We were all shocked and shattered when my brother announced that he wanted to become a priest. It was not just that he wanted to become a priest, but he wanted to become a Cistercian priest. That meant that once he left home he would never return. Naturally my mother was totally bereft. She was proud that her son wanted to be a priest, but why, oh why, did he want to become a monk as well? She did not know what to do, but fortunately she did know whom to turn to. She turned to Gus, a friend since childhood. He himself had left home to become a priest and a monk and was at the time the Abbot of Belmont.
The Meaning of Motherhood
He told her that a mother only really fulfils and completes her motherhood when her love is so great that she allows her child to both choose and follow his own chosen vocation in life, whatever that may mean. He told her that this was the sacrifice that Mary made when she allowed the Son she had given birth to go his own way and to respond to the vocation that He had been called to. My mother felt much better after talking to Gus, or Abbot Williams as he was then – after all he was a priest and a monk himself, and so he was able to console and encourage her better than anyone else. Although my brother had been accepted as a prospective monk at Mount St. Bernard’s, the Abbot asked him to finish his studies in Paris where he was studying at the Sorbonne. Naturally he was delighted that he had been accepted, because he thought his handicap would have prevented him from becoming a priest – one leg was shorter than the other as a result of polio, when he was six.
A Terrible Accident
Unfortunately, my brother had a terrible accident on the way to his final examinations. Partly due to the iron calliper on his leg, he slipped down the escalator on the Metro, hit his head and was killed instantaneously. He was only twenty-two. I was seventeen at the time and called out of the school study to be told of the tragedy. When I got home it was to find my mother all but inconsolable. She had already come to terms with the sacrifice that she had been asked to make when he chose to become a monk, now she was asked to make another more complete and final sacrifice that she never thought for a moment would ever be asked of her. Once again, she turned to Abbot Williams for spiritual help.
Like Mary, My Mother became a Priest
Abbot Williams told her that she was now being asked to be the priest that her son never became. He told her that Mary had been a priest and that the greatest sacrifice she made was the sacrifice of her own Son. All Mary’s life revolved around selflessly giving her all for the dear Son she had borne. Everything had always been for Him, and then she had to give absolutely everything, even Him. This was the most perfect and complete sacrifice any mother has had to make, and she made it as she stood there at the foot of the Cross. My mother never forgot what Gus said to her. It did not take away all the pain but it did give meaning to it and made it bearable. What helped most was seeing that the sacrifice she had to make was exactly the same sacrifice that Mary had to make on Calvary.
A Lesson learnt From My mother
There is only one true priest and that is Jesus Christ who made the most perfect sacrifice anyone can make, the sacrifice of themselves. We are priests to the degree in which we share in His Priesthood. Throughout His life He offered Himself unconditionally to His Father and for the people that His Father had sent Him to serve. We share in His Priesthood when we too offer ourselves to the Father, in, with and through Him and offer ourselves to the same family of man that He came to serve. That is what my Mother came to see and understand more clearly than anyone else I have known, not just in the way she thought, but in the way she acted. It was a lesson that she had to learn at the most painful moment of her life when she had to share in the sacrifice of Christ in exactly the same way as Mary did. Lessons learnt in such moments are never forgotten. They indelibly stain the memory and determine the way you think and act for the rest of your life, for better or for worse. In my mother’s case it was for better not worse, as it was for Mary.
For both of them it meant that through their terrible ordeal their motherhood had somehow been refined and deepened to the benefit of other children who looked to them for the motherly love that was always given without measure. I for one know this because I have experienced it for myself, and still do. Naturally it is the more dramatic demonstrations of her self-sacrificing that stand out in my memory as I look back at the past. However, the more I reflect the more I see that her whole life was a continual selfless sacrifice for her family just as the life of Mary had been. Every day of her life and every moment of her day was given for them in a hundred and one different ways through which she exercised her priesthood, as Mary did in her life on earth. It was little wonder that her three sons all wanted to become priests; after all they had been living with one all their lives!
Selfishness and Sacrifice
When the family went to Mass together each Sunday they saw their mother totally absorbed in what they took all too easily for granted. Their selfishness meant that they had too little to offer while she was offering a thousand and one acts of self-sacrifice made for them during the previous week. This meant that she received to the measure of her giving, for it is in giving that we receive, and she received in ever-greater abundance with each passing week. This gave her the help and strength she needed to go on giving in the forthcoming week, go on sacrificing for the family that took her all too easily for granted too. Without any formal theological education, she discovered for herself that the Mass is not only a sacrifice, the place where we offer ourselves in, with and through Christ to the Father but something further. It is also a sacred sacrificial meal where we receive, from the One through whom we have offered our sacrifices, the love that he is endlessly pouring out on to, and into, all who are open to receive it.
Motherhood was for her, as for so many other selfless, self-sacrificing mothers, their way of participating in the central mystery of our faith. If her daily dying united her to the dying of Christ, it also opened her to receive the love that raised him from the dead on the first Easter Day, empowering her to share what she had received with the family for whom she had given everything. The son she always mourned may never have become the priest that he desired, but she more than took his place. The priesthood that she exercised would not only inspire her own family but other families too, who are still inspired as I am still inspired, by her shining example that will never tarnish.
My Brother’s Death was not In Vain
The death of my dear brother affected me deeply, but his death was not in vain. It inspired me in such a way that I have spent my life writing about him and using him to spread the profound spirituality that attracted him to the monastic life, to inspire others too. I have spent much of my life writing three major spiritual works mentioned at the end of this article. The main protagonist in each work is the hermit, Peter Calvay who is entirely based on my brother, Peter Torkington. In my imagination, instead of entering the Cistercian order, as he had intended, I simple transferred him to the Outer Hebrides where he became a hermit. Then, as his spiritual life deepened he began to help others. If Peter had become a monk his spirituality would have been monastic. However, living as a lay-person enabled Peter to develop for himself a profound lay-spirituality based on the spirituality that Jesus himself lived with his disciples, through whom this spirituality was bequeathed to the early church. This is of course of particular help to a modern reader trying to live the Christian life whilst outside the context of the religious life, like the author himself – your truly. If these books help you as they have helped over more than three hundred thousand readers over the years, then my brother’s death will not have been in vain, nor will the simple spirituality that we both learned from our mother.
David Torkington’s three book mentioned above are Wisdom from the Western Isles, Wisdom from Franciscan Italy and Wisdom from the Christian mystics. All are available from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or from any bookshop.