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The Gift That Cannot Be Refused

May 13, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Anna Jarvis inaugurated Mother’s Day in 1908 when she held a memorial for her mother at St. Andrew’s Church in Grafton, W.Va. Through her persistent efforts, by 1911 all states in the union observed Mother’s Day. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating Mother’s Day to be celebrated each year on the second Sunday of May as a national holiday to honor all mothers.
As the foundress of Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis insisted on two things that reflected her proper concern for motherhood. The first is that Mother’s Day should be known in the singular possessive form and not in its more generalized form as Mothers’ Day. In this regard, we might say, she was an existentialist rather than an essentialist. A person has a personal relationship with one’s mother. His attitude toward motherhood in general is cerebral.
Secondly, she wanted Mother’s Day to provide an occasion for eliciting expressions of personal love for one’s mother. She became resentful of how commercialized Mother’s Day had quickly become. True to her inspiration, she encouraged people to honor their mothers through handwritten letters rather than by presenting them with pre-made cards they had purchased at a store.
Anna Jarvis was a person of strong passion as well as keen insight. One day, when she noticed that a department store was offering a “Mother’s Day Salad,” she ordered it and promptly threw it on the floor and stomped out. She feared that commercialism was destroying Mother’s Day.
I hope that in the following meditation, I have been faithful to the spirit of Mother’s Day that was envisioned by Anna Jarvis. While commercialism is inevitable, affection and honor remain essential. Motherhood is based on a relationship, not a transaction.
Perhaps more has been written about motherhood than on any other subject. Given the dignity and importance of motherhood, this is both understandable and justifiable. Nonetheless, more will continue to be written about motherhood because its depth can never be exhausted. And Mother’s Day will continue to inspire family members to express love for their mother.
The eminent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar opens the third volume of his book, Explorations in Theology with the following intriguing sentence: “The little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother.” From a biological point of view, the child’s parents account for his existence. But the child’s awareness that he is a unique self, von Balthasar explains, is the work of the mother.
How does she do this? If we may borrow the “I-Thou” terminology of Martin Buber, the mother is the “Thou” who, through her tender love, awakens the “I” of the child to self-consciousness. The child becomes aware that he is a partner in a love-to-love relationship. The mother’s love elicits a response which is the child’s love. The child’s response is spontaneous. He does not consider whether to respond to his mother’s love with love or something else.
His response is antecedent to any reflection. His core nature as a being of love, one created by a loving God, is touched. His response is a pure indication of his nature. He responds with love because his mother’s gift of love is not something that he can refuse. Just as the sun entices green growth, the mother’s love summons forth the child’s love, thus completing the “I-Thou” bond.
But there is something far more profound that occurs in the mother-child relationship. As von Balthasar states, the mother’s love is delivered as a “lightning flash of the origin with a ray so brilliant and whole that it also includes a disclosure of God.” This helps to explain what St. John Paul meant when he remarked that “an ounce of mother is worth a ton of priests.” God has an “I-Thou” relationship with man.
However, the adult response to God’s love usually requires reflection and decision-making. Yet the early loving response of the child to his mother’s love is something that the adult can build on. Along with mother’s milk, the mother is awakening in her child a sense of God.
The child interprets his mother’s smiling and her whole gift of self as coming from another, thereby distinguishing the “Thou” of the mother from the “I” of the child. In this way, the love-to-love bond is achieved. The child responds to his mother’s love with love of his own, thus awakening him to the realization, however dim, that he is made to love. This is a moment that is central and sacred to human beings. It is their origin and starting point. It is more fundamentally humanizing than any other human relationship.
A British poet by the name of Anne Ridler (1912-2001), who at one time served as a secretary for T.S. Eliot, authored 11 volumes of poetry over a 50-year span. A mother to two sons and as many daughters, she has penned a number of poems that reveal her own acute sensitivity to the mother-child relationship. In Choosing a Name, she beautifully expresses the mother-child relationship to which von Balthasar alludes, where generous love embraces receptive child:

Frail vessel, launched with a shawl for sail,
Whose guiding spirit keeps his needle-quivering
Poise between trust and terror,
And stares amazed to find himself alive;
This is the means by which you say I am.

As Mrs. Ridler implies, love summons “trust,” whereas its absence suggests “terror.” Motherhood is the gift of self that summons a loving response that requires no deliberation but comes straight from the heart. It is an example and prototype that we can never exhaust, but must continually honor. It may be easier to understand the greatness of motherhood in the mother-child relationship. Nevertheless, motherhood plants an indelible seal of all mothers. It is an identity that time cannot either wither or efface.
(Dr. Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow with Human Life International. His latest book, posted on amazon.com, is Why I Am Pro-Life and Not Politically Correct.)

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