Before I packed a bag, filled the gas tank and made the trip from Missouri to northeast Iowa, I knew I was about to meet someone very special. Days before the trip, the parish secretary sent me an email that began like this: I need to tell you a little bit about the woman you will be staying with while you are here.
From that email, I discovered that Rachel was well into her 80s. She still worked at the local grocery story, cleaned the church and rectory, and kept a yard and garden that rivaled all others in town. She walked wherever she wanted to go, because she didn’t own a car, and she preferred it that way. She’s on the fast track to sainthood, the secretary said.
And that summed up Rachel to a T.
In these last seven years as a Catholic, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to have a Catholic grandmother. In March of 2011, Rachel showed me.
Every room of her house was inundated with holy things. In the guest room, there were two pictures on one wall: the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In the bathroom, there was a framed clipping from an old newspaper. It was an ode to John F. Kennedy and a prayer for those who grieve. At the top of the stairs, there was a peg board with numerous rosaries hanging from it. Each rosary had a story.
As we talked that weekend, Rachel would pause in the middle of our conversations and dash off to find a sacred object, prayer card or Catholic magazine. I returned to Missouri with many of them. She insisted on it.
I also returned with two baby blankets, gifts for my infant grandsons. Rachel distributes the baptismal gifts at St. Joseph’s Parish, and she invited me to choose from her baptismal stash. I secretly wondered if there was anything this woman didn’t do for the parish.
Rachel has survived two floods and one house fire. A few years ago, she was hit by a car as she walked home from church. Undaunted, she still walks everywhere.
Someone at the local grocery store asked her if she believes in all that God stuff. “I sure do!” She replied with complete confidence. “He’s the reason I’m still around.”
And she’s not exaggerating. In 1964, Rachel’s husband died unexpectedly. She was left to raise their two small children on her own.
She never remarried.
Rachel turned to her faith and her God, and she kept on going. She worked hard and surrounded herself with holy reminders. The Saints found a way to triumph over tragedy, and she was determined to do it, too.
This dear woman invited me into her home. She fed me. She gave me blankets for my grandbabies. She showed me to a bedroom with a white chenille bedspread and pictures of Jesus and Mary on the walls. She gave me a bottle of 7-up and glasses of water when I couldn’t stop coughing. She prayed that my cold wouldn’t sabotage the talks I was scheduled to give during the parish Lenten mission. She squeezed my hand hard after the last talk was done. I’d made it through, thanks to Rachel’s prayers and God’s goodness.
Rachel told me that I was something special, a saint in the making, she said. I shook my head. “Rachel, you are wrong. You are the one showing me what it means to live out the faith.” She didn’t believe me. I could tell. But I know better. It’s easy to talk about conversion. The journey from where I’ve been to where I have landed is a delight to tell. I would go almost anywhere just to be able to speak of this great joy.
But that doesn’t make me a saint. Not even close.
When I was a stranger, Rachel let me in. When my grandsons were short on blankets, she gave me two. When I needed a bed and a good night’s sleep, she showed me to a quiet room. When my throat was sore, and I couldn’t stop coughing, she gave me something to drink. When I was hungry – and even when I wasn’t – she gave me something to eat.
She prayed for me.
That’s faith in action. Sermon-on-the-Mount faith. The kind of faith that makes us sheep instead of goats. Saints instead of sinners.
It’s easy to write about becoming Catholic. It’s a joy to talk about it. Talk is easy.
Many people say that converts make the best Catholics. Not so. The people who love-and-live-Jesus make the best Catholics. The question I’ve yet to answer is whether or not I can spend a lifetime living out the Gospel. The saints did it. As a convert, I’m just getting started. But, His grace is sufficient for even one like me.