"Mary in the Snow," a photo taken by Ryan Bowley

For the first time in my life, I drove straight through the heart of a horrible snowstorm. The route, from Michigan to Illinois, curved around Lake Michigan and traced the basic path of thick snow that swathed itself across the Midwest. More than once, I brushed right up against death. I’ll not soon forget the experience.

Trapped cars dotted the sides of the roads. One especially bad turn at I-80 had caused two trucks to swerve, an accident that happened I don’t know when, leaving the trucks to witness to the danger like hulking shadows. I watched as a car slipped its way to rest among them, following the same path.

Snow obscured the lanes, and we – by which I mean the cars and trucks huddled on the roads – guessed where the lanes might be, following one another with terrible caution. As the snow continued to accumulate, the wind froze windshields and iced the windshield wipers. We crawled. Changing lanes meant taking one’s life in one’s hands: the snow had been pressed into angled mountains between paths, and striving against them threatened to maroon a car. Glittering white filled the tortured air, constricting visibility.

My traction control indicators flickered, alerting me to slipping wheels. I could feel them, hear them. I worked against the slides with care, concentrating not to overreact, smothering the impulse to punch the throttle or jam on the brakes. Any hard twitch would put me on the side of the road or into another car. Moving too slowly would render the same result. My nerves eroded under the pressure, burdened by the scrape and strain. More than once I wanted to cry, exhaustion creeping into the brain, but I could not afford the emotional space.

A truck nearly sideswiped me at one point, an especially vivid memory that has haunted my sleep. I moved my car out of the way as best I could, struggling against the snow that the giant wheels folded into my path, my escape forced to halt by the cars in the next lane. We all merged together, the truck and my car and the other cars. I kept my foot on the brakes, no longer able to move – aware of another car behind me – hissing a slow breath as the two paths converged in front of me. The truck moved on, and I and my trapped companion slowly wiggled our way out of the pile of snow that had been swept over us. Neither of us swerved into the rest of the traffic, which triangled into the merging lanes we had been caught against. I survived.

Time seemed to stretch and bend, long and viscous and hopeless. Time is God’s gift to us. Time is a mercy. We are given time, and it is never ours. Time is God’s. Time is to be cherished. Now, though – now! Now there seemed to be no past or present, no future. Eternity bent around us, heavy and faceless as the snow. Half a mile in thirty minutes. Inching across tracts of graying white.

Eight hours.

I swore under the pressure. Curse words muttered through grated teeth, hands tight at the wheel. Nonsensical strings of stressed and simple syllables. When most pressed, most worried, most terrified, I found myself praying. If I needed to be brave, I found myself praying. Every time I had to change lanes, I whispered urgent “Hail Marys.”

Hail Mary, full of grace
– no, no, don’t let them hit me –
the Lord is with thee.
– it’s okay, I’ll be okay, we’ll make it…
Blessed art thou, among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
– 0h, Jesus, what’s that guy doing?
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

In the Catholic imagination, there is no surer prayer than one made to the Virgin Mary. No one will see our needs addressed so well as Our Mother, Our Lady. Every “Hail Mary” is a Cana moment: we are out of wine, we are out of answers, what do we do? Oh, Lady, what do we do? What now, my Lady – my Mother – what now? Pray for us, oh pray for me! Now and in death!

In death indeed.

My person is marked with small indicators of my devotion to the Virgin Mary. A rosary is always somewhere on me or near me, and I am distressed when I forget it. I have lost too many rosaries to count, in too many places. Beaded reminders of the mysteries of salvation (it is joyful and sorrowful, salvation, and glorious). I refuse to remove the small silver medal hung at my neck, an unusual version of a scapular. Should you find me in a Catholic church, you will invariably find me praying near a statue of Mary. I may never say anything about this devotion, but it follows me everywhere. I believe Mary is with me everywhere, everywhere trying to turn me to her Son.

Oh Mother, I wondered in the dark and the snow. Oh Mother, how will I get through this? Dear Lady, protect my poor soul. Bring it to your Son should I lose my life. Hold me close and bring me to Him, or I fear I won’t find the way. And protect me now. Please keep me alive. I am poor and broken and afraid of death.

On we went, my spiritual mother and I, in a snowy imitation of the return from exile. As I said, I believe Mary is with me everywhere, everywhere trying to turn me to her Son. And in that car, she bent my heart toward trust. Trust that I might make it home. Trust that all those swerves and dangers, those terrors and that darkness, can all be bent in God’s direction. Should we lose our way, God still knows how to find us.

Sometimes we think of Mary as cool and far away, too perfect. As if her perfection made her unreachable. The point, though, is that her perfection makes her more loving, that God’s grace has made her most loving. We love better the more God’s love has shaped us, the more we have let that happen, and she is most deeply shaped. To look at her is to see the curvature of one wholly loved by God, of one wholly living in the love of God. Our eyes are deflected from her to Him. Her contours, molded by grace, direct us there – there to Him. She loves us best of all, and so loving, she gives us to God. You think two turtledoves were all she gave when she offered her Son to the Father? No, no: she gave – and gives – all of us.

She is all alive and burning with God’s love. Fierce and unwavering. You see, the dead, the gracious dead, they are more alive than us. And she is most alive. Most worried for us. Most intent on loving us with God’s own love. On teaching us God’s love. Her purity makes her burn. She is all white and pure as snow, and she burns with love. And if they say that snow is cold, writes Francis Thompson,

O Chastity, must they be told
the hand that’s chafed with snow
Takes a redoubled glow?

Snow burns to touch. And Our Mother burns with love for us. So I felt my heart melted in the midst of all that snow. And when I made it home to my father’s arms, both of us shaking, I felt some small glimpse of another Home and another Father. The one where Mary would have me go, because she loves me.

She keeps none of us, you know. She gives us all away to love.

Ryan Bowley’s photographs can be found on Flickr here, and I am grateful that he shared this one in particular.