To See the Beauty of Motherhood
In the twilight of her life, Sister Justine, one of the Sisters of Charity, related the following story about a small, but profound interaction she had with St. Bernadette, the seer of Lourdes.
I was still a postulant, and I had been given a job in the infirmary. Well, one day when we were giving the place a thorough cleaning, I had spent the whole morning dusting, rubbing and polishing. Then the bell rang and I was getting ready to leave when Bernadette said: ‘The work is not finished. There’s still this and that, but you haven’t time now. It will do some other day.’ Then I foolishly said with a certain satisfaction: ‘I’ve rubbed the copper knobs with polishing powder.’ This referred to the knobs on the iron bedsteads. Bernadette replied: ‘Yes, they are shining brightly. You’ve polished them well and thoroughly. You have taken great pains with this work because it catches the eye.’
She delivered me this reprimand so nicely that I wasn’t hurt, but I felt the little pinprick to my vanity all the same and I carried the lesson away with me, saying to myself: ‘You understand? You have taken great pains over the knobs because they show, but the work that doesn’t show, the work that remains hidden and which God alone sees, did you do that so carefully?’
I have always remembered those copper knobs.
As I read this passage yesterday—on Mother’s day—the thought occurred to me, “We almost always look for, see, and praise the copper knobs around us.”
It is certainly the case that the truly aesthetically beautiful ought to be praised. Here, I am critiquing instead what might be termed that which is “flashy.” These are images, songs, sights, and sounds that elicit a sense of curiosity, rather than a sense of wonder. Curiosity, it may be said, stays at the level of the senses and passions, whereas wonder speaks to a man’s heart, intellect, and will. Animals may show a sense of curiosity, but only man can stand before the beautiful and gasp in wonder.
Beauty is goodness and goodness is beauty. Lose your sensitivity for either, and lose your sensitivity to both. We are living in an age which has, in many cases, intentionally dulled its sensitivity to goodness and beauty, especially to that beauty which is only beheld through wonder alone, and not with the senses.
Hollywood honors the flashy with their own awards. Winning sports teams are invited to visit the White House. And Motherhood? Forgotten. Unvalued. Often scorned.
Recently, a revolting video was posted where a man (I use the term loosely) screamed obscenities about a baby who was crying on the flight he was on. I wish I could report that this mentality exists only within the confines of Southwest flights, but it is tragically manifested even by the behavior of some church parishioners as well. No, there is no obscenity involved, but the annoyed glances, and comments that “we have cry rooms, you know” display the same fundamental posture. And that posture is this: a mother is considered “good” insofar as she is able to hide the fact that she is, in fact, a mother.
A mother who can keep her child from making any noise that might possibly affect the sensitivities of those around her? Good. A mother who struggles to comfort her fussy baby? Unacceptable. A mother who works outside the home, doing something “useful?” Good. A mother who is blessed enough to be able to simply nurture her children? Useless.
Behold the copper knobs.
The truth, friends, is that mothers really do hide their work. Not because they wish to, but because their work is, by nature, hidden. Their first nine months of motherly work takes place in darkness. Hidden from everyone’s eyes. It is visible to her heart and the eyes of wonder alone. Many months will follow that find her work hidden in the silence and darkness of night, as she and her child are brought together, heart to heart. And, in the months and years to follow, this mother will do a thousand different acts for her child that only she and God alone knows about.
But if we take our eye off the copper knobs for a moment, and look instead with the eyes of wonder, perhaps then we will see the goodness of the simple mother who has loved her child. The beauty of the painting is made with lines from the artist’s brush, but the beauty of the mother is made with lines of love. The lines that curl around her mouth is the joy she finds in her child. The lines on her face are from the tears wept when he was sick, or lost, or sad.
These are the only marks we may ever see of her hidden work. The work done for her child that God alone sees.
If the martyrs in heaven keep their wounds, as a reminder of their glory, then I must believe that mothers will keep these lines of love. Then, when we behold them we will, with wonder, exclaim, “Oh what goodness! Oh what beauty.”