Mountains and a Mustard Seed is what I would call a “legacy book,” a kind of capstone on an amazing family journey guided by the hand of Providence. The theme that weaves its way through the story like a thread, however, is not the recounting of events and memories for their own sake, but a pouring out of love, generosity, faith, and hope for others as a gift. As anyone with a large Catholic family knows, it is a living witness to life and to the Faith, whether intended or not. Large families, particularly the parents of those families, are confronted with questions, prejudices, and unique opportunities to evangelize everywhere.
A matriarch’s story
The love and pride the author of this book has in her family and as matriarch shines through the story without being off-putting or vain. The author, Nicole Allen, does not put herself in the spotlight, but one gets the impression of a genuine, giving, and tireless woman who relishes her role as mother and wife. Her husband, Joe, is a loving father and provider, and it is apparent that the two are a committed team. There is no soap-boxing, only a matter-of-fact telling of a journey almost too incredible to believe.
The deepening of their Catholic faith, unsurprisingly, seemed to coincide with their economic situations. This is evident from their fairly lukewarm faith during times of peak prosperity to their desperation when Joe’s period of unexpected unemployment stretches much longer than anticipated. The family is forced to dig deep and cling to God during their incredibly trying circumstances. The love and support of their friends, neighbors, and community in those periods was something many of us long for, a witness to Christian love in action. From the very peak of having it all to the very rock bottom of being on government assistance, it was encouraging to read that, throughout the roller coaster ride, two things – faith and family – remained steadfast constants to buttress them against destruction.
Light and darkness within families
A story would not be anything without character development, and there are a few standout figures that give the story grit. The story begins and ends with “a prayerful giant,” Nicole’s grandmother, Grandma Hubbard. The author quotes Matthew Kelly who defines a prayerful giant as “someone who covers their family with prayer, anchoring the family in God’s grace. They pray constantly for their families, surrounding them with God’s protection.” Clearly, Nicole herself is stepping into that role for her own family, and in doing so, establishing a legacy of prayer for generations to come.
The author’s difficult relationship with both her eldest son, Patrick, and her mother, provides the drama that keeps things uncertain and interesting for the reader. Patrick is consistently rebellious and provides no shortage of sleepless nights for his parents. Of the twelve children, Patrick supplies more grief and need for attention than the other eleven combined. And yet it is clear that his mother and father love him deeply, never give up on him, and are constantly praying for his safety and well-being, doing whatever is necessary to help him without being enablers. When reading about Patrick, I saw myself as a teenager and appreciated that the author neither white-washed nor overly-embellished his antics.
The author’s mother, likewise, was a character that added some interesting twists to the story and revealed how, even as adults we tend to revert to a childlike state around our parents. Controlling and somewhat emotionally manipulative, Nicole’s mother seemed to take advantage of her dutiful daughter, playing on her desire to please and not object. Later in the story the author’s mother goes to extreme lengths to maintain her influence, acting out of spite in a way that has legal repercussions. It is then that Nicole stands up to her, something I’m sure many readers can relate to.
A stunning witness
The book is inviting, and provides a great opportunity to witness to the Catholic faith and the unique joy of a large, cohesive, interracial family in an implicit manner. Large families are an anomaly in today’s society and can sometimes be regarded as a kind of circus act. I understand that large, double-digit families can exist without the foundation of faith, but honestly I don’t know how such a house would stand without the cement of religious conviction and practice. The Allens wed faith and family as two interdependent threads in their family blanket. Nothing about the author’s demeanor or attitude throughout the book is one of superiority or condescension, and she never claims they are a perfect family. She does, however, offer everything – the trials, the graces, and everything in between – as a witness to God’s goodness, His amazing providence, and His ability to offer direction when there seems to be no way out.
As a Catholic husband and father who was not always open to life, I can say that it is the lived existence of families such as the Allens that makes for the strongest witness and has moved my heart to embrace this kind of radical trust in Providence. That attitude is very much in stark contrast to the secular mandates that discourage such supposed “irresponsibility”. Reading about families who trust God unreservedly with their fertility, their finances, and their families and are joyful and live with conviction even in the midst of trial and tribulation may give people who have never encountered such a family in real life pause to think. A person who has received something awesome from God cannot help but tell others, and Nicole Allen is no exception. This is the purest form of evangelization, and her gift of memory and writing is surely giving honor to God in this way.
At 519 pages, Mountains and a Mustard Seed is on the lengthier side, but that is only because there is a lot of ground to cover. The book spans a twenty-five year period from Joe and Nicole’s early years of marriage to the birth of their twelfth child. I can say in all sincerity that the book was never a chore to get through – I enjoyed every page and opportunity I had to settle down with Nicole’s story. It transitions from chapter to chapter seamlessly. The author’s memory of details and events over several decades is likewise astounding and no doubt contributes to the authenticity of the events and timeline. She is surely setting up a life of legacy as a matriarch of her family, much like her own Grandma Hubbard, the prayerful giant with whom this amazing journey began.