By Eileen Smith
It was March 2011. My grandmother had lived a long, beautiful, and full life raising four children. She was additionally blessed with being able to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow as she was facing the end of her life.
In the 1920s, her family decided to move from Ireland to America, where she was raised Catholic and attended St. Therese Parish School. After she married my grandfather, an Episcopalian, she no longer attended Mass, and fell away from the Church only to be wondering at the end of her life, “What will become of me?” Her son, my uncle, fortuitously met the Carmelite Sisters just before my grandmother’s health started to fail. Little did I know, how this meeting would change our family’s life.
My uncle arranged for my grandmother to meet the Carmelites. Pretty soon, both of my grandparents fell in love with these women. The Sisters would hold “choir practice” at my grandparents’ home not far from the Retreat House. With the Sisters’ angelic voices, their kind and wise words, my grandmother began to feel at peace with her journey, and before she returned to the Lord, received the Sacraments and died in a most beautiful way.
My grandparents had four children. Two of the four married Catholic women. All this “Catholic stuff” was familiar to them because they were raising their children as Catholics. My mother and father raised my brothers and me as “CEO Episcopalians” (Christmas and Easter Only Episcopalians). But as a little girl, almost every Sunday, I loved attending Catholic Mass with a beloved next door neighbor, to the point my parents asked a priest if they, as Episcopalians, could raise me as a Catholic child. They were advised not to move forward with this idea. Life went on, but every now and again this desire to go back to Mass in times of need would strike me. It was years later, after I married my husband, and had babies of my own, that this desire to go return to Mass turned into something much stronger, that would eventually propel our family to see this gift of faith and run with it.
Rewind for just a minute. Please allow me to tell you about my second child, Nicholas, born in December 2010. Madeline Rose, his older sister, was born a happy and healthy little girl. Nicholas, although happy, was born with a very rare genetic disorder, called Nail Patella Syndrome. We knew something was “off” during my pregnancy, but no doctor could pinpoint it. Once again, during this time of fear and great need, I was prompted to return to Mass. I started praying the rosary, praying to Mary for guidance as a mother. I wasn’t officially Catholic at the time, but it was the only thing that could give me the peace and strength I desperately needed. It worked. My personal weakness and anxiety would melt away when I would sit quietly in an empty church or surround myself in a prayerful conversation with Jesus. I would sit down with tears in my eyes then walk out with a quiet peace in my soul. A family member introduced me to a prayer by St. Frances de Sales that to this day, is still very special and meaningful to me. I read that prayer daily. Although my faith was changing, forming and growing inside of me, along with my baby, who would later become my little teacher, I clung to it for dear life.
Months later, Nicholas was born. Life, at the beginning for him, was anything but typical with weekly trips up the 5 Freeway from San Diego to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. This was all part of our faith story and it was just starting to bud, as the Carmelites once again entered the scene. The same uncle who connected the Sisters with my grandparents had asked the Sisters to pray for my son. As I have personally witnessed, God does not ignore His Carmelites!
Fast forward now to March 2011, back to my grandmother as she neared the end of her life. I was at my parents’ house keeping an eye on the babies as they napped, while my mother and her siblings, along with various cousins of mine, were across the street at my grandparents’ house. Another “choir practice” with the Carmelites was about to begin. As the Sisters poured in, my mother politely excused herself, thinking they needed to be alone with my grandmother. After all, she was not Catholic so didn’t really see the need to be there. One Sister pulled her aside and asked her, “Are you the one with the grandson we’ve been praying for?” My mother, timidly replied, “Yes.”
Sister responded: “WHERE’S THE BABY?”
My mom nervously replied, “Eileen is with the children across the street at my house. They are napping.”
“GO GET THEM.”
Picture a small, unopened rosebud. Closed tightly, with just a hint of the color it is to be on the outside. You can tell it’s going to be beautiful, but you haven’t seen it yet, so you’re not sure just HOW beautiful. Then picture that rosebud unfurl its first petal and it’s second, then third. Pretty soon, you have a gorgeously fragrant and vibrant rose before you, for all to see and delight in. Roses are my favorite flower, and this is how I like to remember this day.
Before I knew it, I was walking down the street to my grandparents’ house, a two-year old and two-month old in tow, with the sound of the Carmelites’ singing growing stronger and more beautiful as I got closer and closer to the front door. Petals slowly unfurling… It was one of those crisp, bright February afternoons and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I instantly starting crying even before I could see the Sisters, because I knew that something inside of me felt at home. I had found the people who would help me realize my faith, to love it ardently, and help it bloom. They would help me not only find my faith story, but to live it.
My grandmother died on March 24, very early in the morning, with my grandfather, mother and uncle by her side. They recall her saying, “They’re calling me,” and “I had no idea it would be this beautiful.” A truly miraculous and glorious death. In the wake of her passing, she left such a beautiful and mysterious gift behind… her faith.
As you can imagine, this changed everything. The peace that my grandmother was seeking spilled over into the peace that I had been searching for my entire life. I knew, so strongly in my heart, that I had to become Catholic. It was finally my time to “lean into the wind,” as one of the Sisters’ beautifully written songs expresses so perfectly. I would “relax the grasp of all that I clasped,” and “be rich in Him.” Once I let Jesus into the depths of my soul, once I allowed His plans to bloom within me, my life changed.
Our son Nicholas, my little teacher to this day, was baptized in a Catholic Church in July 2011. My mother, father, and I became Catholic together in the Spring of 2012. Our children started attending Catholic school in 2015. Our daughter, Madeline Rose, celebrated her First Holy Communion in 2017. Most recently, my husband became Catholic in June 2018. God must have been chuckling when He heard us say to each other one evening, “Our family feels complete,” because I am now expecting our third child this coming October. What comes next, only God knows. But His plans for my family are infinitely better than any dream or plan I could have come up with on my own!
Our family faith story is still unfolding, like a blossoming rose, and the blessings keep showing their beautiful colors. Thinking back to how it began for me, it’s not hard to believe that faith could be found through a woman in the final stages of her earthly life and a baby who is just starting his own life. I witnessed Jesus working through the thin veil that separates earthly life from eternity. The veil the very old and very young seem to possess because they met Him in the womb or are about to meet Him in Heaven.
Call it the domino theory or the parable of the mustard seed, coincidence or divine providence, but we can all meet Jesus, one way or another, not only by fixing our gaze on heaven, but also by looking to each other for signs of His love. For me, I found my faith through family experiences. How you find it doesn’t really matter, because we’re all given this amazing gift every day. It’s up to us to open it and see what’s inside, then give it away to others as we journey through this life. My prayer for my family is that we constantly seek the Prince of Peace and willingly allow Him to work His wondrous mysteries through our families for others to witness.