|Third-grade teacher Eugenia Hannigan prepares to read a book to her students during the first day of classes at Sts. Cyril & Methodius School in Deer Park, N.Y., Sept. 9, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If physical motherhood is giving physical birth, spiritual motherhood is nurturing the soul of the person, as well as mothering those to whom you did not give birth. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)|
"Stand up," my husband nudged me.
I gritted my teeth and stood in my pew. It was Mother's Day, the annual "blessing of all the mothers" at the end of Mass, and it made me nauseous.
"We bless all of you who are mothers, grandmothers, godmothers, aunts, teachers, spiritual mothers," continued the priest. He might as well throw in truck drivers, I muttered.
In our world where every child gets a participation award, spiritual motherhood often feels like a consolation prize. As might be apparent, I have a love-hate relationship with the concept.
On the one hand, it conjures up the beauty of caring for souls. If physical motherhood is giving physical birth, spiritual motherhood — which can be exercised by women whether they physically give birth or not — is nurturing the soul of the person, as well as mothering those to whom you did not give birth.
Having worked in ministry for many years before marriage, I certainly have nurtured souls. And having nine younger brothers and sisters and 37 nieces and nephews, including six godchildren, you would think that spiritual motherhood would be something easy and natural for me.
But hearing on Mother's Day, "You're a spiritual mother to so many!" doesn't cure the emptiness (that never seems to go away) of not having children of your own.
"But you get to travel!" is an even worse consolation. How could the most luxurious vacation or exotic adventure possibly compare with the privilege of giving life to and raising another human being?
I continually tell myself (and beg God to remind me), that if he thinks I can be fulfilled as a woman without my own children, why do I keep insisting I need them? Like everything else in the spiritual life, spiritual motherhood makes no sense unless viewed from God's perspective.
The word that comes to mind when I think of spiritual motherhood is "intentionality": We have to choose it. The kids aren't melting down at my feet clamoring to be held or whining that they're hungry as I rush to get dinner on the table.
For a spiritual mother, the "child" could be a niece 1,200 miles away struggling to adapt to high school; or a carless student at the grad school where I worked calling early on Sunday morning for a ride to urgent care; or a woman in the Bible study I run who needs a hug and a reminder that God loves her — so she's better equipped to go home and love her family.
If I let him, God expands my heart to love and pray for not only the souls of my immediate family, but any he puts before me. Not having the daily tasks of child rearing, I have more time to pray, to run a women's group at my parish, and serve at our vocation camps in the summer. My husband and I can be available to counsel friends or family members who simply need some advice or support.
And if I let him, God can fulfill me in these roles as well.
My work in the vocations office probably provides the most tangible examples of this. I get to organize our Quo Vadis and FIAT events for high school kids, providing opportunities for them to grow closer to God and think about their future vocation.
At our FIAT summer camp, I serve alongside religious sisters as they exercise their spiritual motherhood, and then can give dating advice to the college-aged staffer who admits she's been "discerning a vocation" for years because she's not sure how to talk to boys.
Most beautifully, I get to walk with our seminarians, trying to put them at ease before their first meeting with the vocations director, encouraging and praying for them through their application process and seminary years, then being elated at their ordination.
What a beautiful day that always is! One year as the newly ordained processed out of the cathedral, a co-worker noticed my moist eyes and said, "You're a proud mama." Thank you, Lord, yes, that's what I am.
"Stand up," my husband nudged me.