As an adolescent I admired many clothes my beautiful mother wore—and cringed at others.
One piece that belongs in the Outfit Hall of Fame is her bright purple Asics sweat suit. I’d call the exact color “Electric Grape.” The goldenrod-flecked design across the chest was reminiscent of a Magic Eye image. The sweatpants and matching jacket caught the light and swished when Mom walked. If I couldn’t hear her coming, I could spot her from across the junior’s department in Kohl’s, or down the dairy aisle at the grocery store, with no problem.
The sweat suit seems to be a fixed character in many of my middle and high school memories. At the time, I don’t remember being embarrassed about publically associating with such a sweat suit-wearing mother. I do remember wondering, “Why doesn’t she pick out something more fashionable for herself?” I also remember wondering why the sweat suit didn’t just die, didn’t get thrown out in the Goodwill donation pile to be replaced by new clothes, like so many of my things did.
Last year, I traveled to Assisi for the first time. Strolling through the mystical Basilica di San Francesco, I came across St. Francis’ original tunic, which is displayed for reverent pilgrims to venerate. A potato sack would have been a fairer garment. The tunic was composed of rough, haphazard patches of a coarse and colorless cloth. The sleeves and bottom were un-hemmed and uneven.
“What a holy man,” I thought, “a heroic man. To wear such a garment! To cast aside the fine cloth of his father, the merchant, and literally put on the poverty of Christ.”
Then, I made the connection.
Mom takes me back-to-school shopping so I could have a pair of Adidas Sambas like every other 8th grade girl. Purple sweat suit. Mom picks me up from a late cross-country practice. Purple sweat suit. Mom takes me out to a special mother-daughter lunch, her treat. Purple sweat suit. Mom locks herself in the walk-in closet to wrap Christmas presents for the family. Purple sweatsuit. Mom hurries in from the grocery store, arms full of bags, and begins cleaning the kitchen and making dinner for hungry teenage athletes. Sweat suit.
As St. Francis praised a creation so deftly decorated by God’s hand in his expired brown tunic, my mother rejoiced and provided for my brothers and me in the purple sweat suit. It is a holy and heroic garment.
I imagine her sweat suit encased in glass alongside St. Francis’ tunic. They are both signs of self-sacrifice, of self-emptying, joyful love. I look into my own closet, thick with fancy work clothes, and hope one day God counts me worthy of wearing something as beautiful as St. Francis’ tunic—or my mother’s purple sweat suit.