Tilling Deeper Soil

Mary TeckYear of the Pilgrim

The University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN) Catholic Studies program has been a generous supporter of the annual Well-Read Mom Conference, and of Well-Read Mom in general. The article below appeared in their recent Alumni publication.

It began with some frustration. One day, Marcie Stokman’s daughter Beth, a new mother, called her to say, “I’m done going to mother’s groups. All they talk about is diapers. Isn’t there a place after college where women can keep growing and learning and asking[important] questions together?” Beth ’11 had experienced a kind of approach to the Catholic intellectual life in her Catholic studies courses that she wanted to continue to pursue after college.

Stokman, a Tommie parent five times over, had been speaking to mom’s groups throughout the area about children’s literature and then more generally about being well-read. She found herself coming home sad from events because women were not reading. “They were too busy, too tired, didn’t know where to start,” she said. “I realized I wasn’t reading so well myself and that we needed to do this together. It mattered that we do this. If we quit reading as women, then our children don’t read, our husbands don’t read. There is a ripple effect, and women are key here.”

Stokman’s solution was simple but extremely catching: gather moms together to read and talk about great literature once a month. So, in 2012, the first official meeting of Well-Read Mom (WRM) consisted of 20 women gathered in Stokman’s living room. Today, five years later, WRM has hundreds of groups in over 40 states and 10 countries, an annual conference hosted at the Center for Catholic Studies, about 1,000 registered members and as many as 4,000 unregistered around the world.

“Something is happening way beyond what we ever intended,” said Stokman, who also sits on the advisory board to Catholic
Studies. “It has expanded in an explosive way, so I think it must be addressing a very real need.”

Every woman who attends a WRM group might describe that need differently, but there are common threads: receiving a renewed sense of one’s personhood and the sanctity of every life, no matter how flawed.

April Gallus ’07, a mother of three, said, “It’s very life-giving for me to read. As moms, we’re always pouring out, and reading is a way to receive. I can have renewed vigor then to serve my family by ruminating on a character or an idea or something beautiful.”

“There’s something interesting too in story in how it respects our freedom,” said Stephanie Stokman, daughter-in-law to Marcie. “Most people like to read nonfiction, but somehow [nonfiction is] telling me what to do. ‘You should live your life this way.’ Story helps me to enter [into these deeper questions] in a more discreet way, a more beautiful way.”

“To enter into another’s story,” Marcie said, “you have to surrender. So right away, [in reading great literature] you’re in a different mode. We live as if we are in control, which is an illusion, so even to enter into story puts us in a more real mode. To see that, over the chronology of time, there are consequences – the story could go this way or that way. The decisions I make really matter; they are not without consequence. They really matter for my soul.”

Stephanie, who also designs the WRM newsletter, recalled that in the beginning there was a fair amount of pushback on the
exclusivity of the group. Why not Well-Read Family or Well-Read Teen? Stephanie explained it this way: “Coming together as women, I’m reminded of my personhood. We’re so busy doing good works for others, our families, our community, the church … we have to be reminded of our personhood. [WRM] is you taking your person seriously.”

Many of the WRM groups are populated with Catholic studies alumnae, which isn’t surprising as, “in both Catholic Studies and WRM there is a challenge to engage the work before us,” said Jackie Bernal Wald ’09, “to go beyond a ‘gut response.’ … Catholic studies [teaches] its students to take in great works and learn how to digest them … to ask the questions that would stir the imagination and employ their conscience. There was a real gift in doing this in a classroom setting as well because we were able to see how individuals wrestled with the same works differently.

“This particular skill that Catholic studies fostered has carried into WRM. … Our WRM group knows that the discussion is part of what feeds our souls, forms our conscience and helps us see where and how the Holy Spirit is at work in us individually and collectively as a group,” Bernal Wald said.

Annie (Moosbrugger) Berthiaume ’07 pointed out that some of the books assigned in WRM were books she read in Catholic studies as an undergraduate. “I’m reading them now through the lens of a wife and mother,” she said, “hopefully, a little wiser and more spiritually mature, and gaining so much more from the content of the books and the discussion we have at our
meetings.” She recalled in particular reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – first in a Catholic studies course and then
in WRM.

“I realized that when I read it in college, I simply wasn’t ready for it – spiritually or intellectually,” she said. Rereading the work in WRM has reopened the book to her in new ways. “Catholic studies was without a doubt the blade, if you will,that tilled what was once hard soil in me, leaving me ready for the seeds of beauty, wisdom and truth that the books in Well-Read Mom offer, to grow and bear fruit, not only for myself but for my family as well,” Berthiaume said.

It is a common experience to discover something about oneself through the characters – even the characters a reader might
initially judge very harshly. While reading Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, for example, Stokman recalled, “I saw this
woman was shutting her husband out. I kept saying to Kristin, ‘You need to let Erland in,’ and suddenly I realized, that’s what
I’m doing. I’m shutting out my husband and I need to let him in.

“I think that women in general have lost a sense that motherhood can be a vocation,” Stokman said. “Women guard leisure, and we’ve lost the concept of leisure. We think it’s entertainment and running kids to soccer games. … We’ve lost a deeper capacity to understand liturgy as feast, celebration, keeping the holy days; we’ve lost this in the home as well.

“I think that’s what this movement is about,” Stokman said, “bringing back an understanding of leisure, to be intentional about true leisure.”

This article was published in the Fall 2017 edition of the St. Thomas Lumen magazine.