My mother died when I was only eleven, after a debilitating illness that lasted over a year. Back in 1950 her doctors could hardly come up with a diagnosis much less a cure. She was only in her early thirties. I have only the fondest memories of my mother even if they have been dimmed by the passing years. I don’t think it is just sentimentality on my part. In old black and white photographs, she is usually wearing a simple housedress, the uniform of a young mother of three back in those days. She is always smiling. I don’t recall that anyone ever had a bad word to say about her.
When I think of her, I think of the words that the apostle Paul wrote to the young Christian community in Corinth almost 2000 years ago. (First Corinthians, 13: 4-9)
Charity is patient, is kind; charity does not envy, is not pretentious, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, is not self-seeking, is not provoked; thinks no evil, does not rejoice over wickedness, but rejoices with the truth; bears with all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Charity never fails…
My bible commentary calls these words “a portrait of fraternal” love but it seems to me that the words are more a portrait of maternal love. I don’t want to sound sexist but I think that the characteristics of charity or love that Paul described are more to be found in women than in men. My opinion is based primarily on personal experience.
After my mother died my two younger brothers and I moved in with our grandmother who lived next door. For us the loss of a mother was largely made up by the charity or love of this incredibly caring woman. At the age of 62 she became a mother to three young boys. Thank heaven she was assisted by her daughter, Nan, a married woman who could have no children of her own. For the rest of her life, our Aunt Nan also became a surrogate mother to us. My brothers and I were extremely fortunate to find two such loving women in our lives.
My experience of maternal love did not stop there. In subsequent years I have found this caring love in countless women including my own wife, daughters, and daughters-in-law. Selfless love can be found in women with no children of their own who have taken upon themselves the task of caring for others.
I wonder how the Apostle Paul came to know about charity or love. Many years ago I attended a lecture about St. Paul and his writings by a prominent biblical scholar who was also a nun with feminist leanings. In her talk she was critical about some of the things that Paul had said about women. You know, things like obeying your husbands, and being quiet in church. In the question and answer that followed I asked her if there was anything in all the literature she had read on the biblical period that resembled the words about charity in First Corinthians. She replied that she couldn’t think of any that matched the lofty spiritual truth contained in that brief passage.
In other words, despite his seeming misogyny, Paul had somehow arrived at a lofty spiritual concept of love. He might have gotten it from his deep study of Hebrew scripture and tradition but that didn’t stop him from persecuting Christians like so many do today. He might have gotten it in his encounter on the road to Damascus with the risen Jesus, and with his subsequent involvement with the early Christians.
But I like to think that Paul’s first encounter with love was with his own mother.
One of the best depictions of motherly love is in the Chinese film epic, "To Live." It is an incredibly powerful and emotional depiction of a family trying to stay together during the turmoil of the Maoist revolution in China. I originally saw it in a theater in 1994 and was blown away. Since then I have seen it a number of times with the same effect. Here is a link to the trailer or just click on the video below. The complete film is available on YouTube.