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May 10, 2015: “The Tenderness of Mary”

Reading “The Good Enough Mother,” by Anna Quindlen (Jason)

There was a kind of carelessness to my childhood. I wandered away from time to time, rode my bike too far from home, took the trolley to nowhere in particular and back again. If you had asked my mother at any given time where I was, she would likely have paused from spooning Gerber’s peas into a baby’s mouth or ironing our school uniforms and replied, “She’s around here somewhere.”

By the new standards of mothering, my mother was a bust. Given the number of times I got lost when I was young, she might even be termed neglectful. There’s only one problem with that conclusion. It’s dead wrong. My mother was great at what she did. Don’t misunderstand: she didn’t sit on the floor and help us build with our Erector sets, didn’t haul us from skating rink to piano lessons. She couldn’t even drive. But where she was always felt like a safe place.

The idea that that’s enough is a tough sell in our current culture, and not simply because if one of my kids had been found wandering far from our home there would have been a caseworker and a cop at the door. We live in a perfection society now, in which it is possible to make our bodies last longer, to manipulate our faces so the lines of laughter and distress are wiped out. We believe in the illusion of control, and nowhere has that become more powerful–and more pernicious–than in the phenomenon of manic motherhood. What the child-care guru D. W. Winnicott once called “the ordinary devoted mother” is no longer good enough. Instead there is an uber-mom who bounces from soccer field to school fair to play date until she falls into bed at the end of the day, exhausted, her life somewhere between the Stations of the Cross and a decathlon.

Sermon “The Tenderness of Mary,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

My maternal grandmother, Rose-Helene, was the youngest of nine, in what we would now call a multi-racial blended family, but which at the time was referred to more … colorfully.

She never had blankets growing up in Northern Quebec, so she was obsessed as an adult with quilting and weaving blankets from any scrap fabric she could lay her hands on, especially the clothes that trickled through the hand-me-down chain of her children. But she never got around to other home-maker-y things like cooking, or checking homework, or even paying much attention at all to her nine children, eight of whom survived infancy, seven of whom are still alive.

Rose-Helene, was not a great mother. In fact, and I say this with a little caution and much regret, she was a pretty terrible mother. And I don’t mean she never played with erector sets or that she never drove anyone to the skating rink, I mean that where she was didn’t always feel like a safe place.

I’ve heard the story a million times of how she put aside – for years – a little bit of the grocery money each week so that she could buy herself a fur stole, the rage in fashion at the time. On the first Sunday she had it, she got all dolled up as my then-nine-year-old mother got herself and her siblings ready for church. My grandmother looked at them and said, “you’re not well-dressed enough to come with me.”

And now that Rose-Helene is gone, despite their clear understanding of her shortcomings and even some hushed acknowledgment of the possibility of mental illness, her children guard her, and the memory of her, with the fierceness of the mama bear she never was. They love her and cherish her because she was good enough. She was enough. And she was there.

The thing is, she wanted to be a great mother. She wanted to live up to the ideal of the blessed virgin mother, and so she prayed, constantly.

Her rosary, the beads that helped her keep track of a seemingly endless string of Hail Marys and Our Fathers was her most consistent companion, from the time her infant died in her arms to the time her eldest was killed in military maneuvers to the day she died. She prayed it daily, as millions of women and their children around the world have done for centuries.

My hope – and I understand that this is shockingly optimistic conjecture on my part – is that my grandmother had kind of commonality with the historical Mary, who came from humble beginnings, was a child who became a mother, and a woman who lost her son to violence.

The Hail Mary prayer, also known as Ave Maria or the Angelic Salutation, derives from the Gospel of Luke, in which the Angel Gabriel appears to the teenage Mary, to announce to her that she is pregnant. In the 13th century, the prayer was’t really a prayer, just a recitation of the annunciation. It was only over the next few centuries that it transformed into the prayer that it is today, a request that Mary “pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.”

And that’s the important part: the request that she pray for all of us utterly imperfect but well-intentioned humans. The prayer a request for accompaniment, a request that environmentalist and poet Michele Arista reframes this way:

Hail, Mary
Full of grace
The Lord and Lady Sophia are with thee
Blessed art thou amongst women and
Blessed are the fruit of thy womb and mine
Holy Mary
Mother and Creatrix of the universe
Pray for us
Remind us to be grateful
Now and at the hour of our death

The power of the prayer is not that it may be used as the prelude to a request for intercession, but that it’s a request for accompaniment from a mother who has experienced the worst that a mother can experience. It’s a request for sympathy, and a reminder that motherhood is … difficult and …. rewarding.

I used the quote by Gloria Estefan at the top of the order of service, not because I think the Cuban-American pop star is the model of modern motherhood. I chose the quote because I was intrigued by the two series of dots, pregnant, if you’ll pardon the expression, with possibilities. Possibilities of success and failure, challenges and gifts, creation and death, all the detritus of daily life that defines it yet is so hard to see clearly through the busy-ness.

Michele Arista’s prayer is a reminder to be grateful for all of it, the vast pauses between the difficulty and the rewards, the parts that are so imperfect, so not what we want or expect it to be that it’s hard to put words to.

Like the Virgin Mother Mary, Guanyin for many is a manifestation of all of the joys and sorrows of motherhood.

Guanyin is a Mahayana Buddhist deity, a goddess of mercy and compassion, honored as a bodhisattva, an enlightened one. The name Chinese name Guanyin somehow derives from a Sanskrit word that means “perceiving the sounds or cries of the world.”

One of the great Buddhist mantras is often directed to Guanyin. Those of you who’ve been to our monthly Friday night Kirtan will recognize Om mani padme hum, which is impossible to directly translate in any meaningful way. There are countless interpretations of what exactly it means, but consistently it’s understood to have to do with seeking help to purify: pride and desire, ignorance and prejudice, greed and jealousy.

Mary and Guanyin are the constant companions who can look upon us with tenderness. They can hold the hope for us when we no longer believe that things can get better. They can carry us through the deaths of our children and parents and elders and mentors. They can believe in us even when we can’t believe in ourselves, even when we don’t have the capacity to forgive ourselves. Mary and Guanyin accompany us through the trials of our lives, reserving judgment.

I’m not the first to make the connection between Guanyin and Mary. I’m not that clever. The first time I came across the concept was through art historians Christopher Cook and Marjorie Trusted, who suggest that the similarity may be a result of the colonization of the Philippines by Spain beginning in 16th century, a time and place when east literally met west. 1

It’s a common theme in humanity, this seeking an ideal mother to walk with us in times, and I’m sure there are dozens or even hundreds of other deities across the globe that serve a similar function: Guanyin and Mary are the perfect mothers that none of us have and none of us can be.

It’s a fact that we all have mothers. No matter who we are or where we came from, how rich or poor we are, if we are parents ourselves or not, whether or not we’ve even known our biological mothers or how many other children they may or may not have given birth to, we all have them. If we didn’t we wouldn’t be here.

And not one of our mothers is perfect.

The trap we fall into on this day is to glorify the vocation of motherhood, to try to make each mother a saint, to put them on pedestals that they can’t stay on for long. So they fall off with a thud. Or run in the other direction, haunted by unrealized expectations.

Motherhood just isn’t perfect, and many people don’t have the kinds of relationships with our mothers or our children that we would hope to have. Some of us have never known our mothers, or lost them too early. Some mothers are abusive or neglectful. Some are plagued by mental or physical illnesses that limit their capabilities to be present. Some are overly dependent on their offspring for validation, while others have lost the memory of even having children.

Guanyin and Mary are the perfect mothers that none of us have and none of us can be.

Now I know that it’s probably a safe bet to say that very few people in this room regularly pray to a deity, any deity, whether or not they may have any connection to an actual historical person. But. We do like to look to people we know to have lived, to have had intellectual curiosity and to have achieved greatness, especially our religious forebears like Olympia Brown, Harriett Beacher Stowe and Julia Ward Howe.

It’s become a Unitarian Universalist cliche to bring up Unitarian Julia Ward Howe on Mothers Day. Some credit her with creating this holiday, but really, that was created by Anna Jarvis in 1908. What Howe did give us, aside from the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was an appeal to womanhood, written in 1870, a pro-feminist, anti-war piece known as the Mothers Day Proclamation:

Arise, … women of this day!

Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender [emphasis mine] of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Howe’s admonition was a call for disarmament, for women of the United States to do nothing less than take total responsibility for raising a generation of men disinclined toward political conflict. Talk about setting an impossible standard!

What I want to focus on in her statement, though, is one sentence. “We, the women of one country, will be too tender [emphasis mine] of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

It’s a call for the women of the world to see themselves as the holders of the hope, for each woman to strive to be tender toward one another and their children, and to teach those children the ways of peace and to treasure life, the greatest gift of the earth.

So whether we are looking to Mary or Guanyin or Julia Ward Howe as teachers and mentors walking with us, each of us can celebrate the ideal we strive to be, while loving and acknowledging the very real mothers we have before us, that each of them is good enough. That we are good enough. And that is reason to celebrate and to be grateful. May we walk with each other with the tenderness, now and at the hour of our death.

May it be so.

1 Christopher Cook and Marjorie Trusted. East Meets West: Virgin and Child Ivory Carving. Victoru and Albert Musem. 2004 Season of perfomring arts and talks.