I’ve been thinking about the Biblical Hannah, mother of Samuel, recently and about the vocation of motherhood.
Again and again, Hannah stood in the temple, imploring God for a child. And, finally, her prayer is answered. And then as soon as he’s weaned, she takes her child back to the temple and gives him up to God.
How could she stand to do that? She had longed so greatly for a child. And there was probably little or no chance she would have another child. And yet that woman who had prayed so fervently gives up the thing she had prayed for. How? Why?
I think Hannah understood the vocation of motherhood.
Our children are not our own. They are not possessions, they are not playthings. They are not ours to do with as we please. They are God’s and given to us for a time to love, but only for a time and with the sure knowledge that God has a plan for them, perhaps independent of his plan for us. Our job is to see that they know him and love him and to guide them as they grow so that they will one day be citizens of his kingdom and live with him forever.
Hannah knew her longing for motherhood was a longing inspired by God. He was calling her to his service. But she also knew that if he sent her a child, that child would still be his. He was not only calling Hannah, he was also calling her child, Samuel, to serve him. The child was a gift not only to Hannah, but to all of Israel.
God’s gifts to us are never just for us. They are always to be shared. They are always for others. Just like Father Christmas’ gifts to the children in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, they are not for the children’s own benefit, primarily, they are for Narnia. For the children, the gifts are tools to help them grow in service to others, to become the kings and queens they are destined to be.
Hannah is a type of Mary. Mary also recognized that the child she bore was a gift not only to herself, but to the whole people of Israel. And not only to Israel, but to the world.
I am sure Hannah felt sad as she left her little Samuel at the temple and went home alone to a house where the laughter of a small child still echoed and the first steps and the first words and all the moments a mother treasures. Did she sit down and cry when she got home? Or did she wake up in the middle of the night with a wet pillow? The Bible never records such moments (just her hymn of praise, rather like Mary’s Magnificat), but she was a mother. I think she probably did.
A mother must ask not only what is God’s calling for herself, but also what is God’s calling for her child. As she watches her little one grow and learn she must also contemplate who this child is, what is God’s plan. A mother should never try to force a child to be something he is not called to be. She must let go of her own dreams and ambitions, of her plans and schemes. God is in charge, not her. And every mother must realize that the day will come when she must let go completely, when her little one will be on his own in the big wide world and God must take over.
How do you prepare to let go? I think it begins with the realization that you are not in control. You never were and never will be.
We live in an age where people have tried to seize control, especially when it comes to conceiving and bearing children. It must be on our own terms or not at all. Abortion: I’m not ready to have a child now, so I’ll kill this one. With no recognition that each child is a unique, eternal soul. IVF: I want to be pregnant now on my own terms. Contraception: Maybe children later, but not now. Only when they are convenient.
Mary, of course, is the ultimate model for Christian motherhood. From the very moment of the Annunciation, when the angel told her:
Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.
From that moment she began letting go: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
She knew from the beginning that her son would be called away from her. She knew that God was in charge, that whatever dreams or plan she might have made, this child had been chosen. His primary identity, according to the angel’s prophecy, will be not as Mary’s son but as God’s.
And when she took him to the temple to present him, just as Hannah took her son, she must have thought about that. And then the prophecy, her worst fears confirmed: “and you yourself a sword will pierce.”
This is the essence of Christian motherhood, to follow Mary, knowing that her path leads to the foot of the cross. We are not promised an easy journey. We know that like Mary we are called to let go and to trust in God.
I’ve never taken motherhood for granted. When Dom and I got engaged I wondered: will we even be able to have children? Don’t ask me why, but it was a concern. I longed for children, but knew that it was out of my hands. God would send what children he wanted us to have.
When I discovered that we had conceived Isabella, on our honeymoon no less, I was so full of joy. But then a new worry. That day, or maybe it was the next, I had a sharp pain that doubled me over. I couldn’t even stand up. I later read that sometimes when the embryo implants it can be very painful. But at the time all I could think was: am I losing this child already?
I never took it for granted that I would be a mother and I never took it for granted that I would bear a healthy child to term. Every night we prayed for her health and for a safe delivery:
O almighty and everlasting God, through the Holy Spirit, you prepared the body and soul of the glorious virgin Mary to be a worthy dwelling place of your divine Son. Through the same Holy Spirit, you sanctified St. John the Baptist, while still in his mother’s womb. Hear the prayers of your humble servant who implores you, through the intercession of St. Gerard, to protect me amid the dangers of childbearing and to watch over the child with which you blessed me. May this child be cleansed by the saving water of baptism and, after a Christian life on earth, may we, both mother and child, attain everlasting bliss in heaven.
Every day that passed I thanked God for another day of life. Every time we went to the doctor and I heard the heartbeat I rejoiced that she was still alive. And when finally I saw her, my beautiful, perfect Isabella, I cried. And thanked God for the gift of her life.
Who is Isabella? Before she was born, when she was still small, unknown, before we knew her name, before we even knew she was a girl, God knew her. He knew her name and he knew the sound of her voice and the color of her hair and the way she would smile and laugh and all the sounds she would make. He knows who she will be and what she will do. I can only wonder at each new discovery. As much as I love her—and, oh I love her so much—still, that is only a fraction of the love God has for her.
I pray that I will be a good mother to her. That I will see her as she is and not as I want her to be. That I will love her as she deserves, teach her as she deserves. That I will be a good role model for her. That she will be a good Catholic girl and woman, live a good life, love God, and that one day we will meet each other in heaven.
And my baby Francis? I never felt you move. I don’t even know if you are a boy or a girl. I will have to wait to know your smile and your laugh and all those things I treasure so much about your big sister, Isabella. And I pray that you are being held in loving arms, by a mother who loves you as much as I do, by a Father who loves you far more than I can. And I pray that we too will meet one day in heaven.
I am sad. I wish I could hold you.
But what mother would not want to spare her child every pain and sorrow that she can? And you will never know pain or suffering. Never know hunger or thirst, loneliness or fear. I’ve watched Bella crying and felt helpless because I didn’t know why or I couldn’t fix it right then. I’ve held her down while nurses poked needles into her legs. I’ve comforted her when she’s fallen. I know there will be more pains, many griefs, many needles pricking my heart. And perhaps some swords as well.
I am sad, but not devastated, not traumatized. The trauma was in the hospital waiting room, but it was over quickly. I have cried but not sobbed. And I don’t know why I’m reacting as I am. But I suspect it has much to do with all those people praying for us, so many consolations have been granted to me through those intercessions. And I think it is also because I know that this is merely one of the sorrows of motherhood, that I am the one who feels the pain, my child does not. And what mother wouldn’t gladly shoulder any amount of pain to spare her child?
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised if this burden is light. I know I’m getting off easy. There will be harder ones, too.
Motherhood is not a job, not a role, not a pastime. It is a vocation. I have been called by God. He names us, knows us, calls us by name and when we answer, we become what he calls. Mothers are called by God to emulate him, to give life, to pour out ourselves, giving away with abandon, to love completely, selflessly, even when hurts, especially when it hurts. A mother loves. God is love. By being mothers, we draw near to God.