At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.
Saturday gave conference participants the opportunity to attend smaller workshops on a variety of topics, practical and theological. I have attached the schedule, and I strongly recommend that if any of the topics are of interest to your communities, invite these women to come and speak!
I was fortunate enough to decide to attend Carrie Frederick Frost’s session on an “Orthodox Theological Vision of Motherhood.” I say “fortunate” for two reasons: First, I had already heard of some Orthodox woman somewhere writing an ethics dissertation on motherhood, and my honest thought was, “sigh, yet another set of romantic notions of universal female motherhood to unpack” (see my comments on Julianna Schmemann’s opening plenary to the conference). Frost, in one of our numerous conversations, quickly dispelled my anxiety. I asked her opinion on Schmemann’s (both the husband and wife in this case) invocation, and she responded:
Assigning the maternal spirit to women as their sole or primary characteristic leads to either reductionism or mystification (or both) and is ultimately narrow, boring, and wrong.
Ah, I love pithy academics!
Second, the content of her work is simply fascinating. As a mother of two who discovered she was carrying three more children, she sensibly shifted her theological studies to motherhood. Sifting through material proved to be difficult. Our tradition generally lacks any sustained focus on a theology of motherhood, a disappointing discovery. The gospels present a tension created by Christ’s new definition of family. His bold and cryptic statements are not only difficult to interpret, but hardly reflect a high view of the family unit. Our tradition is also filled with poor views of procreation, and the consistent affirmation of men leaving wife and children behind in the name of ascetic pursuits or ministerial calls.
Yet Christ shows compassion on parents with suffering children. He uses maternal metaphors, universally understood, to describe his task in the world, his grief for his children, the labor of his work. Christ entered the world through a woman whose “visceral motherhood” is visible in the earliest of icons: the Theotokos is depicted breastfeeding Christ on the walls of the catacombs of Priscilla.
Still in the midst of her project, Frost argues that there are three qualities integral to a theological vision of motherhood: freedom, consecration and contemplation. Once no longer a real option, motherhood is now, at least in the developed world, a choice. “Woman” and “mother” are no longer necessarily synonymous. This newfound freedom to choose needs to be considered in theological terms. To do this, she draws on morsels found in John Chrysostom’s homilies on Hannah in which he draws a distinction between bearing and raising. Biological production can occur without a corresponding commitment to motherhood. Motherhood is not biologically determined, but a choice (note the unequivocal affirmation of adoption inherent in this). She sees this freedom in the dynamic quality of the icons of the Annunciation, indicating a voluntary assent to participate in God’s work.
Hannah also exemplifies consecration. Chrysostom often emphasizes the pedagogical aspect of raising children. But in Hannah, he is moved to acknowledge that it is a mother’s task to consecrate her child, raising it in holiness. The churching rites (in an edited form I assume, a topic put aside by Frost due to time) celebrate the return of the mother to the community, look forward to the baptism of a new member, and allow the relationship of mutual blessing between mother and child to be brought into the light and sanctified by the community. Churching also creates a powerful typological connection between mothers and all the Foremothers of the tradition.
Finally, Frost notes the contemplative quality emphasized in the Icon of the Presentation of Christ. Even as Christ is in the hands of the high priest, he turns back to look at his mother, raising his hand in blessing. The contemplation and blessing exchanged between mother and child allows for the recognition of the ‘undeserved beneficence’ which is a child. No matter our history, no matter what the circumstances of the birth of a child, contemplation allows us to see children as a gift based not on worthiness, but love.
I am, of course, left with a few questions, some of which Carrie has already heard (or seen). My primary question was answered even before her workshop (see quote above), but I want to echo again how helpful it is to have a theology of motherhood that does not presume motherhood as the universal female vocation. That said, I wonder the following:
How do we distinguish between Mary as both a model of and for all human beings, and for mothers in particular? Does she, indicated by Symeon the New Theologian’s use of her to exhort his (male) monks to be mothers who birth Christ in their wombs, serve as a model for a more full humanity which ‘bears’ and ‘raises’ faith? In this, are all human beings called to be metaphorical mothers? If so, what is unique about literal motherhood?
What of a theology of fatherhood? Would it be different than motherhood? Does fatherhood not also involve a choice to raise (perhaps all the more so since ‘bearing’ is not an option)? Do father’s not contribute to holiness? Do fathers not experience the undeserved beneficence of God in the gift of a child? How might these theologies differ without relying on hackneyed stereotypes of assertive and authoritative men and receptive and nurturing women?