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.

The Need for Accompaniment

Accompaniment is perhaps the single greatest need in the Church today. With it, amazing growth and renewal happens. Without it, Christendom crumbles and collapses before our eyes.

Unfortunately, “accompaniment” has become a buzzword. Buzzwords can be confusing and unhelpful. So we need to be clear about what we mean by accompaniment in the life of Christ and his Church.

To be accompanied means that someone commits to us in a relationship that shows love and compassion to us in our need. To be accompanied likely involves one or more of the following: to be seen, noticed, heard, understood, loved, delighted in, celebrated, encouraged, included, affirmed, cared for, walked with, nurtured, fed, sheltered, protected, defended, touched in a meaningful way, comforted, calmed, soothed, taught, guided, counseled, corrected, chastised, or even disciplined. When I am accompanied, I experience at a profound level that I matter, that I am not alone, that I am known and loved, that I am safe and secure, that I belong to a reality larger than myself, and that all will be well. I feel free to be truly myself, without having to pretend or put on a mask. I experience an openness and eagerness for all that is true and good and beautiful.

We are familiar with figures in life who provide this kind of accompaniment: mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, nurses, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and clergy. Or, perhaps we should say that these people can provide these things. Sometimes they do the opposite by using or abusing, controlling or manipulating, neglecting or ignoring.

We live in an age very much like that of the early Church, an age in which the greatness of the Roman empire was fading fast, an age in which marriage and family life had broken down. Jesus urges his disciples to look around them and notice that the fields in the world are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). They have just stumbled upon his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. It turns out that the world is full of people like her, people with a deep hunger and thirst, people with a need to be accompanied. Jesus offered her that accompaniment: noticing her, seeing her, understanding her, caring for her, awakening her thirst, and inviting her to embrace the truth. The disciples arrive and ask Jesus about lunch. He explains to them that his food is in doing his Father’s will. He depends upon his Father. He needs to be accompanied by his Father.

This is the first and most important lesson of accompaniment: We all need to be accompanied. This is not simply a need we have as children; it is a human need by God’s design. We are made in his image and likeness. God is love. He is not a solitary God. He is an eternal communion of persons. The call from God is to share in his eternal life, in that eternal communion of love – a far cry from isolation and independence. Certainly, good parents help us to become strong and free and responsible – but hopefully still in a way that knows how to depend upon God and depend upon others. Love of God and love of neighbor are the two great commandments. Love is mutual, not one-sided. If we are not receiving love in a vulnerable way, we have not yet learned how to love.

We begin life utterly vulnerable and dependent,  looking to our primary caregivers, not only for food and clothing and shelter, but for all the other emotional and spiritual needs mentioned above. In God’s plan, these caregivers are a mother and father blessed and united by God in a stable and lifelong covenant of marriage. These days, it is exceptional indeed to find an environment in which mom and dad are intimate friends of God and secure in their covenantal love for each other. In far too many cases these blessings are lacking altogether, or they are only a well-maintained façade, masking misery and dysfunction.  No wonder there is such a gaping need for accompaniment! The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Here in the United States, there are a couple of added challenges. First, there is the false sense of “independence” – which easily becomes an ungodly self-reliance. Is our nation not built upon rugged individualism? We’re just supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, suck it up, and make it happen. That seems to work so well – until it doesn’t, and life collapses on us. That certainly happened to me – a story for another time.

Secondly, there are many in my generation who became “latchkey children” or “lost children.” Parenting books, from Spock to Ferber, positively encouraged moms and dads to raise “independent” children, to leave even babies alone in their sadness and fear so that they could learn how to “self-soothe” (as if this is something anyone can teach himself!). In other cases, circumstances forced children to be on their own, whether due to divorce or due to dual-paycheck households. When not consistently accompanied through childhood, children certainly learn to be independent – but not necessarily capable of receiving and giving love in a joyful and healthy way.  Many of us graduated to becoming lonely and isolated adults, uncertain how to form healthy relationships. Many more of my peers have emerged as the legendary “helicopter parents” of this generation, fueled by fear, and swooping in to rescue their kids from any real risk or responsibility (or freedom or growth). We are perhaps even more accurately described as “Zamboni parents” or “bulldozer parents.” Still unhealed and insecure from our own lack of accompaniment, and still unable or unwilling to admit our need for it, we are determined that our children will never face danger or risk alone – or at all.

Genuine accompaniment is all about gradualness – aiding someone, step-by-step, to become truly strong and free, capable of receiving and giving in authentic human love. Genuine accompaniment fully respects freedom, nurtures growth, and invites to greater responsibility. Most of us tend to one of two extremes. Either we meddle and micro-manage, or we stay aloof and inconsistent.

Genuine accompaniment is an art – these days, a rare art. I find that those who are best at it are those who themselves have received it – and who are committed to continue receiving it. Think of Jesus, who received accompaniment for the first 30 years of his life – and even then was regularly pulling aside from the crowds to reconnect with his Father in prayer. Jesus never ran from being vulnerable and dependent.

Most of us avoid being vulnerable and do not like to admit that we “need” at a such a deep human level. Receiving is perhaps the hardest human thing to do. If we do not learn to, we wind up grasping or seizing, using or taking, controlling or manipulating.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The lack of accompaniment today is a true crisis. Until each of us learns how to receive the accompaniment we need, we won’t know how to give it. Our members will keep drifting elsewhere in their ache for accompaniment. We lament that our young families are turning instead to athletics, or to yoga, or to social media. Don’t they know what they are missing by leaving the Church? True, none of those other things will fill the void they are experiencing. They are turning there because they find some version of accompaniment. When will we allow ourselves to learn and to begin turning our parishes into places where authentic Christian accompaniment happens – starting with ourselves? I know that if and when we do, the growth will be every bit as explosive as it was in the early Church. The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Gradualness: Lessons from John

Some Scripture passages make conversion sound so simple, like a one-and-done deal: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Matthew 4:20). Would that it were so easy! John’s Gospel, by contrast, is filled with encounters and dialogues that tell the story of a gradual and lifelong conversion in the heart of the disciple.

The encounters are many: Andrew (John 1:35-41), Nathanael (John 1:45-51), Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:3-26), the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), and of course Simon Peter (John 21:15-19).

Each encounter is unique, yet there is a common pattern. We might called it the S.A.L.A.D. method: (1) See, (2) Attune, (3) Love, (4) Awaken, and (5) a Difficulty Directly addressed, or even a Dart thrown by Jesus.

There are also opposite encounters and dialogues – interactions that evoke a hardness of heart, diminishing receptivity, and ultimately a rejection of Christ. Consider the disciples who cease following Jesus when he declares himself to be the Bread of Life and urges them to eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:25-66), or the Jewish leaders who gradually turn against him (John 8:12-59), or the intriguing Good Friday dialogue with Pontius Pilate (John 18:28-40).

Let’s now take a look at the S.A.L.A.D. acronym and the gradualness that Jesus models for us.

See. First, Jesus sees. He looks attentively at the person in front of him. I hope that we have all experienced this kind of seeing. We all need it, especially in our younger years, but throughout our life. It’s a look of love, one that says “I am interested in getting to know you.” It’s a look that desires to understand, to accept, and to encourage. It is a look that is free from expectations or demands. We just get to be ourselves in the presence of that gaze.

Think of what that look must have been like, for example, to the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery. There were many other looks that they knew quite well: looks of judgment or condemnation, looks of leering or lust – or perhaps all of these at the same time! Jesus begins just by seeing the person in front of him, as one made by God, worth getting to know.

Attune. Secondly, Jesus attunes. He looks deeply into the heart of the individuals in front of him. He gets to know their story, their deepest desires and needs, their greatest joys and most painful heartaches, and so forth. You can tell from each of these encounters that each person felt profoundly understood by Jesus.

Unfortunately, not all of the characters in John’s Gospel are interested in being understood in this way. Some put up defenses. Others insist on wearing a mask and pretending. The same is true of many of us. Not all of us allow ourselves to be understood, even though we all desire it in the depths of our being. It is so easy to feel threatened. Then comes the pride, self-reliance, self-protection, control, power, anger, or blame. I am personally familiar with all of them! Thankfully, God has given me plenty of chances, and in his mercy has allowed my defenses to crack and crumble and collapse.

Love. Jesus loves the person in front of him. It is not a superficial or sentimental love. It is a love that sees right through people – and loves them anyway. Just one experience of love in this way can change one’s whole life. Shame is such an oppressive burden. Many of us are convinced that if others really got to know us, they would want nothing to do with us. The love of Jesus truly proclaims Good News in these dark places of the human heart.

These first three steps of seeing, attuning, and loving are far from a “Pollyanna” approach. Jesus is well aware of the faults of every person he encounters. Just as we have seen in Gregory, Alcuin, and Paul, Jesus chooses to tolerate the evils that still need reforming. The relationship comes first. Unconditional love comes first. First we must be free to be who we are; then we can become free in our acting and doing. Repentance and conversion will come in due time.

Awaken. Jesus awakens desire in the heart of his hearers. Now that they have experienced understanding and love, they once again dare to hope, and the real growth begins. Once desire is awakened, it can catch fire quickly. The Greek word is eros (cf. “erotic”) and it is not uncommon for a convert to “fall in love” with the Lord and show all the eagerness of a lover in a romance. Not only does a lover do anything and everything he can to get to know the beloved and to fall more and more in love, he also feels the urge to proclaim to all the world the wonders of his beloved. I have seen the same when people have a genuine conversion experience. Certainly we see it in John’s Gospel: Andrew rushes off to tell the Good News to his brother Simon. The woman at the well tells anyone who will hear about this man who unlocked the mystery of her entire life.

Difficulties Addressed. Finally – and this point is crucial in John’s Gospel – Jesus addresses difficulties. He waits until the right moment, when he knows the person is ready. Then he hurls a dart or a real zinger. It happens every time.

With the woman at the well, Jesus invites her, “Go, call your husband, and come back” (John 4:16). He first saw her, attuned to her, loved her, and awakened her spiritual thirst. Then he confronts her with the truth. She is ready. She confesses the truth. She has no husband. The man she is with is not her husband because she has been married five times. Note that Jesus does not make concessions to the hard life and harsh treatment that she has almost certainly endured, leading her to the point of making these choices. He does not rationalize or downplay her sin. Nor does she! He has gently and gradually brought her to a moment of conversion, so that she can receive the spiritual water for which she so desperately thirsts.

There are other examples of darts and zingers, of confronting the difficulty head on. Jesus exhorts the woman caught in adultery, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). He jabs at Nicodemus: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). He reminds Pilate that he would have no authority whatsoever if it were not granted him from on high (John 19:11).

With Nathanael it is a bit different. When Jesus “sees” Nathanael, he perceives one who is ready right away. Jesus is immediately blunt, in an almost playful way: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit … I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:47-48). We never know what Jesus “saw” under the fig tree, but can assume it was something deeply personal and not entirely edifying. Yet Jesus affectionately accepts Nathanael for who he is, promising him much greater things. Nathanael eagerly follows.

Then there is Simon Peter, the ultimate example of gradual conversion. Peter is the epitome of two steps forward, one step back. The interesting thing in John’s Gospel is that the “dart” comes at the very end, after the Resurrection, when Peter encounters Jesus on the seashore, after the catch of 153 fish.

First there is the gentle invitation to Peter to admit and repent of his threefold denial. He who warmed himself and three times denied his master by a charcoal fire on Holy Thursday is now allowed to affirm his love three times by a charcoal fire, drawing near to true warmth.

But there is more. In the original Greek of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him with agape – the ultimate gift of self in sacrifice (which Jesus had just shown in his Passion). Peter sheepishly responds that he “loves” Jesus with philia – brotherly love – and is told to feed Christ’s sheep. Peter has come so far, and still has so far to go. Jesus gently but painfully invites him to tell the full truth about his conversion. He truly loves Jesus, but is not yet ready to lay his life down for Jesus. One day he will be. He will grow stronger in due time, and will truly become the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. For now, Peter’s love of Jesus is still a work in progress.  It is enough. Jesus invites him, “Follow me.”

Thus in John’s Gospel we see the human capacity to go either direction in an encounter with Jesus. Some of the characters allow themselves to be seen and understood and loved; they grow gradually in their desire and respond step by step. Others react or resist or retreat. In every case John leaves “the rest of the story” untold. We remain free to go in either direction. One thing is certain: We are either drawing closer or distancing ourselves. In such encounters with the God’s love and truth in the flesh, there is no standing still.