I’ll never forget the evening at my parish women’s group when Helen, a registered nurse and one of our oldest members, described a unique kind of volunteer work she did for years at a local hospital.
“They would call me up if someone was alone and near dying,” she explained, “and I would just go and sit with them. Sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes all night long. I would hold their hand, talk to them, and let them know someone cares.”
I was in awe of this kind of volunteer work. Helen had been present for hundreds of people’s last moments on earth. She was dedicated to giving them love and a human touch at a time when they needed it most.
In light of these thoughts, what Helen said next really moved me: “I’m not married, and I never had children of my own, but I feel like I have been a kind of mother to every one of those people I cared for as they died.”
What a beautiful expression of what it means to be a mother!
I have a friend who, despite years of longing for marriage and children, has never found the right person to marry, and so she says she has resigned herself to the idea of being a “spiritual mother” to her nieces, nephews, co-workers, and friends. “It sometimes feels like a consolation prize,” she once told me once with an eye roll.
But spiritual motherhood is so much more than a consolation prize. It’s a unique calling to love and serve God by loving and serving others in beautifully personal ways.
St. Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, was a woman who lived a simple yet astonishing life of quiet service dedicated to the elderly and the poor.
Living in France in the late 1700s, Jeanne knew that God was calling her to a unique vocation. When she was still a teenager, she told her mother, “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded.” It would be many years before she knew what work God was calling her to, but once she understood what it was, she embraced it wholeheartedly.
One cold winter night, Jeanne came upon a poor old woman with no one to care for her, and she saw Jesus Christ Himself in this needy woman. She carried her to her home and placed her in her own bed where she lovingly took care of her until she died.
More and more needy people began to show up on Jeanne’s doorstep, and she faithfully took all of them in and cared for them as best she could. Eventually, other women came to her, wanting to help with this much-needed ministry. Others began to refer to the group of women as “Little Sisters of the Poor,” and the name stayed with them as they became a legitimate religious community dedicated to caring for the needs of the poor and elderly.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is another extraordinary woman who lived out a form of spiritual motherhood throughout her life.
Early in her marriage, though she had biological children of her own, Elizabeth took in her husband’s orphaned siblings and cared for them. Little did she know at the time, but this generosity of maternal spirit was to flower into a life-long vocation to caring for children.
After her husband’s death, to support her family, Elizabeth took in poor young girls to educate them. In later years, when Elizabeth founded her own religious community, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, she became a spiritual mother to the young women who joined her in the community as well as to the children they taught and cared for.
As a mother of eight children myself, I have long looked to the example of St. Elizabeth Seton as a model mother who juggled the needs of many children. These days, though, as some of my children have grown older and begun independent lives of their own, I find that my identity as a mother is shifting and changing, and I have been contemplating the concept of spiritual motherhood more and more.
In an emptying nest, who does God need me to love and care for now? I am waiting for God to reveal to me who He wants me to “mother” next—grandchildren perhaps,—but I do know that the examples of my friend Helen, St. Jeanne Jugan, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton will inspire and encourage me along the way.
DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and author of several books for women, including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
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