Tuesday, 3 July 2018
Moving on from Maternity
This is a picture of me, just after the birth of my second son. This was when I became a mother for the fourth time. The story of Christianity begins with something as ordinary and as sublime as this; a mother and her baby. And that's what I want to write about: Motherhood; in particular how motherhood intersects with Priesthood.
He came into the world at just after two in the morning, in a strangely womb-like delivery room; all dark with murmured voices. He was placed on my chest, which made the cord pull tightly because it was so unusually short, and he unfurled for the first time; involuntarily stretching tiny limbs in a shuddering motion, before he curled inwards again towards me; to warmth and to the familiar beat of my heart. I marvelled that I'd been gifted something so beautiful and perfect. The relief, to have survived, again; I've never been very efficient at this whole labour lark. Most of all I marvelled that we’d had the courage to have four children.
As I recall, he then peed on me.
The years after his birth seemed to go ridiculously fast; the minutiae of life, all those seemingly unimportant but precious details, lost and forgotten, no matter how hard I tried to hold onto them, they drained away, like water though my fingertips, and before I could stop and take stock (there is no time to do such a thing when you’re raising four kids under nine) my time mothering babies and infants was gone forever. What a privilege it had been. I was left feeling eternally grateful and utterly broken.
What the hell would I do now?
This woman right here: Me. I am strong, capable, smart, and fierce. My husband has described me as a force of nature. I only agree with him on this point once a month, when I could probably uproot trees with my bare hands. THAT woman. I was crushed; emotionally wrecked at the thought of not having a purpose anymore. I would still be a mother until I died, but it was harder for me to be a stay at home mum with nobody at home for me to mother.
Child-rearing would continue, for quite some time, but the business of child-birthing and the relentless slog – and joy – of raising an infant, would never happen to me again. We were done. The pain was acute.
And into this raw space came God; whispering at first but louder and louder until I couldn’t deny His voice anymore. I know, I tried. God gave me a new plan; an unwelcome, crazy, exhilarating, and, as it turns out, totally righteous plan.
God wanted me to give birth to something new.
Through my journey of discernment, I’ve had lots of time to ponder why – and how – God could possibly be calling someone like me to ordained ministry, and as I journeyed I came to realise that God actually knows what God is doing, even if I don’t. I’ve come to appreciate that She has prepared me for this calling in so many ways. Before I’d ever even decided to recognise that there was a God; there She was, her guidance an invisible compass that I’d previously have labelled fate. Like the unfortunate and much maligned Jeremiah, God knew the plans He had for me, well before I knew them myself.
I’ve looked honestly at myself and tried to answer questions like “Who am I and how can I serve?What informs my ministry and what is God wanting people to know through me? What does the gospel sound like coming from my lips?”
My first calling is as a mother. It informs almost everything I do, and it is this that has prepared me to answer a different calling, that of a Priest.
Dr Emma Percy is an Anglican Priest and a mum of two, and she's also the author of a book called “What Clergy do: Especially when it looks like nothing.” She says that Priests and mothers:
“Need to engage in the labouring necessary to create the places and spaces in which people can feel secure and grow towards maturity.”
That is a heady calling. It is a servant calling, and it truly embodies the work of the Kingdom.
Priests and mothers teach, guide, shepherd, and encourage. They do the work themselves and they empower and facilitate others to do the same.
I am an excellent Shepherd. My flock may be small, but they are often difficult to move about. To get them to go where I want them to requires serious shepherding skills, although upon occasion I've thought that a feisty sheepdog would come in handy. I'm sure they'd move a lot quicker in the mornings if sharp teeth were nipping at their heels.
Just like a shepherd though, I keep us all moving in the right direction. I keep them all fed and watered, and well cared for. One of my sons regularly gets sheared. They are all of infinite value and worth to me, and yes, I would not rest if one of them was missing.
In mothering, the work is largely unseen, repetitive, cyclical, and often unappreciated, though we would certainly notice if it wasn't done. This isn’t just in my house of course. If the women of Britain alone, downed tools and stopped providing free labour, the country would grind to a stand still. Just because we’re not getting paid, doesn’t mean we’re not working.
Like most mothers, I can multi-task like a bad ass, and not because I’m somehow genetically predisposed to be able to do it, but out of sheer necessity.
I have the ability to have a gut-wrenching conversation with a distraught teen, her head on my shoulder, move seamlessly to congratulating a ten year old for her Times Table Champion Certificate, spell out a word for a seven year old, and prevent a 5 year old from committing another Hot-wheels based assault. Out of the basic necessity to survive, I have transformed multi-tasking into an art-form: over the years I've breast fed whilst making spaghetti bolognese whilst reciting times tables whilst listening to a child read, pausing to wipe a toddler's bum, then continuing where I left off – after
washing my hands, of course.
I have the ability to hold in my head the schedules, needs, appointments, worries and concerns of four little people, as well as my own. I know, at any given time, who is going where, with whom, what time they need to be there, how they're getting there, what time they're coming back, and exactly what type of shoes they will need. And to check that they go to the toilet before they leave.
Being all things to the little people in my life is second nature to me. I am instructor. I am boss. I am cook. I am cleaner. I am teacher. I am counsellor. I am laundress. I am chief negotiator when hostilities break out. I am diplomat. I am peace keeper. I am playmate. I am confidante.
One day I will be Priest, and will be Mother to a larger, even more disparate flock, and writing this I see ever more clearly the obvious parallels. Much of the work – the vast majority of the priest’s role – is unseen, and not made known, to the wider church. The tedious, though essential admin, the meetings and time spent on committees to discuss everything from acquiring a new heater for the toilets, to how we refill the potholes outside the church. The daily, disciplined commitment to prayer which no one may ever see, but is vital and integral and as worthy as the whispered blessings I pray over my children as I tuck them into bed. God sees, and that is everything.
There are so many moments in both roles which are personal and sacred, but also, largely unseen and unnoticed by most people. My mothering can find me at two am comforting a child after a nightmare, and then find me again in the morning, counselling a teenager, stressed out over exams. Tiny, sacred moments, that none the less, are invisible to the wider world.
Likewise, the vocation of the priest is made up of such moments. The moments spent with a couple who are planning their wedding. A pastoral visit with the parishioner who has just lost his wife. A hospital visit to comfort the dying. Sacred moments, where the priest was fully present, and fully necessary.
So much of the role of the priest – like that of the mother – is intangible and indefinable, because they are both vocations which often seem unproductive. The Priest and the mother are both called to love unconditionally, to build people up, to nurture, and to be present.
To be present as a mother is to be there as the recipient of impossible questions, such as this memorable one:
“Why do I have a bum? And why is yours so much bigger than mine?”
“Why don't they want to be my friend?”
“Why are dogs?”
The Priest is also on the receiving end of difficult questions:
“Why do we need to pray?”
“Why are there starving children in the world?”
“Why is my dad dying of cancer?”
Tough questions, which a priest may or may not have a satisfactory or palatable answer for, but the key thing is they – like the mother – must provide a space for those questions to be asked. They make themselves available to listen to the impossible questions, when there is perhaps no one else to hear them.
By making motherhood into a metaphor for priesthood, I'm not intending to narrow our definition of Priest – on the contrary, I would like us to expand our idea of priesthood to encompass mothering, and practices which come under that banner. I’m aware that the practices of mothering can of course be carried out by anyone. The prevailing reality though, is that they are overwhelmingly carried out by people who are mothers, and since this is the shape of my own ministry, it is this that I’ve focused on. This does not imply that people who are not mothers cannot be excellent priests, or that there isn’t an overlap of skills with fathering.
This is my calling, and it’s not an easy one. For those of you who may also feel called, but are trying to deny that persistent, dogged and tenacious urging: good luck with that! I’ve found that God cannot be denied, and nor do I wish to anymore. I’ve made my peace with that and as I write this I stand on the precipice of the next phase of my journey with God, preparing to jump. I take all my failings with me; all my insecurities, all my doubts, and all my worries. I know two things for certain: that my work as a mother will never be done, and whatever else I become in this life, I am not, nor have I ever been, just a mum.
Note: This post is an expansion of the presentation I gave at my selection conference in June 2017.