Modernity vs. Maternity

By William G. White

Attention to aesthetic detail in the service of others is an expression of the maternal nature of women. Women are, by nature, nurturers. And the human family is composed not of mere animals, but of persons. Therefore, the nurturing function of the human mother applies not only to her husband's and children's bodily needs, but also to their emotions, their psyches, and their souls. Because she nurtures in a fully human way, she is the great civilizer, fostering her family's higher faculties and helping them modulate their lower appetites. The reorientation of the senses away from self-gratification and towards the appreciation of order, beauty and truth is a function of maternal nurturing. I believe that this nurturing of the soul by way of the senses is one of the ways in which "Holy Mother the Church,, is feminine. I also believe that these feminine traits of the Church are currently under attack.

I recently sat in a local parish church one winter morning before pre-dawn Mass. It was an old Romanesque church, not yet "modernized." The church was dimly lit, warm and silent. As I gazed about me at murals, statues, and stained glass windows, at bas reliefs, carved wood and oriental rugs, I though of a nearby church, a comely English Gothic, which had recently been "updated." And I pondered the news that another neighboring church, a lovely baroque jewel, had just been slated for similar treatment.

Across the land hundreds of churches are being "renovated." For several years I've wondered what is at the root of this transformation of our churches. Why is figurative art replaced with abstract, sloganizing banners? Why do rectilinear sticks replace ornate furnishings? Why are rich, colorful interiors made bare and stark? In briefing sessions for the laity, the experts explain their plans. They call the art of the past saccharine and banal. They reject the focus of the traditional churches on the high altar. Instead they call for communitarian "worship spaces" and "gathering places." But somehow their explanations seem inadequate to explain the radical changes they make. Perhaps they themselves are not fully aware of their deepest motivations.

As I refreshed my eyes on the lovely details lavished throughout the old church where I sat, as I breathed its solemn peace into my spirit, it suddenly struck me: these generously decorated interiors are feminine. They are warm, inviting and comforting. Our Holy Mother the Church caresses us and envelops us with beauty. She shelters us from the cold, drab world. She bathes us in the gentle glow of candles and the soft, multicolored diffusion of stained glass. She perfumes us with beeswax and incense and invites us to gaze upon the faces of her saints.

With murals, mosaics, statues, and stained glass, the Church teaches us our catechism. Like every mother, she is an expert in nonverbal communication, pouring the language of love through every one of our senses. She strengthens our reason's feeble grasp of the tenets of our faith with beauty, emotion, and aesthetic pleasure. As her children we thrive in her love; we find peace in her presence. "At her breast will her nurslings be carried and fondled in her lap" (Isa. 66:12).

She introduces us to her Bridegroom. From her we learn delight at his coming. We see her adorn herself as his bride, and we share in her reception of his love as a life-giving grace.

Each local church is an image of Holy Mother the Church. And how are these churches treated today? They are sterilized. They are curetted out. Living, breathing churches are reduced to skeletons. This devitalization of churches is a fruit of the culture of barrenness.

"Behold a time is coming when men will say, It is well for the barren, for the wombs that never bore children, and the breasts that never suckled them" (Luke 23:29). This warning, now so familiar as to pass almost without notice, must have had a particularly strong impact on Jesus' immediate audience. Motherhood has been revered in many cultures but in none more than Judaism.'-Jesus' listeners must have been shocked and puzzled by his words. Now we live in an age when Jesus' prophecy has come true, when the rejection of motherhood had penetrated the modem soul and spread its influence throughout the West.

This twentieth century of ours has been the century of a feminism which abhors femininity, of an empty, posturing homoeroticism which rejects genuine masculinity, and of a frenzied hypersexuality which denies the differentiation, complementary, and fruitfulness of sex. Is it any wonder that this age which shuns maternity should hate our matemal Church? And that it should attempt to humiliate her, strip her of her adornments, and empty her of her femininity? For example, the latest Sacramentary proposed by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy has reportedly changed the pronoun referring to the Church from "she" to "it."

In rejecting the maternity of the Church, modem man also rejects her maternal authority. He is like a rebellious adolescent, full of bluster and bravado, childishly asserting his maturity. His focus is on his peers, the congregation in the round. No longer will he genuflect-he holds hands. Kneelers are removed. No subservient postures for modem man! Noisy chatter drowns out reverent silence. The tabernacle, whose living, golden presence once had the power to draw every eye, still every tongue, and bend every knee, is banished to an obscure comer, lest modem man be reminded that he is but a child before it.

For the rejection of maternity has as its corollary the rejection of the child. This age avoids the child through contraception, kills the child through abortion, and denies the child in each of us, the child of God who must acknowledge his dependency, the very contingency of his being, before he can grow to fulfill his true destiny. "Unless you become like little children again, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3).

But this egalitarian society has no place for either kings or children. Those children who survive contraception and abortion are warehoused in daycare centers, then ejected into a false and premature adulthood. (Have you heard the sex educators and condom pushers talking about thirteen-year-old "women"?) In rejecting all hierarchy, modem man not only refuses to submit to authority, but also refuses to accept responsibility for those who are dependent on him.

The image of traditional society is that of the urban neighborhood or the rural village: a swirling, vibrant melange of all generations with mothers and children at the center. Each person's niche is defined by family relationships. Myrtle Smith is Joey Garcia's aunt. Roger Martin is Sophie Schwartz's grandson. Harry O'Malley is George Kawalski's brother-in-law. In contrast, the image of modem society is the business office: an artificial world where men and women are rendered anonymous by the lack of family ties.

Here pseudo-equality and pseudo-intimacy replace the natural order of subsidiary and the bonds of natural affection. Honorifics and family names are nowhere to be heard. Even bosses are addressed by their first names. Both hierarchy and sexuality are coyly pretended not to exist. This is a society which resembles nothing so much as a giant kindergarten. For in refusing to be child-like, modem man has become childish. The intrusion of real children into this world of play-acting children is ruthlessly resisted. Even the temporary departure of a woman to attend to her children's needs away from the workplace is barely tolerated. Is it coincidental that this society renders churches less homelike, and far less delightful to children, while making them more like office buildings, board rooms, and auditoriums?

This culture of barrenness which rejects motherhood and childhood is inevitably a culture of death. The very next words of Jesus' prophecy about barren wombs and dry breasts are, "It is then they will begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us, and to the hills, Cover us" (Luke 23:30). And to his physicians modem man says, "Euthanize us."

The restoration of a culture of life will require defending the maternal femininity of our Holy Mother Church. Each of our local churches, by the genius of human art and architecture, is an image of the one, true Church. The aesthetics of our small visible churches help us better to know our great, invisible Church. The architecture may embody the masculine traits of grandeur, strength and elevation. (The Church is, after all, the Mystical Body of Christ.) But within, under the soaring vaults, the details of our churches' interiors are appropriately feminine.

"Introibo ad altare Dei, ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam." We go in to the altar of God. There within the embrace of our loving mother, the Church, we receive Him from her. And we kneel and pray before a statue of-Hi-s own mother, the tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the archetype and mother of the Church, and our mother. There on our knees we ask our Blessed Virgin Mother to teach us the beauty of true maternal femininity and to allow us to delight with her in her Son, to whom she leads us.

Dr. William White is a family physician and has served as president of the National Federation of Catholic Physicians Guilds. He also lectures on such subjects as childbirth, breastfeeding and medical ethics. Dr. White lives in the Chicago area with his wife, Catherine, and their seven children.

From pages 61-64 of the July, 1997 issue of
Homiletic & Pastoral Review. Subscriptions, $26/year,
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