In a chapter of The Well and the Shadows, entitled Mary and the Convert, G. K. Chesterton relates how it is that throughout his life, even before his conversion to Catholicism, he associated the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Church. He instinctively saw her as a universal symbol of what the Church essentially is:
‘…whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself–I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith; that she embodied, as a complete human being still only human, all that this Thing had to say to humanity.
The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her; when I tried to forget the Catholic Church, I tried to forget her; when I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi, that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land.’
He also wrote a poem – The Black Virgin – which goes even further in describing this universal appeal, though this time by relating the wealth of forms Our Lady has appeared under throughout history. Whilst running through a panoply of different images, Chesterton roots them all in the recurrent appeal of the essential dignity and humanity that shines forth from Our Blessed Mother, a humanity that shines with the glory of perfect discipleship and is tinged with the light of heaven:
One in thy thousand statues we salute thee
On all thy thousand thrones acclaim and claim
Who walk in forest of thy forms and faces
Walk in a forest calling on one name
And, most of all, how this thing may be so
Who know thee not are mystified to know
That one cries “Here she stands” and one cries “Yonder”
And thou wert home in heaven long ago.
Burn deep in Bethlehem in the golden shadows,
Ride above Rome upon the horns of stone,
From low Lancastrian or South Saxon shelters
Watch through dark years the dower that was shine own:
Ghost of our land, White Lady of Walsinghame,
Shall they not live that call upon thy name
If an old song on a wild wind be blowing
Crying of the holy country whence they came?
Root deep in Chartres the roses blown of glass
Burning above thee in the high vitrailles,
On Cornish crags take for salute of swords
O’er peacock seas the far salute of sails,
Glooming in bronze or gay in painted wood,
A great doll given when the child is good,
Save that She gave the Child who gave the doll,
In whom all dolls are dreams of motherhood.
I have found thee like a little shepherdess
Gay with green ribbons; and passed on to find
Michael called Angel hew the Mother of God
Like one who fills a mountain with a mind:
Molten in silver or gold or garbed in blue,
Or garbed in red where the inner robe burns through,
Of the King’s daughter glorious within:
Change shine unchanging light with every hue.
Clothed with the sun or standing on the moon
Crowned with the stars or single, a morning star,
Sunlight and moonlight are thy luminous shadows,
Starlight and twilight thy refractions are,
Lights and half-lights and all lights turn about thee,
But though we dazed can neither see nor doubt thee,
Something remains. Nor can man live without it
Nor can man find it bearable without thee.
There runs a dark thread through the tapestries
That time has woven with all the tints of time
Something not evil but grotesque and groping,
Something not clear; not final; not sublime;
Quaint as dim pattern of primal plant or tree
Or fish, the legless elfins of the sea,
Yet rare as this shine image in ebony
Being most strange in its simplicity.
Rare as the rushing of the wild black swans
The Romans saw; or rocks remote and grim
Where through black clouds the black sheep runs accursed
And through black clouds the Shepherd follows him.
By the black oak of the aeon-buried grove
By the black gems of the miner’s treasure-trove
Monsters and freaks and fallen stars and sunken-
Most holy dark, cover our uncouth love.
From shine high rock look down on Africa
The living darkness of devouring green
The loathsome smell of life unquenchable,
Look on low brows and blinking eyes between,
On the dark heart where white folk find no place,
On the dark bodies of an antic race,
On all that fear thy light and love thy shadow,
Turn thou the mercy of thy midnight face.
This also is in thy spectrum; this dark ray;
Beyond the deepening purples of thy Lent
Darker than violet vestment; dark and secret
Clot of old night yet cloud of heaven sent:
As the black moon of some divine eclipse,
As the black sun of the Apocalypse,
As the black flower that blessed Odysseus back
From witchcraft; and he saw again the ships.
In all thy thousand images we salute thee,
Claim and acclaim on all thy thousand thrones
Hewn out of multi-colored rocks and risen
Stained with the stored-up sunsets in all tones-
If in all tones and shades this shade I feel,
Come from the black cathedrals of Castille
Climbing these flat black stones of Catalonia,
To thy most merciful face of night I kneel.
In all these pictures we see what God saw before all ages, when He chose Mary to be the one who would bear His Son into the world. We see that under all these images, she remains a universal symbol of perfect faith directed towards God, a faith which emanates from a heart that is wholly integrated by its love for Him. We see her as being sent out into the world as a symbol of the Faith, encapsulating what it means to be a disciple. We see her as Chesterton did all his life, as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic – a perfect symbol of the Church.