By: Anjanette Barr
American composer Samuel Barber found inspiration for his Hermit Songs collection from poems and observations written by Irish monks – often in the margins of illuminated manuscripts. One of the songs in the collection, St. Ita’s Vision, is based on a lullaby to the infant Jesus attributed to the sixth-century saint.
When my college voice instructor assigned that particular song to me, I found the lyrics startling. In Barber’s interpretation of the story and medieval text, St. Ita moodily demands that God send her the infant Jesus to nurse, and when He grants her request the music shifts into a rapturous contemplation of the majesty of Heaven’s King, asking the women around her to sing praises to the baby at her breast.
I had no idea what to do with the mix of emotions the song evoked. I questioned whether it was proper to have that kind of relationship – even in a mystical or imaginary way – with God. I wondered at the supposed boldness of St. Ita and at what made her even desire such a thing. Most unsettling was how her ardor resonated deeply with something inside me that I had yet to really analyze.
What maternal impulses I did have as a young woman were centered around the ideas of teaching and preparing a young person for their future – nothing especially sentimental. Indeed, my instinct to nurture and adore stayed dormant until I held my first baby in my arms, and I have heard many other women say the same. However, we all know those women who are just born nurturers – they mother their friends and siblings with tenderness and look eagerly toward having children of their own.
All women have to wrestle with this combination of God-given tendencies and desires, the opportunity (or lack of) to use them, and how to discern the place motherhood holds in our lives. Biological motherhood is never entirely in our control, but much of our youth is spent consumed by the thoughts and realities of fulfilling this one role or trying to attain it.
Not long after I became a mother, I realized I’d missed a very important truth about mothering: we never stop needing it ourselves, no matter how old we are. There’s nothing magical that happens as a child is brought forth physically or adopted into a family, that enables a woman to suddenly, always know how to mother. In fact, new mothers often feel more unsure and vulnerable than they have since they were young children.
Also, this is where a different, equally important, kind of motherhood enters in. It’s the kind we find described in the second chapter of Titus, the modeling and training of younger women in godliness. It’s the kind of relationship that fosters opportunities to make disciples as we’re commanded to do in Matthew. St. John Paul II in his apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women calls this motherhood “according to the spirit.” Or more simply, spiritual motherhood.
The spiritual mothers in my life have shown compassion through providing basic needs like food and rest as I labored through years with young children. Others have held me up in prayer and with encouragement. The women in my life have showered me with kindnesses and have educated me in everything from the mundane fundamentals of keeping a home, to matters that require careful deliberation and fervent prayer. I genuinely feel that I have been mothered by hundreds of women of all ages, and especially by women who have attained wisdom I still lack. Those women deserve the title of mother whether or not they have raised children of their own.
Some cultures and sub-cultures do a better job of keeping this holistic vision of motherhood intact than others. While living in Japan, I noted the deference given to older women, referred to by the Japanese word for grandmother, regardless of whether they ever bore children themselves. The role of older women in that culture is a motherly one. I’ve seen the same across many cultures as I met women in person and in literature.
And, of course, Catholic religious life for women is oriented in this familial manner. Here, we see very intentionally what spiritual motherhood can look like. Women consecrated to Christ have opportunities to express their maternity in the love and care of those in need through prayer and service. They spend their whole lives mothering.
Similarly, single women and married women without children have the opportunity to nurture and care for the people God places in their lives. Even mothers actively parenting children have a duality of vocations. As St. John Paul II says in the letter mentioned above, “does not physical motherhood also have to be a spiritual motherhood, in order to respond to the whole truth about the human being who is a unity of body and spirit?”
God has made women for motherhood. It is essential to our femininity. We have been given the tools to nurture life, and been given the impulse to do so. The infant Jesus – fully God already – is a very visceral reminder of the honor of our being entrusted with a great capacity for love and devotion, and of God’s unimaginable humility in revealing Himself to us as a vulnerable child. It stirs a devotion in us as women that we need to embrace and cultivate for the benefit of others.
I love how Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) summarizes this maternal role and points us to Mary as our guide. I hope this is as timely a reflection for you as it is for me during this month of Our Lady:
“Everywhere the need exists for maternal sympathy and help, and thus we are able to recapitulate in the one word motherliness that which we have developed as the characteristic value of woman. Only, the motherliness must be that which does not remain within the narrow circle of blood relations or of personal friends; but in accordance with the model of the Mother of Mercy, it must have its root in universal divine love for all who are there, belabored and burdened.”
Anjanette Barr is a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle in Juneau, Alaska. She is a wife, mother, writer, and recent convert to the Catholic Church. Anjanette can be reached at http://www.anjanettebarr.com