Enriching the World’s Understanding

Suzanne Tanzi

Marcie Stokman, homeschooling mother of 7, grandmother of 4, nurse, psychologist, and seeker of beauty tells us why she founded the Well-Read Mom reading group that, in only one years’ time, has gained recognition in 26 states, Canada, and France for a total of 74 registered reading groups (and others less formally following the series). Not just a “nice Catholic reading group,” but a powerful catalyst for personal and communal change.

What was your inspiration for founding the Well-Read Mom reading group?
In 2012, I was invited to give a talk at a parish on why reading matters for women. During the question and answer segment, I realized that most of the women in attendance were not reading anything except for junk off of grocery store shelves. A profound sadness settled upon me with this discovery, and I thought about my own need to be accompanied, in my reading ventures as in all facets of my life. Also during this timeframe, my newly married daughter and daughter-in-law, who were frequenting the usual “mothers’ groups” with their newborns, expressed their desire for more from their own meetings with moms—more than just talking about babies.

You had mentioned previously that being at the New York Encounter in January 2013 was also complicit in driving your efforts…
True. Attending “The Katrina Letters” performance that Saturday night was a pivotal moment. It gave me the courage to look at the sadness I felt and acknowledge my desire to be accompanied, echoed by my daughters, and move with it.

How so?
Some love letters between a young couple, dating back to the 1940s, were discovered by the couple’s family, awash in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina, and the reading of them was set to music by their son, Chris Vath. He put together an arrangement, called “The Katrina Letters,” that left me stunned and in awe. I thought, “Why was it not enough for Chris to read these nice letters with his family? How did it overflow into this amazing event?” And I realized two things: he couldn’t have done it without already belonging to a people and secondly this made him willing to take a risk with his desire to share something. So his belonging and risk met my sadness and desire!

When you say he belongs to a people, do you mean Communion and Liberation?
Yes, specifically, and under the umbrella of the Church proper. And I belong to the same charism, the same Church, which gave me the desire to take a risk too, in founding this group. I did have my doubts: “How dare I try to do this?” I mean, I took one English Lit class in college! Yet, in the embrace of a people, it was harder to resist the desire to try, than it was to do it.

What goes into your consideration of the yearly theme orientation and what themes have you chosen?
Women by nature tend to want to serve, to help people, to enable those they love, including their children, to be themselves. These tendencies are all right and good. Yet they often have not looked at who they are as individuals—at the gift of self. So, oftentimes they only see their limits. In choosing the books, we want to explore and celebrate this gift of self—without discounting limitations, but to understand that we are not defined by them, but by something greater—which will only enhance all of our endeavors in profoundly positive ways. Our theme last year was “The Year of the Daughter” because each of us starts out life as a daughter. This year we moved on to “The Year of the Mother,” a logical step, and next year it will be “The Year of the Spouse.” I have to say that God has been so incredible in all this, bringing me everything I need, including friends who help me to discern our direction. I am in a constant state of openness and wonder about how this is evolving, to be honest.

Is this group only for Catholic mothers?
Not at all; we have people of other denominations and those who are not mothers have joined freely as well. As Pope John Paul II said in his Letter to Women at the UN in 1995, all women, regardless of their background, have been given a maternal capacity that does not have a biological requirement. That letter is very moving, especially when he says, “Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world's understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.”

What about the book titles?
So far we have a list of 100 books we are considering! All of them are somehow or other classic reading in English literature, and/or are part of our Catholic legacy. This year, with our “mother” theme, in February we are reading Jane Eyre whose protagonist is not a mother, but she allows us to examine pivotal aspects of maternity. Some of our books are foundational (and even ancient) texts that build on each other, and the heftier ones we assign in the winter months when schedules slow down somewhat. In Advent and Lent, we focus on spiritual reads—like last year for Advent we worked on St. Augustine’s Confessions, and for Easter St. Therese’s The Story of a Soul.

Aren’t these kinds of assignments a bit intimidating for busy mothers and working ladies?
Possibly—but our emphasis is that there are no losers in this book club. On our website it says, “There is only one rule in a Well-Read Mom group. If you aren’t able to get the book read, don’t apologize, just come and soak in the discussion!” How can being exposed to an interchange on Augustine and his mother Monica be anything but positive?! What I have found is that those who were certain they could not find the time have been inspired to find it afterall—they may go home and read another chapter or actually the entire book out of excitement for what they have heard. And this is changing their lives.

What kind of changes have you witnessed?
A surprising number of husbands and children have expressed so much appreciation: “Thank you for helping my wife/my mom get into reading!” They even encourage mom to make the time by taking care of some of her usual tasks, or reminding her when the next meeting is. They tell me dinner conversations have become more lively and interesting. And between members, a refreshing friendship is cultivated—people are able to go to another level of engagement than previously possible. For example, in my group of 15 to 20 ladies, we have 3 Lutherans. They are so thankful to be part of our gatherings, and we too have found a newness opening up before us thanks to their unique insight. I can also witness to some personal changes among people in tough situations who were led to see themselves and their lives and marriages in a different light, perhaps enabling them to face depression or troubled children with new hope—in one case even, divorce papers were not signed! A certain communion between readers and characters can catalyze such a personal change of heart—for examples, this past year Kristin Lavransdatter and St. Therese of Lisieux seemed to speak most profoundly to our own marriages and lives.

People do not usually have this expectation of change when they join a reading group, do they?
I think they join out of a desire for something that they may not even be able to pinpoint—fellowship or even just curiosity might come to mind, initially. Some think they are getting into a “nice Catholic book club.” Those people were the most shocked however when we read Flannery O’Connor! They were horrified by the violence, but I think they had a handle on the wrong horror—the true horror Flannery O’Connor shows us is living and not being alive.

Was this reading a failure then?
Not at all. One woman told us, “I have read Flannery O’Connor over and over and always hated the violence. But now I am seeing another layer.” And this was the point of reading those two short stories: to see ourselves better. This same person confessed, when talking about Revelation, “I am Mrs. Turpine. I am a hypocrite, and I never saw it before.” Those who come with expectations are usually surprised by the “more” that they meet in their reading (me most of all!).

Certainly this turned out to be so much more work than you anticipated!
It’s true that sometimes it seems overwhelming. When I was at the New York Encounter and also the Rimini Meeting in Italy, I asked myself, “Who does all this work at such personal expense and why?” And now, here I am, testifying to the reality: it is not a burden but a gift. One day, I was picking up my daughter from choir. I looked over into the car next to mine in the parking lot and saw a lady reading our book of that month: Augustine’s Confessions! This gave me an explosion of joy. I have found that this effort has connected me to so many whose hearts are like mine. A friend asked me, “Do you pray for the people in these 74 reading groups?” Since he asked, I have been praying for all of them every day and this too has expanded my heart in a way I never thought possible.

What’s next?
Well, my 17-year-old godson recently approached me, saying, “I am your godson, and this is my last year at home before college. Will you read with me too?” Now, once per week, I meet with him and some of his friends, to read some of the WRM books. This request really caught me off guard; who knows what other surprises God has in store?!