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.

How Time Abroad Teaches Resilience

A view of the banana trees and terraced fields of the Rwenzori mountains bordering the DRC

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know that right after we graduated college and got married, J and I spent six months in rural Uganda from 2008-2009. Until the last couple of weeks, our time in Uganda had faded into a footnote in our lives, a fun piece of trivia, the explanation for our batik cloth napkins. I’d only receive occasional striking reminders of our time there — filling out a TB exposure questionnaire when pregnant with Pip and noting that, hey, actually I lived on a hospital compound that treated TB, for instance. Mostly I’m just a Target-shopping mom now.

But so many of the lessons we learned in Uganda have been flooding back, recently. Living in dread of infectious diseases is something we did a lot while residing on an equatorial hospital compound: malaria and hemorrhagic fever, then rabies after a patient died from it later in our stay. In Uganda, we couldn’t see most of the people we loved. (And with shaky internet, they were much harder to contact than they are in this coronavirus crisis.) In our rural village, there wasn’t a third place for us to hang out beside work and home, just like now. (Except the office is also out now, too, actually.) Just like now, we couldn’t go shopping very often for most of the things we’d normally buy, and I remember spending hours carefully drafting in my journal a shopping list for when we’d finally visit the capital city and its mzungu shopping mall. And I learned to cook very flexibly with my severely limited kitchen tools and circumscribed ingredients.

A local woman working in the communal hospital kitchen to prepare a meal for herself and a hospitalized family member.

This long-ago experience has made the last few bewildering weeks a little less unsettling for us, because they’re somewhat familiar. But I believe international experience of any kind helps to build up this kind of resilience for a person. My children have only visited the UK on our study abroad adventure last summer, but along the way, they (and we) got more comfortable with scrambled schedules, flexible eating habits, and separation from friends and extended family. Travel has made all of us more flexible, adventurous people. One of the scariest thoughts I’m dealing with right now is that this kind of travel could be a long way off for our world right now.

Watching practice for the Queen’s birthday in London last summer, jet lagged as all get out.

What experiences do you believe have helped equip you for coronavirus? Homeschooling? Camping? Watching entirely too many end-of-the-world movies?

Family Work

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“Have you ever asked what work your family is supposed to do together?”

It’s a question I came across this winter in Jennifer Fulwiler’s One Beautiful Dream as I recovered from a particularly nasty stomach bug. And sometimes, as on that day, the answer can be summed up succinctly: SURVIVE.

It was a striking question, because while I vacillate a lot about what work I’m supposed to do — tiny library job? pouring more of myself into writing? fully embracing this time at home? — I think I do have a sense of what our family is supposed to do together.Read More »

The Special Kinship of Oxford

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This month I’ve been re-reading A Severe Mercy and while I have limited patience for the lovey-dovey beginning, I love the Oxford era Sheldon Vanauken describes mid-book.

It’s always an energizing, painful experience, talking to other folks who lucked into studying abroad in the city of dreaming spires. There’s so much I wish I had done, seen, explored, but it was only a single fall term, and I was only 21, on a budget, and had to, you know, actually study, too (which may have been one of the best parts). Vanauken writes evocatively,

“Coming back to Oxford, we were always, it seemed, greeted by the sound of bells: bells everywhere striking the hour or bells from some tower change-ringing, filling the air with a singing magic. We explored every cranny of this city of enchanting crannies and unexpected breathtaking views of towers and spires. We were conscious all the time of the strong intellectual life of a thousand years. Despite the modern laboratories, Oxford is still ‘breathing the last enchantments of the middle ages’: this wall was part of a great abbey; the Benedictines built the long, lovely buildings that are part of one college quad; the narrow passage where we bought tea things has been called Friars Entry for centuries; the Colleges bear names like Christ Church and Mary Magdalen and Corpus Christi; and the bells with their lovely clamor have rung through the centuries.”

Unlike trying to find someone from the tribe we lived among in Uganda (hasn’t happened, eight years and counting), it’s relatively easy to find friends who enjoyed a stint at Oxford. A friend here studied at Oxford a whole year, including the Michaelmas term when I was there, and he attended Mass at ancient churches while I vacillated lackadaisically between the union and the Oxford Oratory.  Pip’s godmother was an RA for a study abroad program there the summer before I arrived and lived near Black Friars, far from the “slightly dodgy” flat I’d call home, near Christchurch. I keep in touch to some degree with two of my three flatmates and another woman who studied in our program but lived in a different flat. My freshman college roommate studied two terms before me, and caught so much more: May Day, for instance. And so we reminisce, and I think for the umpteenth time of all the things I didn’t do, forgetting the things I did do: learn to enjoy Indian food, talk endlessly with my flatmates, take early morning walks just because, never ride a bus if I could help it.

Sometimes I regret that I only studied one term, instead of staying a full year, but I would have had to delay our wedding, which seemed like craziness after dating since 17, and I still stand, reluctantly, by that decision. What’s more, I was comforted by Vanuaken’s reflection, after spending three whole years in Oxford, that:

“[T]here we did feel that despite all that became part of us — bells and spires, C. S. Lewis and a host of friends, the face of the Warden of All Souls and the River Cherwell on a sunny day — there was something more, something still deeper, that we hadn’t time enough – world and time enough — to reach. We didn’t at all feel that we were unable to reach it, only that there wasn’t time enough.”

SV argues that this is evidence that we are out of place in time, made for eternity. Our longing that we continue to be surrounded by such beauty is natural, or rather supernatural: we are meant to be surrounded by the beauty of God, forever.

What’s more, Oxford isn’t a forever place for most of the students passing through, even if they’re lucky enough to take a degree there. It’s part of the wild, wandering freedom of college, if you’re fortunate and get to do things right, without the obligations of a family or earning an income as you go along (noble as those things are, of course). Vanauken notes,

“In a way all of us at Oxford knew, knew as an undercurrent in our minds, that it wouldn’t last for ever. Lew and Mary Ann expressed it one night by saying: ‘This, you know, is a time of taking in — taking in friendship, conversation, gaiety, wisdom, knowledge, beauty, holiness — and later, well, there’ll be a time of giving out.”

Though we might be wistful for that time of taking in as we find ourselves deep into an era of giving out, it’s a lovely thing to have the memories.

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“All this grey magic of Oxford”