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 Conversion of St. Monica

Monica is an immensely popular saint, particularly among those who fret about the sins and sufferings of their adult children.  Many a mother has fantasized, “If only I could be like Monica…If only I could pray hard enough and shed enough tears to convert my children as she converted Augustine…” In our age of addictions, no wonder she is so popular!

But perhaps she is popular for the wrong reasons. I am convinced that, if we knew her whole story, we would discover a major conversion of her own. Her son Augustine wrote his Confessions, in which he tells one of the most stunning conversion stories of all time. He periodically alludes to his childhood and his parents. Knowing what we know today about sexual addiction and addictions in general, it’s not hard to start connecting the dots. I think Monica’s greatest victory was not the deathbed conversion of her pagan husband Patricius, nor even the tear-filled conversion of her son Augustine. No, her greatest victory was her own recovery from codependency.

Consider the legendary words of the bishop St. Ambrose, when she entreated him with tears about the sins of her son Augustine: “Speak less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.” Wow. I can relate. It is not uncommon for a priest to hear something like this: “Father, you need to help me to fix my children!” Well okay, they don’t usually put it that bluntly. But many mothers and fathers feel like their personal self-worth is on the line. If their children sin or fail, they themselves are failures. That’s a lie.

It is one thing to grieve over the sins of our loved ones. Destructive behaviors are sad indeed. It is another thing to feel personally responsible. The apostle Paul reminds us that each disciple must carry his own load (Galatians 6:5). We cannot fix other people’s problems or manage their lives.

Trying to do so leads to an array of unhealthy and destructive behaviors: perfectionism, judgmental or self-righteous attitudes, bitterness, resentment, depression, hopelessness, avoidance of conflict, self-loathing, self-punishment, manipulative comments, shaming or blaming postures, trying to “fix” others, unsolicited advice, and the like. All the while one ignores the pain and grief of one’s own heart.

These “codependent” attitudes easily thrive in homes where addictions dominate. Monica was married to an addicted husband and reared an addicted son. It is not a stretch to imagine her battling with codependency on her path to sainthood.

In our pornographic culture, I have had conversations now with hundreds of men who have a wound of sexual addiction, whose behaviors are very much like those of Augustine and his father Patricius. Some of those men, like Augustine, have found liberation and peace as they walk the path of recovery. As they heal, they get in touch with their father wounds. Often, their fathers were like Patricius – unfaithful to their mothers, verbally or physically abusive, alcoholic, absent, etc. Recovering addicts begin to realize that their unwanted behaviors are not the real problem; they are only the tip of the iceberg. Lurking beneath are old and unhealed wounds. As prevalent as father wounds are, I am finding it a nearly universal truth that where there is a sexual addiction, there is an unhealed mother wound. I definitely see mother wounds in Augustine’s story.

Let’s tread carefully here. Acknowledging these wounds is not about casting blame on father or mother for the sins of their children. No one gets into an addiction without himself choosing or agreeing at some point along the way. The great Jimmy Buffet teaches us that we are ultimately responsible for our own sins. Additionally, sometimes children are blocked from receiving what they really need for reasons that are not the fault of the parents.

In Monica’s case, it’s not hard to imagine her playing the victim card, casting herself as a silent (or not-so-silent) martyr, subtly manipulating or shaming as she tries to guilt her husband and her son into doing the right thing. As I hear of the deathbed conversion of Patricius, I wonder just how much joy and liberation he felt in his baptism, versus a reluctant agreement mainly to appease Monica. God knows the truth.

Filling in the blanks, I think Monica’s conversion story goes something like this:

Monica is mired in misery, abused and betrayed by her husband and repeatedly wounded by the wanderings of her son. Probably the abuse and mistreatment began with her own father, and she learned how to cope from her own codependent mother. Like so many in her shoes, she fantasizes about how blessed her life would be if only her husband or her son would change. She is hyper-aware of their behaviors and constantly tries to manage the damage. Eventually, she learns to stop lecturing or shaming or manipulating. She heeds the godly advice of Ambrose and talks more to God about Augustine. She talks to God more and more often. Augustine doesn’t seem to change. She harbors a good deal of bitterness against the men in her life, yes, even against God. She won’t admit that, because good Christian women don’t get angry, certainly not at God! Still, she meditates often on the sufferings of Christ and of his mother Mary. She is often moved to tears – sometimes without knowing why. Finally, like the weeping women of Jerusalem, she learns that Jesus wants her to weep for herself (Luke 23:28). She realizes that, when Jesus weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem, he is weeping also for the ruins of Monica’s heart, so often trampled down by others, so often neglected and ignored by herself. She starts learning that God is big enough to handle Augustine’s problems – far better than she can. She learns to surrender and to live in the present moment. Little by little, her heart, numb for decades, begins to thaw. She trembles and gasps and sobs as she feels God attuning her to the swirling anger and torrential sadness of her own heart. But she finally believes that her heart matters and that those who mourn are truly blessed. She lets it happen. Like King David in the Psalms, she pours out her heart to God – all of it. She surrenders all in faith. She begins discovering an unfettered joy and peace, even as she sheds more tears than ever. She is finally free.

It could have happened that way. God knows the truth.