Sunday, October 27, 2013

Spiritual Motherhood

In the past month or two, a growing number of children have taken to calling me “Mother.” Those moments are always sweet and affirming, one of the best compliments I could receive.  It may, in fact, fuel my desires to stow all of them away in my suitcase when I depart for America!  On the other hand, I find it mildly unsettling, because although those words are so tender, I know that my place among them is not as such.  To my knowledge, despite coming from various degrees of extreme poverty, all of these children are loved and provided for by a parent or guardian.

The high-pitched, little declarations, “Sister Grace is my mother!”, as endearing as they are, opened up a store of emotion regarding my role among these children.  I know that I’m more than a teacher or nurse to any of them.  I’m a part of their lives.  They’re surely a permanent part of mine, like a seal on my heart.  I’ve watched them grow and change over the past year, many from scrawny kids to teenagers or young adults.  I’ve accompanied them through family troubles, school problems, and done a plethora of playing and singing in the meantime.  I know what makes them tick, and I know how to make them smile when they’re down.  There are explosions of mutual love during so many interactions, in their running to greet me, smiles half the size of their faces, and the comfort of a tight hug and a warm conversation.  The relationships that exist between us are authentic and of greater value than any material possession in the world.  All that having been said, I’m neither their mother nor even their older sister; I’m not even a permanent fixture in their physical worlds.  So what am I?

My questions were answered very directly by Archbishop Fulton Sheen in his book, The World’s First Love.  The book is a compilation of deep reflections on the person of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  Very briefly after these questions had started surfacing and stirring in my heart, the next chapter of that book met my answer head on: Spiritual Motherhood.

Sheen writes:
To beget a body is blessed; to save a soul is more blessed, for such is the Father’s will. There would, therefore, seem to be implied in all [single people] the necessity of apostleship and begetting souls for Christ.

This call to love souls into heaven spoke directly to my circumstances.  It also answered a lot of questions about what I've actually been doing for the past year.  The reason that the kids feel so loved by me is because I’m offering them something unique that they haven’t experienced in the same way before: the love of Jesus via the love of a woman.  Before Cait and I arrived in this village, the children had never before met strong, female role models.  Surely, there are plenty of good and faithful women in their parish and community, but there had never been a female presence at the Salesian Mission where we live.  The religious sisters that now stay here came a few months after we arrived, and all the previous priests, brothers, and volunteers were all men.   When we showed up a year ago, the kids shuttered at a hug or pat on the back, because the only way they were used to being touched by adults is in a strong, disciplinary manner.  In the beginning, they wouldn’t tell us much about their lives, because they weren't used to opening up to adults or receiving nurturing in their trials.  They were very close with and knew well the love of the Salesians community over the years, but the love of a woman is something unique and incomparable.

Today, toddlers up to teens run to hug me, ask me about my life as well as tell me all about theirs, they trust me and appreciate my presence here.  This isn’t because I’ve been their physical mother, but a spiritual one.  This week in my seventh grade religion class, I jumped into some meaty material on the commandments, not the watered-down version they’re used to hearing.  I was able to share with them the Truth of Christ, something that I’m sure no one has told them so directly before.  I want them in heaven.  I’m here fighting for their souls.  I’m not here just to teach a curriculum or to dispense medications.  I’ve also not been sent here to raise the kids or to adopt them.  I’m here to share with these children the most valuable lesson any human person could ever receive: the insatiable Love of Christ.  

I realize now that this responsibility spans much further than a year of missionary service.  Fulton Sheen writes that when we reach the gates of heaven, the Almighty Father is going to ask each one of us how many souls we have begotten for His Kingdom.  Whether single, married, or religious, we will be judged by the same standards.  Whatever our present vocation may be, our calling is each the same: to touch those around us with a radical love that penetrates deep beyond the surface and that calls others to do the same.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never fails. 
(1 Cor 13: 1,3,7-8)