Throughout my life, God has used many people to teach me something about myself, both good and bad. Often, the lessons are only learned in hindsight and with God’s gentle opening of my heart to the Wisdom of His Ways. Constant prayer has helped me to understand the changes required in me to be the person I am meant to be. Like a loving parent, God corrects and disciplines so that my journey in this life may lead to a glorious union with Him in the next. This is one such example.
My husband and I returned to the Church when I was 28 and he was 33. Once we heard and responded to God’s call, committing to Him was easy, finding the right community to support our growth as ‘new’ Catholics was far more difficult. Our quest, combined with a desire for a quieter lifestyle in which to raise our children, propelled us to leave suburban life and relocate to a small country town.
Just prior to this decision, my mother had returned from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje and was espousing the virtues of growing closer to Jesus through the love of His Mother, so we took it as a good sign that our new town was also home to a beautiful old bluestone church aptly named Our Lady of the Rosary. Timing is everything, and although we did not know it then, the people of this rural parish and the newly installed priest, Fr. G, would have a significant influence on our spiritual growth as a family.
Unlike the crowded churches in the city, we noticed quickly that there weren’t many young people attending Mass on a regular basis. When we did see some young faces, it usually meant the day’s service would include presenting children for baptism or local students preparing for the Sacraments of Reconciliation, First Eucharist or Confirmation. As one of only a few young families who did come to Mass regularly, we quickly stood out to the older parishioners, who took a shine to our children, spoiling them with attention and treats at every opportunity.
One of those doting parishioners was Mrs. Martin, who sat directly behind us each week. Mrs. Martin was a well-known local, born and raised, and with a large family, though she always came to Mass alone. It was comforting to have the constancy of this woman’s sweet, welcoming smile to greet us on Sundays, despite the noisy disruption our children frequently caused at the most sacred times of the Liturgy.
Over the years, Mrs. Martin was privy to the ups and downs of our lives through her quiet observations from the pew behind us. When our son debuted as an alter server, Mrs. Martin congratulated him on a job well done, and when our daughter unexpectedly turned green in the middle of the Our Father before heaving last night’s dinner all over our pew and the floor, I’m pretty sure it was Mrs. Martin who graciously helped my husband clean up the mess while I rushed our sick little girl out the door.
Mrs. Martin and the other parishioners never complained or showed even a hint of annoyance with the noise, loud whispering, whining, dropped food or sticky fingers grabbing their bulletins and hands. Instead, they showered our children with love and kindness. Mrs. Martin was always the first to notice and inquire when something new or different was happening within our family, from our daughter losing her first tooth, to our son sporting a new scrape or injury, or when later pregnancies could no longer be hidden underneath my baggy clothing.
With the prospect of each new addition to our family, her own joy grew. When our second daughter was born and we brought her to Mass for the first time, it was Mrs. Martin who let out the most endearing audible gasp as I removed her bonnet, revealing an unexpected mass of thick black hair.
And, when our last pregnancy ended tragically, Mrs. Martin was there, sitting in her regular spot, mourning with us as we eulogised our stillborn son.
Not long after that time, Mrs. Martin stopped coming to Mass. At first, we weren’t too concerned. Occasionally over the years, she would be absent when taking a holiday, visiting family, or when the occasional different Mass time called for it. By the third week, our concern grew. Another couple advised that Mrs. Martin had been unwell, though they did not know of her condition.
The next week, these same parishioners stopped to speak to us as we entered the church to advise that they had visited Mrs. Martin. She was very unwell and her condition had worsened. “She has asked about you. You should drop by and see her. I know that she would like that very much,” the wife said. I could tell by the looks on their faces that the situation was grave.
"...You should drop by and see her. I know that she would like that very much…"
My heart sank with sadness at the possibility that I may not see Mrs. Martin sitting behind us at Mass again. Although we did not know her well outside of our time shared on Sundays, I realised how much I had missed her presence. Over the next week, I wrestled emotionally with honoring this poor dying woman’s wish to see me and the unexpected dread that crept inside my bones. I grew anxious at the thought of entering into the presence of death again so soon. Such irrational thoughts shamed me and, mixed with fear, kept me away. Many times I broke down and cried whenever I thought of her waiting for me.
A week later, Fr. G approached us after Mass and repeated Mrs. Martin’s request to see me. I couldn’t look at him, only mumbled “yes…” while averting my eyes. When we got into our car, my husband said, “That’s twice she’s asked to see you. We should go.” I started to cry and looked at him with a pained expression. “I don’t think I can,” I whispered hoarsely, clamping shut the gate to my detached and grieving heart.
When Mrs. Martin died shortly thereafter, I was besieged by guilt and an all-consuming feeling of regret. I fell into an immediate despair. The sorrow of losing my baby bubbled to the surface and again rested there. I did not know why the grief and loss of my son prevented me from visiting a dying woman. I also did not know at the time that there was a name for the sin I had committed – the sin of omission. I only knew that staying away had been the wrong thing to do. I had denied a dying woman the opportunity to say what she needed to say. I could not change this fact.
I should have known, though, that Mrs. Martin would not have let it end like that.
When the funeral was announced, there was no question from my husband that we would go. Shame or no shame, fear or no fear, we owed it to her. It would be the first funeral that I had attended since burying our son. I swallowed hard and prayed for the strength not to run away as we approached the vestibule steps and heard the mournful, and all too familiar, organ music playing from within.
I had never seen so many people at a funeral service before. There was no doubt that Mrs. Martin was loved by many.
To our astonishment we learned very publicly just how much of an impact our little family had had on this unassuming, dear old woman. In his eulogy, Fr. G talked about how he spent many hours sitting by the bedside of Mrs. Martin, and how all she could talk about was the beautiful family that sat in front of her each Sunday at Mass. How she looked forward to their arrival, how they felt like part of her own family somehow.
Fr. G told the packed church, that Mrs. Martin wanted everyone there to know just how much it meant to her to be a part of the life of this couple and their young children, however vicariously, for one hour on Sundays. How the experience of witnessing their journey, through the expectant joy of pregnancy to the insurmountable grief of losing their unborn child, had touched her heart in ways she could never have imagined. They taught her how to lean firmly on God in suffering and loss.
Knowing that most of the people present would not have any idea who we were, Fr. G smiled warmly and said, “Now I won’t point them out to you, but she was fond of saying how much she thought he looked just like the tennis player, Andre Agassi.”
With that, all eyes immediately fell upon my husband, the only athletic-looking European Agassi look-alike in the church. At the sign of peace and after the service, almost every person there came to shake my husband’s hand, laugh at how much he did actually look like Andre, and thank us for having such a positive impact on the life of their mother, aunt, neighbour, and friend. Through it all, I couldn’t speak. I could not look up from my feet. When I got home, I cried for a very long time.
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Matthew 25:44-45
I have confessed my sin, and I pray for Mrs. Martin and ask that she may pray for me. Although I cannot go back and change the past, I keep the prayer card from her funeral Mass as a constant reminder of my weakness and imperfection. I am humbled by the impression our family made on her and the strength our example gave her, albeit unknowingly, to walk more confidently with God in her own suffering.
I am also eternally grateful for the important lesson that Mrs. Martin taught me about recognising Jesus in every person that I encounter, and to never, ever, neglect anyone in their hour of need. No matter how painful. No matter the personal cost.
I will clothe you, Lord. I will welcome You, a stranger. If You are thirsty, I will give You drink, and if you hunger, I will feed You. I will visit You in prison, and at Your bedside, I will sit, holding Your hand, caring for and loving You as you die.
Photo credits: Gravesite and candle my own; Church: tripadvisor.com; All others pixabay.com