I was recently sharing a story about one of my daughters with my spiritual director. As children of two parents, with five theology degrees between them, my daughters are especially prone to curiosity and conversation about theological topics. In sharing one of their beautiful little moments of wonder in spiritual direction, this dear priest told me, “Michele, that is spiritual motherhood. You are being a spiritual mother to your daughters, not just a biological one.”
Although I have felt drawn to spiritual maternity of seminarians and priests, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be both a biological and a spiritual mother to my daughters. But in that moment, I realized that he was right.
Spiritual Maternity — the Greater Part
I have some very dear friends who have suffered much from infertility. I have faced the pain of secondary infertility, and know many others who have, too. In a world that touts the joys of biological maternity, spiritual maternity gets forgotten. Then, even when it is mentioned, it is often mentioned as a sort of second prize. “You can’t be a biological mother…but don’t worry! You can be a spiritual mother!”
The thing is that, biological motherhood is meant to be an icon of spiritual motherhood. In experiencing biological or adoptive motherhood (or fatherhood), that experience is meant to draw us into contemplation of the deeper reality of God’s paternity of us. But just as marriage is an icon of the deeper reality of union with God, physical parenthood isn’t the pinnacle of the experience of parenthood. Spiritual parenthood is.
Many people are biological parents. They birth their children, raise them, and don’t ever point them to God or to the reality of their identity as beloved children of the Father. Many parents are toxic or abusive—whether physically or emotionally—in which case they not only fail to point their children to the reality of the love of God the Father but they actually make it even harder for their children to grasp that mystery.
Yet, the world lauds those who are biological parents. The world forgets the power of spiritual parenthood. Biological parents give birth to a life that will die. Spiritual parents give birth to a life that will live eternally.
Monica’s Spiritual Maternity
St. Monica is the mother of one of the greatest doctors of the Church, St. Augustine. But her physical motherhood is not what makes her a saint. Her spiritual motherhood is.
From a worldly standpoint, Augustine was always a son that a mother could be proud of. He was an intelligent man, respected in intellectual circles. But…he was not happy. He was longing for something more. Monica, as a spiritual mother to him, was able to recognize that and to pray and to fight for his conversion.
If a child is physically sick, a healthy parent will move heaven and earth to seek their healing. They will pray relentlessly for that healing. But, all too often, spiritual sickness and weakness goes unseen and unprayed for. In the case of Monica, it was the spiritual sickness of her son that moved her to tears and anguished prayers. She would not rest until she knew that her son would find the One that his heart longed for.
Her spiritual maternity did not stop with Augustine’s conversion, either. She died before Augustine became a bishop – or even a priest – and one wonders what role her prayers continued to play after his death.
But before she died, one of my favorite stories in the life of Augustine took place.
Last year, I had the opportunity to accompany my husband (an Augustine scholar) on a trip to Italy for his work. Some of the most poignant moments in Monica and Augustine’s life together happened in Italy, and both are buried there (St. Augustine in Pavia and St. Monica in Rome). Visiting the tombs of both of them (especially with a man who has devoted his life to studying Augustine) was profoundly moving. Walking where they walked made them both so real.
Outside of modern day Rome, there are the ruins of the ancient port of Rome, Ostia, the ruins of which are known as Ostia Antica. The ruins of the city are incredible and extensive – floor mosaics, ancient roads, and even the ruins of the ancient Basilica. The columns remain, and you can easily see the layout of the church. I stood at its entrance, a restless toddler in my arms, watching my husband walk through the ruins. My feet hurt, I was hot, and I was impatiently wondering how much longer we were going to walk around the ruins. My impatience instantly dissipated when my husband emerged from the ruins of the Basilica, a look of peaceful contemplation on his face. “Augustine and Monica must have prayed here,” he said. I stopped. So much of that archeological site is focused on the accomplishments of the ancient Romans, but my husband had zeroed in on the most important part of the city. It was a place where saints had walked. The stones that I was restlessly shifting my feet on…they were the very stones that Monica and Augustine had trod on as they entered the doorway to Mass.
At the end of her life, while in Ostia (where she died), with her son, Monica had a conversation with Augustine that stayed with him all his life. It was a glimpse of heaven, and it was certainly a mystical experience of some sort that the two shared. In the conversation, Augustine and his mother talked about God, about heaven, and their hearts were both filled with unspeakable joy and longing in the midst of this conversation. The degree of joy and longing that they experienced exceeded what was humanly possible. As the saints have humbly taught us, a conversation like this is the work of grace, not human effort. Augustine remembered that conversation for the rest of his life. It was a glimpse of heaven for him.
And that conversation happened right there, in Ostia, the ruins of which (when we are not in the middle of a pandemic) you can still visit and walk around today.
This sort of conversation, a moment of intense grace in which the veil is briefly pulled back, was something that Monica and Augustine shared not because she was his physical mother, but because she was his spiritual one.
The Great Gift of Spiritual Parenthood
Through her example, Monica points us to the reality of spiritual parenthood. All men are called to be spiritual fathers. All women are called to be spiritual mothers. Unfortunately, few actually take that call seriously. Few experience the fullness of parenthood that they were created for.
There are many (myself included) who get to experience the gift of biological parenthood. There are also many who never receive that gift. But in the realm of the eternal – that which will never pass away – the greater parenthood is spiritual parenthood. If a woman is a spiritual mother but never gets to experience biological motherhood, she will have experienced motherhood in a much fuller, richer way than one who is a biological mother but has never been a spiritual one.
All women are called to be Monicas. We are called not to merely nurture and bring forth physical life. We are called, like her, to share in the greater part—the gift of spiritual maternity.
image: Fresco of Saint Monica in the Church of Sant Agostino in San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy by jorisvo / Shutterstock.com.