A Woman’s Hidden Heart
Once a very devout woman came to me and asked: “What shall I do father? I am illiterate and do not know the prayers. Will I be saved without praying?” I asked her: “You do not pray?” “Yes, I pray.” “So how do you pray?” “This is how I pray when sweeping the house. I ask God: ‘My Lord cleanse the dirt from my soul as I clean the dirt from the house and may I be pleasing to You as I am pleased with a clean home. And when I wash clothes I also pray: ‘O Lord wash away the evil of my soul, that I may be as clean as this shirt. And so I pray like this with everything I do.” “Live like this all your life. This is unceasing prayer. That is, in all circumstances, when you do something, you see the presence of God.”
– St. Paisios of Mt Athos
After twenty-one years of marriage and raising five children ranging from late teen to toddler I am amazed at the abiding simplicity that has guided my steps. This is not what I expected to uncover when I went digging through the mommy closet. I expected to find some kind of dramatic story complete with conflict, rising action, and culminating in a profound revelation. What I found is not that exciting. It is not glamorous, and definitely not new.
The traditional Christian teaching on the family is something that my husband and I embraced from the beginning of our marriage. Our roles as father and mother have always been very important to us, and all decisions are made with this imperative in mind. If something were to happen and I needed to work outside the home I would embrace that situation fully. However, as long as there is a way…I will be a keeper at home. I am not perfect, but I do want to honor and love God by fully embracing my role as a wife and mother. This is difficult to do. Our culture does not value the same things we are called to value as Christians.
Sometimes I despair that I am not doing a very good job as a mother. I have discovered that this happens when I get too busy, too distracted, and therefore too tired. The role of the mother is to nurture the family, body and soul. This takes a tremendous amount of energy, and when I spend too much of my energy on other things, things that are not as important as my role as a mother, the family suffers. Lent is a great time to look at these areas. I have plenty to examine as I write this reflection. Together, let’s reflect on the beauty and simplicity of the Christian mission of motherhood.
In reading the Holy Scriptures, wise priests and monastics, and the saints, I have yet to find a complicated instruction for mothers. For example, in Titus 2 the Apostle Paul lays out the ordering of the Church according to the true faith. In his instruction Paul admonishes all members to abide by sound Christian doctrine in whatever role they are fulfilling. In the line-up is a simple and direct instruction for young women. Starting at verse 4, Paul commands the older women to “admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.”
What I can add to this very simple list of instructions is perhaps a bit of reflection.
- Love their husbands
What an honor and privilege it is to do life with my husband. He is strong where I am weak, thank goodness. He is a Christian. He loves me and the children unconditionally, and he is loyal and good. He works hard and tethers himself to a life of servitude for us. He pumps the gas, changes the light bulbs, repairs the cars and house, mows the grass, handles the finances, and does all the things Mama can’t do, or would rather not do. For all of this, and because he is who he is, flawed and ordinary and beautiful, I love him. How I show this love is not always on point. I am selfish, needy, emotional, and did I mention selfish? There are days when he is the last item on my list. By the time I get to him, there is not much left. Somehow I do not think this is loving. This Lent I have thought about how I can narrow my circle and put him in the center. Every wife knows how to love their husband well. The key is arranging a life that makes this the top priority.
- Love their children
Above everything, to love our children is to lead them to God. Parents first take their children to Church to be baptized. We first love them by giving them to God. What comes after flows from this primary act of love. I asked a few wise and trusted friends of mine what they thought was the role of the mother in the family. One friend explained by telling me a personal story. She has two daughters in college and two still at home. One daughter was struggling at college, and Mama decided to cook up a big mess of homemade favorites and send it to her daughter to help her through the rough patch. She spent two days planning, shopping, cooking, and packaging the food. As my friend was telling this story her eyes were full of love and empathy, her whole heart went into the food along with her tears and prayers. This is what mothers do-they love and love some more. This Lenten season I asked the Lord to rekindle in me a servant’s heart for my children. Sometimes we have to forgive our children for being scoundrels and soften places in our hearts that may have grown cold toward them. I am plenty perfunctory, but I want to be gentle, happy, kind, patient, and most of all attentive. I have been praying the Akathist to the Mother of God- our mother helps us be loving, gentle, and devoted mothers.
- Be discreet
Intentionally unobtrusive. Not attracting attention. Sober. Sound. Safe. Temperate. You get the idea. This one is so hard, yet when practiced it brings such peace. I love the word, intentionally. I would agree that if a mother is to be discreet it must be by her choice. Shyness does not count…underneath shyness can linger brazen and harsh attitudes. When I think of being discreet, I imagine making my circle smaller-as I mentioned above. Fewer friends, fewer conversations, and fewer opinions. Read what is precious to the Lord, “Your adornment must not be merely external — braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.” 1 Peter 3:3-4 To be discreet is to adorn ourselves with beauty. Again, our mother Mary is the perfect example-let us follow in her footsteps.
- Be chaste
The Greek adjective is hagnos. It means to excite reverence. I can think of many things that our culture tells women they should arouse in others…reverence is not one of them. Honestly, it is difficult to even know how to go about doing this. Think about it. Deeply. For some of us, many things would need to change if we are to live chaste lives and excite reverence. Another meaning of hagnos is pure from carnality. The carnal sins concern our sexuality. Let us reserve our sexuality for our husbands alone-keeping ourselves for him in a clean and modest way. Why do we need or want attention from others?
Another translation reads keepers at home. To make a home we need to be at home. If I am out and about too much, my home suffers. Again, keeping at home, even for women who work outside the home, is an intentional choice. All mothers are homemakers whether they work outside the home or not. And all women can be at home more-we all can. The world tempts us to leave, and we succumb, only to watch our lives morph into something we may not intend or want. A mother’s focus on making a house a home is a beautiful discipline-and the results are heavenly. A home that is cared for by a loving and dedicated mother oozes with comfort, creativity, nourishment, and vitality. A home can be like a monastery-providing for the physical and spiritual needs of the family without much need for outside influence. And the Lord provides for a mother who sets her heart on having a nourishing home. I saw this on the mission field among the poorest of the poor-Christian women have lovely homes no matter their financial status. It is a beautiful secret that Christian women all over the world share-the home.
- Be good
A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones. Proverbs 17:22. When I looked up the word good in the Greek Lexicon, I literally laughed out loud; it defines good as pleasant, agreeable, joyful, happy. I am convicted and inspired to know that a joyful disposition is like a medicine to my family. Forget the pharmacy…give them a smile! I realize that there is need for real medicines, but what if a joyful atmosphere in the home really does affect health? I believe it does-body and soul. Godly joy is surely a result of deep humility. When we give thanks in all circumstances joy results-the kind of joy the world cannot offer. My husband and children LOVE for me to be happy and joyful. When I am pleasant they are more pleasant, and this makes family life happy.
- Obedient to their husbands
Let’s not be controversial…the Scriptures do not and cannot advocate abuse. The kind of obedience this Scripture refers to has nothing to do with control, or suppression. It has everything to do with respect and honor. The Scripture that comes to mind is “like Sara who obeyed Abraham and called him Lord.” 1 Peter 3:6. I tell my girls all the time, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” I feel this way about the admonition to obey our husbands. We can choose not to obey to prove a point, but we throw out the blessings of obedience. Spiritual growth is impossible without obedience. A mother, with all she has to do, cannot always seek out spiritual guidance from priests and monastics. However, she can obey her husband, and in this way she can progress. As with all obedience it takes humility and practice. A second blessing of obedience is order. When the mother submits to the father she sets a great example for her children. The mother models obedience and the children learn obedience. A mother need not fear obedience to her husband, but rather expect great blessings! I struggle to obey in this way, and I pray to my patron saint Righteous Anna, the mother of Mary, for help- the patron of homemakers.
Paul ends his admonition in Titus 2:11-13 by stressing the importance and reason for fulfilling our God designed roles, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” What hope we have as we fulfill our God designed roles as mothers. When we are obedient to sound doctrine we preserve the true faith in blessed hope, passing it from one generation to the next, until the second coming of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. The role of the mother in the family is essential and irreplaceable. A woman loving and serving God and her family is a beautiful blessing to behold. And the fruit it produces remains for generations.
The list below is an entry in my journal-a list of disciplines I work on day by day, year by year. I am young, and I am learning, like a crawling baby. Perhaps the list will help you, as it does me, to cultivate a desire to become a better Christian mother.
Pray morning and evening prayers
Fast according to the calendar
Pray before meals and before major tasks
Make the sign of the Cross over food, before sleep, and in times of need
Use Holy water and lampada oil during times of suffering, sickness, and distress
Speak gently most of the time
Celebrate name days
Make Prosphora (Communion bread)
Attend Sunday and Feast day liturgies
Read the Scriptures to the children
Make food for coffee hour
Visit Godparents and Grandparents
Wear our blessed crosses
Place icons in bedrooms
Pray for the departed
Cook nutritious meals at home and eat at the table together
Forgive each other and those that offend us
Celebrate the Feasts with joyful traditions
Share with the poor in little ways that we can
Read the Psalms
Practice hospitality with family, friends, and neighbors
Include and care for animals in our family
Plant and care for a small garden
We, as mothers, are called to love God and our families above all, and sometimes this means adjusting our speed to accommodate those with whom we are walking. I struggle with how to be pious without hurting. I do not want to scandalize my family, especially my children. In this too, I pray to Mary and ask for her prayers and guidance. She is the perfect mixture of warm affection and piety-she will teach us.
If you struggle as I do, perhaps you can make a note card of the scripture below and place it where you will see it often. God does not despise even the smallest effort.
A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Isaiah 42:3
Good Strength for the remaining time of Great Lent…let us struggle together and arrive at Pascha with our hearts renewed in love for God and our families.
Love to you, Mandy (Anna)