St Margaret Clitherow and the Demands of Motherhood

We all have natural affinities for certain saints. As a mother of three young kids, I’m a big fan of that line St Mother Teresa of Calcutta may or may not have uttered — “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.” It’s a cozy idea, and encourages me to embrace my current season of life, to dig deep into the small daily sacrifices required by comfy suburban motherhood, saving the heroics for someone else.

But what about those other saints? The ones we tend to relegate to the cobwebs of our liturgical year? The ones who suggest that sometimes, loving our family is not the highest good?

St. Margaret Clitherow, who is celebrated March 26, is one such of these challenging saints. I came across her on a trip to York, where she lived and died in the sixteenth century, martyred at the age I am now, the mother of as many children.

Her story can be stated in brief. Margaret suffered the misfortune of living during the upheaval as Elizabethan England abandoned Catholicism. There’s a theory that her brother-in-law, a Catholic priest, may have led her into the Catholic faith, but like many present-day former Protestants, Margaret seemed to clutch her faith more dearly than many cradle Catholics. At a time when Catholics would often attend Anglican worship to meet their legal obligations, satisfying themselves with abstaining from communion or just grumbling, Margaret was uncompromising in her refusal to attend Anglican services. Her husband remained Anglican but allowed their children to be raised as Catholics, and so Margaret stubbornly went about her business as a committed recusant, harboring Catholic priests in her home and sending her son abroad for a Catholic education. And, as you’d expect, eventually she got caught.

St. Margaret Clitherow did not hide behind motherhood as an excuse to be careful, but rather raged against the forces of evil, modeling brave faith to her children. She was just a lady with some babies who didn’t think that fact exempted her from standing up to injustice. Members of Margaret’s community repeatedly urged her to change her mind by invoking her duty to her family — one contemporary report states that “others also came to her at divers times, and said she died desperately, and had no care on her husband and children, but would spoil them, and make all people to exclaim against her.”

I can imagine myself arguing the same thing. “Meg,” I’d say. (She’d definitely go by Meg, I’ve decided.) “Isn’t it more important to care for your children? Motherhood is your vocation! God wouldn’t want you to leave them motherless.”

No doubt she’d ignore me, too. And that would be why she’s a saint and I have a long way to go. In 1586 she was arrested and never saw her children again. It’s not that she didn’t think of her family — in fact, by not entering a plea she saved her husband and children from being forced to testify against her. And in prison, where she gave birth to her third child, William, she also learned to read and write so that she might pass on the faith to her children.

It’s true that her actions did ultimately leave Anne, Henry and William without an earthly mother when, that Good Friday, she was martyred horribly by being crushed to death under her own front door. Further increasing the brutality, some accounts report she was pregnant with her fourth child at the time. But in so dying, she gave her children a heavenly mother, and her living sons went on to become priests, her daughter a nun.

It’s easy to idolize family. Though we are called to die to self and love our family, the obligations of small children can sometimes transform into an excuse we hide behind. How many times have I passed up the opportunity for confession or daily Mass because it would inconvenience my children? Personal holiness can be forged through the family but not solely. With what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “Christ-ed beauty of her mind,” Margaret understood this, keeping aflame her unflinching love of the sacraments.

Making Friends with John Henry Newman

Maybe, like me and J, you took awhile to find your home in the Catholic church. After a not particularly well-catechized childhood in the Catholic church, I spent four years as a newlywed pilgrim in the Anglican denomination before finding my way back to Rome. Later on, my husband read and debated himself into Catholicism after stints in the Evangelical and Anglican churches. Maybe that’s why, after years of debate and vacillation, when my husband finally crossed the Tiber, he took Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman as his patron saint. Read More »

Commonplace Book, 44

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • I love a good frittata. And I’ve only ever had one bad one — for the record, even a frittata can’t resuscitate freezer-burnt turkey. We’ve talked about my template for big frittatas, so here’s what I use as a template for a small dinner frittata for me and J with a little left over.
  • I’m dabbling in sourdough with a starter gifted me by another co op mama. I think I’m in love. I have no idea what I’m doing.

What I’m reading:

Read More »

Sainthood Isn’t Always Nice

In the wake of the canonization of St. Teresa of Calcutta and All Saints Day, I’ve been thinking about holiness.

I feel like I remember hearing or reading that Mother Teresa wasn’t always the most pleasant to work with, that she could be demanding, even grumpy. (Now I can’t find confirmation of this and worry I’m making it up. I did, however, find out that she took naps. So I’m well on my way to sainthood.) She certainly stirred up a great deal of controversy.

Maybe it’s just thinking about old ladies in foreign mission fields, but it kind of makes me think of an American lady I knew in Uganda. She was ornery, I guess is the best word for it. Though she had chosen to live out the balance of her life serving in Africa, she often complained bitterly about all kinds of things, the difficulty of finding food for her mangy cat, whatever. At Thanksgiving, at our bungalow, when she tried to quit smoking, she threw a knife across our kitchen into the sink and we kicked her off dinner prep. Upon meeting a friend for the first time at the grocery store, she loudly began a discourse on how itchy her underwear was. She was certainly a character.

On the other hand, though, she loved the people she served deeply, and spent down her fixed income on them. She wrote eloquent emails back home about what she was learning, and poured out helpful advice for us when we were preparing to embark. The local people, sometimes exasperated, treated her with respect, tolerance and quiet amusement. She obviously didn’t have the impact of Mother Teresa, and there were times when it was hard to tell if she was doing more good than harm. But she cared, very much. (Is efficacy a requirement for sainthood?) A little while after we left Uganda, she died, and was buried in the red dirt of her adopted home.

I have no idea how to weigh these two sides, to calculate holiness, but something struck me in her singleness of vision, no matter how it chafed against the more sensible folks around her. What I’m certain of is this truth: as a church today, we put too much stock in niceness, especially for women. Aslan is not a tame lion, and Jesus’s eyes flash with righteous anger. Is it any wonder that those who serve him most fully might have reason to grow impatient?

All this not to excuse my own very inexcusable crabbiness. Rather, I want to remind my daughter — and son — that goodness counts for more than politeness, that kindness isn’t always according to etiquette. Holiness is uncomfortable, and we would be wrong to flatten St. Teresa into a smiling, charming old woman, beloved by the world, and to believe that’s all God wants for us. The truth is pricklier.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta, pray for us.