Who is your favorite mother-saint? Is it Zélie Martin, mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her fellow Carmelite sisters? Maybe it is Dorothy Day, writer and foundress of the worldwide Catholic Worker movement and mother to daughter, Tamar. In my bleary-eyed days of new motherhood, I became quite close to St. Gianna, doctor and mother of four who selflessly chose life for her daughter despite great risk to her own health.
Our Church holds up many examples of holy mothers who served God and their families with love, joy, and humility. At the same time, she seems to have little to say on the vocation of motherhood or what exactly it means to be a mother. Many saints have reflected on the meaning of their vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Our faith has a rich fountain of theology on the meaning of the priesthood and its connections to Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church. Ancient and contemporary texts alike reflect on the many rules of life and paths to holiness within various consecrated religious communities. But when it comes to motherhood, women looking for guidance on pursuing holiness through motherhood are more likely to find themselves in a theological desert than in an oasis of spiritual enrichment.
Why is this the case? We have beautiful texts on the theology of marriage. It seems natural that practical and theological reflection on the fruits of this union would follow. But as far as explorations of walking the path to holiness through motherhood (or fatherhood, for that matter), the Church could say more.
Signs of Hope
Much of this is simply a reflection of the times; only in recent years has the Magisterium begun to develop a theology of the laity, as reflected in the documents of Vatican II such as Lumen Gentium. Even more recently, Pope Francis has stated that our Church needs a more robust theology of women. An essential piece of that is a theology of motherhood.
This is where we come in, ladies. The Church needs us. The dialogue we create here at FemCatholic, the work of female theologians in academia, and the reflection we offer on our own experience of our vocations will all contribute to advancing our understanding of who we are in Christ and who he desires us to be for the world.
This is already taking place. When we read books like Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting by Laura Kelly Fanucci, Giving Thanks and Letting Go by Danielle Bean, or Don’t Forget to Say Thank You by Lindsay Schelgel, we engage in the theological reflection that is born of the experience of these mothers. We hear how God is present in the beauty, the mystery, the mess, and the everyday of this vocation. This is a profound and meaningingful start. But we need to move forward from here.
Towards a Theology of Motherhood
What does a theology of motherhood look like? What might it include? Listening to the voices of mother authors and bloggers gives us insight into some of the themes that a theology of motherhood might include:
Seeing God through our children.
In so many interactions with our children, we gain insight into the parental love of God. The wisdom we gain by observing our children resonates in moms’ groups, moms’ books, and mommy blogs across the internet. The love we have for our children provides a new dimension of insight into the love God has for us. Crayon-eating can teach us about our impulse to hide in our shame. Something as simple as the pitter-patter of tiny feet can spark spiritual insights for us if we pay attention.
Holiness in the everyday tasks.
Like the countless women before us, we can find holiness in the menial and mundane tasks of housework. Bending low to serve our children reminds us that Jesus deigned to become flesh in the Incarnation, and that the mystery of love flourishes in the little and the lowly. Attending to piles of laundry and stacks of dishes can feel onerous, but as St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, “The Lord moves amongst the pots and pans.” Each task, offered to Jesus, is an occasion for sanctity.
The paschal mystery of motherhood.
So many of us have taken solace in connecting the suffering that leads to new life in childbirth to Jesus’s Passion and resurrection. We hear the words, “This is my body, given for you” at Mass and feel again phantom tingling as we recall the sensations of nursing a hungry baby. Songs have been composed and many blogs written about what it means to give up our bodies for our children. Even medieval mystics like Julian of Norwich sensed the inherent connection between the Eucharist and the nursing mother. For mothers, a deeper connection to Jesus is written in our very bodies.
If anything can pry an illusion of control from our hands, it is the experience of parenthood. From the dominion over our bodies we lose during pregnancy, to toddler tantrums that escape comprehension, to the mystery of the person whose existence unfolds before us, motherhood teaches us time and again that sovereignty is beyond our reach. Moments that leave us on our knees in desperate prayer or strike us silent with awe remove the illusion that this world is of our making. Raising children removes our illusion of independence, requiring us to rely more fully on God and our communities for support. We are made in the image of the Trinity, of a relationship of love. Motherhood helps us return to this central aspect of our identity, to live love more completely.
What does it mean to be a mother? Much more than can possibly be said in this space. As a Church, we need to expand our reflections on walking the path of holiness. We need a broader vision of vocation for married and single persons, mothers and fathers alike. At the same time, we need a vibrant picture of what each of these paths looks like, and how they resonate together in a symphony of praise to our Creator. We need every iteration; every part of the Body of Christ is essential. Even after thousands of years on this pilgrimage together, there are still blank spaces on this canvas. A piece waits for each of us, just waiting to be filled in.