After the last prayer, she turned to me and boldly asked, “Where does it say, To whom much is given, much is expected?” I awkwardly stuttered something insufficient, “Well, um, I am not sure but I think Jesus said something like that in one of the gospels. Why do you ask?” She paused for what seemed like an eternity and looked deep into my eyes saying, “I just feel like I am supposed to ask you that question.” With that, the guard called the inmates into formation and led them out of the upper prison chapel.
That encounter took place approximately twelve years ago and I think about it often. I can still picture the lovely face of the inmate whom I shared a pew with during a Sunday evening Mass at a local prison. That chance meeting has transformed my thoughts, informed my prayers and perhaps led me in a different direction in life.
Back then, when my priest friend invited me to accompany him to the prison Mass, I was hesitant. At that time, I was self absorbed and worried about only myself rather than the women we’d be visiting. (God still had a lot of work to do on me.) I didn’t really want to go and had no plans of ever becoming a regular prison volunteer. Looking back, it’s amazing how God works things out – way before we ever know anything about it.
After years of trying to control everything, I finally succumbed to the reality that the constant pain in my back (after two spinal fusion surgeries) was not going away. This led to some difficult life decisions like retiring from my full time job in the summer of 2018 and admitting that I needed to give much more attention to my health. Leaving my career was tough on my ego, thus I sought involvement in something that would bring fulfillment into my life or at least allow me to feel useful. Chronic pain (or any debilitating disease) can steal your sense of worth and cause feelings of uselessness. In an effort to combat these deceptive feelings, I prayed that God would lead me to something worthy and good.
When I prayed, one recurring image kept coming back to me – the women I’d met at the prison so many years ago. At this point in my life, I realized that they were not so different from me at all. We were both broken and bruised by some unwelcome life experiences from our past. Gone were my feelings of self wonderment and pride, I was looking at life through a new set of lenses which brought everything into proper focus. Time and suffering had broken me down until only the authentic part of my soul was left. I think I was transformed anew because my mom had shown me how to invite God into my suffering. Without His help, it would all have been in vain. Thanks to God’s grace, I had walked the path of suffering love and emerged ready to live in a way that was not possible before.
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace:1 Peter 4:10
Thomas Aquinas once said, “love is to will the good of the other as other.” I used to think that I loved in this way but looking back, I see that I put too much emphasis on my own needs. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” (Luke 12:48) Over the years, this verse has become very familiar to me. I can still see the face of the woman who asked me about it. I never fully understood that encounter twelve years ago until lately, during some of the more painful days.
Thanks to the gift of my beloved mother, I have realized that my abundance in this life is love. Love is what I must give back – that is what is required of me. I was gifted with a mother as loving and as beautiful as the Blessed Mother. One could not dream of a more idyllic childhood. As a grandmother, there was no one sweeter and more loving than Nona. She was taken from our lives much too early, but she taught us to love in every circumstance – even in pain – and to always give thanks to God for our many blessings. Loving more in this life will honor her incredible memory.
These days, I find myself happily pulling into the lot of that same prison each Sunday afternoon. I don’t perform any special function, merely volunteer to attend weekly Mass with the women. I have many friends among the women now, beautiful souls whom I look forward to seeing each week. I think they look forward to seeing me too. I hand out the song sheets and chat with them before and after Mass. We talk about many things and I like hearing about their families and lives. Being with them helps me forget about my pain and allows me to focus on their needs. It is good. I know my mom would have liked to join me at these visits. But I think she is there, in spirit. Despite her absence these past few years, she has walked with me, helping me to navigate this challenging journey. When we give of ourselves to others, we automatically receive healing – if only for a moment. I’ll close with a quote from one of mom’s favorite saints – beloved St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and then I will be all things.”