On Grandma Pierce
She could die now. What happy words.
Laying in a bed in the student ghetto near my college I was reading a book on Zen Buddhism. I had determined that a person should decide for themselves what religion they were, and I was a mutt. The Catholic Church had told my father he could not marry my mother at the main altar of the parish he had grown up in. Then my parents, when I was seven, divorced. So on some weekends I was Methodist, on some weekends Presbyterian or Episcopalian. In truth, I was none of these. I was raised by the culture. I was certainly taught values, often short on explanation, but modernity—such as it was in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan—raised me more than any church.
So there I was reading books on zen. I was studying business and Japanese since Japan at the time was the competition for the auto industry in Detroit. And I was trying to meditate, considering the East, trying to figure out things. I believed—I still do—that religion is one thing people should freely determine for themselves. I was determined to build my own heresy.
In college I had spent a great deal of time studying my family’s history. Both my grandfathers had died before I was three years old, and somehow I think I felt that being awash in the modern world without them was simply not sufficient. The present culture, which always felt to me to be a mile wide and an inch thick, required a foundation, a link to the past, one that I somehow lacked. Perhaps I felt this because of the divorce when I was seven, or the lack of grandfathers. When I was young, sitting in the Grosse Pointe Library, I had determined to find the answer to every question I thought of—perhaps it was a bit of that as well. So I studied my family’s genealogy and I adored my grandmothers.
My grandmother on the English side, my mother’s side, was a force of nature. Molly, as many called her (despite the fact that her name was Mary) was a whirlwind. Equally giving to me and demanding of the world, whatever side she was on, there was never any doubt. She had been widowed, packed up and left England to come to America where her son was, together with my mother. America, where her husband had many times said he wanted to come. She came across an ocean to a city where she knew perhaps five people, and started over. Being a whirlwind, she could spin people pretty good, but I loved her, I still do.
My grandmother on my father’s side was of German heritage, but she had married into an Irish-American family. She was the best person I knew, until I later met my wife, but Grandma Pierce remains tied for first forever. She was kind and calm. She read mysteries, she played cards, she didn’t drive, she was moved around by the family more than once. I had asked her about her beliefs once and she had just said, “Well, you know, I’ve always had the faith.” Then she nodded to herself, happily considering it more than enough explanation.
The deck was probably loaded right from the start, but my great exploration into what religion I would be was made soon thereafter. Zen did nothing for me. The East held some truths, but not enough. I went instead to the faith of the Pierces, Roman Catholic, knowing precious little about it. After determining that the campus parish held too many tambourines and not enough awe, I went through the RCIA program at St. Augustine Cathedral in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
I met with the religious education director a number of times as I went through the program, and I truly had only a minimal understanding of Catholicism. Indeed, when then-Father Morlino (now Bishop Morlino of Wisconsin) came into an RCIA class to teach us about Mary, I was the one to ask him why so many people seemed to see Mary in plates of spaghetti “and all of that.” I didn’t mean it the way I’m sure it sounded, and he kept moving along in his story without bonking me on the head (for which I’m still grateful).
By the end of the program, my Grandma Pierce had agreed to be my sponsor for confirmation and communion. My father and stepmother drove her down for the Easter Vigil at the Cathedral, and my other family attended as well. Some thought I must be converting for a girl. Others thought it was just another of my oddities. But in that ceremony I was coming home.
Sitting next to Grandma Pierce in the Cathedral I again sought to talk to her about the faith. I think her hearing aid might have been off a bit (or perhaps it was the Rob Roy she’d treated herself to at lunch), because she suddenly confided to me, in what I thought at the time was the sweetest but loudest voice I had ever heard in my life, “I don’t like this pope.” She proceeded to explain aloud why Pope John XXIII had been much better, as I hurriedly glanced around to settle down a situation that was just fine. The pope police did not arrive.
Later she stood behind me as Bishop Paul Donovan stepped before me in the line in front of the whole, packed Cathedral. He was reading from cards and when he saw I was taking the confirmation name Patrick, the old Irish Catholic Bishop looked up and beamed a smile at us. I wasn’t dunked, my Methodist baptism had “counted” but I took my first communion at that beautiful Mass. And then the day wound down.
On the way back north, my father and stepmother both separately told me, that my grandmother said in a contented voice that she “could die now.” It was clear that she meant that she was proud of me. Proud that the family, in some respect, was coming home. She didn’t die of course, she lived many more years. But she has since passed and I’ve remembered that day many days since.
I understood the faith at an intellectual level, and was proudly Catholic, but it would take me a number of years to understand the great treasure that the Church, and its whole history, is. Without the resources to properly handle stress, I headed into one of the most stressful of professions. The chink in my armor, the inability to handle stress well, forced me on another search for meaning. Again it was a journey, this time less intellectual and more a matter of the heart, that lead me all the way back to the Catholic Church and its rich traditions and history for my answers.
The idea that my grandmother was not praying for me in heaven and guiding me this whole time simply does not fit into any workable view of reality. The idea that Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, cannot bring anyone peace is so clearly flawed that I pity the people who blind themselves to this truth. The idea that God is not constantly following after us, giving us chance after chance, is disproven every day of our lives if we care to just open our eyes and look around.
April 28 is her birthday, which causes me to reflect a bit. And, in the end, the heresy I had set out to build, piece by piece, ended up being Orthodoxy. I wouldn’t mind single-handedly changing the entire culture so that it awakens to the fact that it has wandered far from the truths that can nourish and sustain it. My skills are in contemplating and writing, and after some prayer I’ve taken that to be my role. To ponder, to put it down, and to throw it out there. I have the highest of hopes for my efforts. But, a few decades from now, if I can just say that I have kept the faith ever since she passed it to me, my grandmother will no doubt be proud. And that is good enough for me.