Motherhood, hospitality, and the Catholic Worker: Vocations that heal

MANY YEARS AGO, when my oldest child was a baby, my husband Jerry and I visited our friends living at the Winona Catholic Worker for a potluck and roundtable. It was held at Bethany House, our home for single men needing hospitality, and the potluck was a lively mix of long-time guests, friends of the house, live-in volunteers, and visitors. Jerry was talking to a guest (let’s call him Jim) living there at the time, a huge man with a fierce beard but friendly manner. Our son drew attention to his cute self by gurgling, and when Jim said, “That’s a fine baby there,” Jerry responded, “Thanks—why don’t you hold him?”

Jim resisted. “Naw, I’d drop him for sure, he’s so little.” But our small one added to the conversation by flinging open his arms and smiling expectantly. So Jim gingerly picked him up and held him to his chest, and suddenly began to cry.

“No one’s ever trusted me with a baby before,” he said.

CW-babiesSo many times the intersection of the work of hospitality and raising children has yielded moments like this. I never thought that at age six months, my son would be doing the works of mercy more effectively than anyone else in the family. Other times, my eight-year-old daughter is the quiet and graceful one who is ready to play fairies with any young guest at the house. And my youngest daughter asked if we could pray for a guest of the house who happened to be about her age. We had never told her about this young guest’s many challenges and hardships, but somehow, she understood the need for prayer in this situation. Perhaps it isn’t too surprising, if you believe that prayer is initiated by the Holy Spirit.

The vocation to hospitality seems to me the heart of these two realities: mothering and being a Catholic Worker. Yes, a lot of the daily work seems similar on the surface (cooking, cleaning, washing endless dishes). But a vocation is more deeply rooted than its housework: it is a calling from God, after all, and nothing less than your way to holiness for the good of the world. And as with any vocation, a vocation to hospitality, rightly discerned and truly lived, heals. By God’s grace, any vocation heals the person who embraces it, and the vocation helps heal those around him. It doesn’t solve everyone’s problems, and it isn’t always pretty, but a willingness to bear witness to the love of God, fully and without conditions, is a healing act. How rarely do we speak of the healing nature of vocation!

Motherhood as a healing vocation is more rarely considered yet. Catholicism confirms the value of motherhood as a vocation in a way many traditions do not, but still, many of us have struggled to understand what that vocation means. The culture’s counter-voices buzz about like static. To believe what most of America says, motherhood is about giving your children every toy they want, making sure they grow up geniuses, and cooking dinners to which they will respond with melting smiles. Certainly that’s how motherhood is marketed. So much of motherhood is commodified, advertisers sensing that women are so naturally nervous about this huge responsibility that giving us something to buy makes us feel more prepared. You leave the Baby Megastore carrying enough baby supplies for a pastel-colored Armageddon, prepared like a survivalist rather than anyone immersed in a healing act.

Of course, buying sprees do nothing to help us understand the healing vocation of motherhood. Mothering is one long act of hospitality, done in community, for love and formation; it relies heavily upon allowing God to work through us for the good of others. These children are entrusted to our care, and in this upside down, broken world, so much can go wrong. So we try to make our families oases of healing love: we do our best to raise them in our faith, and to teach them what we value. We try to model nonviolence; we try to model respect for each person’s human dignity. You are your child’s first image of God, and only an image—but we try to be clear mirrors of God’s grace.

Certainly there are differences between family community and Catholic Worker community, but I am grateful that being a small part of the life of the Winona Catholic Worker helps me understand what motherhood is truly about, and indeed, helps me be a better mother.

There is an ancient Vietnamese story about chopsticks and the Kingdom of God: Beyond this world, we are each given one-meter-long chopsticks. Hell is where we despair and starve, unable to eat with our too-long chopsticks. Heaven is where we are fed because we understand we must feed one another.

Both family community and Catholic Worker community know something of that insight, that the Christian life is best lived generously, together. Being around people who value and live out that generosity and ingenuity really “feeds” my mothering by example. Motherhood and being a Catholic Worker are vocations where life, by definition, is openhandedly shared. And, by hook and by crook and by God, we are fed.

Jim Forest, a friend and biographer of Dorothy Day, mentioned at a lecture years ago that Dorothy’s decision to give birth to, and raise, her daughter Tamar may well have paved her way for becoming the co-founder of the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality. In difficult circumstances, when her atheist friends would have pushed for her to have an abortion (she had already had one previously), she chose to trust God and offer Tamar “the hospitality of her womb.” If Forest is right on this insight, Dorothy’s motherhood—sometimes treated as an interesting side note to her work feeding, writing, protesting, welcoming—may be key to understanding her vocation, her calling to be healed and to heal.

It would have been hard for me to see this intersection without the experience of bringing our kids with us to the Catholic Worker meals for years. Some would say it is a risk, but they don’t understand that these houses are safer and more self-consciously nonviolent than many domestic households. We would never put our kids in physical danger. They also may not understand that it is far riskier to not raise our children to be aware of the realities of the world, and the medicine of the works of mercy. Only in reality do we find God. God breaks through on the jagged edge of reality, where we realize the chopsticks are long and the hunger real. We cannot buy our way off this jagged edge, or pretend it is not there. Any authentic spiritual life must be grounded in reality, and there is not a delusional vapor in these houses. It is bracing tonic for me and for my kids.

Ashley Cleveland, a Grammy-winning rock/gospel singer with a jagged edge past, wrote a song early in her career about finding motherhood as a calling. “Rebecca” comes at the end of an album of joyfully raucous, bluesy songs on addiction, near death, and reliance on the mercy of God. Yet at the end of this album, the guitars are unplugged for this quiet acoustic lullaby to a sleeping infant. The refrain is sweet:

Rebecca…you are the laughter in your mama’s eye; the stars are bright, but not like the shine I’ve taken to you….

Who gave who the gift of life? We’ll call it a toss-up…but these changes in me tell the real truth…I’m grateful for you.

It’s fair to say motherhood astonishes many that way: the utter surprise of living out a self-giving love you did not imagine you could bear. No one, it seems, suspects the depths of love, grief, and joy that a child elicits from you. In the last verse of the album, Cleveland finds a kind of triumph to close her musical chronicle of struggle:

I look for my future and I feel a peace about my past
Surprised by joy—I have seen my Father’s mercy in you
You make a fine tutor and my vocation is clear at last
I can’t wait to hear you call me something, and see the world as you do.

It’s a beautiful statement about motherhood, clarity, and healing. But does it stretch too much to imagine singing the first three lines to anyone to whom you are linked by hospitality? To everyone with whom you are connected as brother or sister in Christ? In the end, all vocations are calls to generous, boundless love, calls to mirror the love of God. Dorothy Day knew that, raising Tamar in hard circumstances. One of her favorite saints, Thérèse of the Child Jesus, knew that as well, writing exuberantly in her autobiography: “MY VOCATION IS LOVE!”

Sometimes we don’t even know the gift God prompts us to give, such as when Jim broke down in gratitude after being trusted to hold our infant son. Motherhood and the Catholic Worker houses remind me that life is to be shared, without cost, in concrete ways. And it’s a good place for my children to begin practicing that life-long project: to allow our darkest reality to be embraced by God; to give us peace about our past; and, at last, to be surprised by joy.


(Originally published in the zine Catholic Worker Mama.)


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