There’s a story about St. Elizabeth of Hungary called the Miracle of the Roses. It goes like this. King Denis, her husband, happened to see Elizabeth as she was walking through the forest one morning. The king was hunting with friends and thought it odd that she seemed to be hiding something, so he stopped her and asked what she concealed under her cloak. Well, Elizabeth had bread under her cloak that she was taking to give to the poor, perhaps because she was embarrassed that it might seem like bragging to reveal she was doing a work of mercy, she stammered that is was just some roses. Denis said, “Let’s see them, then,” and, indeed, when she brushed aside the cloak it was a bouquet of roses.
In her book The Eternal Woman, Gertrud von le Fort says that the Miracle of the Roses is an example of motherhood at its finest. Motherhood, I don’t think it is over-dramatic to say, is a veiled miracle. Le Fort writes, “The mother is the image of endlessness; centuries pass over her joy and her sorrow and leave no trace behind. She is ever the same, the boundless abundance, the silence, the immutability of life itself, in its power of conceiving, of bearing, of bringing forth.” Motherhood is a participation in eternity, because it is the principle of life and death. We see it clearly in the Blessed Virgin Mary, through whom all of creation is blessed and brought into new life but who also, at the end of her earthly days, lays down her life for pure love of her son.
When we talk about motherhood, we speak of a vocation and power inherent in women. It’s important to note that there is a differentiation between the sexes, that men and women are different and this difference goes to the core of who we are. These metaphysical differences are what Pope John Paul II refers to as the complementarity of the sexes. When we mistakenly ask that women become like men in order to gain value, we are not only proclaiming a falsehood – that only men do important things – but also doing women a great disservice by annihilating the feminine principle. In short, we will end up motherless.
It is also important to note that, while motherhood is proper to women, it is not limited only to women who are physically mothers. I want to emphasize this because I know mother’s day can be a real trial for women who don’t have children and feel left out. The point is, if you are a woman, you have children. They may or may not be your biological children, but consider St. Elizabeth, whose maternal instinct leads her to take bread to the hungry and console the afflicted. Those were, in that moment, her children. Gertrud von le Fort writes, “The weak and the guilty, the neglected and the persecuted, even the justly punished, all those whom a judicial world no longer wishes to support and protect, find their ultimate rights vindicated in the consolation and the compassion that the maternal woman gives.” What she is referring to is spiritual motherhood, the way in which mercy and love are grace are poured out through women. Through spiritual motherhood all the world is blessed.
This is the case because spiritual motherhood draws on the universal motherhood of the Church. Mary and the Church are the same, each offers her womb to shelter Christ, Mary her physical womb and the Church the womb of the baptismal font through which we are all reborn. Motherhood is the cooperating principle with Christ.
Mary, of course, is our universal mother, and in her we find the blueprint. We say that motherhood is willing to remain serenely silent because Mary pondered the events of her son’s life in her heart. We say that it suffers because her heart was pierced with a sword as she saw his life ebb away at the Cross. We say that it is hidden, because Mary always turns the focus to her son and her family. The image that Gertrud von le Fort uses is that of the veil, when we see a veiled woman, it is the sign of her inner strength, her spiritual motherhood.
These virtues are found in their fullness in the Church, the silence, suffering, and veiled motherhood that brings Jesus to us. The Church has reservoirs of strength that are hidden, a vast, fruitful energy. She doesn’t draw attention to herself, and this is because we understand through the teaching of Our Lord that sacrifice and humility are the true path to glory. She remains veiled and yet she transforms everything. Through her maternity we are like children who open our eyes onto the light of day for the first time.
A child has a right to a mother. The Church is not for her own sake but for ours, for us her children. We aren’t speaking of how mothers are superior to fathers – competition and power are not the way the Church defines us – but we do gratefully acknowledge that the very concept of motherhood in which women participate is the means through which we are saved. It is Mary who brings us to Christ. It is the Church who makes him present to our world. She is the eternal woman, the new Eve who stakes her life for ours, through whose mercies the veil is taken aside, even if only for an instant, and we behold a miracle.