Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Remembering Mom, Part 1

It has been a month since my mother died.

I thought that by now I would be able to write a grand tribute to the remarkable woman who gave birth to me and played such a central role in educating me as a human being, not only in childhood but throughout my 58 years of life. Intellectually brilliant, physically frail, spiritually magnanimous, a lover of truth, a born teacher and powerful communicator, a tenacious fighter against her own implacable illnesses and limitations, my mother had a greatness of human stature.

She was a great woman, for sure. If this was all I could say about her, however, then it would be difficult to see her life as anything other than an inspiring memory at best, with an ongoing influential legacy of good deeds, and a personality so defined that it "points toward" a continuing "immortality" of her spirit in some unreachable realm. (At worst, her life could seem like a tragedy of great desire and ultimate unfulfillment, now reduced to a body buried in a grave in Winchester, Virginia.)

Human nature - in its current, fractured condition - "hopes" for the best (and sometimes fears the worst) within the limits of its ordinary perceptions about death.

But this is my mother! I still love her. I still love my father. 

The death of parents (in particular) is a provoking experience at any age. It practically wrenches from your guts the aching question that is always within you but here becomes visceral and impossible to ignore or set aside: "Why are we alive on this earth? What is the ultimate meaning of all the things we say and do? What happens to it all at death?

In our most noble and profound moments, we spontaneously experience the connection between "love" and "forever." We have the ineradicable desire to "write forever" in big letters all over the people we love, all over their actions for the good, and all over our own selves, the goodness in our relationships, and our actions which are vivified by this search for meaning and the "hint" of forever that surprises us when we engage reality and experience gratuitous goodness and beauty and truth.

Where did we "learn" this inner attitude that says to finite things: "Please, don't end"? Where did we get the idea that we could love another person forever? Are we a cosmic joke; are we freaks of Evolution? Or does life aim toward a Mystery, where our questions are heard and our hopes take the shape of promises?

The most important thing about my mother was not her talents or her human greatness. The most important thing was an event that happened to her and began to transform her life. At the beginning, it was an event that happened to her in baptism, through Water and the Holy Spirit. 

That newly given supernatural life in Christ grew in her, and found direction in other encounters through childhood and growing up. At her university there was a Catholic priest at the Newman Center, and she went to him with her many questions and ideas and speculations. He encouraged her to use her reason, but he also gave her some books to read - not only for the wisdom they contained but also, I think, because their writings were a means to encounter them and recognize as reference points these great men of the Church in her time: Romano Guardini. Jacques Maritain. Henri de Lubac. And others. Our bookshelf at home was full of these names.

And of course, the uniquely significant encounter of my mother's life was my father. They were a consistent "help" to each other on their long path of growing in faith and in relationship to Jesus Christ in the Church. Along with a small group of friends, their faith deepened during the 1960s (even as the faith of so many others was shaken). In 1968 Pope Paul VI spoke the truth about "human ecology" and warned that the most celebrated technological invention of the decade was a recipe for disaster, for the destruction of human relationships, for new modes of fragmentation and rootlessness, and for new ways for the strong to impose their power on the poor and marginalized. By that time, my mother and my father were prepared to receive this message, this teaching that would attach them more intimately to Jesus in their marriage and in the home they built for me and my brother.

My parents encountered Jesus in a very powerful way through the great witness of Popes (and saints) John XXIII and Paul VI.

I remember vividly, when I was four years old, being in the laundry room of our apartment building with my mother while she spoke to me with great seriousness and passion about the Church and the problems in the world, about Pope John and Pope Paul and their sufferings, and about a French 'Peasant' who was a philosopher who had helped her understand many things. I imagined a farmer with a great mind, or something like that. (Meanwhile, I passed the bookshelf every day for years after that and saw old Maritain's face staring out at me from the spine of the English translation of The Peasant of the Garonne. In graduate school, I finally read the book ... and many others by this great philosopher and towering 20th century Christian witness.) But my mother conveyed to me in that laundry room the immense grandeur and mystery of life, and the crucial significance of seeking the truth and being faithful to it.

And, of course, my mother taught me to pray.


I will continue these reflections and reminiscences about my parents. It is good to recall that the ground they placed under my feet is still strong, and getting stronger, even though sometimes it feels like the roots have been cut out from under me. But grief is an experience that changes us on the road to our own destiny.

I miss them. Lord, I pray that you will embrace them forever in your Kingdom.