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Special section: Family Life

One mother’s mentors helped her pull through


Years ago, as a young mother of several small and energetic children, I realized I needed help. A nanny wasn’t what I had in mind. Guidance, surely. Some role models, maybe. Some kind of inspiration to show us, as a family, the way to an ordered, centered life. A small group of mothers in similar circumstances, who met regularly for prayer, helped me find the way to the center.

When we gathered each week, it was not only to try our prayer wings but to search for mentors. One of our first discoveries was St. Teresa of Avila. The 16th-century Carmelite nun entered my world bearing all kinds of riches.

She spoke of interior life, that inner landscape where the true self dwells. But she also emphasized the importance of faithfulness to the small, everyday domestic tasks, necessities even for those behind cloistered walls. I felt a deepening bond with this wise woman, whose developed spiritual life invited me, and others like me, to explore the metaphor of Mount Carmel. It helped to learn that Teresa in her early monastic life had difficulty with meditative prayer. The wandering mind was not exclusive, then, to harried homemakers!

Her accounts of the use of imagination in prayer (learned, we understand, from Jesuits) offered a way to still mental whirling. Furthermore, she was brimming with common sense. Sayings like, “Let nothing disturb you ... All things pass away” soothed the inevitable hills and valleys of marriage and family life. Another saying, “There’s a time for partridge and a time for penance,” seemed particularly suited to 5 in the evening when meal preparation was underway and the children were at their peak of inventiveness.

For many years now, a reproduction of the Velasquez painting of St. Teresa has graced our kitchen. I look at it everyday, full of gratitude for a mentor who, though separated by centuries, gave me a lifeline when I needed it. (Not long ago one of my sons confided to me that as a little boy he thought the quill pen in Teresa’s hand was a paper airplane).

One of the great treasures the church has to offer to everyone is the witness and wisdom of religious orders. I know that over the last few decades, voices have been raised in complaint that the only spirituality available to the laity was that developed in the monastery and therefore totally unsuited to active lay life. For example, what in the world do Trappists have to say to the common person? To the woman holding together a family and holding down a job? To the lawyer caught in a mountain of briefs? To the middle-aged man who has just lost his job to younger (and cheaper) labor? Plenty.

Trappists in their varied personal and communal personae have much to offer, and I am keenly aware of having received much. One can begin with Thomas Merton, whose life and writings have had a profound influence over the past half century, an influence that is likely to continue. (I strongly recommend the gift of The Seven Storey Mountain, for 17-year-old young men, especially those who find religion a bore).

Beyond Merton, Trappist monasteries offer lay people (most of whom have family responsibilities) the experience of silence and solitude and the possibility of slowing down and savoring ordinary daily life. Many monasteries have guest houses available for retreats (women are welcome), a legacy of the renewal flowing from the Second Vatican Council.

At the Trappist monastery my husband and I visit from time to time, retreats are unstructured, offering time and space to renew depleted energies. Retreatants are free to attend the chapel liturgies if they wish, a highlight for me. The small whitewashed chapel is filled with intense care: The monastic bow, the pace of the chanting, the pauses -- all are so utterly attractive. The fields and pathways and the retreat house itself are steeped in silence.

One can, of course, consult with one of the monks who is available to retreatants, but there is no pressure to do so. There is no pressure of any kind. The Trappist environment (whether one spends a few days or a few hours there) underscores a different way of being in life, one of mindfulness. Spouses and parents attest to a less-driven life back home after time with the Trappists. Solitude, silence and mindful action, part of what it is to be human, are often difficult to learn in the busy give and take of family life. But our “enclosed” brothers and sisters can and do help us to get in touch with these essentials of a conscious spiritual life. Deo gratias.

Family spirituality is also helped by a trusting relationship with more experienced families. In the early years of marriage, I was fortunate to meet a woman almost 20 years older than I who, with her husband, was raising a family of 10 children. What was striking about this family was the intentional spirituality that clearly oriented their individual lives and their common life, and the creativity that seemed to burst forth from the family.

The parents had great respect for their children, and so the boy who was gifted at carpentry (and who made that his career), and the daughter who was a poet, were valued equally for their uniqueness. Art, politics, social concerns, homemaking, history, liturgy, church renewal -- all were topics for animated conversation within the household. The vitality of that family spilled out onto others. Younger families saw how a common life might be organized around profound trust in God. One specific memory stands out for me.

The Maria Montessori early childhood educational methods had taken hold in our region. Parents were starting cooperative schools, books were passed around, seminars were conducted. I was sold on the method.

Then came the moment when parents like myself, who had been in a preparatory study group, needed to contribute a certain amount of money to launch the new school. My husband and I realized we didn’t have the cash. Our firstborn child, a daughter, would not be able to attend. I was heartbroken.

By coincidence I met my mentor, the mother of 10, in a nearby shop one Saturday and poured out my disappointment to her. She clasped both my hands, looked into my eyes (and maybe my soul) and said, “Surely you don’t believe that the good God who breathed life into your child means for her destiny to be linked with whether or not she can attend a Montessori school!”

She suggested I use the methods at home. The combination of her faith and her practicality provided a lesson that has held up over time.

So saints and monasteries, mentors and peers have all helped me and my family to adhere to a spiritual pathway, often with tough ascents and steep declines, with meanderings and fatigue and the constant temptation to give up. But these companions, a cloud of witnesses, do not give up, a reminder that we are not meant to travel alone.

Dolores Leckey, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, is former executive director of the U.S. bishops Secretariat on Family, Laity, Women and Youth.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998