Spiritual Mothers and Old Maids

There was some quiet chuckling in the monastery at some alleged remarks of Pope Francis which you can read here: http://bit.ly/14bxA73. The chances are that the pope has been quoted slightly out of context or mistranslated (some things sound fine in Italian but are rather limp in English) or otherwise ill-served by his reporters, but the contrast he apparently drew, between spiritual mothers and old maids, was always going to ignite a few fires. In the U.S.A. they seem to have gone down as well as the proverbial lead balloon — except among laity who have ‘issues’ with American sisters.

I have met a few nuns and sisters for whom the concept of spiritual motherhood is valuable and helpful; I have never yet met any who desired to be a spiritual old maid; most simply don’t think of themselves in those terms at all (and, though I’ll disappoint some readers by saying it, very few of my acquaintance have ever taken the Bride of Christ image to themselves, seeing it more accurately as a reflection of our theological understanding of the Church as a whole). We are just nuns or just sisters, responding to a call from God as best we can. Where that call takes us, what it demands of us, is part of the journey of faith and obedience each of us must make.

Such simplicity of understanding may seem wanting, but I think it is actually very important. Religious life for women is often circumscribed by rules and regulations which can get in the way of taking to heart the enormity of what is asked of us: a life TOTALLY centred on Christ. The vows we make, the renunciations we undertake, have only one end in view, to deepen our relationship with Christ, a relationship at once deeply personal yet at the same time always ecclesial.

On this feast of the Holy Abbots of Cluny, it is good to remember that the life of each us should glorify God; and it can only do that insofar as we take on the shape and form of our vocation, whatever it may be. Spiritual mothers v. old maids? I don’t think so. Forgive my chuckles, Pope Francis, but I think it might be more fruitful to think in terms of child of God v. child of the devil.


34 thoughts on “Spiritual Mothers and Old Maids”

  1. I’ve struggled to find a recording of the audience not overlaid by translation, but I reckon I’ve caught the word “zitelle”, which is Italian for spinster. That’s not the same as old maid, and I feel the American papers and websites which used that somewhat loose, weighted translation have been rather irresponsible and inflamatory.

    I can cope with spinster! That’s simply an unmarried woman, and while religious are, basically, unmarried women, we are – as you say – called to be so much more than that! And we’re called to give life, to be fruitful in lots of ways, which is as close as I’ll come to the motherhood bit.

    • I suspect that for some, at any rate, even ‘spinster’ has resonances which are unfortunate. It’s not quite as ‘jolly’ as ‘bachelor’ for instance, and is often prefaced by that dread adjective ‘elderly’. Mind you, having been classed as an older vocation myself (aet 27!), I do sometimes wonder . . . 🙂

      • A late vocation at 27?? I was considered pretty par for the course at 30! (in 1994)
        Yes, sadly the word spinster carries all sorts of negative stereotypes and resonances. And it’s a pity that these have been able to mix up our reception of a message which – for me, anyway – is a reminder that we are called to be bearers and givers and nurturers of life.
        I see you now have a lot more comments – wishing you well with responding to them all!

        • Off topic: This is where I say something maddening like, remember I entered religious life several years before you. The older nuns, many of whom entered at 21 or even earlier, thought I was a bit ancient. Now it would be considered young.

  2. I don’t think I understand… Or the article linked to is simplifying greatly. Surely a spiritual spinster ( implied to be one seeking to grw in seniority, with a stronger focus on career?) is just as valuable as a spiritual mother (implied to have less ambition, and more focus on nurturing others?).

    There seems to be slightly weird parallels being made between nuns and sisters, and the ongoing tension in society between the role of women as mothers, and as career orientated professionals. As I think you have tried to observe, nuns and sisters are neither: instead following a path that is rather different again…

    • The article I linked to is, of course, a simplification and, as I was at pains to point out, has not necessarily rendered the pope’s words accurately, etc, etc. The POINT of my post comes in the second and third paragraphs. The article merely provided the occasion for them.

  3. I wonder if they used Google translation, rather than a native Italian speaker to translate. Because if they did, than it’s likely to be the cause of the issues that arise from it.

    I’m not up to speed with what is happening with Women Religious in the USA, but given that they seem to be strong on activism in their work, they might be expected to react strongly against mis-translations which portray them in a poor light.

    Your explanation of a Nun (or Sister’s) vocation is helpful because even my understanding was flawed because I had somehow held the view that Women Religious were ‘Brides of Christ’ perhaps a legacy from my upbringing. It’s always good to learn and to have a better insight than a flawed one. So thank you.

    • A view held “perhaps from my upbringing” – I’ve recently listened to some music from decades past, songs played on my parent’s radio when I was a small child, discovering words I thought I’d understood were completely different, so the message of the song was not as I’d understood all these years! Lightbulb moments.

  4. What he actually said was:
    ” La castità per il Regno dei Cieli mostra come l’affettività ha il suo posto nella libertà matura e diventa un segno del mondo futuro, per far risplendere sempre il primato di Dio. Ma, per favore, una castità “feconda”, una castità che genera figli spirituali nella Chiesa. La consacrata è madre, deve essere madre e non “zitella”! Scusatemi se parlo così, ma è importante questa maternità della vita consacrata, questa fecondità! Questa gioia della fecondità spirituale animi la vostra esistenza; siate madri, come figura di Maria Madre e della Chiesa Madre. Non si può capire Maria senza la sua maternità, non si può capire la Chiesa senza la sua maternità e voi siete icona di Maria e della
    Chiesa. ” (from http://www.avvenire.it/Chiesa/Pagine/discorso-superiore-consacrate.aspx).

    The word is indeed ‘zitella’, (spinster). Attempting a translation of my own of the specific passage(I couldn’t find an official one) I would say:

    “But, please a “fecund” chastity, a chastity which generates spiritual children in the Church. The consecrated woman is mother, must be mother, not a “spinster”! Forgive me if I speak this way, but this maternity of consecrated life, this fecundity is important! (Let) the joy of spiritual maternity animate /enliven your life; be mothers, as images of Mary the Mother and of Mother Church. One cannot understand Mary without her maternity, one cannot understand the Church without her (its?) maternity and you are icons of Mary and of the Church.”

    It seems to me an exortation mirroring those he made (and makes) to priests about not staying inside the church waiting for the world to come in, and to us laity about bringing the Lord with us in the different situations and milieus we find ourselves in every day.

    No comment about the article linked in the original post…

    • Thank you very much for providing both the original text and a translation. As you will see from my comments above, I was treating the pope’s words with a little lightness of touch (very English of me, and meaning no disrespect to the pope) because I believe the vocation of women religious, whether nuns or sisters, to transcend the mother/virgin categories. For those of us in monastic life, the idea of being icons of Mary is a little strange as we are always taught that we must be icons of Christ every bit as much as our brethren the monks. Priests often assume that we model ourselves on Mary, but for all Christians, whatever their state in life, the primary model must always be Christ our Lord — who, as Julian of Norwich reminds us, is Mother as well as Father.

      • Grazie Marina – I’ll bookmark L’Avvenire for when I next need to read an original text of what the Pope says (I couldn’t find this on all sorts of sites, including the Vatican one!)

  5. I’m with you all the way. What is important is to be faithful to the vocation to which God calls us. As someone who was in religious life until it became clear it wasn’t where God wanted me, I can honestly say that my greatest renunciation came when I left. It was the hardest call from God and one which it took me years to embrace fully. Now, as a true elderly spinster, I am happy to give myself to Christ in the way he wants. We can spend too much time looking at others and wishing we were them. That achieves nothing and certainly doesn’t glorify God.

    • Yes, our focus must be on Christ not ourselves, and never, ever a comparison between X and Y and ourselves. Let’s leave competition to the sports field and suchlike places and keep it out of our churches and communities.

  6. I think reading the original text above that the Holy Father is right on the mark. Above all else the vocation of all of us is the salvation of souls though the spread of the Word. The fecundity of this apostolate calls on all of us no matter our preferences etc to me mothers and fathers to souls through prayer, example, teaching and so forth. It is not about as you do see here and there of Fr or Sister so and so having a following of admiring disciples as that can so easily become sour in one way or another. Spiritual Fecundity for the salvation of souls is what Papa Francis is calling us back to and none of us ought to find it incompatible with our vocations and lifestyles as it is the center of the Christian vocation in general. And we know this. For the record I have indeed met nuns [ only for example ] who have so lost the path that they ended up as embittered ‘old maids’ full of their own view of the church and world, living out their routine and dealing out more pain than charity to those passing by. I’m sure many have seen this in priests and laity also who have forgotten the key to being fruitful – work for the salvation of souls – and have settled down into a self preserving routine. I welcome these words of our dear new Pope as a wake up call and ready check for all of us on if our personal lives are still focused on generating new disciples or not. The Church has long depended on Priests, Brothers, Nuns and Sisters for this work as we do not have children in the Flesh [ normally ] and can according to our varying vocations apply this call to souls to ‘come and see.’ But it does apply to every Christian whether religious, priest or laity for without this desire to be fruitful which is really what is being talked about we may end up sterile. Even a hermit can be a fruitful spiritual father or mother for the salvation of souls via their prayer and sacrifice for souls they will never meet. What a joy in Heaven to meet the children of the Lord saved via your daily apostolate on earth.

    • I don’t think I can have written clearly enough, or perhaps it is my Englishness that is getting in the way (I’m guessing you are American?). Either way, I don’t think I’m saying what you seem to think I’m saying. As I pointed out, I was using the article as a springboard for a brief reflection on religious life, drawing on my own experience of the ancient monastic tradition of the Church, but maybe one needs to be a monk or nun to catch my drift. If so, I’m at fault for not explaining things better.

  7. …. also for the record I have happily met many many souls, lay, religious and priests who in their varied vocations and life situation do radiate the joy of Christ, bearing fruit.
    I feel that Pope Francis in an increasing secular and indifferent world is just issuing us with a reminder and warning not to lose the plot ourselves.

  8. The term betrays an attitude to women which is culturally embedded. I cannot see him making such a comment about men. I personally consider the comment to be dismissive of the lives of a particular group and also patronising to the women he addressed, those who have given their lives to the Church.
    in my view, he should be a little bit more thoughtful, diplomatic, measured in what he says. His office surely demands it.

    • If you read Maria Bonomi’s comment, you’ll see that Pope Francis didn’t say exactly what he is alleged to have said, or not in Italian, anyway. We must also allow for cultural differences. What sounds perfectly acceptable in one language can sound flowery or unctuous in another — and I daresay a number of people will have made their views plain!

    • Meaning? I wouldn’t mind wagering that I probably spend more time reading, praying and thinking about papal and other Church documents than many readers of this blog; but if you don’t like what I say, or the way in which I say it, it is open to you to argue your point.

  9. Well, I may not be a nun, but I think I catch your drift! (but then, I spend a good 50% of my time with Religious, so…!) Thank you for your reflection. ” it is good to remember that the life of each us should glorify God; and it can only do that insofar as we take on the shape and form of our vocation, whatever it may be.” particularly sticks with me, as well as the above commenter who mentioned how we can spend too much time looking at others and wishing we were them, to the detriment of our call to glorify God.

    With reference to the Religious as Bride of Christ idea – I’m aware of a number of girls and young women, who feel they may be called to religious life, who use that phrase to refer to themselves as opposed to the Church as a whole, but I’ve yet to meet a professed Sister or nun who ‘takes the image to themselves’. Personally, I have a preference for the term ‘wife of Christ’, if I’m looking for a good analogy. (to me, a Bride is a woman on the moment of her wedding day – a wife is a woman who grows in sharing life with her husband, and who, with her husband, brings life forth.) But even so, I would very rarely use it, unless trying to explain Religious life to someone with no understanding of it.

    Thank you, too, for your parting comment about our lives will only glorify God when we take on the shape of our vocation, whatever that may be – within the call to be a child of God. I needed reminded of that today.

    Blessings go léor, Danielle

    • Thank you — and not only because I was beginning to wonder whether I had written really obscurely!

      I’ll have to think about that ‘wife of Christ’ idea. You’ll know, from some earlier posts of mine on the subject, that I believe the whole Church stands as Bride in relation to Christ, men as well as women; but older than the Pauline bridal analogy is the covenant relationship between God and Israel, often expressed in terms of the marriage bond.

      As to being a monk or nun to catch my drift, it varies according to experience and imaginative capacity, as with most other ways of life, doesn’t it? We assume we understand, especially if we are interested in religious life or have spent some years as a religious ourselves, but the fact that one isn’t actually living the life here and now can be a limitation. For example, I have myself been in banking, but one has to be a banker now to understand what banking today really is. Not sure how far one can go with that analogy, but it means, for example, I never write about the vocation of marriage (of which I have no experience) or parenthood (likewise). The wonderful thing about the Church is that there are so many beautiful vocations within it, including yours to be the person you are. May God bless you.

      • Thank you, again. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on the ‘wife of Christ’ idea, should they ever appear here! It’s funny, because although I favour ‘wife of Christ’ for a rarely used analogy of religious life, I equally would agree with ‘Bride of Christ’ (as opposed to ‘wife’) as theological understanding of the Church’s relationship with God. I’ll have to give some thought as to why I think like that.

        And you’re quite right, it does vary according to experience, imaginative capacity and, I think, interest. I can write from the perspective of an interested lay woman looking at religious life, and from the point of view of one who is good friends with, and works closely with, a number of religious – but I cannot assume to actually know what it is to be a Sister or a nun (and I’m normally careful to prefix any comment I make about religious life with the acknowledgement that my understanding is limited, as a result.) That said (and I type this with my tongue firmly in my cheek), I do get mistaken for a Sister quite often – and not just by laity!

        And what a lovely last couple of lines. Thank you.

        Blessings on the rest of your day, and weekend. D

  10. As everyone is presenting their “2 cents worth”, I would agree that spinster or old maid were perhaps not the right word for his meaning. If I read the speech correctly, I think that his Holiness’ comments were directed to those who have lost focus on serving God and have become ambitious for influence or place. As an american, I am often dismayed at the behaviors of some women religious in the United States. They seek to further their “causes” in a combative or confrontational way. But then I think of Mother Teresa and how she was influential and quite powerful within her humility and because of her focus on service. And I think this is what the Holy Father was trying to get at. Those religious (men or women) who put their ambition above service to Christ are like spinsters who live empty and bitter lives rather than a bride or wife of Christ who “mothers” His children through service. In my own vocation of wife and mother, I find myself called upon to check my ambition when it interferes with my mission and I am called to “mother” more than just my own children as I serve Christ by serving His children.

    • The pope’s remarks came in the context of an address to the Union of International Superiors General. He is the first pope to have addressed that body, which represents some 600,000 nuns and sisters (a fraction of the total, but surely a significant fraction), in a special audience, which I take to be a mark of his regard for religious in the Church.

      No one would disagree, least of all religious themselves, I trust, about the dangers of losing focus. It is a perennial problem and one that we have all kinds of structures set up to guard against, not always successfully. In my experience, when a religious seeks something other than God it is because she has stopped praying and thereby cut herself off from the root of her vocation.

      I don’t have enough experience of religious in the States to make any useful comment about them. I was greatly impressed by both the Salesians and the Bridgettines I stayed with in NJ and CT in 2011.

  11. Mary leads us to Christ who is at the center, always, and above all.  I agree.  Whatever is our station in life, we are each called to be like Christ.  I was about to use ‘imitate’ Christ, but I think we are asked to do more than imitate Him; we are to ‘become’ more like Christ.  

    I still do not consider all paths to Christ equal, and do (rightly or wrongly) compare and value some above others, like, for example, a monastic path to be the preferable, more ‘narrow’ path, perhaps a straighter, less circuitous path to God.  It is, of course, always possible for a non-monastic to be as ‘holy’ or holier, than one who is enclosed and avowed.  

    I am interested in learning more about monastic renunciation, what it entails, and how/why it brings one closer to Christ.  

    • When I feel strong enough, I’ll attempt another post; but this one has shown me (again) that I need to spell out what I’m saying with absolute clarity, and keep the humour in check as some people really don’t get it. Although it’s good when a topic is taken up and developed by the readers, it can mean that the point of the original argument is lost.

  12. I distinctly remember “spinster” was the category I fell under on my marriage license many years ago, describing someone not yet married, though not divorced nor a widow. If it sounds derogatory to some, perhaps that’s because they equate it with “old maid”, which is a derogatory term. “Spinster” describes a woman not yet committed, though without a past. “Spiritual Mother”, on the other hand denotes (for me) someone who has brought forth and is nurturing others. As you rightly suggest, culture and translation play a large role in how we understand the comments others make. There are some people ready and looking for the opportunity to take offense, so no matter what comes out of our good Pope’s mouth they will nit pick.

    Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in North America, so our family will be offering prayers of gratitude for those women religious who spiritually mothered us over the years, and there were quite a number of them!

  13. Fulton Sheen said a similar thing about spiritual motherhood in ‘the worlds first love.’ “On Judgement Day God will ask all the married and all the virgins the same question: where are your children? Where are the fruits of your live, the torches that should be kindled by the fires of your passion?”
    We are all called to love, as Christians. Love tends naturally to bear fruit. Love is the greatest means of evangelisation. When we allow our Christian lives to be without love and are left with only ambition then we have indeed missed the point and need to accept a call to conversion, however it may prick at our pride.

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