Sunday, May 13, 2012
Woman & Mother: Sign of Love
I have only two items in my Mother’s Day repertoire: one, a poem called “Mother, Ph.D.”, author unknown, and the other, a story:
The gowns she ties on
Aren’t a whit academical;
The formula she fixes
Is not a bit chemical.
She draws up some triangles
Notes wetness and dryness
In her main course of study,
Complete with details,
For twenty-four hours
She classifies wails!
The story is about a young Roman Catholic priest who was to preach his very first sermon on Mother’s Day. He agonized over what to say, and was beside himself with fright. The old monsignor, his pastor, lovingly sat him down and said, “I’ll help you, son. The trick is to begin with a strong and unique opening so that you can grab the congregation’s attention. Then the rest of the sermon will be a breeze! So, I want you to memorize this opening sentence: ‘I’ve spent the major part of my life in the arms of a loving woman...’, then you pause dramatically and continue: ‘...my mother.’” The young priest felt a bit reassured.
Then came Sunday morning, and the monsignor slipped quietly in and stood at the rear of the church, figuring that his presence would lend moral support to his junior. Instead,when the young priest stepped into the pulpit and caught sight of the monsignor, he panicked, then said: “I’ve spent the major part of my life in the arms of a loving woman...” -- (dramatic pause, which got longer and longer) -- then he continued: “But I can’t remember her name!”
Let’s never forget that God’s only Son came to us through a woman. Bearing and nurturing and, yes, losing that son, letting him go, could only have been sustained through the empowerment of God’s Spirit and of faith. Jesus was the richest fruit ever born of a woman’s and a mother’s self-giving, a fruit which “abides”, using the Gospel’s terminology (John 15:9-17), with us always.
When I think of womanhood and motherhood in my own life, I feel extremely grateful. My mother, Grace, favored me with warmth and understanding, with respect and love for other people, and with a sense of fairness and honesty. She shared with me her basic sense of the holy, of responsibility, as well as a love of learning. Her giving, as a woman and mother, didn’t come easy. My father left us when I was about three. Being an only child and leaving home for the seminary just out of 8th Grade, Mom and I lived together only 14 years. In mid-life Mom became an alcoholic. In addition to that disease she was also plagued with phlebitis, and in the midst of a bout with that she lost her husband of only 12 years, my stepfather, Tom, who died suddenly at age 44. In John Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, Ma says: “Everything we do -- seems to me is aimed right at goin‘ on. Seems that way to me...Jus‘ try to live the day, jus‘ the day.” With the same indomitable spirit of woman and mother so common in our human history, Mom became a recovering alcoholic, and remained so up to the time she died in December, 2003.
I feel very blessed to have had many women throughout my life, each of whom contributed something to an integral outlook and attitude toward women so necessary for us men. Jesus’s attitude toward women, understandably, was extremely healthy and integral, primarily because of the influence of his own mother, Mary. Later, when Mary of Magdala was about to be stoned for her sexual indiscretion by eager, self-righteous, men, whom the Gospel intimates were every bit as guilty, perhaps more so, than she, Jesus showed uncommon understanding, compassion, and forgiveness. Another time, as Luke records (11:27), “As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.’” To which he replied: “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” The man Jesus met “delicate” situations like these, the kind in which many men in our society might recoil in discomfort, with maturity, ease and great respect.
Woman stands as a sign, a person-sign, to man. As a unique symbol woman speaks to humanity and to the Church, almost paradoxically, of two things: motherhood and virginity. Speaking of woman as a sign of motherhood in sermons, I’ve often wondered if female hearers have ever had the question put to them: Did you ever realize that you could have been Jesus‘ mother? As a woman, you have everything that Mary had, everything essential, to have been his mother. Perhaps in responding to the woman in Luke’s Gospel account, as he did, Jesus is saying, in effect: “You can be my mother,” not physically, of course, but in a different yet no less real way. Society and the Church cry out today, especially with a hunger and poverty for the one thing so characteristic of a woman/mother: genuine love, love which abides in, keeps, and gives the Word of God’s love. Far from being a mere emotion, sentimentality, or “warm fuzzies” in the stomach, it’s that Presence of Godself which expresses itself in openness and willingness to hand oneself over in self-giving love.
As a sign of virginity women are able to share the kind of virginal commitment which Mary modeled, whether they are married or not, whether a mother or not. Perhaps the full understanding of virginity is not so much about physical integrity, though it is that too, as about the God-given ability to be truly open, truly unselfish: in other words, the ability to genuinely love.
To be motherly and virginal involves not filtering God’s Word, not turning it off as it comes to one from wherever in one’s life. It implies becoming an abiding presence of Jesus to and for others, learning to recognize another’s possibility for greatness in the Lord, and encouraging and nurturing that possibility.
The late Fr. Robert Capon, in his wonderful book Bed and Board, says that to be a woman and mother is “...to be the sacrament of place”, to be “the very diagram of belonging...the ‘where’ in whose vicinity we are fed and watered, and have our wounds bound up and our noses wiped. She is geography incarnate, with her breasts and her womb...and her hands reaching up to us the fruitfulness of the earth.”
Each of our own personal experiences of mother and woman, obviously, colors the meaning of “womanhood” and “motherhood” for us. The women in Scripture certainly give us much to think about in this regard. Eve is the mother of life. Sarah is faithful and rich, even though barren for a time, with so little to give. Ruth is generous in going where her mother-in-law goes and taking her people as Ruth’s own. Judith is willing to take the risk of action for the greater good of others. Mary, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, proclaims her servanthood, not as she wishes but as God wishes.
Another unknown author has written: “Whether your mother is 40 or 80 years old, [living or dead] she is an irreplaceable treasure in your life. As the years roll on and turn into decades, she takes on an indestructible sort of beauty, the reflection of her inner soul.”