Saint Meinrad Seminary & School of Theology

Formation and Education for the Life of the Church

Vespers with Mom

by Stephen Drees


My mother was raised Presbyterian and converted to Catholicism upon her marriage to my father. And like many converts, my mother took her already-strong Christian faith and lived it seriously as a Catholic. She was not a doctrinaire and was less concerned with dogma than in living her faith through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

When I think of my mother, two things come to mind - love and mercy. Because her style of faith was quite similar to his in tone and action, I believe she would have loved our new Holy Father, Pope Francis.

If this sounds like a eulogy it isn't, but I am talking about my mother in the past tense. You see, over five years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and the inevitable has slowly but gradually come to pass. My mother has lost all recognition of me and my four siblings, spouses and grandchildren.

She no longer recognizes her sister, in-laws and former close friends. My mother has been slowly but gradually slipping away for years and now she is all but gone. But every now and then we get a moment - a small glimmer of who she really is and was.

I think it was providential that my oblate vocation took hold over these same five years. I had early hints of interest in lay monasticism many years before, but concurrent to my mother's decline is when I came to embrace the Benedictine path … and at Saint Meinrad Archabbey specifically.

As my mother went into decline, I retreated into prayer. Not for some miracle to relieve her of this cross, as I know there is no cure. Rather, I prayed that my family and I would be able to accept this heavy yoke, hold on tightly together and remain a united family. I also prayed that my mother would be able to make it to the end of her journey with some semblance of personal dignity intact.

What does one do for someone who brought you into the world, has known you longer than anyone else, loved you more than anyone else and done more for you than anyone except God Himself? Years ago, I would have been stumped about what to do. I ultimately came to the conclusion that all I could do is pray.

So pray I did in my daily Benedictine rhythm - Lauds, Vespers and Compline … day after day. Over the past few years, whenever I'm with my mother, I typically recite the Divine Office to her. As my mother lives 12 hours away and no longer can travel, my time with her is infrequent - so these times are increasingly few and precious.

Last August, my mother came to visit us and we all knew it would likely be her last time here. One of my sisters was her traveling companion. During her stay, there was a glimmer of Mom here and there, but for the most part she did not really know who we were.

The last night she was with us, before she went to sleep, we all went into the bedroom to tuck her in. The family gathered around her on the bed. It was very quiet and still. And then I prayed Vespers.

God come to "our" assistance,
Lord make haste to help "us."
Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
As it was in the beginning is now and will be forever,
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant…
May the Lord bless us,
protect us from all evil
and bring us to everlasting life.

To my knowledge, my mother never visited a monastery or went on a retreat to one. And like most lay Catholics, she had never prayed the Divine Office. But she listened very carefully and peacefully. And as I recited the psalms, antiphons and prayers, she instinctively knew when to say Amen - right on cue.

I was certain that she could not ascertain the specific words or meaning of this ancient prayer ritual, but I do believe that on some level she had been given the grace of knowing that something sacred was happening to her and to us. I felt a strong presence in the room. It was as if, for just an instant, she was given the gift of understanding just how much she is loved by us, by many others and, most importantly, by the Almighty.

I concluded Vespers and then made the sign of the cross with holy water on her forehead. We all hugged her, kissed her and said good night. As we left the room, I turned and took one more very long look at her as she gazed back at me smiling. She told me she loved me. I told her I loved her as my eyes welled up with tears, and I closed the door.

It was at that moment that I harkened back to my original prayer for family unity and personal dignity for my mother. And it occurred to me that, despite the many twists and turns in her difficult journey - and likely more to come before it's over - my prayer had already been answered. 

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Echoes from the Bell Tower is a blog devoted to observations on Christian faith, spirituality and everyday events, by authors with a connection to the Benedictine values found at Saint Meinrad Archabbey and its Seminary and School of Theology. Contributors include students, permanent deacons, Benedictine oblates and Saint Meinrad monks. Their stories, thoughts and ideas highlight the mission and vision that ring out from the bell towers on this Hill in southern Indiana.