The economy of grace

Author: Steve Rall ’64

Like a carnival barker with holy water, the priest generously dispensed the heavenly graces while pilgrims held high their rosaries, holy cards and plastic replicas in order to receive the divine droplets in the August sun. Blessings were dispensed free of charge every hour at the top of the steps leading into the Shrine church.

They came by the thousands to the Shrine every summer, a boon to the economy of this small, rural town in northwest Ohio. The restaurants posted special menus with inflated prices for the summer visitors. On August, 15, 1954, a special Marian Year declared by Pope Pius XII, an estimated 40,000 pilgrims crowded into our community. It was on this day, across the street from the blessing dispenser, that I stood behind the counter in the Shrine religious articles store.

She was a small woman, wrinkled and graying. She wore a lace doily on her head and a frumpy blue dress adorned with tiny white polka dots. Osteoporosis comes to mind when I think of her standing before me — a shrunken lady, from the disease as well as from the weight of the suffering that she brought to the miraculous image of Our Lady of Consolation.

From behind the display case I saw that she held a crumpled five-dollar bill in her hand.

“Could I see one of those statues?” she asked, pointing to a plastic replica of the miraculous statue in the Shrine church that had drawn pilgrims just like her to this little town since before I was born.

Poorly made, the blue-and-white reproduction stood about 9 inches in height, supported on a black base. The plastic seams from the factory mold still lined either side. It didn’t look at all like the real thing — Mary’s tiny head attached to an oversized blue and white plastic dress, like a miniature teepee, odd-sized hands and head attached. A few sprinkles of gold finished the holy caricature.

One of the adults working in the store had mentioned that each statue cost the Shrine 55 cents. Special Marian Year price: $4.50. Unblessed cartons, filled with hundreds of boxes of plastic Marys, crowded the back room like a mausoleum.

I stood helpless before this devoted pilgrim who had, I suspected, come to the Shrine to ask Our Lady for a miracle of some sort — the healing of a crippled grandchild or the return to grace of a wayward son. Her faith brought her to me. She knew, without question, that God works miracles and that Mary is God’s chief miracle worker.

I am often skeptical and, to be truthful, somewhat cynical when it comes to easy grace and television miracles. But this was the real thing. I stood as intermediary in this standoff between a woman of simple faith and the God who hears the cry of the poor. The mystery of God’s loving presence was all around, drawing thousands mysteriously to this place of healing and grace. I was in the thick of it, caught up in the divine doings.

There, on the glass counter between us, stood the plastic image, silent, artificial, without grace. Then she asked the question that still lingers decades later.

“What do you think? Should I buy this statue or use the five dollars to get a room tonight?”

Simple question to a boy of 12. Simple answer.

“I don’t think the statue is worth the five dollars,” I said.

I would never make it in retail, then or now.

She pulled the statue to the edge of the scratched surface. Her hand rested on the base, her index finger gently rubbing the blue-and-white surface. With half-closed eyes, a moment to ponder, she looked into the distance, weighing the purchase in her mind. It was quite clear that Our Lady was very important to her. Purchasing the plastic image, no matter how unrepresentative of the real thing, might be a way to carry the miraculous presence to her home in Toledo or Akron or Detroit, from wherever she had come. Or maybe her thoughts were of sleeping one night in the Shrine church on one of the hard oak pews, as many pilgrims did each summer.

More likely, in her deep devotion, she knew that the sacrifice of her last five-dollar bill would sway Our Lady, and her request would be granted, the power of her sacrifice, a heaven-and-earth arrangement yielding results. She was like the widow in the Gospel with two small coins. God responded to this kind of sacrifice.

So there she stood, weighing her sacrifice, her faith against the very power of God. Could she move God? Was it enough? Would the sacrifice do the trick? God was put on the spot.

She looked at the statue and carefully handed it to me to wrap. Uncrumpling the five-dollar bill, she released the power of her sacrifice and sealed her agreement with God and Our Lady.

With her change, I handed her the boxed statue neatly tied with a cotton string. The transaction had been completed. Full of grace and with Mary tucked under her arm, the old woman crossed the street for a free blessing. In her wrinkled hand she tightly clasped the change I had given her, a witness to the economy of grace.

Steve Rall is a writer in Lansing, Michigan.