In medieval imagery, the pearl is a symbol for Mary because it stands for purity and virginity. Likewise, the thistle represented Mary because of its white milky sap, which recalled the milk that nourished the infant Christ. These two seemingly opposite images-- a smooth cultured pearl next to the wild abrasive thistle-- remind me that Mary's fiat was a wild act of abandonment to God's will, born from a life quietly cultivated in and gently shaped by grace. I seek her motherly intercession in all that I do.
But perhaps even more exciting is that these two images also stand for my (many-times!) great-grandparents: Queen Margaret and King Malcolm of Scotland. Margaret, whose name means pearl, is often called the "Pearl of Scotland" because she was treasured so greatly by her people. Margaret was an English princess, born in exile in Hungary, who found herself shipwrecked on the shores of Scotland as she tried to escape her homeland with the rest of her family. Though her natural inclination was for religious life, the widowed King Malcolm of Scotland found her to be an incomparable beauty with an alluring piety and a sharp, prudent mind. His own nature was akin to the prickly national flower of his homeland: the thistle. He was rash, fiery, and inclined much more towards things of war than things of Faith, but for reasons left to our imagination he became completely devoted to her. The two were wed and together had eight children.
Margaret is honored in the Catholic Church as a Saint-- a truly holy woman who was devoted to her family, served her kingdom in wisdom and humility, and reformed both the Scottish court and Church. She was known for her great charity and hospitality, as well as her prudence and acuity in juridical matters. She carried her Gospel-Book everywhere and read it often, treasuring it so much that even her illiterate husband was known to pick it up and kiss the cover, not out of reverence for Christ, but out of reverence and respect for his wife.
Pearl and Thistle is thus an homage to my ancestors-- some smooth and cultured, others prickly and wild-- who have made me the person I am today. Because you really can't escape the influence of your family.
"Malcolm and Margaret at Queensferry"
Image source: William Hole / CC BY-SA