Gypsy Motherhood; Spiritual Motherhood

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May 12, 2013 by lucieromarin

Gypsy motherhood is not often discussed in Catholic circles – presumably because it is not so much a theological concept as it is an excellent game to have on hand for entertaining children when stuck in cramped quarters or odd surroundings without toys.

My life as a gypsy mother began while entertaining a friend’s children in the aforesaid conditions. We had at my disposal my bed and the linen thereon, my desk, and my chair. The premise of the game was that we were servants in Rome, who had overheard our mistress planning to sell us to the gypsies, and had escaped to the streets, where we now made a living by foraging, busking (always disguised) and hunting, while simultaneously avoiding the gypsies by hiding. A chair, a sheet, and a desk makes a pretty good hideout. The game was a hit, and could be played under other circumstances, such as while confined to a chapel’s tea-and-coffee area on a freezing cold winter’s night, with no toys, and no permission to go anywhere. “Let’s play the gypsy game!” a child exclaims, and suddenly, standing by the cupboard turns into hiding by the cupboard, and everyone has a great time.

The gypsy game can also be played at a distance. One day, I was chatting to a friend; a group of children, however – including hers – wanted to play the gypsy game.

“Okay. I’m the mother, but I’ve broken both my ankles so I can’t go foraging,” I said. “So I have to sit here and send you out to find supplies for the winter. You can come back and tell me what you’ve found. Don’t forget that we need wood as well as food.”

Well, the game must have spiralled out of control, and my friend had the odd experience of seeing her son return to us and place his hands on my knees, exclaiming, “Mother! Mother! The whole jungle is under arrest!”

Spiritual motherhood is a more commonly discussed topic, not so much because it is a new idea (St Therese describes the repentant criminal Pranzini as her first child) but because (I think) we’re aware that to be childless is a grief for many, and that even though public discussions of the value of motherhood can be necessary, they can also hurt. I remember a sermon – preached with the best of intentions – about children as the meaning of marriage, and watching as the childless couples in the pews just sunk into themselves, trying to not show how they felt. Thus, exhorting women to, or thanking them for, spiritual motherhood, is not only a reminder that having children is not the only way to do good; it’s an acknowledgement of the good that is already being done by many.

I do wish, though, that it were better defined. I know that a loose definition can appear more inclusive – but it can also appear less meaningful. I mean, at what point does babysitting and praying for people warrant the appellation ‘spiritual motherhood’? If a couple of paters and aves counts as winning grace for souls, then who isn’t a spiritual mother? Does it simply mean ‘winning grace for souls’, or does it actually mean, ‘nurturing any children other than your own?’ In which case, what’s spiritual about cleaning somebody else’s child? And is it much consolation to be told that your grace-winning work or your nurturing of other people’s children counts as spiritual motherhood, once you realise that many biological mothers are doing the same thing? The world is full of mothers giving grace and love to children not their own, so why would God need one woman to be barren in order to be a spiritual mother, and not need another to experience the same conditions? And how do biological mothers feel about the implication that praying and nurturing is something distinct from motherhood in the ordinary sense? Where does that leave their daily work? And so on.

I don’t mean it’s a bad idea. I mean it’s an idea that could use some clarification. My own instinct is to scrap the non-spiritual/spiritual distinction and to talk about visible and invisible motherhood instead.

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