Monday, August 16, 2010

My Two Mothers

Yesterday the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, mother of the Church. When Mary's life on this earth ended, her soul was not separated from her body, nor did her body begin to decay. Rather, she was taken up to heaven, body and soul. So the Church believes.

The Assumption of Mary is a fitting complement to the teaching that Mary was sinless from the moment of her "immaculate" conception. The unbelieving will quarrel as to which teaching is the more incredible.

I myself do not find the sinlessness of Mary so difficult to believe. Certainly the God who created the universe can lead a single human being through her short run on earth without a single moral misstep. And I need not believe that Mary never made a mistake, only that she never sinned. For there are many mistakes that are not sins, and Mary may have made them. Perhaps she accidentally slammed the door on Jesus' finger when he was a toddler. Perhaps she burned Joseph's supper and, with no choice but to eat it, he became ill. Perhaps she then resorted to the treatment of bleeding to cure him. Such actions would have been flawed and harmful but not sinful. I grant that true moral virtue strives for due care and correct judgment. And one can often bore down from a "mistake" to a sinful intent that gave rise to it. But errors resulting from unavoidable imperfections of body and mind are not sins.

The only person I have known who seems to come close to the sinless state of Mary was my other mother, Virginia Cerna Joseph, who died in 1982 at the age of 54.

The effort to find fault with this mother might yield some results. She was not much of a disciplinarian. Her efforts to spank her seven children with the wooden paddle my father had made were greeted with laughter. Perhaps there was some sinful laxity at work there, and we would have turned out better had she kept us on a tighter leash. She worried a lot. Perhaps that could have been the result of a lack of complete trust in God's providence.

On matters of sex and marriage, her judgments could be exacting. When a female friend of my brother's asked to stay a night at our house as she hitchhiked across the region, my mother resisted the prospect of a girl of such evident loose morals setting foot in our home. She had a low view of Martin Luther King, Jr., solely on account of his sexual dalliances as reported by J. Edgar Hoover. In the days before annulments became common, she did not support divorce as a solution to the problem of a spouse who seemed incapable of fulfilling the basic obligations of married life.

But that's all I can think of in the way of possible wrongs. And it's just the stringy backside of the tapestry. On the front lies her good cheer; her openness and sympathy towards others (she softened toward the hitchhiker); the impossibility of imagining her deliberately harming anyone; her abiding faith in God and her love for the Church. A priest who knew us both once said he saw some of her qualities in me. This is the highest compliment I have ever received. I am grateful to him for seeing things as they aren't.

When I think of my two mothers, I must confess that the image of one merges with the other.

If, meanwhile, there is a Mary-shortage among the rest of us, I am comforted in the knowledge that nearly everyone I have known possesses at least one virtue that is truly noble and excellent. Most of us are probably closer to becoming like Mary than we imagine.


  1. What a beautiful sentiment, Tony. I will never forget that morning coming down to breakfast to see the notice of her so untimely death. Though I only knew her for two short years, I could easily see the kindness in her heart, I did not get the taskmaster part of her personality that you and JJ did as her children. But her immense patience as a teacher with me and other students was but one aspect of a much deeper kind and gentle manner that is most captured by the title Mother.

    And as my priest said yesterday, who is Mary our Mother, but our most gracious advocate. My priest told a funny story in his homily.

    Jesus strolling heaven one day, checking up on things sees some souls he thinks don't quite rate being in Heaven, perhaps they appear not to have spent the required time in Purgatory. In due time, he finds St. Peter and put the question to him about the less than desired occupants he has seen. "Don't blame me," Says Peter. "I turn them away at the Gates," he said. "But they go around to the back, and your Mother always lets them in."

  2. You may not know this but Virginia Joseph still is one of the most influential people in my life. She believed in me during my most immature and adolescent times and gave a lot of food for thought that has molded my outlook to this day. Mrs. Joseph and Mary are alive in my life. Great sentiment.

  3. I think I was 15 when your mother passed.
    I haven't seen a picture of her in over
    20 years. Seeing her lovely face tonight
    brought back memories of some very
    pleasant times in my life. Thank you for the
    blog, Mr.