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In my April column on Ruth Pakaluk's book ''The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God,'' I promised to continue with more on the incredible story of Ruth, who died of metastatic breast cancer in 1998 at the age of 41. The book, edited by her husband Michael, collects her letters and talks. Her writings, particularly her letters, are wonderfully eloquent, glistening with insight, humor and profound spirituality.
They document is an amazing spiritual journey from disbelief to holiness through the roller-coaster of a Harvard education, marriage, motherhood and the loss of a child, pro-life work and terminal cancer. Ruth Pakaluk of Worcester reminds me of Flannery O'Connor of Milledgeville, Catherine of Siena, Joan of Arc, and Teresa of Avila--a woman exemplary in her Christian calling--except that Ruth was also married, with seven children and a full-time job.
She did all this without complaint and with a cheerful spirit, active in the life of her parish and diocese. Her eldest daughter "Maria wanted it recounted that when asked why her mom always smiled, Ruth replied so her wrinkles wouldn't go down" (from Father Reidy's homily at her funeral).
She went to daily Mass and Holy Communion, and prayed at length and regularly, including the Rosary. As Father Reidy, the then-rector of the Worcester Cathedral, put it in his funeral homily, "[M]y most enduring image of Ruth is her at St. Paul's. It could be a half hour, 45 minutes, even an hour after Mass and there she'd be in front of that tabernacle, deep in prayer, with the God who created her, endowed her with gifts, redeemed her, and strengthened her for the challenges of life and death. Deep in prayer...even if it were a prayer that was occasionally punctuated by a tap on the shoulder, a hug from behind, and an entreaty from Sarah or Sophie, 'Mom, are you still praying?' 'No, I'm just normally catatonic.'"
She loved her life as a wife and mother in Worcester. Even when she was President of Mass. Citizens for Life, she would always list "Homemaker" as her occupation when filling out forms.
In his encyclical ''The Gospel of Life'' Blessed John Paul II made an appeal to women: "You are called to bear witness to the meaning of genuine love, of that gift of self and of that acceptance of others...The experience of motherhood makes you acutely aware of the other person and, at the same time, confers on you a particular task." That was Ruth he was talking about, no doubt about it.
When her first son, Michael, was born, here is what she wrote: "[Michael's] birth was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. For the first time in my life, I had to put the needs of someone else ahead of my own preferences almost constantly throughout the day. And though it was a little difficult to get used to, I loved it."
Being a mother, she understood the value of a child's doddering attempts at showing affection. Indeed, she applied the lesson to her spiritual life.
Here's Ruth on devotion to Mary: "Think of how it is when your child gives you some small gift. Don't you love him all the more because you see how much he wants to give you something to show you how much he loves you, and you see how powerless he is to give anything except that fact--that he loves you and wants to give you something to make that love visible? There is nothing we can give Mary, our heavenly Mother, except that same thing--we give her the fact that we want to show her our love. And she will accept the bouquets of limp dandelions and the construction-paper cards dripping with Elmer's Glue."
Having priests and religious canonized and held up as models and intercessors for the rest of us is wonderful, but perhaps even more wonderful is to recognize the possibility of holiness in married people. In that regard, Ruth Pakaluk is a powerful example.
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.