Like the rest of the family, the Virgin Mary works in mysterious ways. Here's proof: a somewhat irreverent, even off-putting author, who revels in knee-jerk unconventionality and self-styled religious kitsch, and is prejudiced against Jesus "for being a man," actually manages to convince her readers that she may indeed be well on her way to becoming a committed Christian.

Or at least an avid follower of Mary. A lapsed Catholic most of her early life, Beverly Donofrio (Riding in Cars with Boys) found herself brooding day after day in a rocker over her "pathetically impoverished life," and the mess she had made of her first 40 years. After six years of incremental steps toward faith, she "landed in Bosnia," on assignment from National Public Radio to research the phenomenon of Mary apparitions. In the holy city of Medjugorje, where Mary presumably appeared in 1981 to six children and has made regular appearances ever since, Donofrio, preparing for her first confession in 35 years, retraces her growing fascination with the mother of Jesus. Collecting throws, banners, postcards, pictures of the Virgin, she discovers the attraction of what has become through the centuries a strong cult of devotion to Mary, especially among those who feel a lack of feminine warmth in the patriarchal images of traditional Christianity.

For Donofrio, the need is even greater: from childhood she has doggedly defied authority, resulting in a life marked by tragic mistakes from which she has gained "no insight, no wisdom." Worst of all, she faces the prospect of permanently losing the love of her son through her own lack of maternal judgment and good sense. At last, in Medjugorje, she admits to herself how desperately she wants that "little mustard seed of faith to move the mountain that is me out of the dark and into the light." Donofrio's enthusiasms (rosaries, medals, marble statues) are not always catching, but her religious experiences will appeal to everyone who has ever felt desperate to plumb the depths of Shakespeare's observation that "there are more things in heaven and earth" than are ever dreamed of in secular philosophy.

Maude McDaniel writes from her home in Cumberland, Maryland.

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