Woman’s Spiritual Motherhood Attests to God’s Mercy and Love
published in L’Osservatore Romano 7:14 (April 1993):10.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you” (Jer 1:5). God speaks with clarity to his prophet, and his words could be directed to every one of us: it is he who gives life and, when he desires the birth of a new human being, it is he who has a wonderful design for the child, deeply rooted in his eternal plan.
Why do these ideas trouble us so much today? Do we perhaps fear that our freedom might be threatened, our self-fulfillment hindered or our “dignity” limited, if we are unable to “plan ourselves,” to “make ourselves” what we want to be—and instead we feel indebted to someone other than ourselves? Perhaps in these fears we have unconsciously yielded to the depressing and destructive influence of atheistic existentialism. In fact, for a Christian, it ought to be a joy that we are known and understood by the good God even to the depths of our being, loved in all the circumstances of life and thus taken with radical seriousness. For each of us, considered in our individuality, the Creator has a particular design; he is counting on each of us for the realization of his plans, and he invites each of us to follow his call. If only we had the courage really to abandon ourselves to him, we would walk more happily through life; we could develop harmoniously within the “immeasurable” love of God, and our lives would acquire ultimate meaning.
It is generally known that no one exists as a human being per se, but only as male or female. From the first moment of our existence the sexual difference is established. It is not something accessory or supplementary, nor a mere circumstance, which need not be present. Carefully considered, it appears as an expression of the divine will to see human existence realized in two reciprocally correlative and complementary expressions. God must have had a precise intention if he did not create man androgynous. A parthenogenetic or a totally asexual form of propagation, or other possibilities corresponding to the many types of relations found in the animal world, could be imagined.
Man and Woman Are Distinguished “Ontologically”
Nor does “woman” as such exist, but only “this concrete woman” with her nature and her history, her social milieu and her talents, her strong points and her weaknesses. This explains the tendency toward the multiplicity and diversity of tasks in the family, in the Church, in society. If in what follows we prescind now and then from all personal characteristics, we do so consciously in order to bring to light the root of “being woman.” This procedure is obviously risky, and in some cases it can certainly miss the mark. Nevertheless, within the context of a personal reflection it does not seem totally inappropriate, considering how heatedly people throughout the world are discussing the question of “emancipation.”
What does it mean to be “male” or “female”? How are the sexes distinguished? Unfortunately, not all the answers given to this question throughout the history of humanity have been intelligent and constructive. Sometimes the man has been ridiculed in summary, superficial judgments; other times (and, to tell the truth, much more often) the tendency has been to lock woman into a narrow stereotype, humiliating her in theory and in practice. In fact each of the sexes has its specific qualities; moreover, each in its own sphere is superior to the other. Man and woman are not distinguished by the level of their respective intellectual or moral qualities, but rather by a much more profound, more “ontological” consideration: namely, the capacity to be a father or a mother, and the special gifts that derive from this.
Woman is called to motherhood. The debate that has arisen in recent decades over this self-evident factual datum is surprising. Some radical feminists see motherhood as a “sickness,” a “threat,” a “shackle of nature,” from which the emancipated woman should free herself. Many women are unaware of how greatly they are influenced by this perspective, how much their own scale of values depends on it in regard to “self-fulfillment,” the number of children, and salaried employment. Nevertheless, an ever increasing number of Christians are managing to escape this cultural terrorism. To the extent that they enjoy an ever deepening experience of faith, they understand that rebellion against their own nature means rebelling against the Creator—and that one can have a balanced personality only by living at peace with oneself and one’s body. The “self-liberation” of woman cannot be reduced to a banal leveling according to the male model. One must aim at something much more challenging, much more fruitful, but also much more difficult: woman’s acceptance of her diversity, of her singularity as woman.
As mother, woman is called to be the “locus” of a divine creative act; in fact, whenever a new human being is born, parents cooperate in an indescribable way with God. The child is entrusted to the woman even before it is entrusted to the man; it is she who will welcome (above all in her very self), guard, and nourish it. To be sure, pregnancy is often characterized by tiredness and exhaustion, but is this not perhaps a special honor for woman, allowing her to feel the creative love of God even in the innermost depths of her body? Only a very superficial perspective, one which has lost its sensitivity to the essentials of life, can claim that a woman is lessened or put at disadvantage by being a mother. The Christian viewpoint holds the exact opposite: precisely because of her motherhood, woman possesses a certain “precedence over man,” as John Paul II expressed it so delicately (Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 19).
Woman Cooperates Actively in Spreading God’s Kingdom
This does not mean that the mother is “bound to the house as if by a chain,” “condemned to the work of a slave,” even if for some time feminist circles have held that this is obviously true. The fact is that many women experience the birth of a child as a burden—a fact which can in part depend on the lack of understanding from others and in part also on unjust social structures. Nevertheless, these are consequences of sin, not circumstances intrinsic to motherhood. Therefore they can never justify denying life to a new human being; rather, these circumstances themselves should be eliminated! This is one of the most urgent challenges in all societies precisely for Christians.
“When a woman consents to be a mother, then she is able to follow Christ in a more interior though probably unspectacular way. She can testify to the “kindness and love of God” (Ti 3:4) by offering a welcoming home, providing hospitality, handing on cultural and religious values. Thus she will learn that Christ can be found only on the cross. Undoubtedly she will also discover that she is called by her position to cooperate actively in spreading the kingdom of God. For this reason it is not at all desirable for her to be “confined” within four walls. Depending on her own personal ability and her family situation, she can actually consider it her duty also to seek other forms of involvement in society (professional, volunteer, or even personal engagement) and to open her home to many persons. However, it is undeniable that the welfare of the family must always be the first concern of good parents.
Motherhood, moreover, cannot be reduced to the physical realm. From the psychological-spiritual viewpoint all women are called in some way to be “mother.” What does it actually mean to be a mother if not to break through people’s anonymity, to offer others a willing ear, to share their concerns—and to make them open to the grace of God? Normally this all comes naturally to a woman (if she has not been subjected to distorting influences); her capacity to size up concrete situations, her sense of reality, and her sensitivity to the spiritual needs of others can be of great help to her. She has received from her Creator the capacity for solidarity and friendship and for a more personalized transmission of the faith. Why should one deny these gifts rather than use them gratefully and make life more agreeable and more in accord with the will of God? “Whenever a person realizes,” Blessed Edith Stein points out, “that in the workplace, where everyone runs the risk of becoming a cog in a great machine, there await him a sharing and even a willingness to help, then in his heart much of what otherwise would have wilted can be kept alive or rekindled.”
Here we can see so clearly what great good a Christian can do in the world! Is it not a highly significant mission to create an environment in which people can feel at ease? Precisely as a Christian, woman has the supremely important task of bearing witness to God’s love for the individual. She is called to convey to others the awareness that they are accepted and taken seriously (by God too), and that their life has value. To be Christian means to live in union with Christ and to act as he would, even amid the hectic pace of the big city, in the supermarket and in the factory, in the office and in the university, in the hospital and in Parliament, and above all at home, at work, in sports and recreation. It means showing that there is someone to whom a person can turn when problems become too great, someone who does not judge or pose as an expert, but understands, forgives, and comforts, and who asks more of herself than of others.
Spiritual Motherhood Brings Happiness and Love
The “Church” is to be found wherever a human person follows Christ, even without an explicit mission or the presence of a parish council. A woman who takes her ecclesial mission in the world seriously has an almost unlimited panorama before her. There is no sorrow or need which can leave her indifferent because she knows the state of the world, but at the same time she always experiences that peace which comes from faith. Through the example of her life she will proclaim the joyful message, whose demands should shake and confound all nearsighted selfishness. Acting in a Christian way means to act humanely; it means to work with magnanimity and untarnished fidelity, as much for the present world as for the world to come.
Women who spend themselves in a spiritual motherhood are usually very happy and very much loved. There is no sense in trying to alert them to the fact that they may be “exploited.” If Christ died for mankind, then those who follow him cannot afford to be concerned with the narrow calculation of their own advantage—which on the other hand leads only to neurotic benumbing and sadness. We continually have to learn to repent of our own hardness of heart and to change our lives; then we will experience the joy of a new beginning.
The silent but effective work of “motherhood” deepens and broadens the Church’s life all over the world. It is not triumphs and external splendor that constitutes what Is essential in the Church of Christ; it is not careers or production. It is certainly not status or position. Much more important is a personal, strong, interior union with Christ himself. More important is the love of God which is expressed in love of human beings. Women are called to be an enduring reminder of this truth.
Does this perhaps mean that men are incapable of love and friendship? Certainly not! Fortunately, the opposite often proves to be true. However, since by his very nature man is more remote from concrete life, he can and should learn much from women—first of all from his mother, and then from his sisters, his women friends, his wife, and his co-workers.
On the other hand, women are not prevented from holding office or receiving appointments—even in the Church’s institutions. Here they are not inferior to lay males, and they have amply demonstrated that they too have the capacity to organize and manage. However, in God’s sight this is secondary. A woman who wishes to be faithful to herself and to Christ will in any case desire an authoritative position only in order to be better able to spend herself for the happiness of others. And she will never forget that it is holiness which confers value on a human being—not the world’s acclaim.
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