Today marks the 10th anniversary of my dear mother’s death. For years, the anguish of the initial separation has been helped by the peaceful certainty that she is with me, with us—me and my surviving 3 siblings. We often share our “that was Mom” moments, when things happen in our lives that are just too signature “Faith” to be random.
Faith was many things, but this past weekend I was blessed to experience one of her true gifts—her writing—and specifically, her writing about God.
You see, she had an extraordinary life and journey. She was born into a movement called Moral Rearmament, MRA. She was formed by it; growing up with her widowed mother and two older sisters who had devoted their lives full-time to its principles and mission, she was expected to do the same, and she did. But even at a young age, the demands and beliefs of MRA chafed at my mother’s instincts, emotions and intellectual curiosity. It was when she was in her early twenties, now a single woman, alone in New York City, that my mother’s world came crashing down as her unanswered questions and her constant feelings of guilt and doubt swallowed her up in the fog of a severe depression. In her darkest moments, though, she did what she had always done: she wrote, in her journal and in letters, and she prayed—even though she didn’t “feel” that God was listening.
Prayer had always been as natural and as unconscious as breathing. When I prayed, I didn’t need any mental image of God sitting like a Buddha, inclining His ear, because the atmosphere seemed charged with divine receptivity. But in the summer of 1953, when the line had gone dead, and there seemed no dimension in the darkness, perhaps that was when I learned about prayer for the first time. I have learned that love and prayer are learned in the coldest and driest hour when the heart has turned to stone; and in that summer, when I had no love and no words, I prayed the prayer that is a mute gaze at something—a half-instinctive, unfeeling, lifting of the mind and soul to whatever is there. This would not be possible for anyone to do if there were not something there. And perhaps salvation begins in that moment, for one cannot even half-consciously desire to find God unless God has already found him; if he did not first love, it would be impossible for us to want to love Him.
I have the gift of re-reading her words today because she wrote a memoir, Acts of Faith, about her journey out of the darkness and into a new life in the Catholic Church. I’m grateful because, on a cloudy Saturday morning, two days before the sad anniversary, I can pick up Acts of Faith and have a visit with her, as she writes about her early life with my beloved grandmother and aunts; her struggles with scrupulosity, anxiety and depression and how she persevered; and her discovery of the book that changed her life, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.
Acts of Faith was written a few years before Faith met my father and became our mother. She wrote it to explain to her family and MRA friends why she had taken this path which diverged from them; she sent them her manuscript, and then put it aside. But in 1994, she and my father, James P. McFadden, oversaw its revision and it was published by Ignatius press. (Sadly, it is out of print, but there are some copies still available. )
The character of the woman we knew as our mother is already clear in what she wrote in her twenties: Her love of books, and writing of all kinds, especially letters; her fervent embrace of music and art; her grace and benevolence—she always looked for the best in people; her sense of humor; her search for “truth with a capital T” as she would say; and her conviction that God knew what He was doing and we needed to trust Him. She had a calm serenity even in the midst of terrible trials and losses, and that is something that gives her children and grandchildren strength and courage—even as we miss being on the receiving end of her beautiful smile.
I’ll close with a passage from her chapter “Saint Benedict” in which she writes of her experience as a Benedictine oblate (lay member) at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
Everything is its own reason for being. All of us—people, trees, buildings, cattle and sheep, are collected and gathered up in a single focus and offered to God from Whom we also came. The bells for each of the canonical hours the nuns sing remind us that we are created to praise God, and we are kept true to our natures each day by the rhythm of body and soul in prayer and work. Every minute God is knowing us and loving us and showing us our identity.
Language is not necessary.
Here I can be myself, I do not have to “find myself” through laborious introspective scrutiny. There is nothing to do except be silent, to enter into a solitude that is a withdrawal not from other people but from the artificial and fictional level of my being, and let God discover me to myself in a secret and lucid clarity. And then, if I can let God go on doing it, I will be fulfilling His purpose for my life and in the lives of others.
Requiescat in pace.