Friday, November 8, 2013
Motherhood and Vocation: a second epilogue
This was supposed to just be a four-part blog, but as I was posting these this week, I realized I had just a bit more to say. Smaller things, but probably important.
1) What if you have no other vocation? What if you’re “just” a wife and mother? (Or just a wife? Or just a mother?)
Well, in that case, my guess is there’s no “just” about it. Women like that tend to be, in my experience, pillars of the church and community. They’re the ones who take care of everyone behind the scenes, the ones who fill in the gaps – gaps that might seem small, but that end up making all the difference in the world. The old are comforted by them, the sick visited, the children watched, the sad encouraged, the extra bit of running around and paperwork done, the missionaries housed, the strangers welcomed . . . and piece by piece, this looks small, but honestly: the world would fall apart without these “mere” wives and mothers. And even if you think this superwoman isn’t you, take a closer look: you might be surprised by what the Lord is accomplishing through your hours and your days.
Or what He will accomplish. You might be in the middle of a time where you feel you’re not even enough to take care of your own household. It’s okay: serve Him there. Turn to Him; He will not forsake you. And remember that you don’t know what He has in store for you, and no more do you know what He will do with those sacrifices of yours that now seem so insignificant. We aren’t allowed to see what’s coming and we aren’t always allowed to see the eternal result of our work – and all our work is just gift, just grace, just superfluous goodness in the kingdom that is entirely dependent on His great virtue, not ours.
(Also, if you are in this place, and you find it a discouraging place, I urge you to go and read Milton’s great sonnet, which he wrote as his sight disappeared. Remember: “they also serve who only stand and wait.”)
2) Okay, this is the harder piece, because this is where I’m likely to get things thrown at me. But I felt like I needed so say it, especially after all my emphasis on the essential humanity of women: I think women and men are different.
Phew! I know, I know, it’s shocking, but hear me out: we are different. Man was created male and female, and what would be the point of that if we were exactly the same? Moreover, basic biology tells us there is a difference and I get so annoyed when people ignore basic biology.
(And that’s just the biology – I’m pretty sure there are some even less tangible differences between the sexes, but I really don’t think I’m up to articulating them – and I mean that literally: I doubt my ability to do it. But being creatures who are not just physical, but whose embodiment is part of our very nature, it would make sense that what we see in our bodies is reflected in our souls. We’re very all-of-a-piece.)
The thing is though – and the reason I hesitated to say anything about this – is I don’t have a worked-out, easily-stated philosophy of the difference between the sexes. It’s a difference I can see more easily in real life and in good stories than I can in coldly-stated philosophical statements. And that’s probably a fault on my part.
So, before I go on, let me state really clearly: These are my thoughts in progress. You know how you can have an opinion about everything (and probably do), but you hold some opinions more strongly than others? This is an opinion that’s a little weak. Not because I think I’m wrong, but because I know it’s a huge and complicated subject that I haven’t thought through well enough yet. So it’s an opinion I hold lightly, because it seems not unlikely that I have some of it wrong.
But, with that huge caveat, here's what I see when I think through it:
Women are more vulnerable than men. History teaches us this – sadly, the daily news teaches us this. When people are being virtuous, this vulnerability is no disadvantage. In marriage, women receive. In pregnancy, women nurture. In childbirth, women break themselves in order to bring forth life. Can men receive and nurture and so productively be broken? Yes, of course. But not in the very literal sense that women can. (Huh – though as I think of it – Jesus is the sole exception to that last one – His broken body produced more life than any woman ever could.)
And in good societies, in good marriages, in good families, these feminine abilities are great gifts. They’re uniquely feminine opportunities for virtue and growth and goodness. They’re great gifts.
In bad societies and families, they’re uniquely feminine opportunities for experiencing violence and victimization.
And this is just true. I hate it when people act like it’s otherwise. The very reason we need all the protections our laws afford women is because this is true. Are men victims of violence? Of course. But not in the same systemic ways women are, and that’s because, as a group, men are less vulnerable. (And that’s not even getting into the effect hormones may or may not have on our daily emotional experience – not that that might not go the other way, too: I understand men are much more likely to be sociopaths, for example.)
St. Peter talks about men treating their wives kindly, as weaker vessels, and I can’t help but think this vulnerability might be what he’s talking about. As if he’s saying, “recognize that they are vulnerable in a way you aren’t, that they are operating under hardships you don’t have to bear, and remember also that they are loved by your Lord, as His good creatures, just as you are, and so don’t take advantage – though you can – and don’t be unkind. They are the Lord’s, as you are, and so treat them well, as you would be treated if you were them.”
I don’t know. I don’t presume to know I understand everything St. Peter meant. But it seems to me clear that he was reminding men that women were “fellow heirs of salvation” because the men needed to be reminded, and reminding them to treat women kindly because we women need that kind treatment. If we’re called to be mothers, we’re called to a specific kind of purposeful vulnerability, in order that we might nurture our young, and in that vulnerability, we need the protection of good men.
And if you think that’s not true, you need to read some more history. Or daily headlines. But you’ll find them both pretty depressing. See what happens to women in cultures that haven’t been influenced by Peter’s stern admonition about women being treated kindly as fellow heirs of salvation (i.e., made in the image of God, i.e., humans). They’re squished, that’s what happens. Because they can be. And because nothing stops the men from doing it.
And I don’t want to leave you depressed, or with the impression that the weakness of women (because, in some ways, we really are weak) is all bad news. It isn’t. Like I said: it presents us with unique opportunities to grow in holiness. (I’m sure men’s strength provides them with unique opportunities, too, but that’s not my topic here.) God’s strength is shown in weakness – that’s so clear in Scripture – and so in some ways, we have a head start. Weird as it is to look at it that way. But we can't ignore our vulnerability. It shouts at us. Sometimes I think men can ignore their weakness (because all humans are weak and breakable) more easily than we can, and I can’t imagine that’s to their eternal advantage. Realizing you're weak when you always thought you were strong - that's a pretty rude awakening, and one we all must have, one way or another.
Strength in weakness; God’s strength in our weakness: it’s a glorious thing.
Our prime example of this, of course, is Mary, who represented the entire people of God – male and female – when she in her humility said, “May it be to me as the Lord has said.”
May we all be more like her. And as we’re more like her, by God’s grace, may we be more like Christ.