Jesus Freak. Bible Thumper. Holy Roller. These terms are viewed by some as derogatory or perhaps embraced by others as a badge of honor. I wouldn’t describe my mother using these expressions, but her zeal and respect for the Catholic faith were still very much part of her identity.
For instance, she sang the hymns during Mass out loud (but not too loud). She was a passionate advocate for children and families (but wasn’t the bumper-sticker type). She floated topics like Marian apparitions or transubstantiation during everyday “mother-daughter” talks – even sometimes in front of my friends (cue the eye rolls). “I’m not a Jesus Freak or anything,” she would say when handing me some new book about Saint so-and-so. “It just interests me, and I thought you might like it.”
My mom died in January 2020 from a rare form of cancer. Although she survived breast cancer 15 years prior, this new cancer took her quickly, so we did not have much time to prepare her bedroom for nursing and hospice care. Now two and a half years later, the endless boxes of religious books, devotionals, and prayer cards from her nightstand sit like anvils in my home office.
Similar to how a person might choose to listen to sad songs when feeling down, I decided this past Mother’s Day was the “perfect” time to go through the boxes. I knew the sorting, while painful, would make me feel closer to her at a time in my life when I really just needed my mom — she was an unwavering source of truth in my life. Aside from needing to clean up the mess, I pondered the idea that maybe there was something she wanted to say to me in all those piles.
The sorting took hours, and suffice to say, many tears. Notecards with an outpouring of love and support from the women of her parish were most prevalent, followed by her books by and about St. Therese of Lisieux, and then by prayer cards of all kinds. I spent an entire afternoon “filing” each saint’s prayer card into its own pile, with enough duplicates to share among the entire family.
The real sob-fest came when reaching into the inside cover of her Bible — she saved remarks that I had made at a women’s retreat we both attended in 2012, which I had completely forgotten about. I was 27 then, and the age range of the retreat skewed much older, which left many women asking me things like “How did your mom get you to do this? My daughter would not be caught dead here.” My remarks encouraged the women to never stop sharing their faith — I testified that despite the many eye rolls I have given my mom over the years, I did appreciate her effort, even if I didn’t always show it.
Now at age 38, with God often taking a backseat to my to-do list, I struggle to practice my faith consistently, let alone share it with anyone. My faith is more akin to a dead-end, one-way street – I could do the bare minimum to take God in, but I could not point to any tangible place in my life where I felt God really flowed through me.
With tears rolling down my face, I wished I could take back every “no” and every eye roll I ever gave my mom. Suddenly, just as quickly as the tears erupted, a calm came over me. “Say yes,” I heard. “Yes to what?” I asked myself. Then, undoubtedly by the grace of God, I knew the answer. My mother was nudging me, in a way only she could do, to say “yes” to sharing more of my thoughts similar to my experience in 2012. Maybe now was the time to publish the thoughts I typically reserved for my own private journals (which I’ve kept since the first grade). But what would I say? How would I find the courage to publish something so personal? Who would care enough to read it?
With a burning but terrifying desire to honor my mom’s “nudge,” I felt overcome by the need to pray the Rosary — which was only a practice I typically reserved for the direst situations. Considering how faith played a huge part in my mom’s daily life, I decided that this should be something I try more consistently, if not daily. Around this same time, I discovered a chanted Rosary recording and decided to listen to this during my daily jogs — a time usually spent “zoning out” to very loud music. I decided to offer the time for listening to what this “nudge” might really be about.
Our Lady did not disappoint – I was made keenly aware of how lacking in courage I have been in recent years. For instance, my mom was notorious for sending me religious items, which often found a nice home in the bottom of a drawer. It became painfully obvious during my runs that the nightstand that needed sorting was my own, before I could even entertain the notion of writing about my faith.
So, I finally hung up a crucifix my mom gave me for our wedding (still in its packaging from five years ago). I dug out a tiny Mary statue she gave me as a child (now on a bookshelf where I can actually see it). I read a copy of St. Therese’s “Story of Soul” that my mom had sent to me, inscribed with a note about how it changed her life (I can now scratch it off the list of Saint “So-and-So” books I was to read). These are small things that required a good deal of courage on my part – courage that I didn’t have before asking for help from Our Lady. These small actions helped me grow in the courage to be able to share my faith more publicly, as in the writing of this essay. I even went so far as to invite a new friend to Mass.
My mom wanted her suffering to mean something and to bring her family closer to God. Going forward – I hope that any future “yes” to God won’t need to be unpacked or dusted off first. I don’t know if I will ever fully understand the meaning of my mom’s suffering, but I do know that the little Mary statue on my bookshelf brings me peace.