Our Poor Mothers
Ask a young person what they want to be when they grow up. They may say a doctor, a lawyer, a stockbroker, a scientist. Notice that no one ever says they want to be poor.
The American Dream itself stresses material prosperity. We are lured into wanting the big house, the nice car, and the fancy electronics. Poverty carries a social stigma. It suggests failure. It's a sign of weakness, a badge of dishonor.
It all makes me think of our poor mothers.
Yes — our poor mothers. Our poor mothers who remind us of how poverty is a virtue.
As we celebrate Mother's Day May 8, these are the facts about motherhood as I know them to be, based on three mothers whom I know very well: my own mother, the mother of my son, and the Mother of God. All of them embraced a form of poverty, to one degree or another, out of love for their offspring, a poverty that has love as its core.
I could name a thousand examples of how my own mother lived a form of poverty so that her offspring would receive nourishment, moral guidance, and material and emotional security. Even in just little ways. She always took the burnt hamburger, or the smallest serving, or the piece of cake that fell on the floor. Even her clothes were purchased at thrift stores because there was no money left in the budget for her.
My wife embraced a form of poverty, too, when 13 years ago we learned she was pregnant. Like many women today, she gave up a career to be a mother. She gave up a salary, her freedom, and, in her case, physical health that will never fully recover. She wouldn't change a thing.
My poor mother: She considers herself the richest woman in the world.
My poor wife: She, too, considers herself the richest woman in the world.
Both women point to the power of love. To call their actions a "sacrifice" would be inexact. The love of a mother for her child can't be helped, can't be stopped. It makes the pull of material things seem paltry.
This all points to a simple truth of our faith: of poverty as a virtue. No one can help us understand this better than the mother of all mothers, the Mother of God.
Indeed, Christ's mother lived in great poverty, yet she received riches altogether different than the ones many people seek today. Namely, the riches of eternal salvation. Through her poverty, we discover the joy in possessing God alone as the greatest treasure imaginable.
How poor was she? When she was ready to give birth, she and Joseph were forced to take shelter in a stable. She had nothing but cheap swaddling clothes to keep Jesus warm. As for a crib, she fashioned one out of a feeding trough for animals.
Yet Mary knows full well the way God works. Her words in the Magnificat remind us that God favors the weak and lowly over the proud, powerful, and wealthy. And in her maternal, protective manner, Mary reminds us where God can be found. Not among the lavish and wealthy, but among the plain and simple. Not in the places of power, but among the humble and broken. She knows that it is in poverty and neediness that we see God — in our own neediness and poverty and in the neediness and poverty of others.
I find it interesting that in the Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalski, the word "poor" is used almost habitually, mostly in its adjectival form. Saint Faustina writes of her "poor soul," of "poor sinners," her "poor Sister," her "poor heart," her "poor soul," of "poor humans," even of "poor earth."
Why poor? Because that's the condition of humanity when it's separated from God. Mary shows us what all the mothers I know seem to understand intuitively: that through poverty, we can possess and cultivate love. In Mary's case, it's the greatest of all loves, that of our love for God.
It's clear Mary took her cue from the anawim, "the poor of Yahweh," who in the Old Testament were considered the holy core of the nation. They were people wholly submissive to God and disposed to His will. Disowned by this world, they didn't rely on others or themselves, but on God alone, and God made their cause His own.
When Mary says at the Annunciation, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Lk 2:38), she, too, presents herself as submissive in the style of the anawim. She offers herself as an instrument of God, unanchored to possessions and obsessions of the material world. And she shows us how, through poverty — through possessing and desiring nothing but God — one can be blessed with riches of salvation.
It's telling that upon the birth of Christ, it wasn't kings and generals who first came to the manger to visit Him. Instead, the visitors were shepherds, foreshadowing how Jesus would later single out the lowly as recipients of God's favors and blessings.
Indeed, Jesus is His mother's Son. Time and time again He tells would be disciples what they must do in order to achieve salvation: "If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me" (Mt 19:21). Knowing full well the human heart, Jesus warns us how riches smother the divine word in the heart (Mt 13:22) and that men tend to see in riches "their life" (Lk 18:25).
Does this mean we must get rid of all our possessions?
No. But too often the tendency is to become possessed by one's possessions — to consider wealth and belongings as extensions of oneself. What we should do is express gratitude to Him for all that we own and share what we have in a manner that gives Him glory.
If we happen to ask our children what they want to be when they grow up, there's nothing wrong with them wanting to be a doctor, a lawyer, a stockbroker, or a scientist. The world needs people to serve in these professions. But we just need to remember our obligation to instill in them a wish to be Christian first — to know that the best way to express our love of God and to receive His rich blessings is by living in solidarity with the poor in imitation of Mary and her Son.
We all need to be more like our poor mothers.