Natural motherhood and the love of mothers is an experience that is often easily understood since it is the primary way women experience motherhood. There is, however, another form of motherhood bestowed on women at the supernatural level, which is spiritual motherhood. The Church is still deepening her understanding of this vocation given to women in varying degrees through a sharing in the spiritual motherhood of Our Blessed Mother who is the model of maternal love to the Church (Lumen Gentium 65).
It is a love that is expansive, profound, intense, and deep. It moves a woman beyond the confines of her biological family out towards the souls entrusted to her by God. The spiritual mother seeks the salvation of souls and the sanctification of her spiritual children at considerable cost to herself by virtue of her deep love for them in Christ through Our Immaculate Mother. St. Catherine of Siena was one of these spiritual mothers whose love knew no bounds.
In his apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, St. John Paul II discusses the unique entrustment of souls given by God to women down through the ages. This entrustment includes biological children, but it also includes all souls Christ gives to a woman to look after spiritually and in order to fight for their salvation. He states in paragraph 30:
The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way—precisely by reason of their femininity—and this in a particular way determines their vocation.
The moral force of women, which draws strength from this awareness and this entrusting, expresses itself in a great number of figures of the Old Testament, of the time of Christ, and of later ages right up to our own day.
A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God “entrusts the human being to her”, always and in every way, even in the situations of social discrimination in which she may find herself. This awareness and this fundamental vocation speak to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and this makes them “strong” and strengthens their vocation.
Thus the “perfect woman” (cf. Prov 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit. These “perfect women” are owed much by their families, and sometimes by whole nations.
St. Catherine of Siena understood that Christ entrusted many souls to her, which is why she faithfully sought to live the life of a spiritual mother dedicated to the salvation of souls. Her spiritual children were among the poor, sick, healthy, rich, laymen, clergy, and even a pope. She was able to live this role because she was willing to love as Christ loves and move beyond the confines of her biological family. Spiritual motherhood is not a halfway vocation anymore than natural motherhood is for women. It must be fully embraced, with its crown of thorns and unique crucifixion for the sake of others.
Spiritual motherhood is a role within the supernatural order that seeks to “birth” spiritual children by prayer, sacrifice, penance, suffering, and ministering to souls entrusted to their care by God. This includes both women in consecrated life and women in the laity. St. Catherine was a laywoman and Third Order Dominican. The love experienced by spiritual mothers is profound, but is often not understood because of the lack of biological connection between the spiritual mother and her spiritual children. This is to misunderstand the hierarchy of being wherein the spiritual is above the natural by virtue of its complete ordering to God and the things of heaven.
Much the way people misunderstand spiritual fatherhood, especially the fact that the spiritual paternity of priests is higher than that of the natural father since priests draw their spiritual children into the order of grace, spiritual mothers operate in the supernatural order in order to draw souls closer to God and further on the path to sanctity albeit to a much lesser degree than the ministerial priesthood. A spiritual mother seeks to help her spiritual children grow in holiness primarily through spiritual means, even as she may also minister to them in some tangible or material way.
With this framework in mind, we can look at how St. Catherine of Siena shows us the deep love of a spiritual mothers for her children and how a spiritual mother must live out this vocation. The means by which spiritual mothers live their vocation is first-and-foremost spiritual. Where a natural mother spends much of her day tending to the material needs of her young children—while also providing for them spiritually—a spiritual mother focuses on the spiritual needs first through prayer and penance.
St. Catherine’s life as a spiritual mother was completely grounded first and foremost in prayer. A spiritual mother cannot give what she herself does not possess, which is why she must be a woman of dedicated and deep prayer. St. Catherine was well known for her prayer life, as well as the spiritual gifts given to her by God. It was through prayer that she could wage the greatest battles on behalf of her spiritual children and entrust each one of them to the loving care of Our Lord and Our Blessed Mother.
It was through prayer that she was given the graces, wisdom, and understanding to seek God’s will for herself and to help guide others as necessary to God’s will in their own lives. Prayer also keeps a spiritual mother in tune with the slithering lies of the Enemy, so she can combat him and his minions as necessary on behalf of her spiritual children. Prayer keeps her in tune with the discernment of spirits and is one of the principal ways Christ purifies her love for her spiritual children so that it can resemble more closely the perfect love of His Mother and His kenotic love on the Cross. St. Catherine always sought to lead her spiritual children away from the world, the flesh, and the devil to God.
St. Catherine also understood the essential nature of suffering. Spiritual mothers, like natural mothers, will suffer tremendously for the sake of their children, and at times, at the hands of their spiritual children. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay on her life in his book, Doctors of the Church, “Like many of the saints, Catherine knew great suffering. Some even thought that they should not trust her, to the point that in 1374, six years before her death, the General Chapter of the Dominicans summoned her to Florence to interrogate her.” Of course God did not abandon her in that hour. Rather, the humble Friar assigned to question her eventually became her confessor and spiritual son, Blessed Raymond of Capua. Her willingness to suffer in love became the conduit of God’s grace in the lives of those around her.
In this example from her life, St. Catherine demonstrates a profound truth about the nature of spiritual motherhood. Much as natural mothers should never abandon their children, spiritual mothers are also called to suffer in love for the sake of their spiritual children, no matter the cost. St. Catherine bore with patience, humility, and charity the accusations of those around her. Through her patient suffering, God provided her another spiritual son who would one day be beatified. All saints are tested in some way and often through rejection and disbelief from others. The spiritual mother always keeps in mind that the salvation of souls is at stake, which supersedes the pain she may experience at the hands of others. To be a spiritual mother is to live a life of constant interior mortification.
In this time of pandemic, it is also good to consider her devotion to the poor and the sick. She would faithfully serve those dying of the bubonic plague who were also her spiritual children. An example of love that knows no limits, including the fear of death, St. Catherine was willing to go wherever Christ needed her, no matter the cost. This is once again evidence of her deep love as a spiritual mother who went to the very limits for the sake of her spiritual children. It’s a reminder to us in these days of pandemic that the heroic witness of the saints calls us out of fear and hiding and out into the trusting light of faith in Christ to serve those who need our loving witness in dark days.
While the call to spiritual motherhood can vary based on God’s designs, it is a vocation that calls a woman to a deep and expansive love for the sake of Christ and His Church through Our Blessed Mother. The love of a spiritual mother is no less real, intense, profound, and tangible than that of a natural mother. It is a love that reaches towards heaven in the hope that many souls will be brought to Christ through the offering of her spiritual maternal love. St. Catherine of Siena is an example to us of the tremendous gifts of the love of a spiritual mother on fire with God’s love and a deep desire for souls to reach the heights of heaven.