Whenever I think of my faith and the mysterious and wonderful gift that it is, a prayer of thanks flies up in gratitude for the women in my life.
Priests figure in the high points of ritual and celebration, robed in their vestments on the altar, acting for the divine, using their sonorous voices and the gestures of practiced routine to heighten the special nature of the event or the simple blessedness of the daily Mass.
My own father, too, did his bit to encourage my faith; the many Sundays when he scrabbled in his pocket to give one of us… and there were seven… something to put on the plate; the uncomplaining years of school fees and mission money, and today, his abiding interest in Church issues.
Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in the soul.
But it is not these few good men who have passed the baton of faith to me. It has been given to me by the women who have nourished and nurtured my body and soul; my grandmother, my mother, the nuns who taught me during those twelve long years of a Catholic education and by the wise women I admire today.
Not for them ecclesial glory or public sanctity. No pontifications or lectures from the pulpit. Rather the gentle breath of prayer, the solace of belonging and a faith that moves mountains and does the dishes, a faith that gets down on its knees to pray with a child. Not grandiloquent treatises on theology, but the homely manual of grace and gratitude.
My grandmother’s faith still echoes through my life.
When I used to stay overnight we would often recite the mysteries of the rosary. The first few perfectly enunciated Hail Mary’s would soon become a sort of swoony chant, soothing and rhythmic with its soft pleas and the jewelled hope of each small bead. In her second bedroom I’d settle under a giant eiderdown quilt with a picture of the Sacred Heart over my head. I’d mumble Now I lay me down to sleep and try to remember everyone I had to include in my God Bless list.
The iconography of devotion decorated her home. Crucifixes, statues, scapulars, medals, Mass books, a lovely print of the Infant of Prague. Most beautiful was a large silver figurine of the Madonna and Child, the holy mother clasping her beloved young son. I have it now. Every time I look at it I think of my grandmother and the way God spilled over into all the actions of her life. It stands on my bookshelf, next to my wedding photo, part of my own history of family and faith.
I used to love Sacred Heart in Kew because when you gazed up into the dome heavenly clouds and the Risen Lord would catch your eye and the immediacy of the Mass would disappear into that celestial cottonwool. Sometimes we’d simply walk around the block to the small wooden Pallotine chapel in Studley Park Road. It seemed, to a precociously pious child, that the tight fit of twenty people was my own little bit of nearer my God to thee.
Her home, San Jose, backed onto Campion College, where sometimes when I did my homework I’d hear the gentle thwack of tennis balls on en tout cas as young seminarians took a break from their Ignatian studies to exercise. That my grandmother lived opposite Raheen, the archbishop’s residence, was just luck, but she rather liked the fact that her particular spot was religiously rarefied, especially with the enclosed Carmelite Convent at the end of her street.
My grandmother taught me the quaint bric a brac of the faith. Fuchsia flowers, purple and pendulous, were known as Our Lady’s earrings. Mantillas were kept in the top drawer with the lace handkerchiefs, perfumed gently with that grandmotherly scent of love and Apple Blossom. On Sunday she would don her best clothes and I’d trail behind her as she met a garrulity of grandmothers who would comment on my growth and ask after my school progress.
Often we would do a quick trip around the Stations of the Cross where Veronica wiping the face of Jesus seemed to claw at my heart in its compassion for the Lord as he struggled up the Via Dolorosa. Then we’d head home for a Sunday lunch of chops and vegetables and sago pudding with World of Sport wrestlers thumping away quietly in the background.
Whenever we went to “town” we’d visit St Francis’. She taught me to light candles and say special intercessory prayers in the Ladye Chapel. The blue vault of stars and the blaze of fierce little candles must have had made a magical and mystical impression. Even today, whenever I enter a church for the first time I think of my grandmother and light a candle and say three small prayers. And I love it that this is her legacy to me. Recently at St Patrick’s my daughter and I lit some slender tapers and prayed. I hope she will catch the flame.
My mother was the one who heard my daily prayers.
She heard my messy pleadings, my occasional attempts at deal making with God. If He helped me get a good mark for Maths I would be especially good and helpful around the house. It was she who made sure that my nails were clean when I received the host. It was she who drove me to youth masses, ecumenical camps and retreats.
I took my confirmation name after her; Barbara, because I loved her and, at ten, was rather gruesomely interested in that martyred saint’s grisly end. Her everyday faith was in her insistence on grace before meals, in the prayer to dear demoted St Christopher before travelling. In retirement she volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul, sorting through other people’s cast offs in a shopfront in Mornington, doing her bit for those less well off. Her charity really did begin at home. She bought me subscription to St. Anthony’s Messenger when she thought I needed some spiritual straightening up. I bought her holy water from Lourdes, and recounted how I was moved to tears as I walked in procession and sang Ave Maria under the stars that winked at the Pyrenees and patient and footsore pilgrims.
I have every respect and love for the nuns who taught me.
Throughout the years of primary school their faith was the background to my growing up. We’d visit the chapel in the big school, walking past Bernadette in the grotto kneeling in front of Our Lady. We’d entering God’s house with tiny shuffling steps and awe. The nuns escorted us with exhortations to piety and prayer. We’d slide down the pews and subdue giggles and somehow over the years we learnt that that the stillness and calm of the chapel really did soothe the soul.
We’d sing hymns in tremulous voices and I’d thrill to the martial air of We stand for God…and for his glory. As Elton John sang, in a more recent secular commentary, I’m still standing. The nuns prayed and put mercurochrome on grazed knees and made us learn the catechism by rote and gave us beautiful holy pictures. They taught us about saints and sinners and our world was filled with the visionary and the venal. We lived in fear of mortal sins and loved feast days.
Today these women who nurtured my youthful faith are the wise and faithful women of my later years. They have not retired… to the comfort zone of entitlement or complacency. They are still undertaking adventures in life, all in God’s name.
Today these women who nurtured my youthful faith are the wise and faithful women of my later years. They have not retired in their sixties and seventies to the comfort zone of entitlement or complacency. They are still undertaking adventures in life, all in God’s name. They are not in nursing homes. They are spreading the word by training novices in Indonesia or working with the poor in the meaner streets of Melbourne. They are being sent out, modern day disciples, to teach in other countries, to study, to continue their life’s work in dutiful obedience – where their personal desire is subjugated for a higher cause.
Charles Kingsley wrote, I do not want merely to possess a faith; I want a faith that possesses me.
These women are, indeed, possessed. The Holy Spirit lives in their attitudes and actions which transform and elevate. They are models of what it really means to love and serve.
And so, I thank God for all the good women (and all the good men!) in my life, the faithful and faith-filled companions on my journey.
Ann Rennie, FCJ Companion in Mission, is a teacher at Genazzano FCJ College in Melbourne. She has written a number of books bringing together faith and spirituality and is a regular contributor at Australian Catholics magazine. Check her article In the footsteps of the Venerable Marie Madeleine d’Houet in the Melbourne Catholic.