A Spiritual Path Laid by Forebears
By Amber Masci
I am proud of my British heritage. My dad is from the south of England, and his parents from Ireland and Scotland. I love to hear stories of my dad’s childhood, about the gypsies who physically caught and threatened his brother and him for stealing their blackberries. Of the shrew who drowned in a bottle of milk left by the milkman on their doorstep. And about the tiny “island” near their home where they would play in the forest until nightfall.
Stories of others in the family are spun into lore. Stories about how of six of my grandmother’s 13 siblings, six became Catholic sisters (nuns) and one a priest. The juxtaposition of one of dad’s aunties traveling the world as a missionary and the other five being cloistered, living a life of prayer and being locked away from others to focus on Christ. Thinking of generations past, I wonder how their experiences influenced me. How have they formed my heart and my mind?
I realized how much of her spirituality was expressed through practical works. And through these practical works, the world became a better place. As a religious sister, she lived communally with other sisters. They take orders from superiors, in obedience to the Lord, to live their calling.
One of dad’s aunties, Margaret, lived a remarkable life. I learned more of her life’s story recently, coincidentally just around the time of her death, at about a month shy of 100 years old. My dad brought me an envelope of articles and photos to scan and digitize for him, stories of his relatives in Scotland and England. When I began to read the booklet titled Sister Margaret Conroy: The Life of a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, I stopped. I wanted to start from the beginning and read the story aloud to my husband. Images danced in my head, lives of the past brought into the present. Images of a musical family, playing a range of instruments and the air being filled with song. Images of siblings being given a penny each for the sweet shop, only to give them to the poor instead on Margaret’s insistence. Images of children playing outside, making forts and climbing apple trees or playing inside with dolls. Images of damaged buildings, and thoughts of what it must have been like for Margaret to live in London during World War II, bombs falling all around her, while attending nursing school.
I realized how much of her spirituality was expressed through practical works. And through these practical works, the world became a better place. As a religious sister, she lived communally with other sisters. They take orders from superiors, in obedience to the Lord, to live their calling. Margaret was called to Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, to manage a leper colony. At only age 31, she led her religious community as Mother Superior and acted as directress of the hospital. Today she would need a nursing degree and a master’s degree in business or public health to qualify for this role. What she did possess was years of nursing experience, a willing heart, and moxie.
After years, Margaret was sent to Burma to another leper colony. She continued to travel around the world for her assignments to provide more acts of service. The years passed with time spent in Australia, Rome, France, Madagascar and America, then finally back to England. She traveled by canoe, slept on beds made of straw, learned to drive, and played piano. She served the elderly and the mentally ill, which was at times frightening and physically risky. Even at 80 years old, while in France, she acted as a local tour guide for visitors as the only English-speaking sister in the religious community.
And in contemporary times, my dad’s influence was not just through his words. I would notice his breviaries, or books of prayer, lying on tables when not in use. I would hear him reading from scripture during mass.
My dad, too, has led a faith-filled life. His father, especially, was a pious and devout man. In the mid- 1970s, my dad experienced his Catholic faith anew. This led him, after many decades, to become a deacon in the Catholic church in his 60s. A deacon baptizes babies, marries couples, and preaches at mass along with other duties. Formed and influenced by his relatives, he is carrying on a more contemporary version of religious life as he is a married man. I was and am still influenced by his example, by his practical take on religion and the church.
How could these attributes be passed down through generations, especially since I only met Margaret twice, once when I was 6 or so, and then again two decades later? And although I have had many intense conversations about faith, religion and spirituality with my dad, how did I learn from him to become the woman I am today? My strongest learnings about values came through the power of storytelling, the power of imagery, and the power of example.
Even short mentions and modest physical reminders of Auntie Margaret impacted me. One is the unusual nativity set she brought from Ceylon that she gave to my parents. I claimed it as my own years ago and respectfully arrange it each Christmas season. Many years ago, my grandfather painted a still life of two special items on his mantle, a vase he bought in Italy during World War II, and an unusual bird figure, carved from dark wood, also from Ceylon. These artifacts spark in me, consciously and I am sure subconsciously, my imagination about the past. What were Margaret’s travels like to faraway lands? How did she become so brave, and why did she say yes to her superiors to serve the most marginalized in society? What other great things have my relatives accomplished in the name of goodness?
And in contemporary times, my dad’s influence was not just through his words. I would notice his breviaries, or books of prayer, lying on tables when not in use. I would hear him reading from scripture during mass. He would welcome others to our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations who had nowhere else to go so they would not be alone. I sometimes attend mass, on Father’s Day when he preaches, to listen to his homilies he occasionally gives. I am proud of the stories he tells and the images he creates for those in attendance. Always tied back to Jesus. Always pointing out the goodness, never fire nor brimstone, never radicalism. Only what I think Jesus was truly here to teach us about. Kindness. Love. Service to others.
Even with these amazing examples of faith, I am no longer a practicing Catholic and have no intention of returning to an active Catholic faith. While you can take the girl out of the Catholic, it’s harder to take the Catholic out of the girl, meaning the aspects I value such as doing the right thing, honesty, love, kindness and connecting in a deep way. This is how I experienced faith until I was 38 years old, but could no longer reconcile the exclusionary dogma and doctrine of the church with my personal expression of being. Perhaps the Church is turning a corner, slowly, like a large tanker turning direction at sea, with the guidance of Pope Francis. As a lover of justice and progression, as much as a pope leading an entrenched religion can be, my hope is that the church can become more inclusionary over time.
Thinking about my relatives inspires me to live my best life. My hope is that others will benefit from my own goodness, and that their lives may be bettered by my presence, just like others benefited from the dedication and love of Auntie Margaret and continue to benefit from my father’s presence as well.
Amber Masci is a life-long southern California resident. She has worked in the biotechnology sector for over 20 years. She is currently a senior manager in the medical organization managing projects. Amber enjoys spending one-on-one time with family and friends, making trips to the Huntington Gardens, exploring Los Angeles and visiting the beach.
Her favorite destination is Santa Barbara which she tries to visit monthly with her husband for a visit to McConnell’s Ice Cream, a walk on the beach and lunch or dinner at a local restaurant. Amber works as a volunteer grant writer for The Greater Contribution, a no-profit that provides micro loans and business and literacy training for impoverished women in northern Uganda. She is proud to have co-written the 2020 International Monetary Fund grant that was awarded to the organization, further enabling the organization to help women work their way out of poverty.