Spiritual Motherhood: Counterfeit or Legit?

This week we recognize the gift of femininity and the vocation of motherhood in its varied forms. We celebrate, as Pope Francis says, woman’s “great gift of being able to give life, of being able to give tenderness, of being able to give peace and joy.”

By: Therese Bermpohl, Director of the Office for Family Life

Around the time I turned 40, I remember having a profound moment, realizing that barring some spectacular intervention akin to the Incarnation, I was never going to be a mother. Even now, writing these words, years later, I am surprised by the fresh wave of emotion that surfaces. I do not think there is anything particularly unique about my situation. I believe that most women desire to have children and most feel a great loss when those desires do not come to fruition.

Sassoferrato, Jungfrun i bön (1640-1650). National Gallery, London.

Sassoferrato, Jungfrun i bön (1640-1650). National Gallery, London.

But I take comfort in the fact that although not all women are chosen by God to be biological or adoptive mothers, there is a type of spiritual motherhood available to all women as a way to fulfill that hunger to love, nurture and place ourselves at the service of others.

Unlike biological motherhood, it is difficult to define the term “spiritual motherhood” with any precision; yet I think we all have a sense of it. As a child, I can remember being afraid or hurt and receiving some comfort from my father, yet there was always some indefinable difference in the nurturing that came through the gestures, concerned questioning and touch of my mother. So, too, with the resonance of spiritual maternity; it is experienced but difficult to define.

There is a certain comfort that we feel in the presence of women, a freedom to tell them things with an almost reflexive trust, an instinctual understanding that they care about us. I remember an older priest, once humbly recalling a time when he had a difficult day working as a missionary. After a long grueling day, he encountered two of his brother priests on his way into the rectory. Each time he was asked about his day, he replied that all was well. It was not until he encountered the religious sister at the parish who asked, “Father, how are you doing?” that he decided to unburden himself of the many struggles that had confronted him that day. When asked why he did that, he stumbled to find an answer, but could only say: “There is just something about a woman. You really believe she wants to hear your story and she cares what happens to you. It’s not that the men don’t, but it is just different with a woman.”

Women have a great sensitivity to those around them. Certain females seem almost clairvoyant and we find ourselves asking, “How did she know that?” They notice everything, big and small alike. Observations can range: “Why did you order fish? You never order fish,” or “Where is your coat?” to “Are you okay? You don’t look well” are small examples. Sometimes it can be an unwanted recognition of a pain that you’ve been trying to stifle. Yet other times it is a welcome opportunity to pour your heart out to a trusted friend or companion. Women are often willing to get involved and take initiatives where human relationships are concerned. (This trait can easily move a woman to the dark side. For the sake of this blog, I’m going to focus on the inclination as a gift).

With the spiritual mother’s innate capacity for identifying with others’ needs, joys and trials, what greater exercise of her maternity could there be than to place all her “children” into the most powerful and tender arms of the Savior who longs to take us all to Himself like “a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Cf. Luke 13:34)? It is through this prayer and intercession that women can have the greatest impact on those she loves and on the world at large.

Should we ever need to be reminded of what true spiritual motherhood entails, we need simply look to the Blessed Mother, in whom we find the sweetest, most perfect expression of spiritual motherhood. We would be wise to learn from her perfect example. She opens herself to our needs; she notices all our joys and sorrows and intercedes for us constantly before the throne of God with the ultimate goal of assisting us in our journey to Heaven.

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