Finding the undying love of Christ in family
I fell in love with my wife the first time I met her mother.
Amy and I only had been dating a few weeks in the spring of 1987 when we and some of our friends who were also freshmen at Michigan State drove down to Pine Knob to see Chicago in concert. Our tickets bought us access to the grassy hillside of the amphitheater, which turned into mud when the rain came down. I’m too old to enjoy such an experience today, but at 19, it just added to the adventure.
On our way back to East Lansing, we stopped at the Thalhammer residence in Swartz Creek to shower and dry our clothes. Sue wasn’t expecting us — it would be another 20 years before Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone — but she handled the invasion of wet teenagers the way she greeted all visitors, with smiles and laughter and food.
Someone once told me that if you want to know what a potential wife will be like 25 years down the road, you should get to know her mother. By the time we left Amy’s home that day, I had no doubt what kind of wife and mother Amy would be. As our son, Stephen, wrote to his grandfather, Jerry, in the wake of Sue’s death on May 15, Sue was “a woman for whom love was never a choice, but an imperative.”
Sue was a Missouri Synod Lutheran, like my dear friend and former colleague, Aaron Wolf, who passed away a few weeks before she did. Amy’s conversion to Catholicism in our senior year at Michigan State was hard on Sue and Jerry. Anyone who thinks that navigating such differences should be easy doesn’t take his faith seriously. The lack of full communion within a family is always a wound deeply felt.
It’s often said by both Catholics and Protestants that Martin Luther rejected tradition in favor of Scripture alone. But that’s an oversimplification. Tradition properly understood, as Joseph Pieper explained, is not a certain set of beliefs but an action, the means through which we transmit the truth. And because all truth is of God, all tradition is meaningful only to the extent that it leads us to an encounter with Jesus Christ, the ultimate Truth at the heart of our faith. The life of a true Christian is always a means through which others are led to Christ.
In that sense, both Aaron and Sue were means of tradition, because everyone who encountered them encountered Jesus. What I recognized in Sue that May 1987 day was not simply what Amy one day would become, but rather a soul filled with grace and with love for others because she loved, and was loved by, Christ.
Too many of us wear different faces in different circumstances. The world encourages us to act one way in public and another at home; one way in business and another at church; one way with children and another with, say, politicians and celebrities.
But Sue was Sue. What you saw, everyone saw. And what everyone saw, whether they recognized it or not, was the light of Christ.
We never expected Sue to leave this life so soon. And with sudden loss comes pain. For the Christian, though, that pain is never without joy, not just because we know that we, too, will rise as Christ rose, but because, as Stephen wrote to his grandpa, “The light of Christ and of faith that shone in Grandma is far, far from gone. It will shine for so many years to come in the deeds of those she influenced, and in the faces of those she met.”
Sue was a means by which all of us who knew her encountered the light of Christ. May each of us, in turn, be a means by which that light never dies.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for Our Sunday Visitor.