother of God drops in on the middle-aged narrator of Our Lady of the Lost and Found, the novelist invites her guest to lunch despite the rush of questions that spring to her mind. She feels as if she’s known Mary all her life. This surprises her, because not only was her father a Methodist and her mother an Anglican, she isn’t even religiously inclined; she hasn’t been in a church since her sister’s wedding 12 years ago!

Mary asks if she can stay for a week -- she needs a little rest to prepare for the month of May when people will be expecting a lot from her. When the narrator says yes, I could see that fatigue all women of a certain age are prone to, that deep bone-weariness that can only be caused by life itself -- by all those weeks of loving and caring, worrying and waiting. By all those years of aging and changing and staying the same.

Of course, Mary says, I could go to a resort hotel in the sun (she has a credit card under the name of Mary Theotokos), but what she really wants is a quiet home with a bedroom of her own and some good cooking. She has just one hesitation. If I come, will you promise not to write about it? No, says the honest narrator. Well then, will you promise to say in a prominent place, “This is a work of fiction”? The narrator agrees, and the reader begins to catch on to the artful game of author Diane Schoemperlen, who has placed precisely that line in a very prominent place in her book.

Our Lady of the Lost and Found is indeed a work of fiction, the first that I know of that makes the living Mary, 2,000 years old, into a credible contemporary woman with a very long memory. Trusting in stories to tell the truth, Schoemperlen -- or Mary in her story -- tells some of them to her companionable hostess before they listen to the 10 o’clock news at night, sharing their dismay at so much suffering and confusion in the world. What Mary doesn’t have time for the author adds, on the basis of the reading she is stimulated to do after her guest leaves. You won’t find a footnote in the book, yet it is a wonderful introduction to the reality and mystery of Mary in human history.

Schoemperlen’s device allows her, in between the laundry and the two women’s trips to the shopping mall, to introduce the reader to a number of art works, legends, saints, miracles and apparitions. Some are familiar, like Guadalupe -- Mary suggests it may have been her bad accent in Nahuatl that gave her that name. Others are less well known, like the Sweet Mother of Hertogenbosch and several recent apparitions.

The author-narrator’s reflections, based on her personal interchange with this ordinary, active, inexplicable woman, make the book intriguing even for those who know Mary well. The narrator’s attitude to time changes. She comes to see that there are “thin places” where the past shines into the present and deepens its meaning. Her new awareness of the constant, almost universal presence of Mary throughout history forces her to raise the question: Why is this woman so ignored in history books, including those by feminists?

Ultimately the narrator comes to see that history is not what she has thought -- hard, clear and completely factual. Its truth depends on who is telling what; more often than not, people find what they are looking for. She concludes that stories may be the best medium to convey what we can grasp of reality, much more in keeping with the seminal changes in understanding that Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has brought about.

This novel -- her attempt to practice what she preaches -- contains within it an intimate memoir as well, still conversational and often humorous, as Mary and her hostess talk about faith in the open, honest way we’d all like to talk. She learns from Mary’s ability to experience uncertainty with detachment that it’s all right to accept one’s own ambiguity about things. She discovers that doubt and faith not only can but probably must coexist, and that prayer can develop in the space between them. At the book’s end she decides that “it is time to realize that irony is not cynicism, paradox is not chaos, and prayer is not wishful thinking. Time to accept the possibility that these, irony, paradox and prayer, are the still points, the thin pieces, the perfect quantum qualities.”

Our Lady of the Lost and Found demonstrates that by refusing either to live without ambiguity or to confine thinking to either/or, fact-versus-fiction terms, Mary -- the real Mother of God -- continues to mediate the mystery of the divine today. Diane Schoemperlen deserves praise and many readers for this bold, original and delightful work that transcends categories and transforms our thinking.

Sally Cunneen is the author of In Search of Mary and professor emeritus of English, Rockland Community College, SUNY.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002