Outside of the Virgin Mary, the woman with perhaps the greatest insights into motherhood was never pregnant, never bore a child and never nursed an infant. She helped no toddlers to walk, bandaged no bruised knees, nursed no child of her own back to health and prepared no meals for a family table. In no common use of the term was she a mother. And yet she surely was an extraordinary mother. We mean St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who is more popularly known as Edith Stein.
Sometimes women who are adoptive mothers, or single women who want to marry but have not yet married, think of themselves as second-class women and non-mothers compared with their friends who are married and have borne children. Or they fear that others view them as such. Yet Stein teaches us that true motherhood is metaphysical, of which the biological is an image. The unseen reality is greater. All women are called to realize it. True motherhood is a matter of corresponding to a spiritual vocation.
Edith Stein was born in 1891 in Breslau, Prussia (now Wroclaw, Poland), to an observant Jewish family. She was the youngest of 11 children, and she renounced her Jewish faith already as a teenager — a source of great suffering for her traditional Jewish mother. A brilliant student, Edith pursued studies in philosophy, first in Breslau but later at Göttingen, with the distinguished Edmund Husserl, under whom, after a break to serve in the Red Cross in WWI, she wrote a thesis on empathy, earning her doctoral degree summa cum laude in 1916 . She was then denied a university position because she was a woman; years later, she was barred from teaching because she was Jewish.
In 1921-22 she converted to Catholicism after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Ávila. She studied voraciously the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and she taught for 12 years at a Dominican secondary school for girls in Speyer, Germany. In 1933, she became a Carmelite nun. As she expected, and even prayed for, she was arrested by the Nazis in 1942 for being Jewish, and she was sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed in a gas chamber.
She sensed womanhood and motherhood within her, “Just as an inner form resides in the seed of plants, an invisible force making a fir tree shoot up here and a beech there, [we find too] an inner mold set in human beings which urges the evolution into a certain direction.”
Not one to mince words, she said: “Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose. The clear and irrevocable word of Scripture declares what daily experience teaches us from the beginning of the world: Woman is destined to be wife and mother. Both physically and spiritually she is endowed for this purpose, as is seen clearly from practical experience. However, it follows from the Thomistic principle anima forma corporis [“the soul is the form of the body”] that such a spiritual characteristic does exist.”
It is not that the soul serves the body, but the body serves and reveals the soul. If the body of a woman is different from the body of man, then the soul is different. But then the “inner form” is different, regardless of whether a woman physically bears a child.
“If humans rank above the lower creatures because, as spirit, they imitate God,” Stein comments, “their generative power, too, must be rooted in the spirit.” Woman is destined to be wife and mother — every woman, not simply those who marry and bear children.
How is this possible? In language that will remind a Catholic of Mary, the Mother of God, Stein writes: “The soul of a woman must, therefore, be expansive and open to all human beings; it must be quiet so that no small weak flame will be extinguished by stormy winds; warm so as not to benumb fragile buds; clear, so that no vermin will settle in dark corners and recesses; self-contained, so that no invasions from without can peril the inner lift; empty of itself, in order that extraneous life may have room in it; finally, mistress of itself and also of its body, so that the entire person is readily at the disposal of every call.”
Her description sounds a lot like a pathway to holiness. One can say that this beloved saint construes all motherhood as a particular form of seeking holiness. For a woman, to become holy is to become a spiritual mother: “Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.”
Edith Stein links motherhood with being a spouse. Both involve putting one’s being at the service of another in some kind of unity that is material. “Woman’s nature is determined by her original vocation of spouse and mother. One depends upon the other. The body of woman is fashioned ‘to be one flesh’ with another and to nurse new human life in itself. A well-disciplined body is an accommodating instrument for the mind which animates it; at the same time, it is a source of power and a habitat for the mind.”
“Just so,” she says, “woman’s soul is designed to be subordinate to man in obedience and support; it is also fashioned to be a shelter in which other souls may unfold. Both spiritual companionship and spiritual motherliness are not limited to the physical spouse and mother relationships, but they extend to all people with whom woman comes into contact.”
This year on Mother’s Day, consider how you might show some sign of love and appreciation toward your own mom, whether as a gift to her if she is alive or through prayer for her soul if she has passed.
But don’t stop there, at the merely visible. Turn to the Virgin Mary and acknowledge her as your mother in the truest, spiritual sense. Thank God for the Church that is your mother. “Each new soul is formed and endowed with divine life through the organs of the Church. The Church is thus the mother of all the redeemed,” Stein writes.
And then continue on this path of reverence for spiritual motherhood. Take specific care to find a religious sister, and thank her for her maternity. Tell your friend who is an adoptive mom that you admire deeply her true, spiritual maternity.
And maybe give an image of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross or a book of her writings to that single woman who perhaps feels particular sorrow on Mother’s Day, to help her see that always mixed with this sorrow is hope and an intimation of joy.
Finally, if you are a mother of yourself, ask God for the grace always to inform your physical motherhood with the spiritual motherhood to which you are called.
Michael and Catherine R. Pakaluk are professors at the Busch School of Business in the Catholic University of America.