In the Body of the Church, Each Vocation Strengthens All Vocations

“Ecclesial communion is … characterized by a diversity and a complementarity of vocations and states in life … Because of this diversity and complementarity every member of the lay faithful is seen in relation to the whole body and offers a totally unique contribution on behalf of the whole body.” —Pope St. John Paul II

Edmund Leighton, “Maternity,” 1917
Edmund Leighton, “Maternity,” 1917 (photo: Public Domain)

I’ve been blessed with the friendship of many women espoused to Christ in the consecrated life. We have in our lives several Nashville Dominicans, some cloistered Dominicans, and a Servidora, all of whom I knew first as bright young things in college. We discerned together, and our mutual desire to give everything for Christ took us in different directions. My correspondence with each of them has continued intermittently through the years, always with the gift of joy.

One of the greatest gifts to come from these friendships is a deep gratitude for the complementarity of vocations in the Church. You can hear lots of complaints from the grayer folks about “the lack of vocations” or “the priest shortage” flying right on the heels of how “back when I was a kid, priests were seen as gods and sisters as saints ... well, we know better now!” Now as I become gray, I see instead in many circles (a) rejoicing in the fact that there is no vocation shortage and (b) a willingness to revere the consecrated and clerical life as actually lifting up the married life instead of competing with it.

The sisters in my life aren’t an accusation that my choice to marry was somehow less than holy. Rather, their “yes” to Christ completes mine.

Dominican Sister Anna Wray and I have been exchanging letters and occasional visits for 17 years now. In each letter and rare encounter, one of us is bound to ask eagerly how God is working in us through our vows (either to Christ or to Todd) and through our children (hers spiritual, mine physical). 

One letter of hers in particular, received nine years ago this winter, still gives me pause:

Does motherhood grow deeper as you have more children? What do you learn with a third child that you did not know with two? Does wifehood grow deeper with a third child? I am always encouraged by the thought of your striving for holiness in the domestic church, and I often wonder ... how spiritual motherhood mirrors that of holy women in the world.

What has changed with each child? Is my motherhood “deeper?” I can hardly say.

If motherhood is a forgetting of self, then, yes. I forget about myself much more often now. Literally. I forget to brush my hair before going out of the house. I forget to change my shirt covered in spit-up and peanut butter before my Zoom interview. But then, my lack of togetherness is hardly a virtue, since I also forget to brush my children’s hair and change their shirts.

But it is true that the more children there are in my life, the more opportunities to love I encounter. And the more opportunities I have to love, the more I see my own unwillingness to love. With just one child, I was that great mom — answering every call and need with cheer. Then came a second baby, and I noticed how much more mothering there was to be done and how little I wanted to give more. But more I gave.

Now with six children running in age from 18 months to 15 years, the demands are constant. In answering those demands, sometimes it is all I can do to keep from screaming. (And sometimes. I just scream.)

But the joy has also deepened. There is more to wonder at. I laugh more. I watch them love each other in their different ways, and I think, “May it always be so!”

In these precious moments of consolation, juxtaposed right next to a temper-tantrum in my heart, I see how motherhood deepens with each child, each year.

There is a perfect Mother in Our Lady, and every child given from God challenges me to a more perfect imitation of her. I see more clearly now her strength, her faith, her radiance, her gentleness, and her suffering are what my own children need from me. They are what we all need from our mothers, both physical as I am and spiritual as Sister Anna is.

My children need both their spiritual mothers (consecrated women) and, in God’s mysterious will, me, their physical mother. Neither Sister nor I can be all things to them at all times. Together, our vocations provide a home where they can flourish in body and soul.

And in Mother Mary, they will find both vocations in that perfect beauty that both Sister and I are still striving to emulate.

So, I thank my dear sister in Christ, Sister Anna. Her questions, from a spiritual mother who is no longer “in the world,” give me another chance at humility and another moment of joy.