Motherhood and Prayer — Chris Bowhay

Preached May 13, 2012 at St Thomas’ Church, Houston Texas. Audio link at bottom of post.

A couple of summers ago, my family and I toured the Mediterranean. One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to Ephesus, the ancient city in modern Turkey where St. Paul preached and to whom St. Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians. While in Ephesus, we visited the home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. You might remember that in Jesus’ final moments on the Cross, He bequeathed the care of His mother to St. John the Evangelist. He said to Mary, “Woman, behold thy son.” He then said to John, “Behold thy mother.” John writes, “from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:26-27).” According to Christian tradition, John took Mary with him in his travels to establish church communities in Asia Minor, and finally brought her with him to Ephesus. There he built a garden home for her where she lived for the rest of her days in this earthly life.

House of the Virgin Mary, Ephesus

It is a beautiful place, blanketed in lush foliage and caressed with gentle breezes. As we stood there, among the hundreds of pilgrims that surrounded us, it felt like the kind of place that Jesus would have thoughtfully prepared for His mother as she awaited her reunion with her beloved son whom she lost on the Cross, regained at His Resurrection, and then was separated from Him again at His ascent into Heaven. After we left her home—a stone structure that houses a chapel where the Eucharist is offered daily—we came across a long stone wall that stretches for a hundred yards, each square inch covered with little slips of paper. Pilgrims inscribe prayers on these papers, and then they weave their prayers together with the others until they form a long blanket of prayer. My family and I joined our prayers with the thousands of pilgrim prayers that preceded us, and then we left. What it is about Mary’s house that produces a blanket of prayer? Is there a connection between an encounter with the motherhood of Mary and prayer to Jesus, or is there a larger connection between motherhood and prayer and spirituality in general?

It is hard to overstate the importance of a mother’s influence on her child’s psychological development. Fathers also play a vital role, as do schools and church communities, but there’s something unique about the impact of mothers on their children. You might remember the story of the three mothers of adult children who gather for lunch the week after Mother’s Day, and the bragging begins. The first mother says, “My son loves me so much that for Mother’s Day he sent me a $100 floral arrangement.” The second responds, “That’s nice, but my son loves me so much that for Mother’s Day he took me out to a $200 dinner.” “That’s lovely,” says the third mother, “but every week for the past five years my son goes to a psychiatrist who charges $300 per hour. What does he talk about? Me!” Mothers have a lasting influence on the way their children perceive the world. According to some child psychologists, one of the critical roles a mother plays in her child’s life is to help teach her child how to trust. Their theory is that in the first few months of an infant’s life, when his mother leaves him in his crib or bassinet and he perceives that she is gone, he cries out. If the mother consistently fails to respond to her child, the child learns that he has no one to trust and that he is on his own; such children, according to this theory, may struggle for many years to learn how to trust anyone, including himself, and perhaps including God. But when the mother responds to her infant’s cries, the child begins to learn that he can trust the universe to be a benign, caring, nurturing place. Over time, the child learns how to tolerate the increasing separation with his mother until he becomes, hopefully, an independent and healthy adult. This process of learning how to trust is important because the prayers we offer to God require an element of trust. When we pray to God for something, we trust Him that He will grant what we pray for; or, if He does not grant what we ask, we trust Him that sooner or later He will give to us some other blessing that we need. Because a healthy prayer life depends upon our ability to trust God, and because mothers play a vital role in teaching us how to trust, motherhood and prayer are connected. Mothers provide an emotional and spiritual atmosphere through which we learn how to pray and live life trustingly.

Trust is essential to our being well-adjusted people. When we operate from an attitude of trust, we are free from fear; when our trust is shaken, we are more likely to want to tightly control our life, which almost always leads to our being controlled by neurotic and self-destructive behaviors and consequences. Speaking for myself, I know that sometimes I can have a hard time with trust. Sometimes I do not trust that people will do what they say they will do, perhaps because I do not trust that I will always do what I say I will do. Sometimes I even have real and serious difficulties in trusting God to care for me and for the people I love. In these times of mistrust, I can become anxious, overwhelmed, and even angry. I suspect that I am not alone in this struggle to trust. I wonder whether some of our difficulty in trusting God comes from our emotional experiences of abandonment over which we had no control, whether from early childhood experiences of understandably distracted mothers or from later experiences of disappointment or even betrayal by others. If we have forgotten our mothers’ lesson of trust, or if we never learned it from them, and if the peace we want comes only from a kind of trust in God that we do not always feel and feel helpless to generate on our own, then what can be done to heal our mistrust?

In the Bible, God has something to say about how He works in us to build or rebuild our trust in Him. The overwhelming scriptural evidence of both the Old and the New Testaments is that God wants us to think of Him as a Father. Jesus Himself consistently and explicitly addressed God that way. Nevertheless, there are several important instances when God describes Himself with maternal imagery. God said to the prophet Isaiah, “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee (Isaiah 49:15).” God also said through Isaiah to His people, “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you (Isaiah 66:13).” Following the lead of His Father, Jesus describes Himself with maternal terms, when He says to the city of Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chicks under her wings, and ye would not! (Matthew 23:37).” While the masculine imagery of God is inescapable, it is tempered and infused with a kind of compassion that is inescapably and perfectly maternal. God is our Father, but He loves us in a way that sometimes feels like mother. The grace that was given to our mothers, as loving and yet imperfect as they were, flows from God who loves us and has always loved us perfectly and completely. Behind the love of every mother stands the eternal and limitless love of God. The good work that He began in us through our mothers is the loving work that He continues to perfect in us after we leave home and for the rest of our lives. Our occasional mistrust of others, mistrust of ourselves, and mistrust of God is completely overwhelmed by God who loves us infinitely more perfectly than any mortal parent can. God knows how difficult it can be for us to trust Him, and He responds to our mistrust with infinite compassion and limitless grace. It was precisely because mankind was unable to trust in Him that God became one of us in the person of Jesus to live as one of us and to die for all of us. The love of God as revealed in the Crucified and Resurrected Christ shows that God knows us as we are, God loves us as we are, and God is already at work within us to heal our wounds and to help transform us into the people He created us to be.

Motherhood is a ministry from God through which He teaches His children how to trust. In the same way that God cares for His children through everyone whom He calls to ministry, God shares the care of His children by entrusting them to mothers. Today, on Mother’s Day, we give thanks to God who gave us our mothers, and who gave His grace to our mothers as they did the best they could to raise us. We also pray for the mothers in our midst, who do the best they can to raise their children in a very difficult time. In the face of rampant materialism, which teaches that you are what you have, and of commercialism, which teaches that you are what you want, today’s mothers face an almost overwhelming challenge to teach their children that you are who you are because God loves you for who you are. Like all ministries, the only way mothers today can fulfill their calling is to entrust themselves and those whom they love to God. He cares so deeply for us that even the powerful love of motherhood is only an approximation. Today, together, as His children, we cast all our cares on God. We can trust that He is doing greater things for us, and greater things for all whom we love, than we can imagine, than we can desire, or even than we can pray for.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Copyright 2012 St Thomas' Episcopal Church

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons