In his book about Mother Teresa, Brian Kolodiejchuk quotes the Blessed Teresa of Calcutta that the goal of all her work is to “quench God’s thirst for love and for souls.” 1 Often in the correspondence leading up to the founding of her order, Mother Teresa wrote of the little street children in the slums, and how she longed to save them from sin and “make them happy in Jesus.” In fact she wrote, “If only one little unhappy child is made happy with the love of Jesus…will it not be worth…giving all for that?”2
Though Mother Teresa was an especially great example for the faithful, her writing reminds us that the work of all the Church is saving souls and bringing them to Jesus. Of course, when we speak of “saving souls,” we sometimes find ourselves cringing at such a loaded phrase. “Salvation,” at least to many of us, conjures up not only beautiful images of heaven, but also frightening images of hell, fire and brimstone. We think of the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards and his image of God holding the sinner over the eternal fire like a spider about to be dropped to its death.
In this reflection, I would like to get away from the fire and brimstone aspect of “salvation” and recast the discussion about saving souls as a discussion about bringing little ones closer to God. Whatever else we may know or believe about the eternal destiny of souls, we know that heaven is the closest our souls can possibly be to God, and that hell is the farthest distance. The absence of God for a soul is very basic to our Christian understanding of hell. And we know that love is what brings a soul closer to God, and thus closer to salvation, at least in some small way. Human acts of love lead other souls to God, and make others able to share that love further beyond themselves. When we think of salvation in this (admittedly theologically and doctrinally limited) way, we can see how a mother’s love, expressed especially through breastfeeding, can be an instrument of that child’s salvation.
God created the mother-baby bond as the first human relationship in every soul’s life. Human beings, even those still in the womb, learn love from the feeling of safety and goodness that comes from being nurtured by their mothers. When a baby is born and put to breast, he immediately finds peace and comfort in the familiar feel, smell and sound of the mother’s body and in the taste of her first milk. The shock of the birth is eased through the relaxing act of suckling and the pain is mitigated by the sweetness of the milk. The baby learns quickly that warmth and comfort – not fear and cold and pain – are the rule in this new world. This first experience of security is in reality the baby’s first physical experience of love. Over the next many months, the mother’s body will become the baby’s habitat, if you will. As the mother’s milk nourishes the baby and helps him grow, the physical and emotional closeness of the mother’s body communicates love and security in a nonverbal way the new human being is able to understand and absorb.
As the child continues to grow and the breastfeeding relationship matures, he learns to crawl and then to walk, and gradually forays farther and farther away from mother. But even as the toddler begins to experiment with the wider world, he is reassured by the security and calm of her familiar “habitat” through the ability to return to the breast when needed. Slowly, in accordance with the true meaning of the word “wean,” the child gradually becomes “fully satisfied.” His body has been fully nourished with the goodness of his mother’s milk, first by itself and then alongside other foods, and now it is ready to replace the mother’s milk entirely with other nourishing foods. Emotionally, he is ready to give up his physical place in the habitat of his mother’s body and become more independent and self-reliant.
For the breastfeeding child, the emotional, psychological and spiritual growth proceeds alongside the physical. The child learns over and over again that he is loved, and this assurance helps him learn to love and give to others. The assurance of his mother’s love is renewed with every return to her breast, even as the returns become less and less frequent as he grows. When mothers reliably meet their children’s continued need to breastfeed, for as long as the need remains, they turn their love into a real physical act. Similar to the self-donative aspect of the marriage act, the physical self-giving act of breastfeeding is a way of making a mother’s love physically present to a child. When mothers do this, they echo Christ’s self-giving love to us, or the Blessed Mother’s giving of her own body to God. Furthermore, when mothers nurse, they build their children’s sense of security and belief in their own lovableness. They also increase their children’s capacity to give themselves in love later in life.
Since God IS love, any act which contributes to a person’s knowledge that he or she is loved, and which helps a person give more love to others brings that soul closer to God. In this sense, then, we can see that breastfeeding our children can contribute in some small way to their “salvation.” Pope Pius XII recognized this truth when he wrote:
We see in mothers those who exert the earliest and the most intimate influence upon the souls of the little ones and upon their growth in piety and virtue.
Surely there is no art more difficult and strenuous than that of fashioning the souls of children; for those souls are so very tender, so easily disfigured through some thoughtless influence or wrong advice, so difficult to guide aright and so lightly led astray.
This is the reason why, except where it is quite impossible, it is more desirable that the mother should feed her child at her own breast. Who shall say what mysterious influences are exerted upon the growth of that little creature by the mother upon whom it depends entirely for its development.3
Of course, God’s own plan for the salvation of souls is much bigger than what any individual mother can provide on her own for her child. Does this mean therefore that the choice to breastfeed is insignificant, that it doesn’t really matter?
Mother Teresa says that in this life, we can do no great things, “only small things with great love.”4 For her, making even one little child happy in the love of Jesus was worth the many sacrifices of her entire life. Most moms I know often look around and think, “Well…I’m no ‘Mother Teresa’!” That may be so, but even as “plain old” mothers at home, we can make it our goal to contribute to the salvation of the soul of at least one little child. And for those of us with that one modest goal in mind, breastfeeding can be an excellent way to start.
1 Kolodiejchuk, Brian, M.C., ed., Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta”, Doubleday (New York: 2007), p. 42.
2 Ibid. p. 54.
3 1. Pius XII. The Major Addresses of Pope Pius XII: Vol. 1 Selected Addresses, Vincent A. Yzermans, ed., North Central Publishing, St. Paul, 1961, 44. http://www.nfpandmore.org/bfpius.shtml.
Copyright 2010 Pamela Pilch