I’m not the kind of person who idolizes others, since nobody’s perfect; so I’ve acquired a habit of giving people I admire honorary status as one of my relatives. (You can love Great-Grandma without agreeing with everything she says at the dinner table.)
In this way I’ve adopted into my ancestry additional grandparents like Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Madeleine L’Engle — they might not be perfect, but they’re mine.
My ever-expanding family tree gained Saint Mother Theodore Guerin as an apple some years ago, though I rarely think of her by such a title. Among family like me, she’s “Mother Theodore” at most (and occasionally “Mama T”). She’s GREAT. Just swell. I love her to pieces. Here’s why:
Any diary from the past is a treasure, but Mother Theodore’s journals and numerous letters are not only awesome for their huge historical value. As a body of work, it’s simply great literature: an adventure story peppered with battle-tested wisdom, a mix of the best parts of frontier novels and the philosophical musings of Emerson and his friends.
It is here that we get fantastic stories about her sea voyages, like the one in which she reports that porpoises taste like pork and have very sharp teeth. She says, “I counted eighty-two in the upper jaw, the longest about three-fourths of an inch, all shaped like a stiletto.” Think about this. She’s a French-speaking devout nun on a boat full of English speakers, and she squeezes her way in with the gruff crewmen to examine curiously the bloody remains of a “sea hog” and count its teeth. If this doesn’t make you love her, I don’t know what will.
It is also here that we get one of the many Hall-of-Fame Mama T aphorisms, “Grope along slowly.” Go ahead, giggle at “grope,” and then let’s move on. This is one of my favorite quotes of hers. In fact I think it’s one of the wisest pieces of advice anyone has ever said. The more pulse-quickening Carpe diem quotes have their place, too, but Mother Theodore’s words are calmer and kinder. “Pause,” she tells us. “Breathe. Put out your hands. What do you feel beneath your fingertips? What is the ground beneath your feet? You are capable of this. We will find the next step, and we will take it, you and I.” These are words that speak to me, where I am.
If I’m honest, radical miracles bore me in the same way that winning-the-lottery stories do. I’m much more interested in stories of perseverance and courage in the face of a hardship. Mother Theodore never got a miracle (or lottery winnings), but she persevered with courage and smarts. She couldn’t eat solid foods for most of her adult life and landed in a new country without real knowledge of the language, yet she was tasked with greatness. She also saw several close friends pass away too young. But she didn’t let this define her. She soldiered on to be a strong, independent businesswoman/educator/herbalist/mentor who spoke truth to power.
My 30-year-old sister is currently dying of stage-4 metastatic breast cancer. Total-healing miracle stories don’t mean much to me right now. The miracles that feel truer to me in the midst of this are those that come upon us gradually, when we realize that we are currently doing something we never thought we’d be capable of, like companioning a loved one through the hardest thing either of us has ever done. Mother Theodore’s story of gradual miracles is my story, too. (The woman who wrote so many profound and eloquent aphorisms also wrote, “I am quite a grumbler.” This is why I love her. This is why she’s an apple on my tree.)
Her open arms
I don’t know what I believe in most of the time, but I do believe in these stories. For me, Mother Theodore transcends our definitions and belongs to everyone. You don’t have to be Catholic to love her. You don’t even have to believe in God to love her.
The portrait of Mother Theodore that I printed out and put at my desk is a lovely pen and ink drawing by beloved Terre Haute artist John Laska, who was a Unitarian Universalist, World War II vet, and life-long humanitarian and activist. I can’t be sure, but I think he loved Mother Theodore, too, by the way he depicted her. She is strong and gentle, and her calm spirit radiates.
You can usually tell when people love her — they quote her the way other people quote Will Ferrell movies. They have pictures of her on their walls next to their grandchildren or their friends. They feel Mother Theodore’s presence in their lives as a tender one, because she once told us, “No one will ever love you as your old Mother Theodore does.” It’s so easy to love her back.
A note about the author: Christina Blust is the digital media/web manager and designer for the Sisters of Providence. After graduating from Xavier University in 2006, she began her time with the Congregation as a volunteer at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice, a ministry of the Sisters of Providence. Since 2007 she has worked in the Office of Congregational Advancement. Christina is from northern Kentucky and now lives in Terre Haute, Ind.