The other day, I had occasion to find my mother's holy card, the kind that funeral parlors provide to those who attend wakes and funerals to comfort the family. The card dragged up a flood of memories and regrets, but little comfort.
After I reached kindergarten age, my mother and I were never close, a mild understatement. During my grade school and high school days, she had six-week stays at the hospital to deal with her headaches, her hollering, and her inability to sleep. "Another nervous breakdown," the doctor proclaimed each year. In an age when mental illness brought only embarrassment or disgrace to a family, I kept my mother in a closet, never inviting friends home. I didn't want them to meet her. I felt ashamed of her.
In the eighth year of my religious life, while my mother was in a psychiatric hospital, she suddenly went blind. After testing, the cause of her blindness was discovered; a benign tumor was pressing on the optic nerves in her brain. The operating surgeon estimated that the tumor (as large as a grapefruit, he said) had been growing for about 20 years. After two surgeries to remove the tumor, her sight was restored in one eye. Her yelling and nagging, the headaches and sleepless nights just disappeared. She hadn't had nervous breakdowns after all. Before she died, my mother experienced almost two decades of a tranquil, contented and untroubled life. I knew she was happy.
Through therapy, I began to contend with those feelings of antipathy toward her that had developed in my childhood. The twinges of guilt needed to be dealt with. Isn't it unnatural not to love one's mother? Eventually I came to understand that a child's mind cannot be expected to evaluate circumstances like an adult.
As Thanksgiving Day approaches, I am looking at her holy card and asking you, God, "Am I grateful for my mother?" I know my mother loved me; she often told me so. She sacrificed her own comforts to give me luxuries she never had, and her pride in me was evident.
So I want to tell you, God, that indeed I thank you for my mother. I thank you for all those in my life who have loved me, especially when I did not appreciate or recognize their love. I have been shaped to become the person I am today by those who have loved me. They have been instruments of your tenderness and care for me.
I realize that I no longer see as a child, but now observe with adult eyes. I thank you, God, for an ability to change from the perceptions of a child. I must admit, though, that I find personal change difficult because of my strong will and independent nature. It is so much easier to advocate change in, or for, others!
I am very grateful for the about-face changes in the church that Pope Francis is trying to achieve. His powerful message in Florence to the Italian church that Catholicism can and must change brought great hope to reformers like me. I thank you for the pope's words that, "We are not living an era of change but a change of era."
As I thank you, God, I also pray for the patience and endurance needed as we wait for these enormous reforms to come to pass.
My mother's holy card makes me wonder, "How can I be grateful for what brought me pain and shame?" I know I need to thank you, God, for all the tough and challenging times of my life, all the harsh or even cruel attacks on my thoughts or my person. I believe that somehow all challenging encounters teach essential lessons. In some mysterious way, I have learned how to cope better with opposition, how to be more persistent and strong, how to become a more understanding person. In a letter to her sisters, Mother Theresa Gerhardinger, the foundress of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, wrote, "All the works of God proceed slowly and in pain, but their roots are the sturdier, and their flowering the lovelier." I thank you, God, for the sorrow that brings about strong roots and exquisite flowers.
I never felt close to Mary, the mother of Jesus, perhaps because of my distant feelings toward my own mother, but Mary, Untier of Knots, is probably at work, repairing my mother-daughter relationship. On this Thanksgiving Day, I give thanks for my faith in the life of the world to come where my relationship with my mother, and all our relationships, will be healed. I thank you, dear God, for the eternal happiness that is to come!
[Jeannine Gramick is a Sister of Loretto who has been involved in a pastoral ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics since 1971. She co-founded New Ways Ministry and has been an executive coordinator of the National Coalition of American Nuns since 2003.]