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.

Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.