When St. Anthony of the Desert went out to the Egyptian wilderness to be alone with God, he probably didn’t think that he was setting an example for mothers. But I believe that he did. St. Anthony gave up the comforts of society in order to face himself and let God purify him. Perhaps this is not so different from the path of mothers and families and, by extension, all people striving to live in accord with truth and God.
Interpreting St. Anthony’s desert hermitage spirituality for today, Henri Nouwen wrote a book called, “The Prayer of the Heart.” In it, he quotes the 20th century Catholic mystic Thomas Merton:
Society…was regarded [by the Desert Fathers] as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life…These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster (11).
To merely go with a flow that wasn’t completely for God would lead to shipwreck of the soul. The desert fathers and mothers fled to the desert’s harshness and lived alone in order to follow Christ, just as he had commanded.
In the desert, continues Nouwen, Anthony: “had to face his enemies–anger and greed–head-on and let himself be totally transformed into a new being. His old, false self had to die and a new self had to be born. For this Anthony withdrew into the complete solitude of the desert. Solitude is the furnace of transformation” (15).
In this day and age especially, real commitment to family seems almost as crazy as becoming a desert hermit. To leave the workforce for the sake of parenting is the height of foolishness in many ways. We give up financial independence, prestige, clean clothes and even several degrees of self-determination (our schedule and daily life for many years will be dictated by the needs of young children).
And for what good?
To be at the service of life, the greatest earthly good. To bind oneself to a family, to a spouse and to children is really like a religious vow in many ways: it gives up a great many goods in order to grow in the good of commitment, of formation in family life, which is ultimately directed by the Lord. And to do it well, it will take everything we have–and then some. It will lead us into the desert of our souls and present the furnace of solitude.
Beyond the beauty and worth of the actual children, there is the spiritual opportunity of renunciation, of cultivating a monastery in the midst of the world, of staring darkness in the face and of falling back on Christ.
Being a mom is hard; it is a non-stop path of ever-growing, ever-changing self-giving. There is always one more snack to get, one more counter to wipe and then the kids develop and have new, different needs. There is the ever-present weight of responsibility for the complete and total functioning little human lives. There is the ever-lingering sense that we are not doing enough: not enough for the children, not enough for our husbands and especially not enough for ourselves.
But the false self who wants everything to be easy and wants accomplishments for accomplishments’ sake must die in the desert of motherhood.
For me, this desert appears very clearly at bedtime.
When I lay down with my children at bedtime, I must be silent. I must not be moved by the begging to get up nor respond to the calls for more and more drinks. Most importantly, I must squelch that monstrous little voice of my thoughts that starts to get louder as more and more minutes pass as I lie there: “you have to do the dishes,” it says. “There is so much laundry, and your work-out, and your writing time…that’s almost gone, and your husband is waiting for you; he never gets to see you,” the voice wails.
Then, if it takes hold, it gets stronger: “Get up now. Yell that those pesky kids and get up and get something done!” The anger starts to bubble and boil.
“What else is anger but the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived?” Nouwen asks in the book (13). The perception of deprivation I sometimes experience during bedtime can become almost too much to take. But this perception is always a misleading distortion, as anger usually is. It is a failure to recognize the goods before me, a wretched sense of entitlement and self-importance, and a failure to be present and silent with them, with myself and with God.
I don’t think it is presumptuous of me to posit that these nasty voices are perhaps not so different from the forces St. Anthony battled in his hermitage. “In solitude we realize that nothing human is alien to us, that the roots of all conflict, war, injustice, cruelty, hatred, jealousy and envy are deeply anchored in our own heart” (Nouwen 25).
In the time of silence and solitude, we face this within ourselves. And the answer is the same in both cases: compassion and silence. By recognizing the magnitude of the horror within ourselves, we find compassion for others and forgiveness. In simply being silent with God, (with the little ones), with myself, we learn that God is enough and that so are we.
It can be very difficult to feel like enough during the desert purgation of bedtime. Despite the immense value of caring for another human life, the great good of motherhood is all too often taken for granted precisely because of its commonness.
Now, I don’t think mothers, fathers or desert hermits are called to eschew personal development and just lay around. I think God wants all his children to develop their gifts for the sake of his greater glory, which consequently tends to include our own enjoyment.
So I am not saying we mothers never get to do anything. I am actually a champion of balance and personal growth. Nevertheless, ours is a growth within community, within bonds, a growth that connects with others, especially our husbands and children. It is a mutual growth that builds unity with all life and all goodness; it is not the growth of a Nietzschean ubermensch who grows in domination at the expense of our fellow creatures.
Ultimately, the family is a place where we will inevitably confront the most profound human mysteries: the generation of new life, of foundational education, cultural understanding and the deepest attachment of our most-formative relationships: those between parent and child and husband and wife. It is rightly called a vocation; like the desert or the monastery, it is a place where we will encounter God, if we let it be.