the Lady Chapel

At the far right of the image above, a corner of a postcard is just visible, showing a bit of stone floor. Not just any stone floor, though: the floor of the Lady Chapel at Minster Abbey. I’d never heard of ‘thin places’ before the first time I went to Minster, but it is thin all over, and the Lady Chapel particularly so.

I always knew I would appreciate Benedictine spirituality. Before I had ever visited a monastery, I thought one day I would want to be an oblate. (Still hasn’t happened yet.) Nothing I imagined even came close to the reality of being there. The train journey from my home in the north of England takes about 5 hours and involves at least 2 changes, one of which happens in London (between Kings Cross and St Pancras). So when I arrived in Minster the first time, I felt like I was a long way from home (especially because the journey took a couple of extra finding-my-way hours).

And so I was: a long way from anything I had ever experienced before. The daily office–the rhythm of Benedictine prayer–was new to me. Nuns were new to me. Yet somehow the place felt like home almost immediately. Because I was on an individual retreat, I had no schedule other than the appointed times for prayer, and no ‘input’ apart from the daily office and Mass. In my little room, there was a Bible and a small copy of the Rule of Benedict.

Little did I know that reading Benedict’s Rule would change my life as much as anything ever has. That weekend, I was a woman adrift, looking for a spiritual beacon. That little book–hardly more than a pamphlet–convinced me that the spiritual life was for me. Not that I really doubted; it’s just that I had wondered since college whether I would ever recover the sense of purpose that I had as a member of an evangelical (and I mean that in the telling-people-about-Jesus sense, not the Christian brand-name sense) community. Being a mother of (then) three children and holding down a job as a lecturer didn’t leave much time for the intensive Bible study or hour-long quiet times I’d had all those years ago. But that was when it all seemed so vibrant and essential.

Benedict’s Rule is for monastic communities, true. But it is about how daily life is spiritual, and how to live it in a way that makes each seemingly insignificant task an act of Christian discipleship. That weekend, I learned a Latin phrase: ‘fratres non contristet.’ It comes from the instructions to the cellarer. If a brother comes to you with an unreasonable request, Benedict counsels, refuse him gently, so as not to upset (contristet) the brethren (fratres). Being a mother involves refusing countless unreasonable demands on a daily basis, at least in my house. The challenge was, and is, to make every response–yes, no, or maybe–an act of love.

That is what Benedict taught me that weekend: fratres non contristet. Every time I go into the Lady Chapel at Minster, I recommit myself to the goal of gentleness in daily life. Even with those words in large letters on my refrigerator, I forget. I forget that discipleship happens in the little things, as we do them with love. I forget that Jesus taught us more on the cross than in all the words he said. I love that saying floating around the internet at the moment: ‘if you have to chose between being right and being kind, be kind.’ Indeed. That is, to me, what gentleness is all about. But it is a lot harder than it seems! So back to the monastery I go, to find myself again in the Lady Chapel, to be in peace and grace and regulated quiet long enough to accept the fact that I have to begin again.

fratres non contristet.

mothers in Rome?

At his General Audience this week, Pope Francis lauded mothers and the work of mothering–not that this is anything new or unusual. The Pope frequently recalls his own mother, refers to the Church as our Mother, and reminds us to call on Mary, our Mother.

But it has long bothered me that the praise of mothers and motherhood doesn’t carry with it an open ear to the wisdom that work often produces in those who have been trained by it. So it was nice to hear that worry reflected in Pope Francis’s words: “the mother is rarely listened to or helped in daily life, rarely considered central to society in her role.” Not only that, but “in Christian communities the mother is not always held in the right regard, she is barely heard.” And yet, in Pope Francis’s words, “human and spiritual formation” comes from mothers. Not, of course, that fathers and grandparents and others do not contribute, or that every mother does this unfailingly. (Heavens no!) Here Pope Francis echoes the Council’s teaching on the family. For example, Gaudium et Spes 52 describes the parents’ vital role in the spiritual formation of children, and Lumen Gentium 35 says explicitly that, in Christian households, “husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children.”

Because I am a mother, I suppose, I take these themes in the Church’s teaching in LG, GS and elsewhere very much to heart. Although I do a lot of ‘other’ things–teaching and writing in various contexts–I find the growing edge of my spiritual life in the daily work of being a mother. Mostly it’s the building up of patience and humility that I need. The practice of love requires both, and doing the “petty and unsexy” things (to quote David Foster Wallace) for my children has been the way forward for me in the familial school for the Lord’s service. Certainly there are countless other ways to develop the necessary disposition for Christ-like love; this just happens to be mine.

And being a mother–especially a mother of a child with Down Syndrome–has shaped my theology and my whole way of thinking about the world. Pope Francis says, “mothers are the strongest antidote to the spread of self-centered individualism…mothers…’divide’ themselves, from the moment they bear a child.” I’m not sure I would have put it quite that way before, and I am a little embarrassed at the way Pope Francis praises mothers. I’m not all that good at it, not that self-sacrificing. Still, I know what he means here, and I have heard other mothers say similar things. I used to say, when my older children were still babies, that it was as though my center of gravity was somewhere outside myself. Now, my eldest is 13 and my youngest is 3, and I realize that I haven’t given up my body for a finite period of time. No, long after the carrying and bearing and nursing are done, my body still somehow belongs to them as well. I don’t understand this, and I don’t doubt that some mothers would disagree. (And I expect that fathers experience something similar and yet distinct, and that parents who adopt experience the process of dividing in a different way, but no less intensely.)

This is not to say, of course, that mothers are somehow superior. (Good grief, no!) But I would argue (yes, argue, and I don’t do that unless I really think it’s necessary) that mothers have a particular contribution to make to the upbringing of the Church. It is no accident that we consider the Church our Mother, and that we look to the Mother of our Lord as example, guide and help. That this is all so, and that the Church has not found a place for the wisdom of the mothers within her is a little disturbing. Like the society that takes advantage of “the readiness of mothers to make sacrifices for their children,” the Church has praised mothers “from a symbolic point of view.” Maybe this persists because mothers don’t make sacrifices for their children in order to be praised or heard beyond the bounds of the family. It would be silly to expect that, and constantly disappointing. The children themselves don’t listen–unless mine are the exception!

Mothers do need the Church. Pope Francis is right about that. But does the Church not also need mothers? Does the Church have nothing to learn from the mothers who have kept the faith, and who have raised their children to do likewise? This to me is an amazing achievement. Moreover, it is one of the key things St Paul asks of bishops in Titus 1:6. Bishops (or “elders”–St Paul uses both terms in the passage) should be “blameless,” have been married only once, their children should be believers, and they should not be accused of debauchery or rebellious. Bishops nowadays usually don’t raise children in the typical manner. So the criterion isn’t employed.

But maybe St Paul was on to something here. Maybe there is something about raising children (and this for mothers and fathers alike) that shapes us, that makes us fit for leadership in the Church in a particular way. It would be wonderful to see the Church take advantage of that wisdom and experience in the way that St Paul recommended. Lay people have something to contribute to caring for the body of Christ. I don’t know much about the hierarchy, not really. But I do know it’s not impossible for laypeople to become cardinals. What better way to take seriously the wisdom of those who have served the Church by raising their own families than by recognizing them as equals in care-giving in the body of Christ?

Of course, maybe by then the mothers (and fathers) would rather settle down to a quiet life. I don’t know. I am not there yet. It’s just a thought.

my feminist paradox

I have to acknowledge my debt to feminism. Teaching theology would never have been an option for me before feminism. Feminist pioneers not only in theology but in social and critical theory broke the ground and laid the foundations of the ‘building’ in which I now pursue my academic work. I am grateful for that; I love what I do. I also appreciate the hard choices that lots of said pioneers made in their own lives so that I would not have to choose between being a professional and being a mother. 

So I didn’t ‘choose’. I try to do both. With countless other women, I feel like a near-failure most days and a total failure every other Wednesday (or something like that). The thing is, I look around me and see that the women whose careers I most envy are those who pursued them in the most traditional way–without the interruptions that forced me to abandon this post last week. I returned to it this morning, though, because I heard an interview with a successful woman who works in the City. Her observation about women’s success in her line of work? The highest achievers are those who ‘work like men’: unencumbered by the school run or the child off sick from school. She is free to stay late, to dash off to a foreign city at a moment’s notice, because her husband is covering the childcare. 

Don’t mistake the wistfulness for a negative judgement. Dividing up the domestic responsibilities is a delicate undertaking, and reversing the ‘traditional’ gender roles is certainly one option. Around here, though, it’s much more messy: daily conversations about who is doing the morning or the afternoon school run and what’s for dinner are the norm. And I certainly can’t complain about my lot. I have an incredibly supportive husband who has always done more than his fair share, considering that he (like the woman on the radio this morning) is the ‘primary breadwinner’. 

What worries me about the various arrangements we devise, whether we’re in paid employment or working our tails off at home, is that very often we regard the ‘stay home with the children’ option as a ‘sacrifice.’ We could have been at the top of our game in some line of work, but we chose to give it all up for the sake of the children–as if raising children doesn’t require us to be at the top of our game. We sacrifice ‘doing something’ or ‘being someone’ in the world for the obscurity of the domestic realm. (I’m trying hard not to rant, here, and may not be succeeding; sorry.) I worry about three things in particular. First, I worry that we’ve forgotten that being devoted full-time to one’s children is a privilege. Not every mother has that choice. Second, I worry–and this is the thing that drives me to distraction–about the value judgement implicit in the language of sacrifice. 

But–in the third place–I worry about how the feminist achievements of my forebears have shaped our imagination. Subtly (and sometimes not so subtly), we are being taught that women ‘can’ in a way that is all too easily converted into women ‘should‘. And that, I think, is just as insidious as the old way of thinking–women ‘can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’. The status of motherhood seems not to have changed. It’s just that some of us are allowed (encouraged?) to moonlight as mothers while keeping our day jobs. The more important stuff still happens in the ‘world’, not in the home.

Nonsense. That’s just nonsense. Raising human beings from infancy to adulthood is of ultimate significance. Now I am not saying that ‘therefore, mothers should all stay at home.’ I don’t. I try, and usually fail, to do both. Some women don’t have a choice, and some choose careers that take them away from home a lot. I am not saying that’s bad; my 7-year-old proudly proclaimed to a friend on the playground once, ‘my mummy’s a professor!’ (Only a lecturer, really, but who am I to correct my enthusiastic son?) What I am saying is that we really ought to remember the ultimate significance of what happens in all those moments we do have with our children, as we accompany and guide them on the most important journey of their lives: growing up. 

I remember when I was in college the requirement that ‘attractive alternative beverages’ be served whenever alcoholic beverages were being offered–so it never became a choice between a tasty alcoholic drink and some cloudy tap water. Sometimes it seems as if the potential for success in the workplace looks like a beautifully-executed mojito or an exquisite pint of beer, against which the potential for nose-wiping and car-pooling appears as a glass of lukewarm tap water in a plastic cup. That’s the shaping of imagination I want to resist. I want to remember–and it’s so easy to forget–that both paid employment and home-and-family keeping provide opportunies to work extremely hard and not always be recognised for it (really!), opportunities for exhilarating moments, and the potential for self-realisation. I want to see motherhood as the old-vine zinfandel next to the Oregon pinot noir of paid employment. 

Remember that billboard advert (for cigarettes, I think): ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’? Well, I (at least) still have a long, long way to go.