The Mothering Spirit

Happy Mother’s Day! I hope if you’re a mom you are feeling well-loved and appreciated today. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but most Mother’s Day cards seem to focus on how sweet, kind, and gentle mothers are, and that certainly is an important part of the story. Thank goodness for that. But there’s another side to our moms, and ourselves, as well—a side that is flinty, determined, tenacious, that has a vision and wants to see it through. I think it honors moms when we see them as whole and evolving beings, unique people with their own mix of sweetness and strength.

On Tuesday morning of this week, I went to vote. This time my polling place was the school right behind my house—in fact, the woods that begin in my backyard end at the football field right behind the school. I walked through the big glassed-in entrance to the gym and crossed the shiny wood floor to find the table with my precinct number. The lady sitting there was all business, no-nonsense, peering at me over her half-glasses, and making an impatient waving motion, indicating that I needed to hand her my drivers license, which I did. I stepped over to a little private desk and colored in the ovals on the ballot—that’s how we do it in Marion County—and then walked over and fed it into the machine. The voting attendant there was all smiles. She thanked me for voting. She gave me a sticker.

I looked around and noticed that everyone else in the room—with the exception of the all-business lady—seemed happy too. There were lots of smiles. That’s one of the reasons I love to vote. No matter who we vote for, the actual physical act of voting brings us into solidarity with all our neighbors, from sea to shining sea. There’s a sense of a common bond. I think that’s why there are smiles and light hearts, even though headlines tell us how divided we are as a country right now. Our hearts know the truth: It feels good to be connected.

As I was walking out through the big glass doors, I discovered a small sparrow who had somehow gotten confused and flown inside the door, and now was in a panic trying to get out, flying repeatedly into the glass. I stopped and told him where the door was. That didn’t seem to help. And then I thought maybe he’d be calmer and find his way out if I left, so I did. I walked five or six paces down the sidewalk and, still hearing his little body bouncing against the glass, I stopped and looked and then went back. He was perched on a metal strip about halfway up the window, his little chest heaving with panicked breaths.  Getting quiet and moving gently, I held my hand above his head and told him I wasn’t going to hurt him, and then I carefully scooped him up, carried him outside, and opened my hands. He flew off like a rocket launched into the clear blue sky, his wings—and probably, his heart–beating so fast he might have been a hummingbird.

As I drove away, I thought about how his heart probably told him the open sky was right there—and he thought he could just fly off into it. But something was in his way, something he couldn’t see, and he was bumping into it again and again trying to get out. Maybe even after he flew off, free at last, he still didn’t understand what had held him back or what had let him go.

Sometimes when we are trying to make progress in life we can feel like there’s something in the way, holding us back. We might not know what it is or why it’s happening. Maybe our vision is a practical health thing, like quitting smoking, or finding a new job, or maybe bringing peace to a challenging relationship. Or it might be more inward—finding a sense of purpose, rediscovering our hope, deepening our faith. We try again and again and get discouraged because we don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere. And then one day—perhaps thanks to the work of Spirit outside our awareness—things just seem better. The fight calms. We make progress. A door is opened. Something we dreamed about, yearned for, worked for arrives.

Our Old Testament reading today is from the last chapter of the book of Isaiah. In this passage, God is speaking tenderly to the children of Israel, promising to comfort and care for them. This is a remarkable and huge change, because when the book of Isaiah began, God’s anger was burning toward the children of Israel; their faith had grown cold and meaningless, and God was calling them to account. As our mothers might say, “I’m up to here with your bad behavior!” But suddenly now, in the last chapter of Isaiah, God ‘s heart softens and he shares with them a new vision of a deeper relationship, where they love one another in spirit and in truth.

That new vision is key to softening the heart, to being open to the arrival of the light. Soon after we’ve experienced the wrath of mom, a new possibility for grace emerges. Suddenly she believes we really will keep our rooms cleaner. Or take out the trash when we’re told. Or feed the dog when we’re supposed to. Or stop making that face at dinner.

Sometimes the grace takes a while to arrive. I read the story of Quaker Alice Paul this week and was fascinated by her long, tenacious fight for women’s right to vote. With voting fresh in my experience, it occurred to me that I was able to walk into that polling place on Tuesday in large part thanks to her.

Early experiences with her own mother inspired Alice to become the force for change she would one day be. She was born into a Quaker family in 1885 in New Jersey. She was actually related to William Penn—I think he was a distant uncle—and she went to Moorestown Friends School, where she graduated at the top of her class. Her mother often attended meetings of the local chapter of the North American Woman Suffrage Association in the home of a Quaker friend, and Alice regularly went along. (I was curious about how the word “suffrage” came to be affiliated the right to vote, so I looked it up. The word suffrage comes from the Latin word suffragium, which has several different meanings, including “vote,” “ballot,” and “voting rights.”)

Alice completed her undergrad at Swarthmore, and then went on to England to continue her studies at Woodbrooke. While she was there, she got involved with women’s suffrage issues in London, and she joined an active suffrage group and started participating in public protests. She went to jail three different times there for her part in those events. Quakers, of course, were no strangers to the prison system in England. She came back to the United States two years later, and completed her PhD in sociology, focusing on women’s rights.

Alice was brilliant and passionate and unafraid, and that combination of characteristics led her into positions of leadership and situations of risk. She organized a protest march—the Woman Suffrage Procession—in Washington DC the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. It turned into quite the fiasco—more than half a million people came to see the 8,000 women who marched, and with almost no police protection, the situation spiraled into a near riot. But the public conscience was stirred and the march—and the women who participated—were on peoples’ minds for a long while after. Awareness and support started to grow.

A few years later, as a leader in the national women’s suffrage movement, Alice organized a group of protesters that came to be known as the Silent Sentinels, women who stood silently outside the White House holding signs with quotes and questions related to women’s right to vote. The women started their protest the afternoon of the day they had a meeting with President Wilson, and they continued six days a week for nearly two-and-a-half years, until the day the 19th amendment passed Congress. More than 2,000 women participated in the protests during that time. President Wilson seemed to take the protests in stride, maybe even had a bit of an “isn’t-that-cute” attitude about it, but as time wore on he began to pay more serious attention. The women were dedicated, impressive, visionary. His ideas began to change. And even though they were committed to silence, the women were assertive and active; they did some dramatic things to keep the pressure on, like burning the President’s image in effigy on the White House lawn. This may be a lesson you’ve already learned: You don’t want to get a Quaker woman riled, especially if she has a vision.

I think it’s fitting that this whole story—about recognizing the vision and strength of women–started with a mom and ends with a mom. First, remember, the story started with Alice going with her mom to suffrage meetings. The story ends with the mother of the state senator who had the power to stop the ratification process so the bill would never become law. He was opposed to the amendment and was planning to vote No—and that would be that–when he got a telegram from his mom, saying, “Dear son, Hurrah! And vote for suffrage. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt (who was the president of the suffrage association at that time) put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” That little extra nudge from mom changed his thought, which changed his vote, which changed history for the rest of us.

When change is coming slower than we’d like, or things seem to be changing too quickly in the wrong directions, we may be tempted to believe there is a darkness in the world that is growing and spreading, unseating the values we try to live by, uprooting faith and leaving even God powerless to act. In our Old Testament scripture, we heard that God had been angry—naming the darkness the children of Israel were wallowing in—but then God brings a new vision, a light and a promise. In the New Testament reading today, we hear Jesus’s frustration and sorrow about the lost state of Jerusalem, the city that stones those who lift it to the light. Similar to the children of Israel, the people of Jesus’s day didn’t realize what they were caught in, what was holding them back from living with true and open hearts that honored God. Jesus talks about how he longs to gather the people to him, like baby chicks with a mother hen, to keep them under his wings and care for them.

In George Fox’s Journal, he writes, ““I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” He knows our world demands both grit and grace, but ultimately, he’s says, don’t despair: the sky is blue and clear and open and yes, maybe just beyond our reach for now. But spirit will get us there. Good does win. Like Alice Paul and all mothers who’ve ever had a vision of a better day, we can be a part of the work of hope, doing what we can to bring peace and kindness to our world, using all strength and gentleness, grit and grace at our disposal. We find all those qualities and more—in fact, everything we need to change and heal our world–under the wings of our sometimes frank and challenging, always tender and loving, Universal Mother Hen.

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