This April 29th marks the second anniversary of the passing of my mother, the Catholic artist and homeschool pioneer, Martha Williams. I invited a friend who knew her well, and who is perhaps better able than myself to talk about what she meant to so many people, to share two blog pieces here. Many thanks to Heidi Bock for permission to repost her interview (circa. 2012), and for penning a separate, more personal reflection.
Interview with Martha Williams, Home-Educator and Iconographer She is a wife, a mother of four, and one of the original homeschooling pioneers. For several decades, her rare and splendid icons have graced the walls and halls of churches, religious dormitories, and filled the homes and hearts of many, many grateful recipients. Always the gracious hostess, her generosity and wisdom are known and cherished by those who have the privilege of calling her friend. The lovely, witty, and entirely genuine, Martha Williams . . .
Heidi Bock: You converted to Catholicism as an adult. When did you first recognize ‘the call’? Was it a difficult journey for you? Martha Williams: I was raised, unbaptized in a neo-pagan household which operated on the fumes of Christian culture. We lived in the country and went to a one-room schoolhouse. It was hell. Because our father worked in town, our mother was a college graduate, and we had no tractor or religion, we were ostracized. Except during December when we were allowed to sing and be in plays. The words of the carols entered my heart profoundly. Jesus became real to me and has never left me. When I met and married my husband, he was a fallen away Catholic and Catholicism was the one religion I would never embrace. After several years of "discussing" religion, he told me to call a priest and argue with him. So, I did. And thanks to an elderly Benedictine, my husband's groundwork, and St. Thomas' proofs, I felt myself slipping and the rest is history. HB: You homeschooled your children at a time when homeschooling was not considered an ‘option’. Why did you consider it? Did you ever regret this choice? MW: In 1974, our eldest child was in the first grade in a Catholic school. But we could see what was coming in the later grades. Tough choices had to be made and because of my own childhood experiences I wasn't wedded to the idea of school. Homeschooling was somewhat difficult but we never looked back. HB: You have a long and successful career writing as an iconographer. How did you develop this talent? Has your art changed over the years? MW: Several years later, out of the blue, my husband asked me to paint him an icon. I was certainly aware of them from art history in college, but I painted in oils, on large canvases. I tried to paint one but failed badly. Providentially, at that time I met a priest who loved the Eastern liturgy and he introduced me to a woman who, at the same time, was the best icon writer in the US. She taught me everything I would need to know to paint icons: board prep, under-painting, gold leaf, glazes! She is the most generous person I ever met. She said that the icons changed her life, and through her, they changed mine. HB: You've spoken of St. John Paul II and your affection for his message of hope. In what way did he influence your faith? MW: When you make a leap of faith, you think you've done it, you've arrived. How shocking to discover you've only begun the real journey, and it's going to be long. My first shock was what a prig I was able to become almost overnight. I had discovered the faith, why wasn't everyone else? My family, especially my three daughters, and friends helped me through the years, but even more so the minds I encountered, in particular, C.S. Lewis, C. Houselander, St. John Paul II, H. de Lubac, Pope Benedict, V.S. Solovyov, and Simone Weil. All of these people have taught me so much and enriched my spiritual journey in ways I never would have thought possible at the beginning. HB: In terms of on-going conversion, what devotion or literature do you currently find enriching? MW: Lately, I have found it exciting to see God moving back in the public square, and from such diverse directions. Reading Antony Flew's autobiography led me to the two books on quantum enigma which had brought him out of atheism. HB: If you could sit down with your newly converted old self today, what advice would you give? What "pitfalls" would you recommend to avoid? MW: If Dr. Who has taught us anything it is not to mess about with time. However, if I were to be able to give advice to my earlier Catholic self, it would be to read Simone Weil much sooner than I did. From her, I learned that saints are all around us, often in the strangest garb.
“The Enchanted Garden”
There are many people in my life who have helped to shape and form my understanding of God and His mercies but none so influentially as Martha Williams. My mother taught me the kindly acceptance of God’s heart for our own littleness, our brokenness, and to offer to Him, such as it is, the innocence of our imperfect purity; to trust in His goodness, and to hide in the shadow of His wings. From my father’s mother, I learned the constancy of faith, to continue the pursuit of virtue, despite our disheartening and even flawed surroundings. From others, I learned the blindness of our own ‘god’, yet His true faithfulness to our story, even when we get things a bit wrong. From my Confirmation instructor, I learned the vastness of God’s heart, His desire to embrace us all in salvation history, and the prioritization of eternal investments. But from my friend Martha, I learned what it is like to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of your life, to identify as God’s heir, not the world’s, and that the journey to Heaven begins here. Martha’s life was full, overflowing with family and friends, her beautiful artwork and all those urgent church commissions; yet she invited my own mother into the garden of her heart which was, as Waugh says, “an enclosed and enchanted garden...somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city”. That was rather long ago, before even my parents married. Mom always said that it was Martha who helped form her spirituality, and I see now that it was so. And the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, for I too was included in the generous outpouring of Martha’s abundant heart. Friendship with Martha was to enter into conversation at the table of Our Lord, Who richly drew near to her, for He draws close to us as we draw close to Him. Certainly, Martha wrote many, many images of Christ over the course of her iconography, and this devotion and vocation molded and cast the woman she became, but I wonder if He didn’t write Himself upon the canvas of her own magnanimous heart, placing an indelible mark upon His beloved? To know Martha was to be in the garden of Our Lord. As a child, her home to me was the home of magic and fairies, richly woven fabrics, incense burning, cds of Irish fiddle music, and pewter pitchers of iced tea. There were many warm summers swinging in lazy hammocks under weeping willows, and little girls playing dress-up and watching Star Trek: TheNext Generation episodes. It was the first place I learned of mirth, of artistry, and of Jeeves and Wooster. Her home was that of love: love of her husband, whom she adored; love of her children, and most of all, love of Our Lord. A child could be happy and safe playing there, no suspecting or angry parent ever came cracking down the whip, or impatiently interrupting a necessary tour of Italy, chaperoned by an overly-fussy Miss Charlotte Bartlett. One could simply be, shielded from the ugliness of an outside world, and untroubled by the knowledge that one was welcome and wanted. All these things I never noticed or even verbalized, too natural and absorbed in those days but I see it now, so very clearly. It was my first glimpse into that magical, enclosed garden, of the land beyond our senses, which we sometimes perceive in early morning dewdrops on purple muscari, or in sunlight through stain-glass windows. Martha’s home was truly that of fairyland.
I grew up, messy as we all can be, and quite unaware in many ways of Martha’s deep and abiding influence over me, nor of my real need for her further influence. It was only after my mother became terminally ill that I once again, or perhaps for the first time, grew aware of her great wisdom and my dependence upon it. It was her voice I sought only moments after Mom passed, and it is her voice still I turn to in moments of prayer and reaching—reaching for clarity, insight, and especially comfort, now that both Mom and Martha have passed beyond the veil. No one, except perhaps Martha herself, knows how deeply and achingly I miss our conversations together. How did I get so lucky? So blessed? (Extra! Extra! Read all about it: Undeserving woman given abundance of gifts, friends, and graces.) There are not enough pages I could write to express all that Martha has taught me. She once told me in the midst of spiritual pain or turmoil, not to fear the suffering itself, but instead to ask God to reveal what He wants us to learn from it. That advice changed my life. Her trust in God was so great, no matter the darkness, she always sought His Divine Providence. Equally important was when she told me to pray for daily wisdom, as she herself had always done (And the proof was in the pudding). She also shared O’Connor’s stance on the bottomless compassion of God: “The operation of the Church is entirely set up for the sinner; which creates much misunderstanding among the smug.” Martha frequently spoke about the generosity and tenderness of the Ocean of Divine Mercy. It was one of her great devotions. Martha’s passing was and is full of selfish pain for me. I know more than anyone else she longed for and lived a life in anticipation of eternal union with God, having spent most of her life creating art which reflected it: “Everything beautiful has a mark of eternity”(Weil). Yet I miss my friend. That fiery red hair of hers, and those deep, penetrating brown eyes. Her wit, her humor, her talent, and her love. I say that without vanity: she completely loved people. She was a true friend to her friends, rejoicing in their joys, and sorrowing in their sorrows. She reminded me how to love, how to be lovable, and that I was lovable—she being so truly loved, and throughly lovable herself. This month, April 29th, the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, marks the second anniversary of Martha’s passing. As I gaze daily at her beloved icons, I recall my friend, and ask for her intercession. She understood me, my mother, my family, and knew me my entire life. That’s not a thing to sniff at. What a gift to have been known, to be known, and to know another. As Waugh says, “To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.” Wherever I go, and whomever I meet, I hold and carry a tranquil joy, an invincible summer within as Camus said, knowing as I do that there is an eternal soul who assists me here on earth, and whom I am forever blessed and undeserving to have called and to call friend. Rest in peace, Martha, in that enclosed garden—rest in peace, dear friend.
(c) 2012, 2022 Heidi Bock