Between September 1979 and November 1984 Pope John Paul II based his midweek audience talks on the topic which would be known as the Theology of the Body. Although it wasn’t realised at the time, the talks were groundbreaking in that they drew together ideas, some of which were already in circulation (about, for instance, the equality of women and the potential holiness of the conjugal act), and developed them, making them part of the Magisterium. It is said that the late Pope wrote everything on his knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament and his 1988 encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem, on the Dignity of Women certainly reads like the fruit of deep prayer. Much of it consolidated his earlier teaching. Why did he feel the need to go back to the subject?
The occasion was the Marian Year and in the encyclical Mary is taken as the paradigm of unfallen woman, the new Eve. At a time when modern social pressures and emerging secular ideologies stressed the role of women outside the home and apart from the family, the Holy Father wanted to reaffirm the uniqueness of the feminine genius, to appreciate it as something complementary but quite different, though entirely equal, to the male. Rather than producing a work of dogmatic theology, the Pope framed the text in the manner of a meditation. Steeped in scripture and the fruit of a mind tempered by prayer and sacrifice, Mulieris Dignitatem is a magnificent work that rewards special study.
The Holy Father’s insights, especially into scripture, are astounding and actually rather thrilling. He examines the status and role of women from Genesis onwards. Jesus’ attitude to women is especially fascinating. For instance, when Our Lord (and later St Paul) refers to Our Lady as ‘woman’ he is referring to her role as the new Eve, the one who is at enmity with the serpent, and the one ‘clothed with the sun’ in the book of Revelation. Two of Christ’s most important discourses, ‘I am the living water’ and ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ were both addressed to women and both of them culminated in Christ’s self-proclamation as the Messiah. In a male-dominated world, that a message of such eternal significance should be given first to women is extraordinary and without precedence. We can thus infer that Christ wished to emphasise the essential equality of men and women that existed before the Fall.
What Mulieris Dignitatem does not attempt to do is describe Spiritual Motherhood with the particular understanding that we now do. However, some of his thought can be a focus for fruitful meditation for the spiritual mothers, lay and religious, married or single, who are now responding to the Spirit’s call in this year of the Priest and beyond.
There is a passage in Luke’s gospel where a woman in the crowd cries out “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked!” only for Jesus to reply “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27-28). Our Lord’s words are not a denigration of his own mother, but an acknowledgement of her deeper role. What is true of her becomes true for the motherhood of other women, “a profound listening to the word of the living God and a readiness to safeguard this Word which is the word of eternal life. Those born of earthly mothers receive from the Son of God the power to become the children of God.” Human parenthood thus enters a dimension of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood giving it the task of forming ‘new creations’. It need not be said that this is also the role of spiritual motherhood; to promote the sanctity of spiritual children by prayer and sacrifice.
Pain in childbirth is a heritage of original sin. Christ at the Last Supper spoke of the agony of labour and subsequent joy of the mother ‘that a child is born into the world’ (Jn 16: 22-23). The context of this statement, says the Holy Father, evokes the Paschal Mystery. He talks of Mary at the foot of the Cross, our Lady of Sorrows, her heart pierced by many swords and then speaks of the many women who suffer in the world, both physically and morally. He asks that all suffering women place themselves at the foot of the Cross. This is a profound insight, drawing great richness from the biblical text. For spiritual mothers who have not known childbirth, this ‘pain’ is felt in the suffering willingly borne to bring spiritual children to sanctity, to eternal life.
It is not possible to be a mother without the intervention of a father. Spiritual mothers are, in a sense, spouses of Christ; at least they are when they exercise spiritual maternity towards others. Again, we can go back to the passage quoted earlier, ‘blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it’. Spiritual mothers will be barren if they are not living closely and intensely with God.
Motherhood has at its heart an openness to life in co-operation with God the giver of all life. Eve’s cry ‘I have brought a man into the world’ shows her awareness of this. Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life. Pregnancy and childbirth, says the Pope, affect a woman’s personality especially as she relates to others. As spiritual mothers are we open to others, sensitive to their needs, which may not be spoken by them? Do we approach each person in a spirit of prayer and docility to the Holy Spirit so he can work through us?
Perhaps there are some practical conclusions one can make as well – John Paul speaks movingly about openness to life that characterises Christian motherhood, and the task of being the first educators of the young; perhaps some spiritual mothers not involved with bringing up small children might find an apostolate, say in pro-life work or parish catechesis even if just praying for those involved? Teaching authentic Catholicism at a time of such confusion among Catholics would be a spiritual work of mercy.
John Paul II’s writings frequently refer to Mary and his devotion to her was intense. It need hardly be said that spiritual mothers must have Mary for their own mother and should always seek her maternal help. “Motherhood is always related to the Covenant which God established with the human race through the Mother of God”.
Mulieris Dignitatem has more to say than we have space for here, it deals with womens lives more completely and there is a wonderful reflection on the consecrated life. John Paul also discusses chastity and modesty which are an integral part of the Theology of the Body. Chastity is first practised in the mind – the pope refers to the threefold temptations of lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). ‘Pride of life’ can be interpreted as boastfulness of one’s achievements, possessions and the craving of worldly status. If we are to live spiritually, to be spiritual nurturers towards those in our prayers, we must live out our charism by giving good account among those we meet. This is a tall order in today’s world and the only remedy is total dependence on God. Several times John Paul quotes from the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes where the council fathers assert that man ‘cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self’. This call is countercultural in that it contradicts the message of self-fulfilment that is preached by the world. We have to lose ourselves to find ourselves. The spiritual mothers of today, in their hiddenness, their prayer, their sacrifices, realise this wisdom in a very real way.