Reflection: Jim Foley, Mary, and the Power of Prayer

Virgin Mary Shrine, Bosnia, 2012.  Photo credit: M. Collett

Virgin Mary Shrine, Bosnia, 2010. Photo credit: M. Collett

All is quiet in the house.  I flip open my laptop to check my email and Facebook, while my baby daughter lies asleep, close by.  I fight to stay awake, however briefly, to enjoy the solitude that is rare in life with kids.  In that hidden time, I learn about journalist James Foley’s life and death from a Facebook post by a friend that links (with a single word: RIP) to a letter James wrote to the Marquette alumni magazine in fall 2011, after being freed from a forty-four day captivity in Libya in 2011 (he was captured a second time while reporting in Syria in 2012 and remained a captive until his death in August 2014).  The piece is simply titled, “Phone call home.”  As I start to read, I feel a chill ripple through my body.  Here was the living voice of a man, newly dead. He was still speaking, from that place of outer darkness he so eloquently describes in the letter.  Foreshadowing is fine as a literary technique in fiction, but no one wants to read about a real person painfully gesturing toward his or her own captivity and death in a declaration of freedom and life.  This is the stuff of turning stomachs and breaking hearts—both uncanny and unjust.  I meet Jim through his words: he is kind, he is humble, he is courageous, and he is a person of faith.  He is a son who loves his mother.  Out in the darkness, it is to her that his thoughts turn, and to Mary, mother of us all, who offers a lifeline of prayer, even when all other cords are cut.  My thoughts, too, rush to Mrs. Foley, beloved mother, here so full of hope, and my chest tightens as I realize she must contemplate the finality of her son’s brutal death.  The living Jim tells us how he prayed the rosary on his knuckles, to keep his spirits up, to stay strong, and to connect, across the darkness, with his own mother—some way, somehow.

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee…  My first labor comes on so quickly at home and the pain accelerates until I can scarcely breathe.  Rather than screaming or cursing, I can do nothing but recite the Hail Mary at the top of my lungs.  At the hospital, I yell, “I can’t!” while my husband and the midwife and the nurses and Mary tell me I can.  Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  I am afraid, but I learn that I can.  The second time around, my daughter is breech and refuses to turn, her heartbeat becomes slightly irregular and they prep me for a C-section that terrifies me, but I know I will do anything for this little girl.  Holy Mary, Mother of God…  The baby emerges, but is ushered off to one side.  The doctor calmly tells us that the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck three times, and she is not breathing just yet.  The nurses work on her, until she accepts the invitation to breathe.  Pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death.

Compelled, I sort through the news coverage and encounter those awful stills, from a video whose conclusion I could never watch.  At first, I see only abstractions—the parallel lines: orange and black, orange and black, victim and executioner.  The aesthetics of this are not lost on me.  My brain says: danger, prison, heatstroke, the fluorescent nausea of being forced awake.  My eyes refuse to focus on the whole scene, but now they magnify the details.  I see Jim Foley’s neck—the muscles are resolute: “Do NOT, do NOT bend, flinch, or cower!”  They are convulsed by an act of sheer will.

Most people who know me even a little, realize that becoming a parent has profoundly affected every aspect of my life.  I am still surprised, sometimes, by how much it enters into my teaching.  Before having children, I rarely told even brief personal stories in the classroom, with hope that objectivity would reign.  After parenthood, the stories and concerns started to spill out, especially when we began to discuss theodicy, and the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  I reveal to my students that readings that once horrified and repulsed me before having kids, now sometimes keep me up at night.  In one class, we read Elie Wiesel’s Night every semester, and I now choke on the lines I was once able to read with a least a little (bitter) calm: “Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch.  Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children.  Babies! Yes, I did see this with my own eyes…children thrown into the flames.”  I explain to my students that nothing can be the same for me, now that I am a mother.  I tell them that when imagining the precious, helpless little souls obliterated in such acts of reckless disdain for human life, I can only see my daughters’ faces, and I boil over with sorrow and rage.  And I cringe at the first moments that will come, sooner than I hope, when I have to explain to them that such evil and inhumanity exists in the world.

I am a human being.  I am also the mother of human beings.  When I see the pictures of Jim Foley on his knees, courageous, but still afraid, what I see first is “some mother’s son.”  More than that, I see every mother’s son or daughter.  I see a child of God.  I remind myself that the assassin is also a child of God.  And I grieve.

In his 2011 letter to Marquette, Jim wrote: “If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”  I’d like to think that in his final moments, Jim still found his freedom in the prayers he learned from his mother and grandmother, and that his faith steeled him against the malevolent work of murderous hands.

The hour grows late and I think of Jim Foley…“Please God, may he rest in peace.”  I think of his parents, his family, and his friends.  I cannot help but gaze with trepidation at my daughter’s beautiful neck, relaxed by the safety of sleep with loving parents nearby, unburdened by the weight of the world’s ongoing atrocities.  “Please God, show us again how to love each other…Please Mary, mother us into people of peace.”  Finally, I lie down next to my daughter and gather her in a gentle embrace.  I stay awake to listen to her breathe.

3 thoughts on “Reflection: Jim Foley, Mary, and the Power of Prayer

  1. Jackie
    September 13, 2014 at 11:01 pm

    Maryellen, thanks for alerting me to your blog post. Like Br. Armand it may encourage me to blog also as your words and authentic, generous feeling have propelled me to respond. I am on the bus home from the Signum Fidei Red Tie Ball and ever mindful of how easy and blessed most of our lives are and yet, as you note, responding to Jim, his murderors, his mother, how fragile all life is. Hail Mary and you her daughter too

  2. Marne Bailey
    September 11, 2014 at 5:21 pm

    Maryellen – beautifully written.

  3. Erin
    September 11, 2014 at 5:12 pm

    Mary Ellen-your blog is so touching and so real. I relate in so many ways… “nothing can be the same for me, now that I am a mother.”

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