My mother died just two years ago. She was a saint. She taught me to pray and to honor the dead. I left home in my teens to embark on a spiritual adventure, and so we spent the years communicating by letter, phone, and occasional weeklong visits. All my life, any event large or small was complete only when I could talk about it with my mother.
My mother was a simple person. When she died, my dad asked me to go through her things. It wasn't easy breaking into her privacy. Her room was just as she had left it the day of her fatal brain hemorrhage. Though I knew she had a natural inclination to the spiritual practice of poverty, I was surprised to find just a few earthly possessions: her inexpensive clothes, some costume jewelry, photographs of the family, and prayer cards and rosaries.
My mother was a person of extreme compassion and devotion. A mother to all children who came within her view, she loved my daughter fiercely. One late night in her last days, as I sat next to her, I heard her say in delirium, "Give the children some ice cream." Whether literal or spiritual, she always had "milk" for the children.
My mother's name was Mary Virginia -- Virgin Mary -- and she was born on the feast day of the Annunciation, March 25, the day when Mary was told by an angel that she would give birth to the Son of God. My mother had several shrines to Mary and said the Hail Marys of the rosary every night before bed.
My connection with my mother has intensified since her death. I converse with her now more than ever before. This new way of communicating began during her final days. I was in Ireland with my family when my mother lay dying in Michigan. I was in touch with my father by phone, and I knew the moment when she was going.
I don't know if the dead hear our inner voices and our prayers for and to them. I can't prove that this kind of prayer and odd conversation works. But my mother taught it to me, and I don't question it.
There are some things in religion I have to subject to sharp question and criticism. It's the adult and responsible thing to do. But other things remain simple and mysterious. My mother was a mystic whom I would put up against Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena any day. I trust her knowledge about these things.
A man once spoke out from an audience I was addressing in a church: "Should I pray and talk to my daughter who died a year ago?" For him, it was a question of great urgency. I told him that we modern people live surrounded by an invisible circle of belief in reason, proof, analysis, machinery, and facts. It's a useful circle and has made life convenient and comfortable. But it is also a fence that keeps an entire world of the spiritual and the soulful out of sight and unavailable.
You can step outside that circle and from there pray and talk to the dead with certitude and intelligence. There, you don't have to worry about modernist police who will tell you how crazy and out of step you are. As one who speaks for life outside the circle, I encouraged the man to enjoy his new relationship.
I believe that my mother had an intelligence about spiritual matters that was grounded in her experience. In my shift toward old age, I intend to look carefully at the lessons she taught me and appreciate her kind of sophistication.
My Mary Virginia was an adept, mystic and spiritual warrior disguised as an ordinary housewife. She was a spiritual magus, like Jesus, her focus and model. She didn't make waves, but I believe that if the world could discover her secret, it might find the peace and love it craves.
My mother honored the dead and communicated with her ancestors constantly. She taught me this piece of practical mystical theology, and I will continue to follow her way. I don't need to know exactly how the living and the dead interact. The fact that religions around the world honor them and ask for their help is enough. Add to that my mother's example, and the deep humanity associated with it, and I have all the theological support I need to honor the dead daily and to pray to them.
The circle of modernism has made life easy, but it also has shrunk our compassion. Bodily comforts improve every day, while our care of children, our marriages, and our reverence for life seem to worsen. There is an immediate connection between living in close contact with the dead and developing our decency and feeling of community. A prayer for the dead is a prayer for the living.
The community in which we live is not merely a group of living human beings with a common goal. It includes animals and objects, the living and the dead. The dead have lived in our space, in our homes, and on our land. They are part of our world.
I pray for and to my mother, and I trust that she still prays for me. Maybe if we honored the dead more, we would know better what it means to have reverence for life.
(Thomas Moore's latest book is Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life's Ordeals. He is the author of Care of the Soul.)