Culture, Essays

Motherhood as a Path to Sainthood

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Saints throughout the ages have lived lives of heroic virtue in every imaginable context, as martyrs, missionaries, and mystics; doctors, lawyers, and teachers; workers, cloistered contemplatives, and itinerant beggars. There are also plenty of canonized saints who were married, at least for some part of their life, and many of them were mothers and fathers. One cannot help noticing, however, that the life circumstances of these married saints look rather exceptional in comparison with the mundane reality in which most Christian parents are called to holiness. To become a canonized married saint, it would seem imperative to either found a religious order later in life (St. Elizabeth Anne Seton, St. Bridget of Sweden), die under especially painful or tragic circumstances (St. Gianna Beretta Molla, Bl. Elisabeth Leseur), or be of noble birth and from a family of wealth (Bl. Elizabeth Canori Mora, St. Frances of Rome). The most notable exception to these rules would be Sts. Isidore and Maria of Spain, simple peasant farmers and faithful spouses, but their choice to live a celibate marriage (after the death of their only son) still puts them in the category of having exceptional life circumstances, in comparison to most of us.

In comparison, I mean, to the circumstances of family life that most Catholic parents spend years of their lives immersed in: of diaper changing, night time wakings, juggling schedules, and attempting to form children in the faith, while also keeping the lights on and the family car working. It is not that the canonized married saints did not ever know these realities. They may be lesser-known chapters, but each of these saints surely changed a diaper or two in their time, or even spent many years dedicated to the great and exhausting work of raising a family. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that in our day and age the parents—and mothers, in particular—of young children feeling compelled to answer the universal call to holiness and looking for the saints who have walked in their very particular shoes find few examples. It would seem that the road to formal recognition as a saint of the Church is somewhat extrinsic to the most basic and consuming aspects of family life. Does the stay-at-home mom have a shot at sainthood if she never founds a religious congregation and dies peacefully at a ripe old age?

While the Church affirms (with increased vigor since the Second Vatican Council) that the lay person of whatever career path or vocation can and should become holy, we also depend on the models held up for us in saints who are formally canonized. The canonical process itself imparts no greater holiness to the person’s life than has already been proven by their witness; the Church does not make the saint. But what is at stake is the stories we tell of our faith and the examples that are upheld for the faithful in their own pursuit of holiness. It should take no convincing for the Catholic mother of small children to believe that she is called to sanctity in the here and now of her labor for her children and household, to believe that the daily tasks she performs in her home can be as much for the glory of God as those of a priest or missionary, and yet I’ve found it does take convincing.

Mothers are told by our society that it is not enough to be merely a devoted caregiver to their children. They must also cultivate themselves and their gifts, professional and personal, or else they will be useless on the job market when they return to their careers and they may also become boring creatures along the way. The implication is that work in the home and the care of children is not desirable or enjoyable in and of itself and does not allow a woman the space she needs to flourish and live as a whole person, constrained as she is by all the menial tasks that consume her days, her months, and her years. The message women get is that they must be a mother and something else, or risk becoming irrelevant.

The message women get is that they must be a mother and something else, or risk becoming irrelevant.

If secular society misunderstands and undervalues motherhood as a primary occupation, the Church does not always speak explicitly or often enough about how motherhood is to be fully embraced as a life-giving vocation, one that is sufficient unto itself as a path to holiness. The bare fact of giving birth and keeping a child alive for some eighteen years obviously does not constitute a vocation. The Christian mother is called to a far more involved and intentional form of life if her maternity is to become a means of sanctification.

Servant of God Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, wrote with perspicacity on this matter. Ever the realist, Day acknowledged that family life contains “glimpses of heaven and hell,” but she insisted that the mother who recognizes her call to raise children who might themselves become saints is already on her way to heaven. One passage from her book On Pilgrimage is worth quoting at length:

It would seem to the unthinking that mothers of children, whether of one or a dozen, are intensely preoccupied with creatures: their little ones, food, clothing, shelter, matters that are down to earth and grossly material, such as dirty diapers, dishes, cooking, cramming baby mouths with food, etc. Women’s bodies, heavy with children, dragged down by children, are a weight like a cross to be carried about. From morning until night they are preoccupied with cares, but it is care for others, for the duties God has given them . . . The point I want to make is that a woman can achieve the highest spirituality and union with God through her house and children.[1]

Herself a mother and grandmother at the time, Day knew the burdens of domestic life and the “toll” they might seem to take on a woman. She did not mince words about the visceral and spiritual challenges of a mother’s daily grind, but she framed them in the uniquely Christian term of “mortifications.” She goes on,

Here is her mortification of the senses:
Her eyes are affronted by disorder, confusion, the sight of human ailments and human functions. Her nose also; her ears tormented with discordant cries, her appetite failing often; her sense of touch in agony from fatigue and weakness.
Her interior senses are also mortified. She is alone with her little ones, her interest adapted to theirs; she has not even the companionship of books. She has no longer the gay companions of her youth (their nerves can’t stand it). So she has solitude, and a silence from the sounds she’d like to hear—conversation, music, discussion.[2]

Dorothy Day reads to her daughter Tamar. Photo: Jim Forest; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Dorothy Day reads to her daughter Tamar. Photo: Jim Forest; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

This litany is not intended as a gripe, and I would venture to guess that most mothers do not hear it as such. It sounds incredibly familiar, and even comforting. But these same experiences common to all mothers (and fathers, to varying degrees as well) are not necessarily elevated to the status of mortifications unless they are accepted and borne for the love of God, which is clearly what Day is getting at. The angle on motherhood depicted here is what we encounter so rarely in the narratives of our saints, partly because the minutiae of their lives as parents are lost to history and partly because these thornier aspects of the story are not what sell books. Whatever the reason, these unsung means of sanctification point to the potential contained within the vocation of motherhood for heroic virtue in the face of what are more often perceived as burdens to be avoided or mitigated.

Parsing these sentiments in yet a more explicit way, Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero (who has been officially recognized as a martyr for the faith) likened the self-giving way of Christian motherhood to the literal martyrdom of saints. In a funeral homily given in El Salvador in the 1970s, a time of political turmoil and persecution of the Church, he said:

Giving one’s life does not only mean being killed; giving one’s life, having the spirit of a martyr, it is in giving in duty, in silence, in prayer, in honest fulfillment of [one’s] duty; in that silence of daily life; giving one’s life little by little.[3]

Bl. Romero, truly a shepherd with the smell of his sheep, must have been a close observer of the women and mothers of his community. Though his homily was for a priest who had died for the faith, he knew the mothers who were listening were living their own domestic martyrdom every day, in ways that never reached the public eye but were just as heroic. He went on to say that the maternal martyr “conceives a child in her womb, gives birth to it, nurses it, helps it to grow, and attends to it with affection. She gives her life. That’s martyrdom.”[4]

Again, the simple biological fact of motherhood is not enough. Bl. Romero is referring to the same wholehearted embrace of the Christian vocation of the mother that Day spoke of and embodied. A mother who lives her maternity in “the spirit of martyrdom” is undertaking the work of sanctification, and while she may give herself to other forms of work outside the home, her hidden domestic labors are enough in and of themselves to start her on the path to holiness when she does them for the glory of God.

In this regard, it’s no wonder we do not have more canonized married saints whose lives look like ours. The very obscurity in which most of us raise our children, tend our homes, and practice our faith is part of what guards and nurtures growth in sanctity. If the world was watching or if we thought one day our story would be told, we probably could not be dependably detached from our egos in living out the Gospel. To be a mother is intrinsically a vocation to hiddenness, and this fact is perhaps what makes it most potentially sanctifying.

It is upon these innumerable hidden habits and choices that her growth in holiness hangs.

Both Day and Romero speak of the “silence” in which a mother is enshrouded, and this is often the case; if not literally then certainly in the symbolic sense, of being largely disconnected from the sounds and activities of the outside world. There is a beauty in this reality that is too little acknowledged. Silence and solitude may breed resentment and angst at times, but that is entirely dependent on the interior disposition of a mother’s soul and what habits she chooses to cultivate. The fact of one’s vocation being hidden from the world ought to inspire courage when considered, for example, in light of the Incarnation. Surely a life marked by the same obscurity in which Christ was born in a stable with no witnesses but a few friendly beasts cannot be far from the Kingdom of God.

No one will know if a mother does the dishes with her heart raised to God in gratitude, or if she patiently reads to her child who wants to hear the same story over and over again, or if she deals gently with the rebellious teenager. No one will know if she responds with sweetness or bitterness to the inevitable disruptions and perturbations of family life that are decided in a split second’s movement of the heart, but she will know, and she makes her choice, and it is upon these innumerable hidden habits and choices that her growth in holiness hangs.

This is not at all to imply that it is inherently good that women’s lives and work should remain unseen and hidden from the world. The obscurity in which much of domestic life occurs is a fact, but one with mixed implications. While the hiddenness that safeguards the family and offers to women a beautiful path to holiness is to be esteemed, it also serves as a veil that prevents the Church from being edified as fully as possible by the witness of heroic sanctity achieved in the ordinary, humdrum circumstances of typical family life. Too many Christian parents, mothers in particular, are not given the vision of all the potential contained within their vocation, and they lack networks and contact with other mothers also making robust attempts at sanctity in the context of motherhood.

The Church has yet to sufficiently transmit on a pastoral level the riches of what the documents of Vatican II called the “domestic church,” that is, Christian family life after the pattern of the Holy Family of Nazareth. The Catechism, citing Lumen Gentium, expresses this beautifully:

In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith. For this reason the Second Vatican Council, using an ancient expression, calls the family the Ecclesia domestica. It is in the bosom of the family that parents are “by word and example . . . the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children. They should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each child” . . . Thus the home is the first school of Christian life and “a school for human enrichment.” Here one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life. (CCC §1656; citing LG §11)

This is, of course, where the conversation turns to one involving both mothers and fathers equally, though mothers may still be the primary caregivers to their children more often than not. To the extent that Christian husbands recognize and affirm the magnificent and holy work their wives do at home and with their children, the cloister of the home may begin to become more visible to the Church in a proper and fruitful way. It is difficult indeed for a mother to become convinced of the eternal value of her domestic life unless her husband is the first one to remind her of the fact. And to the extent that husbands also participate in aspects of the hidden work of the home, co-laboring and co-creating the domestic church alongside their wives, they help to advance the most important enterprise a human being can undertake: to bring the Kingdom of God more fully to earth through self-giving love for others.[5]

Photo: Scott Moulaison; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

Photo: Scott Moulaison; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

The description of responsibilities of Christian parenthood delineated by the above quote from the Catechism also serve to demonstrate the creativity, intellect, and passion required of parents seeking to raise their children in a manner worthy of the Gospel. Even the simple mandate to be “the first heralds of the faith” contains within itself all a man or woman could hope for in terms of room to exercise the full range of their gifts and talents. Perhaps what is too often perceived as narrowness in the vocation of the mother is simply a failure of imagination regarding all that a mother can and must be if she aspires to holiness.

Returning briefly to the question of a woman becoming irrelevant and uninteresting to the world during her childbearing and rearing years, both society and the Church would do well to note the breadth of activities that actually constitute a mother’s daily life. Again, a line from Day’s On Pilgrimage is illuminating. “A mother has to be all these things—singer, artist, sculptor, storyteller, dancer, impressario, toy maker, inventor, cook, laundress, and nurse,” she writes. “What a full life! What talents to develop!”[6] It is hard to imagine that a woman who assumes these roles with alacrity and creativity could ever find herself bored or boring.

Too many Christian parents, mothers in particular, are not given the vision of all the potential contained within their vocation, and they lack networks and contact with other mothers.

Too often stay-at-home moms describe what they do as “just” staying at home. This is a grossly inaccurate modifier of a calling that has such a high and holy purpose and that can be deeply fulfilling for women when embraced in its fullness. St. John Paul II’s words in his encyclical on marriage and the family comes to mind. His exhortation, “Family, become what you are” could just as well read, “Mothers, become what you are” (Familiaris Consortio, §17). The fact that a woman can lament having passed up the lofty vocation of missionary, for example, in exchange for the mundane life of “just” a mom, weighed down by heavy domestic cares and far from her dreamed-of feats of spiritual greatness, speaks to just how much work there is left to do in empowering Catholic mothers to realize what they are.

While the life circumstances of many canonized married saints may look rather foreign to ours, we would be remiss to gloss over the fact that they surely grew into saints largely through the crucible of family life and that they did share many of our own burdens and joys.

The canonization portrait of Sts. Zélie and Louis Martin; photo: Fraychero; CC-BY-SA-4.0.

The canonization portrait of Sts. Zélie and Louis Martin; photo: Fraychero; CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Two of the Church’s most recently canonized saints are particularly apt witnesses to the possibility of sanctity achieved through family life. Sts. Zélie and Louis Martin, French lay people of the 19th century and parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, left behind journals and letters that record their intimate and often mundane reflections on the vicissitudes of raising children within a vibrant domestic church. St. Zélie bore nine children but lost four of them in infancy or early childhood, raised five daughters, and managed a successful lace business, all while cultivating a profound spirituality that permeated the home she made with her husband. She and St. Louis are truly saints for our time, not only because they raised a daughter who became one of the Church’s most beloved saints—and another daughter on the path to canonization as well—but because of the quiet and humble way in which they made their home and work a daily, living encounter with the love of God, bearing their labors, sufferings, and trials with a strength of faith comparable to that of the martyrs.[7]

Even the most pious of Catholics tends to balk at the prospect of actually becoming a saint. We have our own sinfulness so much in view, and most of us live ordinary routines: we get up in the morning; take care of our responsibilities; do our best to be kind and loving; eat, drink, watch television, and go to bed to start all over again the next day. If the Church of past ages did not emphasize the vocation of all people to holiness in the way it does post-Second Vatican Council, the lay faithful have yet to really own that teaching. We still think of heroic virtue as the purview of monks, sisters, priests, and celibates. We cannot imagine becoming literal martyrs, and indeed we would never have the courage to die for the faith unless we practice living a spirit of martyrdom in all our undertakings now. We have yet to see the age in which lay married people, and mothers in particular, live fully into the magnificent calling they have received, an age in which the Christian mother assumes her role as a minister of the domestic church with the gravitas that the vocation truly demands. She is not biding her time, awaiting more ideal circumstances or a loftier call; here and now, if she so chooses, she is on her way.

Featured Photo: Anne Worner; CC-BY-SA-2.0.

[1] Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 1999), 76.

[2] Ibid, 76–7.

[3] As quoted by Pope Francis in his General Audience on 7 January 2015.

[4] Ibid.

[5] There are many online and print resources available with practical insight on living the domestic church. The Catholic Catalogue is one I highly recommend (New York: Image, 2016).

[6] Day, On Pilgrimage, 230.

[7] See http://www.louisandzeliemartin.org/ for more on Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin. Their journals and letters are compiled in A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, 1864-1885 (New York: Alba House, 2011).

Allison Ciraulo

Allison Ciraulo is a wife, mother, homemaker, and freelance writer. She lives in South Bend, Indiana, with her husband and two young children.