by SR. MOIRA QUINN, OSSR
Presented to Redemptoristine Associates May 16, 2010 in honor of Mother’s Day.
We all had mothers. In our mother’s smile the sun rose and set. Depending on our relationship with our mother, or father, our experience of God may differ. Some mothers were warm and cuddly, while others were tough cookies; some were ultra-controlling while others couldn’t be bothered; most desired to be loving, nurturing and supportive.
In remembering these positive aspects of our human mothers we intuit the tender, loving, sustaining characteristics of our Mothering God. Whatever our notion of God is - God is beyond that. St Anselm said, “God is an idea greater than that which no other idea can be thought.’ The mystery of God may be glimpsed when we take the time to ‘Be still,’ as it says in the psalm, ‘and know that I am God.’ (Ps. 46:10)
Through the contemplative eye our vision of God broadens and deepens, opening new horizons to our relationship with God. Think of how the horizon is ever just beyond our reach, always opening up more and more before us. Just so, as we journey on through life, we will never fully comprehend God while here on earth, so we do the best we can by likening God to the familiar. And what can be more familiar than our mother?
Our Foundress, Ven. Mother Maria Celeste Crostarosa, wasn’t the first person to conceive God as Mother; the Bible is full of feminine references. In Deuteronomy (32:11-12) God supports the people of Israel like a mother eagle who holds up her little ones in flight, teaching them to fly. The Prophet Isaiah (46:3-4) proclaims that God has birthed Israel and will carry and save them even until they are gray with old age. The prophet Hosea (13:8) describes the ferocity of God like a mother bear defending her cubs. On the other hand, the Psalmist envisioned a child resting in its Mother/God’s arms. (Ps 131) In the book of Solomon there are beautiful canticles sung in praise of Wisdom,’ (Wis 7:23-30. 8)
Jesus, himself, gives a mother-like lament and says, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!’ (Lk 13:34) And in the parable of the lost coin Jesus demonstrates God’s motherly longing as she diligently searches for, and rejoices when she finds, what was most precious to her. (Lk 15:8)
But why should we be interested in the concept of God like a Mother or as a being with feminine qualities? Our Church is based on a patriarchal pyramid with the Pope on top followed by Cardinals, bishops, priests and then the laity. The top of the pyramid are all men made in the image and likeness of God, the Father. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, csj, who holds a doctorate in theology, once described women’s place in the church by saying, ‘…a pebble, a peach, a poodle, and a person. In Church hierarchy, women fall somewhere in between a poodle and a person.’ I agree that often in the church, and in society, women are second class citizens. Think of how women employees are presently suing Wal-Mart for equal pay for equal work. Those women know their worth. We, also, need to be aware of our worth and preciousness for we too are beings created in the image and likeness of God. (Gen 1:26-27)
Methodist minister Bonni Belle-Prickard suggests that when envisioning God as feminine we are affirming the divine image in ourselves. ‘Indeed, God in the person of Jesus Christ gives us many glimpses of the feminine image of God. Jesus welcomes children; speaks to women shunned by the men; washes feet with a towel and basin; serves breakfast after his resurrection; and even weeps. If there was any doubt before that God affirms all these parts of the divine image in us, certainly the Person of Jesus shows us graphically that the feminine is "very good"!’
In the Bible many feminine names are given to God: Ruah, El Shaddia, Shekinah. In Genesis, ‘In the beginning’ Ruah, a feminine noun used to name God’s spirit, breathes over the darkness and waters and brings forth abundant life. In Hebrew the same root word for Ruah, spirit/breath, is the word ‘rechem’ meaning ‘womb-love.’ It is easy to imagine the darkness and waters of the womb when you think of a child not long conceived floating in its mother’s womb. In Isaiah (49:15) God as mother states, ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child of her womb? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!’ Those words speak the constant life-sustaining strength, womb-love of a mother. Aren’t those the hallmark virtues of a mother?
The womb is where all life begins but once born the breast is the seat of nourishment. As we just heard, ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast…’ A potent image. In Hebrew the root word for breast is ‘shadu.’ That is the foundation for another name for God, ‘El Shaddai;’ one who nourishes, supplies and satisfies. But in scripture El Shaddai has always been translated into ‘Almighty.’ How did they go from nourishing breast to Almighty? Let’s look at the name of El Shaddai: El points to the power and greatness of God’s self. Shaddai means one who abundantly blesses with all manner of blessings.
The root word shadu predates Hebrew scripture and was attached to ancient civilizations whose gods dwelled on the mountain tops which are often the source of life flowing waters. Given the depiction of ancient figurines with their large breasts, it isn’t hard to imagine the mountain gods overflowing with blessed abundance towards the people in the valley. So it doesn’t take too much imagination to see how the "breast" image was changed to mean "mountain," which eventually evolved into “Almighty”- something great and powerful. Isaiah embraces the breast image and its power to satisfy and bids Israel to ‘Now drink your fill from her comforting breast, enjoy her plentiful milk…like a stream in full flood…I will comfort you as a mother nurses her child.’ (Is 66: 11, 13)
The last manifestation of God in feminine form comes in the name Shekinah. Shekinah is the God-who-dwells-within, the glory of God, the visible spirit of God who went before the people in Exodus as a pillar of cloud by day, to lead the people along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, and is the glory of the Lord that filled the meeting tent. (Ex 13:21-22, Ex 40: 34).
Now we will look at how the foundress of the Redemptoristines, Ven. Maria Celeste Crostarosa, experienced God as Mother. But first a little background on Celeste, herself. Celeste was baptized in 1696 Naples. She was named Giulia by her parents Guiseppi and Battista Crostarosa, an affable, middle class Neapolitan couple. He was a civil and canon lawyer, and she was the proud mother of 12 children. Giulia was tenth in line but seemed to be the darling of the clan. They were a normal, pious family.
What was Celeste’s relationship to her mother? We know very little as she is mentioned only a few times in Celeste’s Autobiography.
Celeste calls her young self ‘sensitive, lively, vivacious and of good intellect.’ Like any typical eighteenth century mother in Naples, Battista taught her daughter her prayers, told her stories from the Bible, about the saints and the sacraments. Girls were not formally educated, but young Giulia, having many older brothers, learned to read. Perhaps it was her sensitivity, her perceptive nature that Celeste mentions of her young self that made it possible for her to experience an unusual sense of intimacy with Jesus at the tender age of five. She writes, ‘From time to time He called her…to love him…simply by an interior word, without her knowing exactly what was happening.’
From then on, Giulia was greatly blessed with many hours, days and months of loving, bright intimacy with her Lord, except for the few occasions of darkness when she slipped into ‘worldly affairs’ such as when she learned from the servants popular songs. When Giulia was eleven she wanted to make her confession and her mother accompanied her. The child came home consoled but changed; quieter, more pious, doing acts of mortification, shunning worldly conversation. Her brothers and sisters began to tease her wondering where their little sister’s gay old self had gone. Her mother, seeing such a change, caused Battista some concern because she thought her daughter was becoming a bit too scrupulous. Nevertheless, Battista supporter her daughter and gave Giulia a quiet hide-a-way in the attic where she might pray to her heart’s content. Because Giulia could not put into words her deepening mystical experiences to her mother, Battista, trying to protect her child, opposed Giulia going to confession (spiritual direction) again. Giulia obeyed and was consoled by her first interior vision of Jesus.
Again, when Giulia was fourteen, her mother wisely forbade her daughter to go to spiritual direction from a young inexperience priest. Though she did not go in person, Giulia wrote to this young man secretly and lapsed into a time of dense spiritual darkness until she followed her mother’s advice and found a new, wiser, older confessor.
When Giulia was around twenty, she was so consumed and melted by ‘pure love’ that she could not eat, stand or speak. This caused her mother great anxiety and so Battista cared tenderly for her ill daughter with remedies. It turned out her illness; her melting by pure love was caused by the Lord commanding Giulia to embrace the religious state. At the same time, coincidently, Battista was planning to make a pious visit to a new monastery. Giulia begged to accompany her mother and her sister, gladly taking any food and remedy and she got herself ready for the trip. When they arrived at the monastery Giulia and her sister declared to their mother, and the holy prioress, that they most ardently wished to stay and embrace the holy life. You can imagine the heated discussion between the mother and her two strong-willed daughters. Finally, Battista consented on the condition of obtaining the father’s permission, which she received.
After that we hear nothing more of Battista Crostarosa from Celeste’s Autobiography. Ah, a parent’s love – love the child, fight for the child, and fight with the child, then let the child go to their own destiny. Such was the relationship of Mama Crostarosa with Giulia.
During Celeste’s religious life the themes of ‘Mother’ and ‘womb’ appear a number of times in her writings and reflections. I gave you some information about God like a Mother in the scriptures. Celeste, on the other hand, probably never heard any of those things. In her Autobiography she writes her insights into the Divine nature of God were, “…received from the Word of the God of Love, …[who] made [her] understand the doctrines of the Holy Scripture contained in the Holy Gospels with most admirable lucidity.”
Being a Neapolitan and a person of great feeling, Celeste had given her whole heart and mind, spirit and body to the Lord and her writings reflect that in their affective style. She writes, ‘Oh blessed companionship of the faithful soul! Ah! He is my Father and my Mother; he alone is my Being and my Life.’ Maria Celeste rejected the popular Jansenistic notions of her time that claimed redemption is for the few and mysticism for the elite. She believed God’s gift of salvation and contemplation were accessible not only to her soul but to all souls. And what could be more accessible than an image of God as reflected by a mother’s love?
One of the first references Celeste makes to Jesus as Mother was when she writes about the time as a Novice when she received a revelation from the Lord concerning a new way of life for the community. She says, ‘Thus conceived in the Womb of Divine Charity, incapable of any good, I was upon the bosom of the Word of God made Man. He it was Who nourished me… and thus fed by this Divine Spirit of Love, I was to write the Rules under His inspiration.’
I have a vivid recollection of a conversation when I was a novice and studying with Sr. Peg about Celeste and her inspiration that she, and we, are called to have a symbiotic relationship with God; that we are so close to God that our faith and trust should be like that of a child in the womb of God. Celeste herself writes, ‘Every person journeying on earth is like a baby not long conceived, still in its mother's womb.’ In our western world where self-reliance is paramount this notion of total dependence on God is quite foreign.
Two over-arching themes in all of Celeste’s writing are what she calls ‘humiliations’ and ‘abnegation.’ In modern terms I would translate humiliations to mean humbleness and abnegation as a self empting of anything that would stand in the way of being a beloved of God. St. Paul says in his Letter to the Philippians that Jesus did just that, ‘Though in the form of God, Jesus did not claim equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, human like one of us…(and) humbled himself, obeying to the death, death on a cross. For this reason God lifted him high and gave him the name above all names.’ (Phil 2:6-9)
Celeste stresses complete dependence on Mother-God when she writes what the Lord said to her, ‘I want you always to keep before your eyes your own weakness and your own misery, and to experience occasionally how much you need me, so that you may learn to distrust yourself and to take refuge in the protection of my divine Providence…. Live then as a babe in my womb.’
We see, then, Celeste’s reason for wanting abnegation and humiliations: it is so that we in our creature-hood may rely on the protection and the divine Providence of our Mother-God. To not always trust in our own self-sufficiency but to live in a symbiotic relationship with God.
Another job of a mother is to instruct her children. Celeste’s earnest prayer to her Mother-God is, ‘…teach me how I should comport myself in your presence, with the candor of a child with its mother.’
Celeste often talks about the ‘fixed gaze.’ I am sure you have seen how an infant has eyes for its mother alone; whatever else is going on doesn’t matter; only the bond between mother and child is what is all important and life-giving.
So God instructs Celeste saying, ‘This is how I want you now: like a babe in your mother's womb! Remain thus in repose in every situation: in labors, in doubts, in fears, in temptations, and in humiliations, attach yourself to the womb of your dear Mother. While you cling to it, no evil can reach you: SORROW DOES NOT ENTER WITHIN THIS PLACENTA OF JOY.’
What amazing imagery this Placenta of Joy! How earthy! How life sustaining our symbiotic relationship to God is meant to be. How opposite to the meaning of the name Shekinah: ‘God’s glory-dwelling-within,’ or St. Paul’s statement, ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?’ (1 Cor. 6:19) I sometimes think of God as out there somewhere, while all the while Celeste tells us we are to be like a fetus attached to the placenta of God. As you know, the placenta is rich in blood vessels and transfers oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the fetus. Celeste’s writings tell us that God wants us to cling to this placenta of joy throughout our entire lives in everything we do so we may be free of evil or sorrow. This is a great challenge requiring great faith.
Along with abnegation and humiliations, there are two more themes which are dear to Celeste’s heart; both are hallmark of the Redemptoristine and Redemptorist charism even to this day: the Eucharist and the cross. They go arm and arm, as it were: imagine the juxtaposition of a babe resting in its mother’s arms, tenderly held to the breast being nourished, and Jesus ‘resting’ on the embrace of the cross, his open side flowing with it’s life-giving stream. Celeste says both of these ‘embraces are sweet.’
Most of Celeste’s mystical experiences happened during the Eucharist. Sometimes these raptures would last for hours at a time. There she found ‘Paradise of souls on earth’ by union with Christ in the Eucharist. Here, Celeste tells us we will ‘enjoy a lifetime of untroubled peace.’ The Mothering God says to Celeste, and us, ‘Daughter, by the union achieved with the divine Word in the sacrament of the Eucharist your will should be so transformed into that of my Son that you ought not exercise any act except that which is one with the will of your God. By ceasing to be led by your own will in everything and by following whatever I should arrange for you, both adverse and favorable, you will enjoy an anticipated Paradise. You will not be disturbed by sufferings and crosses. And there, the embraces of your Mother will be very sweet.’
And how merciful God is towards those who remain united in love to God’s maternal care amidst life’s crosses! For Celeste, the Eucharist and the cross are entwined; in both she finds rest, sweetness and peace, and invites us to do the same.
The lesson we learn from scripture and Ven. Maria Celeste Crostarosa is that by our self-emptying and humble attitude we cling like with child-like trust to this Placenta of Joy, and nourished and strengthened by the Eucharist we are able to bear whatever crosses we are asked to embrace for God tenderly loves us with womb- love.
We are created in the image of God. Do we see in ourselves any of these qualities? In being Christian women we are invited to affirm in ourselves these feminine qualities of the divine image so that in our lives we might be ‘melted by pure love’ in our own symbiotic relationship with our Mother-like God, with one another, the church and the world, and know that it is ‘very good!’