My mother is the most appropriate religious person I know. She prays daily, goes to church whenever she can, volunteers at a local homeless shelter, gives money to charity, reads book after book about religion, and never once talks about it to the faithless, unless of course they ask. It hurts her, deeply, that of her seven children only one remains religious, and yet as she’s aged, she’s learned to keep her hurt to herself as best she can. Every once in a while she slips up and mails me a news clipping—something about the evils of the latest Harry Potter book—but I’ve reached an age where, given the depth of her beliefs, I see this as restraint rather than proselytizing.
Six months ago, my mother was diagnosed with leukemia. She was seventy, and the prognosis wasn’t good. Upon hearing the news, there was a flurry of phone calls from siblings about what should be done—surely this was the beginning of the end, and we all needed to visit and have as much contact with our mother as possible in these waning months and years.
This was not the first diagnosis of leukemia in our family. Thirty years ago, my father was also diagnosed. It was right after the birth of the seventh child. I was the oldest, at eleven, so you can imagine the devastation my mother must have felt at the diagnosis—how would she raise seven children by herself? At the time, leukemia was a very deadly cancer, with a mere 5% remission rate; my father’s odds were not good.
Rather than despair her likely lot, though, my mother turned her attention to that 5% hope. How to increase it? Her first response was to arrange, through the Veterans Administration, for my father to receive treatment at M.D. Anderson in Houston, one of the world’s premier cancer care institutions. Her second response was a heavy dose of prayer.
My parents were proud and respected members of St. Luke’s Catholic Church. We were the large, unruly family who sat in the front row every Sunday at 9:30 A.M—the occasional child making a dash for the altar during Pastor Dan’s sermon. News of my father’s illness spread quickly, and the community’s response was overwhelming: there were prayer vigils, rosaries, an anointing of the sick with hundreds in attendance, all done with my mother there—feverishly praying, her seven children in tow.
My father would receive treatment for four months at M.D. Anderson and would eventually go into remission, prayers answered. He is still alive to this day.
Of course, in the thirty years since my father’s recovery, I have seen the dark side of my parents’ church. Father Rudy Kos, the assistant pastor of St. Luke’s during my youth, was convicted in 1998 on three counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. And there are whispers of other sins—sins which my parents, and other members of St. Luke’s parish have long kept their silences about. The Catholic Church has a longstanding history of secrecy around its sexual misdeeds, and I, long ago, renounced that faith for a firm humanism. It was not an easy loss.
As I hear my siblings speak about visitations and travel plans, and as I know that in the chaos of my current life I won’t be able to visit myself, I think about my mother: about what she wants most but would never ask for.
It is a Sunday morning. An agnostic walks past coffee shops and bars, along the waste-strewn streets of his fellow sinners. Near the end of a bustling commercial district is an old brownstone church—St. Andrew’s Catholic Church—he walks through its oversized doors. There is a table in the foyer, which has on it the Sunday bulletin. He flips through it, finds his mother’s name listed, then walks through another set of doors into the nave.
This man, this agnostic, sits in a folding chair in the back corner. The service has long since started—he’s arrived late purposefully. His timing surprises him; he’s arrived at the perfect moment, the moment when the congregation prays the Prayers of the Faithful. The priest lists the names of the parish’s sick, his mother’s included—he’s phoned in and asked them to pray. He watches the hundreds of heads bowed, hears the silence of their mental words, feels the force of their faithful wills.
And then, choking up, he gets up from his folding chair and leaves. He knows what happens next in the Catholic Litany: the Kiss of Peace, the moment when the parishioners reach out to the person next to them and wish them well.
He owes them a hand shake of gratitude. But it is not a cross that he can bear.