"Reading Woman on a Couch" by Isaac Israels. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Marcie Stokman on The Life of Luigi Giussani

We publish the text of Marcie Stokman's remarks on March 16, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour.

We publish the text of Marcie Stokman's remarks on March 16, 2019, during the Life of Luigi Giussani book tour. Stokman is the founder of Well-Read Mom, a national book club for women.

My heartfelt thanks to Alberto Savorana – who’s with us here tonight – for the many years he spent piecing together letters and collecting notes on the life of Fr. Guissani. When many in Italy were watching A.C. Milan in soccer tournaments, you, Alberto, hid yourself away to follow a greater desire, a particular work you were asked to do, that the world might know and be blessed by this Servant of God, Fr. Giussani.

I want to talk briefly about a few things: one, how Fr. Guissani has impacted my life; two, how this impact led to the founding of Well-Read Mom; and three, how faith becomes culture.

Over twenty years ago, I thought the way to live more seriously as a Catholic was to be more pious. So I lived a pious moralism but experienced no great love of life. I was blocked by fear. I was afraid of the culture, afraid for my kids.

In Alberto Savorana’s biography, we find Fr. Giussani offering advice to those who attempt to live the kind of stifling piety I was living.

He said, “They needed to go from faithfully practicing piety to the encounter with the person of Christ. These things may seem one and the same thing, but they are not; there is a chasm between the two because the practice of piety can be…the path that leads to Christ, but it can also erect a wall, a wall that blocks you.”

That’s what happened to me: I lived piety in a fearful, moralistic way that blocked me from enjoying the fullness of life.

I wanted Christ to be everything, but I was afraid to look at things directly for fear that they would lead me away from the Lord.

When Pete and I met some friends of Fr. Giussani, we started to stay with them in the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation. Through these friends, we were opened to a new way of seeing, a new way of living. We met Christ—not in a text or an ideology, but in a people, in the Church. These people were full of life and full of wonder.

When I asked our new friends questions about how to live, they would say strange things like, “Follow your heart, take your desire seriously, live reality intensely.”

To be honest, I didn’t know what they were talking about. But I was discovering that being Christian didn’t mean losing my humanity.

My vision began to widen. Shackles of fear began to break and fall to the ground. I could look at
the sunrise, the stars, art, literature, and people with a realization that everything and everyone has the possibility of becoming a bridge to Christ, a sign of Him. I started to relax and breathe in my own skin.

Fr. Giussani once said: “At the bottom of it all, Christianity must leaven everything, make everything, everything…even math…more vibrant, more savory, truer.

“The issue,” he would go on to say, “is that Christ be everything for me.” This is how Pope John Paul II’s hope—“To make faith culture again in the various cultural spaces of our time”—could come true.

I was discovering the possibility of looking at everything in life and seeing it become more vibrant. I could read literature again. It was no longer something I had to put away to take my faith more seriously, but in fact it was just the opposite: it could be a means of growing closer to the Lord.

Books that help me ask questions about life, justice, longing, forgiveness, and Truth—are a bridge to Him who is the fulfillment of the deepest longings and desires of the human heart.

Pete and I have seven children, and with them comes a full life. I remember nine years ago, heading out of town to watch John and Phil’s cross-country meet. I was doing too much as a mom and was on the verge of burnout. I stopped at Caribou Coffee and ordered a large latte, then sat in a chair and stared at the wall. I didn’t get up. I was empty, and no one seemed to notice. I knew I couldn’t keep living as I had. I remember thinking, If I don’t get out of this chair right now, I’m going to miss the meet. I didn’t get up. I kept staring at the wall. I missed the meet.

The following week, I told my Italian friend, Elisabetta, about this incident. What she said would change me. “You think mothering is all about running to everything your kids are in,” she said. “Take care of your heart—that’s how you mother. If your kids want to run, let them run. You take care of your heart.”

Her words stung, and I thought, That wasn’t very nice. Most other women would have joined in commiserating about the busyness of life, but Elisabetta spoke something true and I knew it. And yet—what did it mean to take care of my heart?

A couple of months later, in the spring of 2012, I gave three talks to groups of mothers. I thought it would be interesting to find out what women were reading, so I gave a title to these talks: “Well-Read Mom.”

I discovered that most of the women were not reading much at all, and not one woman was reading quality literature for her own enjoyment and growth. The women all agreed that reading was important—but they didn’t have time to do it, and didn’t know where to start if they could even find the time.

During my drives home from these talks, invariably I was sad. These women, I knew, were trying their best to stay afloat. They cared deeply about their children. They had come looking for support. And there I was, pointing out to them one more way in which they were not measuring up!

But I also realized that I was in the same boat. I wasn’t consistently reading literature, either.
I thought, How is this little talk I just gave going to make a bit of difference in anyone’s life?

Several days later, my daughter Beth, who was a new mom at the time, called me on the verge of tears. “Mom, I've had it with these mothers groups. I've been there three times, and all they talk about is what kind of diapers to buy. Mom, isn't there a place after college where women get together and actually talk about the real questions of life?” I heard a cry in Beth’s voice. She had a need to live—to really live. I recognized that her need was the same as mine, and that we could help each other. Beth’s cry for meaning merged with my need to read, and the idea for the Well-Read Mom book club was born. Maybe this would be a way for us to take care of our hearts.

The idea was simple: we would read books together; I would record an introduction for each book and write up discussion questions; Beth would invite friends in St. Paul, while I would invite friends in Crosby; and Laura, from St. Cloud, would start a group, too.

Our three groups would stay together. We'd help each other be accountable. This new avenue for friendship—combined with a need for meaning and a chance to read good books—ignited a passion in me.

Putting a reading plan together became a joy. I went to my bookshelves and pulled about 150 books off the shelves I thought might be interesting to women. I didn’t know how to categorize them.

Maybe, I thought, we could read the classics of the Western tradition—books by Homer, Virgil, St. Augustine, and Dante—in chronological order. But that seemed overwhelming. Now I had a problem: I didn’t want to be in this club! The books needed to be read in a different order.

We wanted Well-Read Mom to be a hospitable place where a woman might experience a classic for the first time, and another woman who was already a reader might continue to grow. We wanted to raise the bar without crushing anyone. St. Benedict ordered his monastery in such a way that “the strong have something to yearn for and the weak have nothing to run from.” I wanted the same for our groups.

One day, while reading Pope John Paul’s 1995 letter to women, I noticed that he thanked women in their various roles: mothers, daughters, workers, sisters, wives, etc. As I read, I realized that our books could be loosely categorized around these capacities of being a woman. And so we had a Year of the Daughter, Year of the Mother, Year of the Worker, Year of the Friend.

My daughter-in-law, Steph, offered to design an invitation for the first meeting. “If we are going to do this for women, it needs to be beautiful,” she said. She drew—free-hand—a cameo of a woman reading a book, and underneath it we put a little mission statement: “A book club to encourage, equip, and educate women through literature from the Western and Catholic Tradition.” We wanted women to know we were inviting them to take part in a noble and beautiful work.

This was all very exciting—until the fear hit. I remember where I was when it happened. I was standing over the blue mailbox on Crosby Main Street while tightly clutching twenty-two invitations. I couldn’t let go of them. Who do I think I am, starting a book club in which I introduce the books? I’m not an expert. I only took one literature class in college and wasn’t that successful in it.

I would now have to use my reason to counter the fear.

Women aren’t reading, and neither am I. These books were written for ordinary people like me, and not just for people with degrees in literature. What can it hurt?

I really wanted to read good books, and I wanted to do this with my friends. My desire rose, and I dropped the invitations into the mailbox.

Twenty-two women showed up in my living room, and Well-Read Mom began.

A few months later, I met Dr. Mary Reichardt, who offered to give an introduction on Kristin Lavransdatter, our winter selection, to our three groups. I didn’t want a church basement for this; I wanted something more. Hmm, Why not call the University of St. Thomas? This was another risk. A big one. I remember pacing back and forth with my phone and thinking, Who was I to initiate a conference on literature at a university?

I had to look at this fear. Higher education has become specialized to such an extent that, at times, we may think we need to stay away from a subject if we’re not experts in that particular field. I told myself that such a thought—such a fear—is not reasonable. Literature is for everyone. Why would a university not want to encourage women to read and grow?

I made the call. Before I knew it, we were scheduled to host the first Well-Read Mom Conference. In January 2013, eighty-one women gathered. I looked around and knew that these women’s hearts were just like mine.

A surprising outcome of the conference was that twenty-one new groups started up. This idea was resonating with women.

The following year—Year of Mother—over 200 women in over sixty groups joined us, and even now continues to sprout up across the country. With the growth, however, the load began to feel heavy. There were many emails to send, and as we began publishing materials we were dealing with mounting expenses.

It became clear that we needed to organize as a nonprofit. My friend Janel offered to help me. Soon, there we were, sitting in front of stacks of forms.

“You seem kind of down,” Janel said. I was down.

“Janel, this is getting complicated. I feel like this boat is sinking. We don’t know how to do all of this. We need an IT person, for example. This is beyond us.”

Five minutes later, Nadine stopped by to pick up her son from Janel’s house. She popped her head in and saw we were working on Well-Read Mom. “Say, if you ever need someone to help with the computer end of things, I have an IT background.”

“Are you serious?” This was not a coincidence: it was a monumental moment of seeing.

I wrote in my journal: “Lord, you sent Nadine at the exact time we were sinking. I believe You are in this boat, and with You in this boat, it cannot sink. We needn’t be afraid.”

Later, though, I began feeling the heaviness of the work—updating member addresses, sending out packets to replace ones that had gotten lost in the mail, etc. I was making mistakes with all the details. Some of the women were upset with me. Every task seemed like a burden. I mentioned to my friend Lele how the growth of the book club was becoming too much. I expected him to tell me to get more help, to delegate more. Instead, he asked, “Do you pray for these women?

“Pray for them?” What does that have to do with it? “No, I don’t.”

“Start praying for these women every day. And whenever you can, go to visit them—not because they need to see you, but because you need to see their faces.”

I took his advice. I started to pray for the women of Well-Read Mom. I began to visit every group I could. Not for them, but for me. It has been a great gift to my life.

During one visit, a woman came up to me and said, “I’m a research scientist, and have taken eighty-four tests to get to the level I’m at in my career. But this is a new kind of education.” She was talking about the education of her heart and the cultivation of her capacity as a person.

Another woman, after attending a Well-Read Mom group for about five months, asked her new friends, “Wait a minute: are all of you here Catholic?” They nodded yes, and she said, “How can this be? Because I don’t like Catholics, but I like all of you.” Three years ago, at the Easter Vigil, she was received into the Church.

I have so many stories from meeting the women—stories about friendship, about deeper conversion, about marriages being helped. It’s amazing. I have my own stories, too. When I was reading Kristin Lavransdatter, I remember being angry at Kristin, the main character, because she was shutting her husband out of family life, having hardened her heart after past disappointments. Kristin, I thought, let him back in, he’s trying. Then I thought of my own family life, and how, when my husband Pete comes home from work, he needs to be invited into family life again, too. Several weeks later, when I was chopping carrots for dinner, Pete walked in and said, “Marcie, I don’t know if I’m imagining this or not, but you sure have been nicer to me lately.” Thank you, Kristin! Reading good literature educates our hearts. When I can see something in my imagination, it helps me become aware of things in my life, and I change.

I’d like to close with something from page 87 of the biography: “The Church needs to come to life again; the Church needs to create communities in order to live anew: there will have to be many of these communities, which will transform society and how life is lived in society. They will rearrange social life and make humanity's journey through this world more human.”

It is my hope that Well-Read Mom is a little part of this “coming to life again.” Christians must reclaim the task of education: all of us are on the front lines of this reclaiming, but there’s a catch: Fr. Giussani says that a faith that becomes culture will not come about through an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas or a moralism; faith becomes culture not when structures are set up but when I change, when I experience conversion.

I see in the life of Fr. Giussani a man who did just that. He was crazy in love with life, with people, and with God. He understood that Christianity is an encounter, an unfolding love story of life lived with Christ—an event.

Pray for us, Fr. Giussani, that we may we live this love story, too.