Motherhood, Isolation, and the Meaning of Christian Brotherhood

Motherhood, Isolation, and the Meaning of Christian Brotherhood


Often it happens that when I’m pondering a problem or working out an idea several different pieces of writing will arrive on my doorstep from diverse sources that all seem to speak to different aspects of the topic. Then I feel a need to try to bring them together in dialogue with each other so that I may then respond to them in some sort of coherent manner. But I’m never quite sure where to begin and how to organize my thoughts. Fortunately this is a blog and there is no need for a formal essay structure. Instead of going for polish, I’m going to just dive in and see what comes out. (As usual the excerpts I pull are the bits that seem most relevant to me and my argument; but you really should click through to read each piece in its entirety because I don’t think they really do the authors justice. Reading bits without context can always distort the author’s original intent.)

I’ve been thinking about what a parish community is and what it should be and in particular what the role of my local parish should be in meeting my sense of isolation and my feeling of not having an adequate community to support me in my current vocation as a mother to many young children.

A Ministry to Young Mothers?

Elizabeth Scalia’s response to Calah’s lament about the difficult of obedience in regard to NFP is one piece of the puzzle I’m putting together as she echoes my feeling that there isn’t enough community support for young mothers with larger families and that the Church is in a sense failing to help us live out our particular calling. Scalia proposes that there is a need for a specific ministry to young mothers: Open Hand, Open Heart: Ministry to Young Mothers:

There is freedom in obedience but it can sometimes seem very hard to find when life is a blur of small, unruly people who are in constant states of screaming need and one’s post-partum chemistry is all afoul; a sincere attempt at religious obedience can feel like oncoming death or madness, especially if one is not getting some sound spiritual direction, and a little help. People who have no idea what it’s like to not even be alone while in the bathroom — to have no spare minute in which to collect oneself or re-tether oneself to heaven — cannot possibly imagine the strain.

Reading Calah’s piece, I couldn’t help but wonder why parishes do not have a “young mother’s ministry”. We have Consolation/Funeral Ministry, Divorced Men’s Ministry, Teen-group Ministry, Bereavement Ministry; why not a Ministry of Succor meant to help young mothers who have passed that “new baby” moment when everyone wants to help and are now in the thick of the everyday demands of motherhood — just her and the brood and hours of unrelieved, lonely coping.

I’m envisioning a ministry whereby older moms — perhaps women confronting an empty nest, or those facing retirement with some time on their hands — can simply visit with a young mom for an hour or so, a couple times a week — at home or in a park — and be present to her in a reassuring, and most importantly, confidential way.

I am not talking about babysitting, about some woman coming in while the young mother flees for the hour — and I’m not talking about someone who helps with the housework — I’m thinking about something more in line with a woman able to come in and take one kid into her lap, and maybe rock it to sleep, while the young mother deals with another kid but also has a chance to talk, spill, vent, cry; a woman who might be a prayer companion in those moments; a woman who can identify — who understands that the young mother is neither nuts nor incompetent, just overwhelmed; a woman who can reassure her that things get better — that the job of motherhood never becomes “easy” but it gets more manageable.

I can’t tell you what comfort and balm it was to read Elizabeth’s words, to see someone who is not currently in my shoes acknowledge the need and ache of my heart and the hearts of so many of the moms of young children I have come to know here at my blog and other blogs and Facebook and all the online places that make up a virtual world. While we can to some extent comfort each other here in this virtual space, at the same time, we do need to have someone acknowledge that it isn’t enough.  We need real, face-to-face community. We long to find it in our parishes and find that parish life is somehow inadequate and leaves us yearning for a missing community, for deeper communion.


What Does Help for Moms Look Like?

My initial response to Scalia’s proposal is a resounding “Yes!” but I find that Elizabeth Duffy has some reservations. She argues that perhaps there doesn’t need to be a ministry or formal program to meet every need, Instead, there needs to be a community, friendships.

There have been many comments on both posts expressing a need for some kind of mother’s ministry, and yet little consensus on the particulars of what such a ministry might do. Some have suggested a mother’s group that meets at church to commiserate. Some have suggested a committee that brings meals to families with new babies. Others have suggested recruiting the grannies in the Parish to make home visits and offer respite care or companionship to young mothers. All are worthy suggestions, and I’ve seen all of them done, in different communities at different times, with varying degrees of success.

But when it comes to naming a one-size-fits-all nationwide ministry within the Catholic Church to meet the needs of all mothers of young children, I think we’re grasping at straws. Here’s why:
Mothers come in all shapes and sizes, and at different times in their lives, they need different things.

[. . .]

It’s probably reasonable to look to the Church for help for young mothers, and yet in hindsight, the best help the Church could have provided me, and did provide me, was Sacramental support and a teaching authority that, while challenging on the whole, has led to a richer life than I would have designed for myself. I’m glad I followed it, even at the times I was most tempted to stray.
Now that I’ve had a chance to catch my breath as a mother and volunteer at my Parish as a catechist, I can see just how much our Parish does with very limited resources. The ministries that are already in place are performed by the same handful of volunteers who make everything in our Parish happen. The Parish council is composed of the same people who do Faith formation. Saint Ann’s altar society also does funeral meals. Knights of columbus IS the Buildings and Grounds committee. Who can do more for the Parish than they’re already doing? We’re all doing the best we can.

[. . .]

I think we fall into the same trap when we make demands of the Church, holding that wherever I have a vested interest, the Church must meet my needs. I’m being chaste, therefore the Church must be my matchmaker. I’m not using birth control, so the Church must be my nanny. I’m fighting a culture war, so the Church must provide me with beautiful liturgy, better music, and fine art.
The Church is Christ’s body on earth, and as such, it doesn’t really owe any of us anything.

On the contrary, we owe Christ and his body on earth good marriages strengthened over time by our individual and gradual perfection in virtue; we owe him fidelity even at the times when being faithful causes us suffering; we owe him the best music, art and liturgy we can provide because it’s balm for a suffering body, not necessarily because bad art is an affront to me, personally.
And we all owe the Church our open eyes, and whatever able bodies our family can provide to meet the needs of our Parish community.

[emphasis Duffy’s]

I agree with Duffy to an extent. Perhaps she is right that there can no single ministry that will serve the needs of mothers. And yet, I think her response, thoughtful and loving as it is, doesn’t adequately address the root questions that Calah’s post evokes and to which Scalia is responding: Why it is that the young mothers feel the Church community is failing to support them? If everyone in the parish is really doing all they can, why do young moms feel so isolated and cut off? Is this really the best the Church can do? I’m sorry but Duffy’s post, much as it seemed to speak to others, left a bad taste in my mouth. It’s true but it isn’t enough to say that a ministry to young moms won’t be a universal bandaid or that we all need to do a bit more to keep our eyes open to opportunities to reach out to others. I want to dig deeper. But before I do so, there was one more piece that fell into my lap.

A Softness that Ends in Bitterness?

I don’t know of Heather King even read Scalia’s or Duffy’s posts; but her post, A Softness that Ends in Bitterness seemed to dovetail so perfectly with the conversation that it seemed like a voice joining in. King writes:

This is the kind of thing that if you’re looking for a Church that’s a social club, a fellowship, or an “experience” can seem very thin. But membership in the Mystical Body of Christ does not depend on our feelings; it depends on our orientation of heart; on where we bring and put our bodies. To be a Catholic is to enter into a relationship with Christ that is at once intimate beyond imagining and entirely anonymous, hidden, and private. Flannery O’Connor once observed: “I went to St. Mary’s as it was right around the corner and I could get there practically every morning. I went there three years and never knew a soul in that congregation or any of the priests, but it was not necessary. As soon as I went in the door I was at home.”

“To expect too much,” she wrote elsewhere, “is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” For my own part, if I trudged alone to Confession and a distracted, lackluster priest (not that my priest was) looked up from his smart phone, barely listened, and gave me two Our Fathers every time I went for the rest of my days, that would be fine. That would be brilliant. That would be the gift of my life.

[. . .]

We do not come to Mass to have a social, an aesthetic, or even a spiritual experience (though sometimes we do, and that’s beautiful); we come to beg for mercy. We come to stand in back of the church, beat our breasts, and realize it is a complete and utter miracle that we are allowed even to be in the same room with the Alpha and the Omega, the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings; the Great Physician, the Great Priest, the Savior of the World, our One, our Only, Friend. That is why it doesn’t matter whether we have any friends at church, whether we know the priest’s name, whether he even speaks our language.

On the one hand, King is right that our participation in the Mass is not primarily “a social, aesthetic or even a spiritual experience”. She is right that our attention during the liturgy should be directed upward toward God and not toward socializing with our fellow men. However, I think the picture she paints here is inadequate representation of the reality that we gather to worship not as a group of individuals but as a community, in fact, the Body of Christ. Even when I am traveling in a foreign country and go to Mass where I don’t know anyone and don’t speak the language, that Mass will still be an opportunity for me to stand before God to plead for mercy not as an individual in singular intimate relationship with Christ but as a member of a community of brothers in relationship with each other in Christ. Moreover, the image Flannery offers up (though taken out of context and thus perhaps not adequately representing Flannery’s intent) of the lone wolf parishioner attending Mass for years on years without knowing anyone at all at their local parish strikes me as an entirely inadequate image of the ideal parish life. True, some individuals are more hermit-like than others, but the reality is that Christian life is a life of brotherhood in Christ and the kind of radical individualism in which every individual at Mass is an anonymous participant, unknown to any other, means to me a failure of community.


The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood

I’ve been reading a slim little book, The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, written by Joseph Ratzinger in 1960, which makes a different argument about the nature of liturgy:

The recognition that ekklesia (Church) and adelphotes (brotherhood) re the same thing, that the Church that fulfills herself in the celebration of the Eucharist is essentially a community of brothers, compels us to celebrate the Eucharist as a rite of brotherhood in a responsory dialogue—and not to have a lonely hierarchy facing a group of laymen each one of whom is shut off in his own missal or devotional book. The Eucharist must again become visibly the sacrament of brotherhood in order to be able to achieve its full, community-creating power. This does not imply a social dogmatism: the vocation of the individual Christian can often be fulfilled quietly in a life of retirement. But even a vocation like this is a form of brotherly service and, therefore, far from invalidating the brotherly nature of the community rite of the Church, further confirms it.

It seems to me that King is most definitely one of those” individual Christians” whose vocation is “fulfilled quietly in the life of retirement.” As was Flannery. And I respect her point of view on not needing a lot of socialization to feel connected to the parish community. The brief recognition of a friend at confession, while it may appear thin to others, lifts up her heart and confirms her experience of brotherhood. However, I don’t think that it is an adequate representation of what the life of a parish community should strive for.

Ratzinger continues the previous passage with some thoughts on what a parish’s life should be outside of the liturgy:

Consideration of the Eucharist takes us a step farther, too. Its celebration originally comprised, of course, both the liturgical meal and an ordinary, “physical” meal shared by Christians meeting together in one large unit. The liturgy and ordinary living had not yet become separated. This situation cannot be reconstructed under present circumstances, but Schurmann rightly points out that the need still remains for parishes to develop appropriate forms of community life outside the liturgy in order to supplement the liturgical gathering and make possible direct brotherly contact. The forms will vary according to circumstances, but we may make one general point: inasmuch as brotherhood in the parish is, as it were, divided up among different societies or organizations, it is necessary to keep bringing people together in larger groups in order to emphasize their relationship to the greater unity of the parish. The individual organization is justified only insofar as it serves the brotherhood of the whole community. This aim of making the parish community a true brotherhood ought to be taken very seriously. Today a trade union or a party can exist as a live and fraternal community, and so the actual experience of brotherhood for all the Christian members of a parish community can and, therefore, should become a primary goal. It would be a universal experience which transcended all barriers, of course, for in every parish there are men of different professions and often of different languages and nationalities. It is this universality which gives the parish a superior position to an organization based on any other community of interests. And the parishes ought to come to see one another as sisters, according to the words of John’s second Epistle (5:13)—sisters who, in the fellowship of their faith and love, build up together the great unity of the Mother Church, the body of the Lord

[emphasis mine]

Here Ratzinger says that attendance at the liturgy by itself is not sufficient for supporting Christian brotherhood. Contra King, he suggests that there needs to be a regular coming together of large groups of the parish community outside of the liturgy in order to create an actual experience of brotherhood. Ok, I’m probably misreading King, but the implication of her post does seem to be that it’s perfectly fine for everyone at a parish to exist in anonymity, to not know another soul. And Ratzinger says, not so.

When I read this passage from Ratzinger it was an “aha!” moment that seemed very much to answer Duffy’s piece. While it’s true as Duffy says that the most important thing our parishes give us is the sacramental life, Ratzinger says that the parish also has a serious mission to provide more than just the liturgical meal. It needs to create those bonds of brotherhood. And at least in my neck of the woods the parish is seriously failing in that mission. It’s one thing for an individual to decide to be hermit-like, eschew larger gatherings and only seek out the sacramental life of the parish; but when everyone is doing it, when all a parish is is a collection of individuals showing up for Mass and a few small groups and organizations meeting separately, and when opportunities for everyone to come together to socialize either don’t exist or are few and far between, then there begins to be a lack in that direct brotherly contact and a deficit in the experience of brotherhood for all the members.

This is one reason why young mothers feel so alone. This is why our parish is failing us. I argue that it has failed to “develop appropriate forms of community life outside the liturgy in order to supplement the liturgical gathering and make possible direct brotherly contact.”’

Additionally, while Ratzinger says that smaller organizations and societies are insufficient, he also seems to assumes a plethora of them at work in the parish. I’d say that the experience of the parish community in the 60s was a different world than mine in the 21st century. Although from conversations with people who live in other parts of the country, I know my experience may not be representative of praish life in other places—Jen at Conversion Diary, for example, has written and chatted with me about her very active parish with many organizations and ministries—still, all I can write about is my own experience. In my parish and many other parishes in the Boston area even those smaller groups and organizations that Ratzinger mentions are sparse on the ground. And the ones that do exist… well, much of the time they don’t even advertise themselves in the parish bulletin. How is anyone—much less someone new to the parish—supposed to know about meetings and be able to join? I suppose it’s word of mouth?

What Should a Parish Do to Promote Brotherhood?

I’m not trying to throw myself a pity party; but I am trying to look at my own experiences and extrapolate a bit. I’ve been a newcomer in two different parishes since I moved to Massachusetts and both times I’ve found that it has taken years and years of going to Mass and trying to find organizations to join before I finally started to feel like a member of the community, before I felt that brotherhood. King says it’s not all about feelings and quoting Flannery seems to suggest that to expect the parish to fill this need, this longing for community is to expect too much and therefore is mere sentimentality that will end in bitterness. Well, I can attest to some of the bitterness; but Ratzinger’s piece seems to argue against the idea that my yearning for the experience of brotherhood is too much or that it is mere sentiment; but instead a need that the parish should make a primary goal to fulfill. 

When we first moved to our current town I’d grab a copy of the bulletin every week and scour it for something that I could do, a group I could join… something to help me feel connected, to get to know people and begin to be a part of the community. Granted, my ability to join in was very limited by having an infant and a toddler and, within weeks of moving, a new pregnancy. But there has been only one activity offered at all in the last four years that was scheduled for weekday mornings and was geared toward stay-at-home moms. Sure, some of the fault can be placed at my own door. I’m very shy, an introvert. I have a hard time meeting new people and feel very anxious in new social situations. But I think that’s precisely why some parishes have newcomers ministries, to help individuals overcome those barriers to finding their footing in a new parish.

For all that ministries can’t meet every need for every individual, I do think there needs to be some formal attempts on the part of the parish community to meet some of those needs. In today’s busy, disconnected world it isn’t enough to expect individual friendships to cover all the needs of individuals.

Now to be fair, things in my parish have improved a bit in the past few months. A while back they started experimenting with reviving the practice of having coffee and donuts after Mass. At first it was an occasional thing. Then once a month or so. Finally, we’ve got to every other week. Even that little gesture has meant a great deal for my sense of belonging to a community of brothers. Lingering after Mass to have a snack and chat a it with other people in the parish has opened the door to longer conversations with the people who used to just stop and say hi and compliment our kids and to meeting new people. One family has taken to bringing a simple activity for all the kids: a pile of coloring pages and a big bin of cross stickers and a box of crayons and markers. Now a handful of children gather to color and the mothers stand around and talk to each other.
This past Sunday an older mother said she was so glad to get to meet me. She’s seen me at Mass with my kids and wanted to do so. She made a point of asking me to come to the cookie swap for moms they are having next Sunday and said her daughter would be there to help watch any kids who showed up so the moms could really have the freedom to socialize. She said she thought it was so important for moms to be able to get together to support one another. Later in the conversation we were chatting about taking the kids to the beach and I said that I seldom do because I can’t keep track of them all enough to make sure everyone is safe. She said her daughter loves kids and is a great mother’s helper and could perhaps accompany us to the beach or on other outings. (I started to wonder if she’d read Elizabeth Scalia’s article.)

No conclusion here, just more questions. Do you think your parish does enough to create an experience of brotherhood? Do parishes need to work harder than they used to considering how fragmented modern life is, how mobile people are, how many people move far from family and friends and traditional community, how many people live far from where they work, how working mothers mean that neighborhoods tend to be empty during the day leaving stay at home moms isolated and working moms too busy to connect? how do we achieve a sense of close-knit community? Should the burden of this task be on the pastor, the parish council, the individual members? Is the answer more about individuals adjusting their priorities as Duffy suggests and can the parish help them to make that transition?

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  • After reading to the end, I was sad that there were no comments here! It’s been two years, so I can’t help wondering about the woman and her daughter. I like the connection that you see between this need for community and what Tolkien is modeling with Farmer Maggot. Thank you for directing me to this post!

    • Thanks, Nicole. Actually, what happened was when my blog had to be transferred to a new server importing the comments was tricky. The upshot was that all the comments were somehow attached to the previous post. So all 35 comments on this one are under the “Love the Guest” post from Nov 29.

      Did you mean the mother and daughter from our parish? They are still around. I decided not to follow up on the babysitting offers partly because I’d heard about the daughter’s babysitting for others and how she was intimidated by the diaper changes. I didn’t think she’d be able to handle three kids in diapers. But I’m friends with mom on Facebook, we talk after Mass. Or did before our Mass got cancelled and we had to start going elsewhere.