Kitchen Catechism: Featured Articles
by Lois Donahue
Recently our local newspaper ran some job application figures, and the resident clown in our church group quipped, “We could cut back on the number of applicants for the position of ‘mother’ if we passed out detailed job descriptions.”
Our lighthearted cynic responded with the tongue-in-cheek comment: “Careful, words like that could provoke a government grant for further study.”
It occurred to me then that words in themselves cannot “provoke” or “cause” or “do” anything. They are just words - a cluster of letters, a blending of sounds. To have meaning and life and the kind of power that makes them “mightier than the sword,” words must connect with people.
That is certainly true of the word "mother." Only when we identify the word as somebody does it cease to be something. Only when “it” becomes “she” does the word take on flesh. That is how your mother and my mother and their mothers and all mothers received their unique roles in God’s world.
In the beginning...
Mother’s Day is an appropriate time to think about other mothers and, with compassion in our heart and a twinkle in our eye, explore the zigzag diversity of motherhood.
What better place to begin than where motherhood itself began--with Eve. She was the first, the prototype, and it could not have been easy. She had no guidelines, no mentors, no Tigris/Euphrates branch library with shelves of how-to books, no suburban Eden support group. What instincts toward mothering God gave her, he alone knows, and it’s doubtful that her pro-mother anticipation level zoomed upward when God said he would “intensify the pangs” of her childbearing.
Ready or not, a mother she became. Before too many years, Eve was faced with the unbearable agony of having one of her sons murder the other. And she probably spent many days reminding herself that she was at least partly responsible for the pain and suffering, deprivation and death, not only of her own children and grandchildren but of every generation to come.
Certainly any mother struggling today with in-family tragedy or gnawing guilt can find in Eve a mother who would understand and sympathize. Even more, she would find the greatest weapon against discouragement and despair. Eve never lost faith: she remained in prayerful contact with a God she knew would care for her.
Rainy days and earthquakes...
Eve is only one of many scriptural mothers who have ”been there”. How about the mother of Shem, Ham, and Japheth--that nameless wife God directed Noah to bring aboard his cubit-by-cubit-by-cubit ark? Think about it - all those gloomy-weather days on that gopher wood boat with her husband, sons, and daughters-in-law. In addition, she had to share her living space with a male and female of every living bird, beast, and creeping thing, some of whose gestation period must have come and gone at least once in the time they were afloat.
I’d be willing to lay odds that as soon as Noah built her a dry-land dwelling, she laid down a few ground rules, probably qualifying her as patron saint of mothers who refuse to allow pets in the house. On a serious note, who better than she could relate to a mother who is suffering the devastation of floods, tidal waves, or any natural disaster?
When it comes to natural disasters, I don’t think there’s any question that the daughters of Lot would have told their sons, Moab and Ammon, about the earthquake and disastrous fire that left them homeless. And, without turning it into a disobedience and punishment lecture, about what happened to their own mother when she disobeyed God and looked back on Sodom and Gomorrah (see Gn 19).
The “little things”...
When we remember mothers from the go-forth-and-multiply era, we tend to focus on the headline-making crosses they had to bear. But we must not forget that they also had to deal with ordinary day-to-day annoyances that bloat, stress and shrivel patience--like children who throw up when someone asks their name or who chew on wooden objects or who think mud was made for walking in or who throw crawly things at anyone who’ll scream.
In getting to know other mothers from any age, it might help to think about them on that same everyday level. After all, that’s where we get in touch with real flesh-and-blood people and where we are more comfortable asking simple, if sometimes irrelevant, questions.
We could ask Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s illegitimate son, Ishmael, how she felt when the Lord’s messenger called her son a “wild ass of a man” (see Gn 16:12).
Or we might wonder if Rebekah, wife of Jacob, ever heard her son Esau say to his brother Jacob, “Mom always liked you best” (see Gn 25:19-34).
And did Salome, who danced her heart out for Herod, ever regret taking her mother Herodias’ advice about asking for the head of John the Baptist, ever want to scream, “Mom, I could have had a kingdom!” (Mt 14:3-12)
These are all more “wonderings” than questions - just a way of identifying sameness.
The mother role...
Another way is to search the yesterdays for the many “kinds” of mothers we know today - those women who willingly and lovingly step in to fulfill the role of mother for someone else’s children. They are not difficult to find.
Rachel died shortly after giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest of her twelve sons (Gn 35:16-20). Since Jacob had vowed not to take another wife, some nameless foster mother must have raised the boy destined to be a leader of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
To protect her child from certain death, the mother of Moses had to hide her infant in a basket in the river. A princess of Egypt, the Pharaoh’s daughter, found the baby and became the adoptive mother of Moses.
Loving stepmothers are also among our sainted kind. Saint Elizabeth of Portugal lovingly mothered the children produced from her husband’s extramarital affairs.
Among the saints, we find sibling substitute mothers like Pauline, the oldest sister of the Little Flower, who, after the death of their mother, postponed her own entrance into the convent in order to help her father raise her sisters.
Thus it becomes apparent that God always intended motherhood, with all its responsibilities and rewards, to be an ongoing, integral part of his plan.
Those terrible teens...
Speaking of responsibilities, if anyone ever does put into writing a detailed job description for the position of mother, I wouldn’t be surprised to see, in bold print under the heading, “Be responsible for children from adolescence well through young adulthood” (possibly with a footnote stating that preadolescence can pretty much be handled with tranquilizers and chocolate, and beyond young adulthood with hearing loss and self-induced memory lapses). Since the teen years are often a period of prolonged mutual misunderstanding between “we” and “they”, let me clarify with two broad but not all-inclusive definitions.
We: Desperate mothers half-convinced that our children are possessed.
They: Offspring who consider themselves “dressed up” in tennis shoes that cost enough to make a house payment, frayed designer jeans held together by strategically placed patches of faded denim, and shirts that would still be three sizes too large if the person in question were wearing a neck-to-waist cast and professional football shoulder pads; who walk as if they were boneless, eat as if they were bottomless, and drive as if they were brainless; who put holes in their bodies where God never intended them to be; who think that to be old, to be fat, or to save is socially unacceptable; and who believe that sex, cars, music, and credit cards constitute the meaning of life.
Trials, tribulations, and rewards...
Again, what is somewhat comforting, in a misery-enjoys-company sense, is that each generation of mothers is able to look back and imagine how other “wes” might have rationalized or explained the strange behavior of their “theys”. As we glance over our shoulders, we might see and hear the following.
Perhaps we might have seen Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, helplessly shrugging her shoulders because she couldn’t explain why her son went off into the desert, dressed in animal skins, and ate bugs.
Saint Joan of Arc not only claimed to hear voices but dressed like a man and led an army to war. Perhaps her mother was reduced to explaining to anyone who would listen, “Gets it from her father’s side of the family;”
Of course we also share with other mothers many rewards that cannot be adequately expressed in words - like the joy Hannah must have felt when, after fearing she might never bear a child, she held Samuel in her arms, kissed his soft cheeks and touched his tiny hands (1 Sm 1:9-23).
We can relate to the pride Margaret Bosco certainly knew as she watched her son John gather in and care for abandoned street urchins or the thankful contentment of Saint Monica when, after long years of prayer, her son Augustine embraced the faith.
Mother of all mothers...
So now we have hopscotched across the landscape of motherhood. We’ve touched on the serious, the spiritual, the sad, and the silly. We’ve again and again seen the word mother clothed with flesh. And I am certain that all along the way we’ve been accompanied by the mother of the Word-made-flesh himself.
It just seems natural and appropriate that Mary would be part of our “mothers only” communion-of-saints gathering and would certainly acknowledge, as we all should, that our experiences of individual mothering, including her own, range anywhere from vastly different to strikingly similar. Yet, with gentle wisdom, she would be quick to remind us that in spite of everything, we are all somehow heart-connected with the common thread of simply being a mother; a thread lovingly spun from the fiber of God’s love and held protectively in the powerful grasp of his hand - that same God who, through creation, literally encased in flesh every someday mother-to-be and planted in her humanness the seed-image of himself, which is unselfish love - theirs and ours - to neglect or to nurture.
First published in “Ligourian”