The Church as Mother

Jesus reminds us that the fields of the world are ripe for the harvest. Like the woman at the well, so many human hearts today are hungering and thirsting for meaningful accompaniment. They come to our churches seeking and searching. They often leave again, still feeling empty, undernourished, unseen, misunderstood, unaccepted, out of place, or unloved. It is so important for us to learn how to be communities that provide ample opportunities for meaningful accompaniment.

What does this look like? We have already considered many metaphors (mentoring, coaching, walking with, sharing bread, etc.). But none compares to that of motherhood. For each of us, motherhood is THE way in which we experienced the most accompaniment in our life – or didn’t, in which case we may still feel the painful effects of that void.

Motherhood is so very important, and the Church is called “mother” both in Scripture (Galatians 4:26) and throughout our history. It is not just the females, but all members of the Church who participate in that motherly role. Jesus teaches us that anyone who does the will of his Father becomes brother and sister and mother to him. How do we become a mother of Christ? According to Augustine of Hippo, by mothering new members in that one Body of Christ that is the Church – both in bringing them to birth and in the ongoing nurturing that is needed after birth.

Each Christian is born again in baptism, birthed from the womb of the baptismal font. Within our new family, the Church, we are meant to receive the slow and steady mothering we need as we grow in our newfound faith. This need was obvious in the early Church. There were droves of adult converts, and the process of accompanying them took several years by design. Once again we live in an age when a large number of our families (children and adults alike) are proceeding on their faith journey with virtually no knowledge or experience of Christianity or discipleship. There are people in our pews who do not know the basic story of Jesus dying and rising, not to mention the messiness of their personal lives. The need for a motherly presence in their spiritual and emotional life is enormous.

I can think of several things that earthly mothers provide that also apply in Church life: nurturing, caring, encouraging, attuning, calming, soothing, celebrating, empathizing, teaching, guiding, and correcting. We all need these things as children; we continue to need them as adults. In an age in which many mothers didn’t or couldn’t provide these things to their children, the need is felt all the more acutely.

Mothers nurture. They provide steady care and encouragement, reliably present to us as we grow. The growth is gradual and slow, and takes an enormous commitment on the part of a mother. Even in the largest of families, a mother is only actively nurturing a dozen children at most – but usually no more than a few at any given time. And even then it drains all that she has to give.

I find that in many Catholic parishes, the priest and maybe one or two others are looked to instinctively any time serious accompaniment is needed. If there are only 10 or 20 people in the parish in serious need of accompaniment, that works well; it’s exhausting but rewarding. But what if there are several hundred in serious need of accompaniment – and many fewer priests? Let’s not forget also that five or six decades ago there might have been a community of nuns living on site to fill in more of that motherly role. That presence of religious sisters is indeed a rarity today. But one need not be a nun to be a spiritual mother, much less be an ordained priest or a paid staff member. In our parishes, much more motherly presence is needed, and every member has a role to play. It’s a totally different model of parish life than many are used to. But if we don’t learn it, our parishes will be quite small in membership and devoid of new life. Several already are.

Mothers attune. They notice what is happening in the hearts of their children. When their child is upset, they know how to calm and soothe him. They know when to draw near, and when to back off and give space. When their child is overwhelmed or frustrated or confused, they help him make sense of the situation and grow in confidence that he has what it takes to figure out a solution.

Do we notice things in parish life? Do we attune to the people around us? Do we notice those who feel confused or anxious because they have never been to one of our liturgies before? Do we notice those who are obviously looking for something and not finding it? Do we notice those who are feeling alone and unloved, anxious or confused, burnt out or overwhelmed? Or are we so caught up in our usual routine and usual clique of friends that we walk right past them? If we do not attune and offer that attention, who will?

Mothers celebrate. They cheer on their children again and again. Under the loving gaze of a mother, children grow in confidence. Baby takes his first steps – mom cheers him on. Baby says a complete sentence – mom cheers him on. Modern brain science has helped us understand how important these celebrations are. Each time we celebrate a small step, our brains release a healthy amount of dopamine. That euphoric feeling of a successful step keeps us motivated so that we keep on trying and keep on growing.

In parish life, who does the steady cheering on for someone who is slowly coming back to faith? Who is there to notice and celebrate every little baby step that is being taken? So many people are starting out with the very basics in their faith life. Virtually every part of the experience is new to them. When someone actually notices and celebrates their growth, it is so encouraging and so motivating.

Just imagine what parish life could look like if every member was doing this kind of noticing and celebrating and encouraging – even for just one or two other people. The growth would really start to multiply!

The Church needs to be motherly, or new life and new growth will cease. Motherly presence is time-consuming. It is best done with a few people at a time. Even Jesus only tried to accompany twelve in this way! We simply cannot assume that “someone else” (our priest, our staff, our volunteers) are taking care of it. They can take care of 10 or 20 at most. Taking care of the multitude of souls that Jesus is calling is the task of each and all of us!  I encourage each of you to ask God in your heart – who are two are three individuals the Lord has placed in your heart that He especially wants you to accompany at this time? Are you willing to make a steady commitment to those individuals and go out of your way to attune, to nurture, to encourage, to cheer on, to guide, to chide, and to bring to fuller growth? As this motherly accompaniment becomes a normal part of parish life for every member, we will see amazing growth and fruitfulness. By doing God’s will, we will become brothers and sisters and mothers of Christ.

Images of Accompaniment

I dream of the day when each parish church will be a family in which everyone is receiving accompaniment and giving accompaniment. On that day, we will all be humble and vulnerable enough to allow ourselves to receive what we need, and will be thoughtful and generous enough to give accompaniment to others that God sends to us. On that day, it won’t just be the priests or the same couple of leaders in parish life trying to do the accompanying, but everyone, each according to his own calling and gifts. All will be accompanied and all will accompany.

There are various images that come to my heart when I think of this accompaniment: sharing bread, playing music, dancing, mentoring, coaching, walking along the path, sitting down next to someone, cultivating a garden, and mothering.

Accompaniment, at its best, is a committed relationship in which one is receiving the things he needs. Our needs are various: fellowship, listening, empathy, encouragement, affirmation, care, comfort, accountability, teaching, nurturing, guidance, and much more.

The first image that comes to mind is sharing bread together. That is literally what “accompany” means. Think of all the meals shared by Jesus and his twelve apostles – those to whom he provided consistent accompaniment, day in and day out. In the best meal experiences, all participants truly feel a sense of connection and belonging. In that spirit of openness, hearts are changed. We receive not only physical nourishment but a sense of community and belonging and purpose. Historically, those who share bread together were also those who walked the path together. They were part of a company travelling together, “companions” on a journey. Certainly our walk towards eternal life is a long journey, and we need companions.

Another image of “accompaniment” involves music. A musical accompanist is not the main attraction. Rather, his role is to be almost unnoticed in the background, boosting the confidence of the main performer(s). When the soloist or choir members make mistakes, the accompanist adjusts, helping them regain their composure and their rhythm. There is much more to accompanying than simply hitting the right notes – it’s a wonderful art of being interconnected with others and bringing out the best in them.

A related image of accompaniment is teaching someone to dance, or dancing with someone. I must say, this has NOT been a strong point for me. I think back to Homecoming my Junior year. My skills on the dance floor were duly noted by the football coach. He really enjoyed himself at the next practice, teasing me and another football player named “Bubba.” Something to the effect of filming a documentary entitled, “White Men Can’t Dance.” Anyway, those of you who love dancing know some of the skills needed – an intimate connection with your dancing partner, an overcoming of inhibitions, a willingness to make mistakes and adjust, attuning to each other and to the music, etc.

My football coach certainly knew how to tease, but we also revered him. He was an excellent mentor and coach.  He knew how to give both criticism and praise, and had our undivided attention. He motivated us beyond what we originally thought was possible. I am still deeply grateful for the incredible discipline that our conditioning drills instilled in me. My internal “smoke alarm”goes off so frequently and so falsely, warning me that something is too much for me. Occasionally it’s right, but so often it’s wrong – I can actually handle it. Coaches are so good at helping us learn those lessons. Think of how many teens look up to their coaches. I encourage you to ask yourself – what would the equivalent look like in parish life?

One of my favorite images is sitting down next to someone. This image is especially helpful in those many moments of life when the shields of self-protection are up in full force. Most of us resist accompaniment, especially when we are feeling afraid or ashamed. When someone sits down next to us in a non-threatening way, it says so many things. It says, “I see you.” I see that you are hurting and afraid. I see that you feel ashamed, so I won’t look at you too forcefully or directly. It says, “I’m with you.” I am willing to sit on this dung heap with you and be sad with you. I’m not any better than you and I’m not trying to avoid your mess. It says, “You’re safe” – I won’t try to meddle and fix this. I’m just here at your side. If you want me to leave, I’ll go. If you want me to draw closer, I’ll draw closer. I respect you and your freedom. I notice you; I care about you; I am here for you.

Still another image is cultivating a garden. It’s a wonderful image because it involves both a consistent commitment AND incredible patience. On the one hand, the best gardeners show a marvelous awareness of what is affecting their plants: the soil, the water, the sun, the weeds, and unwanted pests. They vigilantly and diligently intervene to allow their crops to grow and flourish. On the other hand, they wisely understand that so much is out of their control, that growth is slow, and that they themselves do not provide any of it – not the seed, nor the plant, nor the growth, nor the fruit. They resist the urge to pull up the plant and check on its status.

Finally, and above all else, when I think of accompaniment in Church life, I think of motherhood. The Church is our Mother. Each of us, in our own way, shares in that mission of “mothering” others within the life of the Church. Jesus says that those who do his will become brother and sister and mother to him. New members come to birth and grow in His Church when we are willing to accompany. I’ll share more next time!