Over the last several years of my life, I have read, studied, and written hundreds of pages about what Pope Francis meant when he said in Evangelii Gaudium that “The Church will have to initiate everyone – priests, religious and laity – into this ‘art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (169). However, nothing has ever taught me more about accompaniment than one of the most special people I have ever known in my life: my grandmother.
My grandmother, Edith Lauritzen, was born a second-generation Irish Catholic in 1928 in Queens, New York. She was soft-spoken but had a hearty laugh that made an appearance in most conversations. Her favorite food was Chicken Parmesan, and she taught me the first prayers I ever learned. Sometimes, my grandmother would pick my sister and me up after school and treat us to ice cream. She would ask us about our day at school, and listen generously, as if the happenings of my sister’s and my days at elementary school were the most riveting and important things she could devote her time to.
I spent a good bit of my early childhood with my grandmother, and when my grandfather passed away, she moved in with my family to a small bedroom on the first floor of our home. In our house, my grandmother was a steady presence in my life; her warmth, laughter, and joy were always a comfort. I enjoyed spending time with her and would sometimes wake up early in the morning if I heard her making her breakfast of toast and coffee in the kitchen just so that I could spend time with her.
As I grew up, our shared Catholic faith became a topic of frequent conversation. In middle and high school, I remember spending hours talking with her in her bedroom. My grandmother’s room was small, with space only for her bed, dresser, and an armchair. The feeling of my foot falling asleep sticks with me as I reflect on talking with her, as sometimes our conversations lasted hours as I sat cross-legged on her wooden floor. Beyond some vague memories of the topics of prayer, the lives of the saints, and my hopes to visit St. Peter’s basilica one day, I do not remember anything specific about the topics of conversation. Rather, what rises to the surface in my memory of those conversations with my grandmother is her listening, her interest in my thoughts, and her joyful, warm presence that created the space for me to speak up and share my insights with a woman with 65 more years of life experience. Now, I look back and know that I might have spoken with a little too much certainty about God and the things of faith, and probably mused a little too grandiosely about my reflections on what certain Gospel readings meant. However, that didn’t matter to my grandmother.
This was the gift that my grandmother gave to me: taking my faith, questions, and thoughts seriously. My grandmother could have seen my early, inexperienced love of my faith as childish or naïve. Instead, I think she saw my faith as wisdom, blooming and in process, attempting to make sense of God and life. In front of my grandmother’s armchair and unbeknownst to us both, my vocation as a theologian and woman of faith was being nurtured and cultivated.
After my first year at college, my family had to move my grandmother to an assisted living home as she needed more care than we could provide at my house. I was devastated. My home felt like it lost a little bit of warmth. However, that first summer after my freshman year of college, I made it part of my daily routine to visit my grandmother. I spent afternoons with her, listening to her thoughts and reflections on her life, her stories about growing up with the other children in her neighborhood in Queens, and her relationship with my grandfather. We laughed as she told stories about living in New York, what it was like to go to Mass in Latin, and why she loved St. Thérèse (her favorite saint).
Before moving to the assisted living home, my grandmother had never lived away from home, so sometimes, she would cry. I learned in those moments that what was important was not me offering some nugget of wisdom from our faith that would help her to reframe her thinking, but for me to be there, hold her hand, and be present. In the days after those afternoons where there were more tears than laughter in her voice, I would make sure to bring her a cup of chocolate ice cream to lift her spirits. It did not take long for me to realize it was now my turn to accompany my grandmother, just as she had accompanied me in my childhood and teenage years.
Two summers later, my grandmother passed away. It was one of the most painful days of my life. At the same time, I was overjoyed at the thought of my grandmother getting to experience something so much better than our hours of conversation together about our faith: God himself. At my grandmother’s funeral Mass, one of the hymns my family selected was “O God Beyond All Praising.” While the entire hymn is a perfect way to describe the gift that my grandmother was to everyone she encountered, the words of the second verse have always particularly stuck out to me when I think about her:
“The flower of earthly splendor
in time must surely die,
its fragile bloom surrender
to you the Lord most high;
but hidden from all nature
the eternal seed is sown -
though small in mortal stature,
to heaven's garden grown”
In reflecting upon my relationship with my grandmother, I think about how her accompaniment of me planted seeds in my life that continue to bloom and grow. Though she was older and weaker, my grandmother passed on to me the gift of faith, a gift that is an eternal reality that we share, and that I hope will bring us together in the next life. Even when my faith was more composed of immature certainty and over-zealous explanations of Scripture, my grandmother saw more than that. And, when it was my turn to accompany my grandmother in the last years of her life, she gave me the gift of continuing to grow these seeds of faith through my own cultivation of patient listening and presence.
For me, my grandmother is a model of accompaniment, and was a witness to what Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium of the listening and patience required in accompaniment: “Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives (171).” Through my grandmother’s love, I learned to listen to God and respond to His love. I know the seeds of my faith are continuing to grow and bloom even after my grandmother’s death as she accompanies me with her prayers.
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