Wednesday, March 26, 2008

4,000 Dead and the Office of Motherhood in All Things

Our high God, the sovereign wisdom of all, arrayed himself in this low place and made himself entirely ready in our poor flesh to do the service and the office of motherhood himself in all things.
As verily as God is our Father, so verily God is our Mother.
A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.
The mother may suffer the child to fall sometimes, and to be hurt in diverse manners for its own profit, but she may never suffer that any manner of peril come to the child, for love. And though our earthly mother may suffer her child to perish, our heavenly Mother, Jesus, may not suffer us that are His children to perish: for He is All-mighty, All-wisdom, and All-love; and so is none but He,—blessed may He be!

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I have been thinking of Julian of Norwich and of her profoundly moving insights into the maternal nature of God, as the news arrives that we have reached a new watermark with the war in Iraq: 4000 American soldiers dead.
And that is not even to count—or recognize—the many Iraqi men, women, and children who have also died in this war.
4000 mothers’ children now dead.

War demands reflection about what it means to be a mother. The loss of any life demands reflection about all that goes into the making of a human life. A mother, some mother somewhere, spends a good part of a year gestating, carrying a new life, bringing that life into the world with pain. Creation is work. Creation demands care. It takes far more energy to make than to destroy. A building constructed by years of painstaking labor can be hauled down in a single day.
Every human life ever created presupposes painstaking labor—on the part of a mother, on the part of Mother God, who grieves along with human mothers when the irreplaceable son or daughter created through such labor is suddenly gone. War is a horrendous, wasteful, absurd challenge to everything that motherhood—or creation, in the Judaeo-Christian theological framework—means.
Mothers are implicated. Mothers suffer perhaps more than anyone else, in war.
This is something German artist Käthe Kollwitz recognized, which she made the central theme of her art in the period between the two world wars. Like Cassandra, Kollwitz could see clearly what was coming, but could not avert it. She saw the horrendous waste of human life in the first war, and she knew that this war would repeat itself down the road in another act of ultimate absurdity, another world war.
Her drawings repeat, over and over, with the obsessive concern of someone who must be heard but will not be heard, the theme of mothers clutching their children to themselves, trying futilely to keep the seed that must be sown for future harvests safe from destruction. Kollwitz’s work is replete with mothers, with mothers’ arms, with the circling of mothers’ arms around children. Again and again, her work echoes the theme of mothers clutching their children to themselves, seeking desperately to guard their children, mourning over lost children. Mothers clinging to each other to create circles of protection in the world; mothers clinging to children whose birth has cost a mother so much, and whose tragic destruction is so simple to accomplish . . . .

Kollwitz’s art is a perfect counterpoint to Julian’s meditation on the nature of God. War is an act of ultimate atheism. No Jewish or Christian believer who believes what the creation narratives say about God—that God wombs the world into existence as a mother bird broods over its nest—can believe in, endorse, want, accept war.
What is brought into being at such tremendous cost should not be destroyed in a single act of insane, meaningless destruction. There are other ways, better ways, to resolve human conflict.
The news about the toll the war in Iraq has taken on our own nation, in the number of soldiers now lost, arrived on the eve of the liturgical feast day of the Annunciation, a day commemorated in many Christian traditions as the day on which Mary accepted the divine request to bear a child. The infancy narratives in the Christian gospels link the story of Jesus’s birth to that of his death: in accepting the divine offer of maternity, Mary also committed herself to give up her son, in the end of his life.
The pain of motherhood, the sorrow of mothers who bear children with such care and hope, but who give their children up to horrendous acts of violence, runs through the foundational stories of Christianity. These narratives are narratives about the Motherhood of God, about God’s totally involved love for human beings, about the pain God bears in bearing the world into being, and the pain God undergoes in seeing the world created at such cost senselessly destroyed.

Anyone who listens to these stories is called to create inside himself the capacity for motherhood: the capacity to listen, ponder, create, nurture, and enter into the suffering of those to whom one is linked. These are themes explored again and again by great artists, whose voices we need to hear, if we wish to become more humane.
I have just finished, and highly recommend, Pat Barker’s latest novel, Life Class. Critics who have noted that Barker shines when she returns to the theme of her novels about the first world war—the Regeneration trilogy—are right. The war to end all wars, and its cultural effects on England, are Barker’s métier.
Barker is acutely observant, in noting how war de-centers gender presuppositions. Men sent as mere boys into battle often discover the capacity to love each other fiercely. If they survive and return home, the questions this capacity to love provokes in them must be addressed in the cultural context of back home.
Women also confront gender shifts in wartime. War can open unexpected new avenues for women’s work to count, for the first time, to be seen for what it is—ceaseless labor to keep the machinery of society alive. Women can shake off constricting old social expectations in wartime, traveling unchaperoned to the front to nurse the wounded, living alone in apartments in large cities where their labor is now needed to keep things going.
Women also pick up the pieces in war, and Barker excels in describing this dynamic. It is women who flock to the front to pick up the pieces—quite literally—of wounded men who have to be patched back together in order to be sent again into battle. It is women who cope with the loss when their men cannot be healed. It is women who often bear the brunt when the man returned home is a mere shell of a human being, physically there, mentally gone.
Kollwitz has it right, as does Pat Barker: the seed for sowing must not be milled. We must war against war (krieg dem Kriege). Only in this way can those of us who seek to believe continue the office of God’s motherhood in all things, in the societies in which we live.

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