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.