My mother was a woman of great faith who had one of the most beautiful relationships with God that I have ever observed in another human. She had been raised as a Catholic and remained true to the beliefs of that religion until the moment that she died, but she also insisted that each person’s views of God are uniquely personal and worthy of respect. She thought that God had revealed Himself to people according to the ways of their cultures so that it was self righteous to think that one religion was somehow superior to another. Nonetheless she felt fortunate that God had come to her through the Catholic Church and in wanting to share this blessing with her children she took each of us to receive the sacrament of Baptism when we were infants. From that moment she regularly took us to Sunday mass and sacrificed money that she did not really have to send us to Catholic school where we would learn the foundations of our religion.
The education in Catholicism took hold for me but had varying results with my brothers. The oldest of my two male siblings was born with an insatiable curiosity about the world. He was the kind of toddler who was always asking “why?” and wondering how things worked. He took objects apart and then attempted to put them back together again. He carried books about space travel under his arms and gazed at the photos in them before he was even able to read. The rationality of his entire being resulted in a questioning not so much of God, because he saw faith in a Supreme Being as a kind of theory, but of organized religious groups. He came to the conclusion that much of what they had to offer were inventions of humans, not God, and so he believes in the divine but not in the imperfect edifices of worship that humankind has attempted to erect.
My younger brother struggled not at all with faith in God but he struggled to find the answers he sought within the Catholic religion. He ultimately found more comfort and community in other Protestant religions. To this day he spends more time at Bible studies, Sunday services, and community outreach than most people do. His faith is strong and it is bolstered by a group of people who share his deep and abiding love for God. It made my mother happy to see that he had found a way of worshipping God that worked for him.
My mother often contemplated the differences in the way her children celebrated their faith in God. She would have been quite comfortable if all three of us had become cradle to grave Catholics but when that did not happen she searched more for evidence that we had learned the goodness of God and the importance of relying on both his expectations of us and his blessings. As long as we were kind, honest, fair people she felt that her efforts to share her own faith and religion had been a success. She often said that God had many forms that were exhibited by the variety of religions in the world. She only worried about those who had eschewed God in any way shape or form. She wondered how it was possible to believe that our gritty existence on this earth is all that there is.
My mother often spoke of St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church. She used the entirety of his life to demonstrate that God in his beneficence is more ready to forgive than we humans are. St. Augustine had led a wild and often empty and vile life before he experienced a grand conversion into the light of Christianity. Mama pointed out that it would be wrong of us to judge others and that only God himself should do that at the end of a person’s days. I suspect that she converted more people with her unconditional love of them than any evangelical has ever done with unrelenting proselytizing.
My mother was a wise and practical woman. When she grew older and more feeble she read her bible each day and found religious programming on the television rather than attending Sunday mass at a Catholic Church. She often said a rosary and had a profound devotion to the mother of Jesus with whom she felt a special kinship. God was part of her life every minute of every day. She saw beauty in all religions, Judaism or Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. She was a Catholic who believed that Protestants had indeed found many of the flaws in her own form of Christianity. She often smiled and asserted that God loves all of his people even those who do not believe that he exists.
On the day of her death my mother had an angelic glow about her. Everyone saw it, even the doctors and nurses who were caring for her in the ICU. It was humbling to be with her as she prepared for the moment in which she was certain that she would be united with her God. She received the final of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and she was ready for what she had long believed would be her ultimate fate. As the family crowded together in the tiny room I thought of the diversity of faith that had come from this very Catholic woman and how she had so lovingly accepted us all. We had grown to a group of many races and preferences and relationships with God but the one uniting factor was love which is what she had all along taught us to see as the most important aspect of faith.
So when people ask me how important religion is to me I have a small caveat. My own Catholic faith is a foundation of all that I am as a person but it is in reality my very private and personal faith in God that is at the heart of every breath that I take. Religion is important to me but I do not for even one second believe that clinging to its tenets is all that I must do to be close to God. My mama taught me that God expects so much more from each of us and what he asks can be difficult. It requires us to look beyond our own philosophies and into the very hearts of each person that we encounter without prejudice. It requires love even when we only see hate. It’s a tough but ultimately rewarding way to live.