Expressions of grief have tempered celebrations of motherhood at churches and among Christians in recent years. For example, in 2013, Rev. Michelle L. Torigian wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, “Affirming All Women in Church on Mother’s Day,” in which she argues that mothers “should be celebrated but not at the cost of the hearts of the childless.” Similarly, last year The Gospel Coalition published “Love and Loss on Mother’s Day,” with more emphasis on the latter topic than the former. In 2010, the controversial Christian writer Anne Lamott wrote an immensely popular article for Salon in which she articulates her fundamental opposition to celebrations that make one person “superior” to another.
The challenge for the community surrounding a grieving individual, then, is to help her confront and accept suffering in a gracious manner.Though well-intentioned, the trend to combine mourning and rejoicing on Mother’s Day in order to extend kindness to women who find this day painful may, in an attempt to ease their pain, actually undercut their good. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis states that the sort of kindness that seeks only to eliminate suffering “cares not whether its object becomes good or bad.” For Lewis, being kind does not necessarily equate to being good. While tempered Mother’s Day celebrations in church certainly encourage those rejoicing to be sensitive to others, the leaders of such celebrations should consider not just whether these gestures are kind, but whether they help the mourner to grow in goodness in the midst of suffering.
As a thirtysomething single and childless woman who has been through an unwanted divorce, I know the pain associated with blatant reminders of what I have lost. One of my most vivid memories from the first few weeks following the dissolution of my marriage is of spending a ten-hour professional day with a pregnant woman. Having a consistent visual of what I may never experience was so painful I often felt sick.
However, I have learned, as Lewis writes in A Grief Observed, that “there is nothing we can do with suffering but to suffer it”; there is nothing “which will make pain not be pain.” Because some suffering is inescapable, the great challenge for the suffering person is to submit to it and to do so without being destructive to oneself or others. To revolt from another person’s joy, or to insist that another’s joy be tempered by one’s own suffering, is, in my experience, the beginning of covetousness and self-interest. The challenge for the community surrounding a grieving individual, then, is to help her confront and accept suffering in a gracious manner, in a way that cultivates virtue rather than vice.
Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Gilead offers some insight on the connection between covetousness and another person’s joy. Rev. John Ames, the wise narrator who spends most of his life longing for a wife and family, speculates on the meaning of the tenth commandment through his reflection on the biblical directive to mourn with those who mourn and to rejoice with those who rejoice. He concludes that the sin of covetousness is not the failure to mourn with the mournful as much as it is the refusal, or inability, to rejoice with those rejoicing. A man who regularly officiates marriages, infant baptisms, and funerals, John Ames faces the greatest tests of his character in the situations that require rejoicing more so than mourning.
Robinson’s fictional pastor—who points out that the more difficult, but virtuous, path is often the call to rejoice rather than mourn—may have helpful insights for clergy and other religious leaders entrusted with acknowledging motherhood every May. While qualifiers and apologies have their place in Mother’s Day celebrations, their prevalence, coupled with the reality that many women not only expect them but feel slighted in their absence, indicates that many churches may be in danger of communicating harmful ideas about the nature of suffering and its place in human experience.
According to the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author of No Man Is an Island, suffering is an aspect of human experience that can, and should be, consecrated to God. Nevertheless, Merton states that suffering becomes “useless” when it “turns us in upon ourselves, when it only makes us sorry for ourselves, when it changes love into hatred, when it reduces all things to fear.” The qualifiers and apologies on Mother’s Day, when they result in emphasizing grief more than joy, risk encouraging women to fixate on themselves and their own pain rather than calling them to the more difficult, but virtuous, task of living with their grief and loving others amid their grief.
Admittedly, asking all women to rejoice on Mother’s Day is a tall order. Courtney Reissig, in a past Mother’s Day piece written for Her.meneutics, describes the strain of this order when she asks, “How do you obey the biblical command to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ when rejoicing feels like a knife stabbing you in the heart?”
We might start by reducing our qualifiers and making our apologies less effusive, keeping in mind that suffering can, and should be, sacred. A “knife in the heart,” though excruciating, is not necessarily an injustice, nor is it a condition that can be alleviated or remedied, for there is no way to make this kind of pain not be pain. Christianity, however, hinges on the story of a suffering God, whose submission to those sufferings shows us how to consecrate our own.
Image of Michelangelo’s Pietà, via Wikipedia.