I wrote the letter because I had to do a creative synthesis assignment in my unit of theology on the four female doctors of the Church: Saints Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Therese of Lisieux. They wrote many letters to many people they loved so I took the notes from the wedding speech me and my husband delivered on her wedding day and developed it.
Today, this letter is part of a collection of essays titled ‘Still Listening to the Spirit: Woman and Man 20 Years On’ commissioned by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus.
I’m writing to you on the occasion of your wedding and leaving home to embark on this next chapter of your life.
Bethany, I think you’re one of the most amazing humans in the world. I love you so deeply that I can literally feel the love physically in my body! You came into this world, wise and content and stole all our hearts from the beginning. I remember in those early years of parenting just being happy hanging out with you all day on the floor. I remember your first words, your first ideas, your first days of school. I remember the first time you ever felt embarrassed; I remember the joy on your face every time you danced in our lounge room. Today is another one of those precious moments I will remember. Today is a first, because it’s the day where you begin the rest of your life as the leader of your family, and not just a child of our family. So with that journey ahead and with motherhood on your heels, I want to share with you some of the things I have learnt in marriage and motherhood – about being a woman, about leadership, love, selflessness and especially about God.
I want to do that by introducing you to some women that can help you on the way. Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena and Therese of Lisieux – four saints and doctors of the Church and worthy companions for your journey ahead – like sisters. “To learn their stories and read their writings is to encounter them as sisters in the way that Mary and Elizabeth expressed their sisterhood in mutual presence and embrace.” (Dreyer, 2014, p6) Here is what I’ve learnt from my life backed up from these amazing women.
First and foremost, you will need Jesus.
You will need to know who you are; to know who He is. You are a daughter of the one, true King of the Universe and you belong with Him. He loves you more than you could possibly ever imagine and will never leave you. Talk to Him and tell Him everything, every day. Keep Jesus Christ at the centre of your life and you will get through anything. He will be your model of total sacrifice (when you least feel like giving more), forgiveness (when you’re hurt and don’t want to), of always looking outwards to invite others into your home, and of every day being a chance to start again. I don’t know how people make it through this life without Him. In my life, He has been the one, constant presence. For all four female doctors of the Church, Jesus was at the centre of their lives as well. Everything they did and wrote flowed out of this love and fervent pursuit of Jesus as number one. Therese wrote, “Never have I heard Him speak, but I feel that He is within me at each moment; He is guiding and inspiring me with what I must say and do.” (Therese, 1996, p79) I too have felt this and I know you have as well! Don’t ever lose this. Keep seeking Jesus and let him tell you how he sees you.
As you allow Jesus to speak about who you are, you will develop greater self-awareness. There are times when God reminds me how unique, unrepeatable and worthy I am, and other times He reminds me that I am ‘but an ant in the colony’. Both are important. Catherine talked about these two ways also; “If I dare to make that journey towards self-knowledge, then I shall discover how small, flawed and infinite I am, but I shall also see that I am utterly loved and valued.” (Radcliffe, 2005, pxii)
You will need to talk to Jesus
I know prayer can be inconvenient, but even in the craziness of life, keep talking to Him. When you become a mother, your prayer life changes. I was riddled with guilt for a long time, thinking I wasn’t holy enough because I couldn’t get to my ‘hourly prayer time’. As I was formed in this as a young adult, I thought this was how my prayer life would always be. But God is bigger than that. Even when I fell asleep during prayer, God still spoke to me. Even when I was distracted or breast feeding or impatient, God still spoke to me. Therese commented of her prayer time; “All this however, does not prevent both distractions and sleepiness from visiting me…” (Therese, 1996, p 173) So, you see, we are not alone!
Catherine was fearful of leaving her prayer cell – afraid God would be far from her. But she learned that God was in her prayer and her actions. He reassured her saying, “I have no intention whatever of parting you from myself, but rather of making sure to bind you to me all the closer by the bond of your love for your neighbour. Remember that I have laid down two commandments of love: love of me and love of your neighbour…It is the justice of these two commandments that I want you now to fulfil. On two feet you must now walk my way.” (Catherine, 1993, p121) What comfort this has brought me in motherhood! Know that your children will be that ‘neighbour’ on many occasions and that the love you show to them, you show to Him. God has assured me many times that when I cannot stop (like when a baby needs me) He runs beside me as a coach, reassuring and cheering me on. I was surprised at first that I was still growing in Him and in holiness. I learned so much about myself in those early years; about God’s love for me, His love for us as His children and healing of my own childhood. I love this quote about St Catherine demonstrating how her prayer and action were not separate but intertwined. “She did not pray simply to “refuel” herself for further activity…nor was prayer an oasis of rest from work, a kind of holy self‐indulgence. It was precisely what she experienced in contemplation that impelled her into action. And all that she touched or was touched by in her activity was present in her prayer. Indeed, in her later years she was seldom physically alone when she prayed, except in her room at night.” (Noffke, 1980, p8) Catherine also speaks about three forms of prayer in her letter to her niece, Sr Eugenia. (O’Driscoll, 1993, p22-23) She speaks about unceasing prayer; a prayer you will be familiar with – a prayer of your life. We are always praying when we are pursuing God and the good that is in the world. Secondly, vocal prayer – prayers we speak out loud. ‘Jesus help me!” will become a familiar one you use! And thirdly mental prayer, where we all wish we could be; communicating seamlessly with Jesus through intimate connection with him, no words needed. You can read about it in the book I have at home on ‘Catherine of Sienna’. All four of these women speak about prayer as their life blood, so it is something worth fighting for!
Lead like a woman
In a world gone crazy about gender issues, let me encourage you to lead, in all your fullness, as a woman. Women are called to be “signs of God’s tender love towards the human race,” and to enrich humanity with their “feminine genius.” (Chalmers and Maccise, 29) Don’t try to lead like a man! You will rob yourself of all your human capacity as a woman and innate femininity. Hildegard wrote profound truth when talking about her passion for human flourishing. She wrote; “Without woman, man could not be called man; without man, woman could not be called woman. (LDO IV)” (Duran, 2010, p. 30) Women have a gift to offer the world and the Church, and therefore we lead out of this, not in spite of it. Said of the four female doctors, “Theology requires not only thought but also desire, feeling, and love. Our four female doctors of the Church model a type of theology that incorporates emotion as an integral part of profound theological work.” (Dreyer, 2014, p134) This is also true of leadership as women. When you lead your family, lead with all of who are. There are profound spiritual lessons found in marriage and motherhood. The love of your husband and children manifest a visible sign of God’s love in the world. Hildegard wrote; “God, Who made all things by His will, created them so that His Name would be known and glorified, showing in them not just the things that are visible and temporal, but also the things that are invisible and eternal.” (Hildegard, 1990, p94) You glorify God in your vocation of marriage and motherhood, in your femininity, and in your ministry to the world in all you do!
Selflessness and the Audience of One
When I first became a mother, I had no idea what I would have to sacrifice. My work, my desires… even my body had changed! Especially when your dad went back to work and I was left at home; I started to notice that many of the things I used to do, I couldn’t. For example, I couldn’t sing with him at church, because one of us had to hold the baby. My role had changed, and I was faced with a decision: either embrace this new stage of life, or resent it. I needed to make a clear decision to embrace motherhood; to throw myself into it or feel overcome by it. I realised that I needed to stop thinking about the things I was missing out on and start thinking I would never want to miss out on my children – these little people God had entrusted to me! I would never want to miss out on those moments. In fact, there was nowhere else I would rather be, then right there with you!
Don’t let anyone fool you or romanticise motherhood; it is not for the faint hearted! It requires dying to self every day. It will challenge every selfish fiber of your being; your willpower, your resilience and more. You will discover your ‘fierce femininity’ and unearth a protective, irrational love you never thought possible. I knew at some point I had to let go of the things I wanted to do and find peace and joy in the present moment. It was a change of thinking. This lesson is exemplified in St Therese’s ‘Little Way’. “Ah! Let us remain very far from all that sparkles, let us love our littleness, let us love to feel nothing, that we shall be poor in spirit, and Jesus will come to look for us, and however far we may be, He will transform us into flames of love.” (Therese, 1988, p208) Many times in my motherhood I found God in the little things; in the washing up, in the playing blocks on the floor, in a ministry of presence. If I were to abandon those moments and leave to go to private prayer, I would not be choosing the ‘little way’. Motherhood helped me to become more humble than I ever imagined. Therese also discovered this wonderful mystery in nothingness; “The little way is not a sweet easy way out, but the uncompromised Gospel: ‘Unless you become like children…” We can be no smaller than being reduced to utter nothingness.” (Edman, 1997, p176)
You will need resolve and guts
Life is wonderful and joyful, but also challenging and unexpected. Be brave! Speak up and fight for those you love and what you believe in. I know you don’t always think this, but you are actually really wise and insightful, and often know the right thing to do. Trust yourself and that inner voice. Hildegard was brave when she fought for her sisters to have their own monasteries; Catherine was brave when she told the Pope to get back to Rome and lead the Church; Teresa was brave, constantly aware of the Spanish inquisition, but wrote down her theology nonetheless; and Therese was brave when she lost many of the mother figures in her life. Therese was so good at seeing suffering in a positive light, or at least she wrote that way! “One of Therese’s qualities is resilience, refusal to let circumstances defeat her. Where situations looked hopeless, she would devote extra energy till they produced life…” (Matthew, 1997, p20). Many of Hildegard’s letters encouraged others to be brave and not lose hope. Teresa too wrote to many of her sisters, encouraging them to be brave, as did Catherine also.
Mentoring, coaching and growing people
When you think of motherhood, think of a long-term mentoring relationship. The first twenty years or so of this human being’s life is entrusted to you. You will never impact anyone the way you will impact your children. No audience that you speak to, no-one you meet, will be as impacted by you as much as your children. These four women doctors of the Church possessed a strength to mentor and nurture all whom they kept company with; their spiritual children.
Hildegard wrote many letters encouraging others and offering advice. She wrote to the Pope; “Get back on the right path. God will guide you.” (Hildegard, 2013, p105) On another occasion to a countess, “You may argue – “Get up and get going, then. But I am married. I’m no nun. I live in a secular world. What do you expect me to do?” My response remains the same. You must be merciful, kind and virtuous in all you do.” (Hildegard, 2013, p106) What a woman! Be encouraged by her and the other women as you mentor and coach the flock you are entrusted with. Sometimes your advice will be unpopular, just like these saints, but you must keep a long-term perspective. Think to yourself ‘Who do I want these people to be like one day?’ Sometimes you will have to put up with toddler and teenage tantrums. My mantra is always, ‘One day they will thank me: but today is not that day!’ And what joy it was when you thanked me in your letter at the end of year twelve! See? The day does come. Be inspired by Hildegard and her prophetic, sometimes tough nature, borne out of love for her people.
Find a people, a sisterhood, a community
Remember you are not alone! You have a family and whole community of people surrounding you, not to mention a mother who will drop anything for you! And of course, even when all of those people aren’t there, God is always beside you and will never leave your side. The four women saints all spoke about the need for companionship. Teresa of Avila often spoke about spiritual companions and how they enhance our lives. “This good companionship began to root out the habits which bad companionship had formed, and to bring my thoughts back to the desire of eternal things…’ (Teresa of Avila, III, p13) I think Teresa knew that friendships impact us; they enhance our lives for good and for bad. I am so grateful for the ‘sanctuary sisterhood’ I have in my life. These women make me a better person, call me to holiness and to human flourishing. As Teresa wrote, ‘But if anyone begins to give himself up to the service of God, there are so many to find fault with him, that it becomes necessary for him to seek companions in order that he many find protection among them…” (Teresa of Avila, VII, p56) Many of my days were spent with other mums; babes in arms or at our heels whilst hanging out with each other all day, pondering life, love, God and faith. It was a wonderful rich time where I felt admonished by other women in the same stage of life as me. We conquered the hardships of life and some of the hardest days, together. Never be too proud or afraid to ask for help from those around you!
There is so much more I could say, my beautiful girl, but I know you will learn lessons of your own. This is your life and this is your marriage. Know that dad and I are cheering you on the whole way. We are always here if you ever need us.
I love you more than words.
Love, Mum. xxx
Noffke, S. (1980). Introduction In Catherine of Siena The Dialogue, New York: Paulist Press.
Dreyer, E. A. (2014). Accidental Theologians. Cicinnati: Franciscan Media.
Duran, J. (2010). Eight women philosophers: Theory, politics, and feminism. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Edman, B. (1997). St Thérèse and the Dark Night. Spiritual Life 43:3 170-178.
Hildegard of Bingen, (1990). The Universe and its Symbolism In Scivias. Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press.
Hildegard of Bingen, (2013). Selection from her Letters, In St. Hildegard, Doctor of the Church: A Spiritual Reader. Brewster, Mass: Paraclete Press
Matthew, I. (1997) .’Therese of Lisieux: A Way for Today.’ The Way Supplement 89: 16-27.
O’Driscoll, Mary, ed. (1993). Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity – Selected Spiritual Writings. New York: New City Press.
Radcliffe, Timothy. (2005). Preface In Cavallini, G, Catherine of Siena. London: Continuum.
Teresa of Avila, (1997) The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. Rockford, Illinois:Tan Books and Publishers.
Therese of Lisieux. (1988). General Correspondence. Volume II: 1890-1897. Translated by John Clarke. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications.
Therese of Lisieux, (1996). The Story of a soul, Third Edition. Washington: ICS Publications.
Maccis, C. & Chalmers, J. (1997). Therese, a Doctor for the third millennium, Circular Letter of Father Camilo Maccise, OCD, and Father Joseph Chalmers, OCarm, to the Carmelite family. Retrieved form: http://carmelitesofeldridge.org/Theresedoc.html