When I was 17 God called me to enter a cloister. During my years as a nun, I grew to love the adventure of the inner life. The teachings of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and my other Carmelite mentors, provided a clear path to seek holiness, and I felt honored by the Church. However, circumstances and a long discernment process led me to understand God was calling me to return to secular life. It was the most difficult thing I ever did, for it seemed like a step away from God. This new calling was filled with loneliness and challenges. I worked hard to put myself through school and played catch up learning what I had missed during my long retreat. I traveled and worked, wondered and prayed: what was God’s purpose for me now?
This might’ve been the end of the story, only God had a new plan for me. During a retreat while I was in graduate school, I met a young man and we fell in love. We married in a beautiful Church, and the stained glass windows, antique lace gown and my cousin’s angelic Ave Maria are still a blessed memory. Like many women today, I married later in life, but my husband and I were easy going and adjusted well to married life. I identified strongly with my work and enjoyed my husband’s encouragement, and I in turn supported him in his career. We loved our free time together hiking and going to the sea shore.
But there was another gift in store. Twenty-two years after becoming a nun, eight years after leaving the convent and four years after getting married, God did another really new thing. God called me to be a mother.
If I had not been paying attention earlier, this got my attention! It was as if I had been altered at the molecular level. Why hadn’t anyone told me? I had assumed having a child would be like anything else, something you learned, adjusted to—even mastered. But I couldn’t master motherhood. It mastered me and transformed me in ways beyond my imagination to predict or control. My life was reorganized; reshuffled, redone to meet the needs of the little one who came to join us in this project we call family. This was both unsettling and exhilarating. It was also spiritual. I was delving headlong into an experience of the gift of new life and coming closer to God because of it. So I looked for help.
I began with books of women saints and found virgins, widows and martyrs—few celebrated for their holiness as mothers. So, I looked again, this time to Scripture. Ah! Here they were! There were Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca and the other Matriarchs of the Old Testament; Mary, Anna the Prophetess and Elizabeth in the Gospels. Not only were these women mothers, they were Key Players in the redemption story. I even meditated on the First Mother, Eve, imagining that while she gave birth in pain, pain did not rule her. Instead, she lived in holy longing, with unquenchable desire for the One with whom she had spent so many afternoons, walking in Eden as with a trusted friend.
In the gospels I read old stories with a new awareness. For example, the day Mary went in haste to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. The angel had insinuated she go, saying, she who was said to be barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing shall be impossible with God (cf. Luke 1:36). When Mary came to Elizabeth’s door, Elizabeth’s child leapt within her, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and she cried, Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (cf. Luke 1:43) I was surprised, that two pregnant women set the stage for the first instance of evangelization in the history of the Church. Pentecost is celebrated as the birth of the Church, yet the Visitation is the moment when she was “conceived,” through the faith of two women who believed that the Promises of God would be fulfilled.
These and other Scriptures taught me that God calls women to be intimate collaborators in the works of creation and redemption. That God never leaves us to ourselves, but calls us to know firsthand that we are beloved by God. Our human experience–of pregnancy and birth, nursing, and loving our children, from preschool, to school age years and beyond, is a flesh-and-blood training ground in the love of God.
Anything can be part of this collaborative work with God—whether dramatic or mundane, joyous or sacrificial. Once when I had lost my temper and yelled at my little ones, I felt in a bad mood all afternoon. When night prayer came, I knew I had to come clean. So, before I prayed, I just asked their forgiveness for getting “too angry.” This forgiveness moment was something my children and I shared again. They started learning to ask too. Daily failures were not as bad when we all knew forgiveness would come again. The practice bred enormous peace in the household and reminded us all: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26).
My journey into motherhood was a long one. Yet because the spiritual life is a feet-on-the-ground human endeavor, graced by God to grow and flower, it is a way of life that is deeply human and therefore also, deeply divine. Religious life taught me what it is like to feel the call, and I felt the call again to become a mother. On this journey I take as my guide and companion Mary, the mother of Jesus. She knew well how the human and the divine are knitted together, as she allowed God to be formed in her womb. God gives us the grace too, so we can seek his face and learn to love God and the human family like Mary did, with all her heart, until they become one, pure love.
Copyright 2011 Julie Paavola