This week we’re discussing Chapter 4, “A Mother at Heart,” from My Sisters the Saints: A Spiritual Memoir, by Colleen Carroll Campbell.
Physical motherhood also has to be a spiritual motherhood “in order to respond to the whole truth about the human being who is a unity of body and spirit.” St. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, 21
Chapter 4 of My Sisters the Saints could be titled “My Spiritual Mothers, the Saints.” In this chapter Colleen and her husband’s dream of having a family are dashed by news of infertility. This news followed their efforts to delay pregnancy in accord with the Church’s pro-marriage, pro-life teachings. Being aware of the Church ban on in-vitro fertilization Colleen feels her identity as a woman challenged. As she prepares a presentation to a gathering of moms Colleen meets kindred spirits who had never given birth to children yet were mothers beyond question, consecrated women saints.
One week before my vows I paused on my way up the stairs to our novitiate. The stairs represented a moment of decision for me. Yes I was excited about the day I would give my life to God entirely! The past few years of postulancy and novitiate had filled me with a deep joy.
It was all of a sudden that the reality of vowing chastity overwhelmed me. I loved children! As the oldest of six I took care of my younger brothers and sisters. It was habit for me to watch over them, to provide what they needed, to rock them to sleep. I had paused on the steps of decision. I reasoned that if I turned around and went down the stairs it meant I was not certain of my vocation to religious life. If I continued up the stairs it meant I did trust that God was guiding me toward consecration.
I prayed to know God’s will. As Colleen wrote “I never realized how much I wanted to be a mother until I realized I might not have the chance.” I offered my whole self to God in that moment realizing that the One who led me to the Daughters of St. Paul would continue to guide me day by day, step by step.
Perhaps every woman can identify with Colleen’s desire for children in the beginning of marriage and when the biological clock starts to tick. This desire, even for a woman has given birth, reveals our vocation to be spiritual mothers. Colleen had the advantage of Saint John Paul’s writings to help deepen an understanding of spiritual motherhood.
My first vows were celebrated November 1,1978, just days after John Paul II was elected. The Sister Saint that gave Colleen greater insight into spiritual motherhood was relatively unknown in my first years of vows. Saint Edith Stein was canonized by John Paul II in 1998, ten years after my vows. When I tried to read Edith Stein’s writings I thought I would never grasp the richness of her thought. Over time her writings were translated into English and her thought became more accessible. Edith, as Colleen reminds us, considered it crucial that a women understand her distinctively feminine nature in order to live in harmony with it. John Paul II echoed this saint’s thought in his Theology of the Body.
Two books written by our founder, Blessed James Alberione, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Women Associated with Priestly Zeal and Mary, Queen of Apostles, though dated in their terminology today, were ahead of their time in recognizing Christian feminism. The first book could have been quoted by Edith Stein who wrote that women frequently yearn for an integrated life in which their spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and practical concerns merge and they can connect their faith to everyday tasks. Prayerful surrender to God amid daily life suits a woman’s soul, Edith says, and this surrender “represents the highest fulfillment of all feminine aspirations.”
Edith identified Mary as the model of this maternal ideal. Alberione’s Marian book associates Mary’s motherhood with consecrated evangelizers. Mary as mother does not possessively hold Jesus close to herself, she holds him out, presenting him to the shepherds, the magi, the world. Mary says to us “Here, hold him. He loves you. He is your redeemer and sanctifier.” Mary is child-bearer and God-bearer.
I was also introduced to a book on St. Paul by Mother Paula, our first sister in the United States. She loved to hold up this book, A Month with St. Paul, so we could see the painting on the cover, Paul was bending over towards his hearers as a mother. She reminded us that Paul’s zeal for birthing Christ in us was in fact that of a mother:
“Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives” (Galatians 4:19). Mother Paula assured us that our patron saint would always intercede for us, “…like a mother feeding and caring for her children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7).
If Paul could be a spiritual mother and a spiritual father (1 Corinthians 4:15) then the desire for motherhood would be fulfilled in me as well.
We are all called to be God-bearers. Spiritual motherhood is for all women, those who have borne children, those who have adopted children, those who reach out to children in someway, those who care for the children of others who are young, old, well, poor, sick, dying. This chapter helped me consider how various orders of women manifest motherhood. Each feminine virtue is highlighted uniquely by religious congregations. Women religious are living icons of Mary and living icons of motherhood, always carrying Jesus to present him to someone, to everyone! Not only that but they stretch back in Christian history mothering all of us in the faith.
Colleen writes about stepping into a “sanctuary’s warm embrace” (another mother image). There she meditates on the stained-glass windows of Teresa of Avila, Theresa of Liseux, and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Under each window she read the words “God alone suffices,” “In the heart of the Church I will be love,” “Love will be our eternal life.” Colleen realized “with a sudden force” that her heroines, patronesses, and friends had not borne biological children, “yet they are beloved by countless children throughout the world.” They bore fruit beyond their imagining through their great intimacy with God. Their restlessness of love was an incentive to go out toward others.
Our feminine desire for motherhood reveals our vocation to bear Christ, bringing him to birth in every circumstance we encounter, growing him in our relationships, and presenting him to everyone we meet. First we conceive him in our spiritual life through baptism and the Spirit, then we grow him though quiet prayer, scripture, and sacraments, especially the Eucharist. It is necessary to fill up spiritually: body, soul, mind, and heart, so we are a fountain overflowing and not a stagnant well. Edith Stein notes that we need to be continually “refreshed by the eternal wellspring of grace.”
During this year of consecrated life Pope Francis entrusts the mission of “comfort my people” to consecrated men and women. He asks us to discover the Lord who comforts us like a mother, and in turn to comfort the people of God. People are waiting for words of consolation, the surety of being forgiven, and the path to true happiness. “We are called to bring to everyone the embrace of God, who bends with a mother’s tenderness over us…stooped down in a gesture of consolation”
We are called to bear witness to God’s smile as mothers who smile with delight in the presence of their children. Whenever I see a photo of my great-nephew posted on Facebook my spontaneous smile still surprises me. His smile is contagious. Pope Francis invites us to “Be God’s smile for others.” This is spiritual motherhood in its simplicity and grandeur. We don’t have to wait for a baby to begin using our maternal gifts. A woman’s personal and all embracing outlook, brought to all she does, bears fruit for this life and eternal life (Cf. Edith Stein).
To Ponder, Reflect, and Discuss:
- What opportunities do you have to nurture growth in others?
- How might you comfort the vulnerable in our society?
- When do you witness women making the world a more loving, humane place?
- What gifts of spiritual maternity do you see in yourself and others?
Feel free to comment on your own thoughts from this week’s reading, your impressions and reflections, and/or your answers to these questions.
Next week, we’ll cover Chapter 5, “Into the Darkness.” For the complete reading schedule and information about our Book Club, visit the My Sisters the Saints Book Club page.
Copyright 2014 Sr. Margaret Kerry, fsp