Shortly after the third birthday of her firstborn, Mabel and her two boys left South Africa for England. Her husband, who was unable to vacate his banking post at the time, was to join her as soon as the opportunity arose. The opportunity never did arise. While still confined to South Africa and 5,000 miles away from his family, he died as a result of a severe hemorrhage.
Her husband's untimely demise left Mabel nearly destitute. She found inexpensive lodging for herself and her two boys in a suburb of Birmingham. Not able to afford tuition fees, she taught her sons at home. She proved to be a more-than-adequate home school teacher.
Four years after her husband's death, Mabel, together with her sister May, was received into the Catholic Church. Immediately, the wrath of their family descended upon them. Mabel's Methodist father was outraged, while May's Anglican husband forbade his wife from ever entering a Catholic church. Reluctantly, May felt obliged to obey, leaving her sister to endure the consequences of her conversion alone. And the consequences were considerable, both emotionally and financially. Nonetheless, nothing could shake Mabel's newly found faith. Indeed, she began giving Catholic instructions to her sons. Her elder son became a convert at the tender age of eight.
A few years later, the family's deteriorating financial situation obliged them to find cheaper quarters. They moved to a house that was little better than a slum. The only consolation was its proximity to the Birmingham Oratory, a large church established by Cardinal John Henry Newman more than 50 years earlier.
Not long after Mabel moved into her new home, her health began to deteriorate. She was diagnosed with diabetes. When her elder son was but 12, Mabel passed away. She had lived for 34 trouble-filled years. Yet she bore her hardships with great faith and without any apparent traces of acrimony.
Her elder son would one day, in a letter to his own son, say of his mother:
"I witnessed (half-comprehending) the heroic sufferings and early death in extreme poverty of my mother who brought me into the Catholic Church; and received the astonishing charity of Francis Morgan."(1)
In her will, Mabel had appointed Fr. Morgan as the guardian of her two sons. Over the course of the following years, he proved to be a loving father figure and a generous provider.
Forbearance is patient endurance under provocation and in the face of persistent difficulties. But it is also the capacity to suffer outrageous fortune with little or no complaint. Mabel, outcast and destitute as she was, remained a model of forbearance for her two sons. Nine years after her death, her firstborn expressed his indebtedness to her in the following words:
"My own dear mother was a martyr indeed, and it was not to everybody that God grants so easy a way to His great gifts as he did to Hilary and myself, giving us a mother who killed herself with labor and trouble to ensure us keeping the faith." (2)
Providence has a mysterious way of bringing beauty out of ruins, splendor out of apparent hopelessness. The elder son never lost his faith. His marriage, which lasted 55 years until his wife passed away, bore four children. His firstborn son was ordained a Catholic priest.
Lord of the Rings
The first of Mabel's two sons is better known to us as a writer. He is J.R.R. Tolkien, who, according to several polls, is not only the author of the 20th century's greatest book The Lord of the Rings but is the century's greatest author. His books have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide, and there are no signs of his popularity abating.
Tolkien's success as a writer is unimaginable apart from his formation as a Catholic. And his formation is inconceivable apart from the faith and forbearance of his mother. Tolkien's stories are magical and mystical, using what we can imagine to draw us closer to the primary reality that we long for but cannot imagine. Perhaps the greatest story concerning Tolkien is connected with the hidden mother who is the invisible source and shaper of her elder son's prolific success. She is the still point of his moving world, the anonymity that has made his name a household word. She is truly the mother of the lord of The Lord of the Rings.
Carpenter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.,
- Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkein: Autobiography (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1977), 39.
DeMarco, Donald. "Forbearance." Lay Witness (Sept/Oct, 2002).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and professor emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review. DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad, Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2002 LayWitness
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