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Faith column: Our mothers’ spiritual influence

May 7, 2011

New faith column, this one a Mother’s Day special. Wound up writing this one rather frantically in fits and starts … which is becoming more typical for me now that I have two children. Also, my brother and his girlfriend were visiting, and we were having so much fun, I …. well, you know how it goes. It’s sometimes frightening how closely my professional life mirrors my academic one.

Anyway, here’s the column.

The spiritual lessons of mothers set the tone for their children

When I was growing up, no one modeled faith better than my mother. In her I saw the hope and comfort religion could provide, the power of prayer, the richness of tradition. She represented a long line of mothers who believed that faith could help their children endure hardship and inspire them to be decent and kind.

Not all of my mother’s six children stayed with Catholicism – or even religion — but I think we still draw from her example.

As we celebrate our mothers this weekend, I’m reminded not only of my mother’s spiritual influence but of the people I’ve interviewed over the years. Many — if not most — of them have credited their mothers with laying a foundation of faith that sustained them.

I think of Islam Mossaad, the Austin-raised imam whose mother infused him with faith and scholarship by providing Islamic education in the home.

And Alan Graham, the founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, whose Catholic convert mother nurtured his faith as a child and, later, whose wife’s demonstration of faith with their children inspired him to start going to Mass again.

The Christian writer Greg Garrett, who “fled” church for decades before returning, told me recently about his mother: “I sense that the roots she planted early in my life were deep enough to bring me back to some form of Christianity at last.”

This is not to say that fathers don’t play an important role. Hillcrest Baptist Church pastor Tom Goodman pointed me to a study showing that fathers’ churchgoing habits are a stronger indicator of children’s attendance as adults.

But I still see an undeniably powerful influence of mothers, and I began to wonder what shape that took for others. I queried friends who described their mothers’ religious influence as the driving force in their families. One woman said her Catholic mother was the leader and enforcer. A Jewish friend said his mother demonstrated religious moderation — “the voice of respect for tradition but at the same time deep skepticism for excess.”

These mothers set the tone, showing the children — and sometimes the fathers — what it meant to believe and how to live out their faith.

But some said they were shaped by the pain their mothers suffered at the hands of religion. A friend said she left Catholicism because her mother felt rejected by her church after her divorce. One woman who converted to Catholicism worried how her evangelical mother would react.

Her mother’s approval was not only a relief but a reminder of another maternal lesson: having strong convictions.

“I put a lot of energy into finding the right faith fit for me as an adult,” she told me, “in part because my mother raised me to be certain of what I believe.”

And that’s when it occurred to me that motherhood itself requires a leap of faith. Mothers teach what they know, and, much like sending up a prayer to something bigger than themselves, they hope it serves their children as they enter the world on their own.

My friend Jane Froelich’s mother urged her to determine her own religious beliefs and drove home the point with a passage from Kahlil Gibran’s book “The Prophet.”

Gibran’s idea, Jane told me, is that “the parent is the bow and the child is the arrow. You direct them as best you can, but you can’t go with them.”

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