Abraham's angel mother.
Years ago I used to visit someone in a nursing home, a young man who was 102 years old. His body was only then beginning to break down—he had finally required a wheel chair to get around---but his mind survived a century of wear and tear. I loved spending time with him because he had a very kind heart, he loved history, and he told me lots of stories about fascinating people he had met in his life. When I listened to him, it was like being whisked back through the decades in a time machine. He knew famous people like Albert Einstein, Robert Moses, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even Roy Rogers.
On the table beside his bed each time I visited there was a photograph of an elderly woman. I thought it might be his wife, but when I asked, he said no, it was a picture of “my angel mother”. He told me that he had come to call his mother that after reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln—whom he denied knowing personally!
Scholars believe that Lincoln most likely used those words to describe his first mother, Nancy Hanks, who passed away in childbirth when Lincoln was only 9 years of age, the great sorrow of his young years. It was his mother Nancy who inspired him with the virtues of love, justice, honesty and peace that molded him into the adult he became. He once wrote” “All that I am, or hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
Yet Lincoln could also have written those words about his second mother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, who married Lincoln’s father a few years after the death of Nancy. Sarah also adored her stepson Abraham, and once called him “the finest boy I ever knew.” Lincoln was certainly blessed in life with his two mothers, and they helped him to develop the compassion for others and the deep sympathies that he carried with him throughout his life.
They also gave him his faith and taught him about prayer. “I remember my mother's prayers,” he said, “and they have always followed me. They have clung to me all my life.”
I got a text message the other day from a student I taught and loved almost 20 years ago. Brian was an exuberant, earnest, cocky, wonder-filled kid with a big heart, a love of life and a deep desire to use his gifts do something good for others. And if you knew the story of his life, you would be as impressed as I was. His life was like out of a movie, with a father in prison for murder and bank robbery, an innocent mother who struggled to keep her son untainted and to give him the best education she could afford.
They were like two survivors, mother and son, and the kid worked his rear end off, giving every penny he earned to her, and she devoted her life to him, giving him the most amazing gift a parent’s love can give--his independence. That has always blown my mind, because if I were a parent, I’m not sure I could do it, my love more selfish than that. I probably would want to hold on to my child forever.
A month before he was to graduate, Brian's mother passed away. You can imagine what a blow it was for him. He went home to bury his mother, and somehow found the strength to come back for his graduation. It was all the more poignant because he graduated on Mother’s Day.
After the ceremony, we had lunch together, and I helped him pack up his things. For the interim, he was going back to the midwestern city where he and his mother had lived. In the parking lot, we shared a big bear hug, and I told him I had great hopes for him, “to do wonderful things with your life”, I said, practically choking out the words through the lump in my throat. He thanked me for my care of him, and promised me that we would stay in touch in the years to come.
And then I handed him a gift. It was a picture of his mama, and on the frame I had written “my angel mother”. “She’s surely praying for you right now,”I said. He nodded, “I know, she always has”, and I could see he was valiantly trying to hold off the tears.
Jesus prayed to his Father, a prayer that is so beautiful that when you say it out loud you practically choke on the words through a lump in your throat:
Papa, please keep my brothers whom I love so much deep and close to you. I have done everything I could to guard and protect them. Please bless them, anoint them, make them shine in your glory, save them from all darkness and hopelessness and evil.
The prayer is so beautiful because Jesus, in the midst of his own horrific passion is praying out of the pain of his love for his disciples and for all of us, those he must take leave of in bodily form. Our brother Jesus, praying and watching over us like a mother watches over her children, and encouraging us to love one another, to really love one another, to abide in the love of God with one another.
One time, near the end of her life, I was with my mother and we were shopping, and she was getting tired so we sat on a bench to rest for a moment. A young mother with two children, a boy and a girl, went strolling by. The kids were arguing over something, and the mother was playing referee. They passed, and after a few minutes of silence, my mother said: you have to always be friends with your sister, I want you to take care of one another no matter what happens. And then another pause, and she said, “I pray for that all the time.”
And I remember nodding to her, not quite sure what to say, thinking about all the grown-up children who stop talking to one another, stop seeing one another, stop loving one another. “I will, don’t worry, I will”, I finally said out-loud to her.
Perhaps it is our angel mothers who know best how to fulfill Jesus’ commandment that we love one another, for it is perhaps our mothers who know best the cost of that kind of love. And it does cost: take a look up at the cross on the wall, look at the ultimate cost. Mother Mary surely paid the price with Him.
But there is an ultimate purchase as well, and that is the happy and wonderful part. God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him. That calls for some Easter alleluias: alleluias for the great gift of God’s love to all of us sometimes unworthy, ungrateful, unloving children.
When my graduated student Brian took off in his fully-packed car, on the road to his past and to his future, I got into my car and made my way to visit my mama, who lies within the earth on a hill overlooking the mighty Hudson River, near the water beside which she always wanted to live. I planted marigolds and geraniums and impatiens in the garden that grows above her. On the stone that marked her resting place, was the prayer my angel mother always said, the prayer to St Theresa: "Little Flower in this hour show they power." I said it aloud and then asked my angel mother to work with the Little Flower and Blessed Mary to do their best to get the attention of Jesus, who showed us best how much we are all really loved. Ask Jesus, I prayed, to help this young man Brian, to let him know he is not alone in the world.
May God our Father, and Jesus his Son and our Brother, may the love of Holy Spirit and our Blessed Mother bless all our mothers living and dead, this day, and every day, forever and ever. Amen.