WDL 7.1: Carrie Frederick Frost, 'A Theological Vision of Motherhood'

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Saturday gave conference participants the opportunity to attend smaller workshops on a variety of topics, practical and theological.  I have attached the schedule, and I strongly recommend that if any of the topics are of interest to your communities, invite these women to come and speak!  

I was fortunate enough to decide to attend Carrie Frederick Frost’s session on an “Orthodox Theological Vision of Motherhood.”  I say “fortunate” for two reasons:  First, I had already heard of some Orthodox woman somewhere writing an ethics dissertation on motherhood, and my honest thought was, “sigh, yet another set of romantic notions of universal female motherhood to unpack” (see my comments on Julianna Schmemann’s opening plenary to the conference).  Frost, in one of our numerous conversations, quickly dispelled my anxiety.  I asked her opinion on Schmemann’s (both the husband and wife in this case) invocation, and she responded:

Assigning the maternal spirit to women as their sole or primary characteristic leads to either reductionism or mystification (or both) and is ultimately narrow, boring, and wrong.

Ah, I love pithy academics!

Second, the content of her work is simply fascinating.  As a mother of two who discovered she was carrying three more children, she sensibly shifted her theological studies to motherhood.  Sifting through material proved to be difficult.  Our tradition generally lacks any sustained focus on a theology of motherhood, a disappointing discovery.  The gospels present a tension created by Christ’s new definition of family.  His bold and cryptic statements are not only difficult to interpret, but hardly reflect a high view of the family unit.  Our tradition is also filled with poor views of procreation, and the consistent affirmation of men leaving wife and children behind in the name of ascetic pursuits or ministerial calls.  

Yet Christ shows compassion on parents with suffering children.  He uses maternal metaphors, universally understood, to describe his task in the world, his grief for his children, the labor of his work.  Christ entered the world through a woman whose “visceral motherhood” is visible in the earliest of icons: the Theotokos is depicted breastfeeding Christ on the walls of the catacombs of Priscilla.

Still in the midst of her project, Frost argues that there are three qualities integral to a theological vision of motherhood: freedom, consecration and contemplation.  Once no longer a real option, motherhood is now, at least in the developed world, a choice.  “Woman” and “mother” are no longer necessarily synonymous.  This newfound freedom to choose needs to be considered in theological terms.  To do this, she draws on morsels found in John Chrysostom’s homilies on Hannah in which he draws a distinction between bearing and raising.  Biological production can occur without a corresponding commitment to motherhood.  Motherhood is not biologically determined, but a choice (note the unequivocal affirmation of adoption inherent in this).  She sees this freedom in the dynamic quality of the icons of the Annunciation, indicating a voluntary assent to participate in God’s work.

Hannah also exemplifies consecration. Chrysostom often emphasizes the pedagogical aspect of raising children. But in Hannah, he is moved to acknowledge that it is a mother’s task to consecrate her child, raising it in holiness.  The churching rites (in an edited form I assume, a topic put aside by Frost due to time) celebrate the return of the mother to the community, look forward to the baptism of a new member, and allow the relationship of mutual blessing between mother and child to be brought into the light and sanctified by the community.  Churching also creates a powerful typological connection between mothers and all the Foremothers of the tradition.  

Finally, Frost notes the contemplative quality emphasized in the Icon of the Presentation of Christ.  Even as Christ is in the hands of the high priest, he turns back to look at his mother, raising his hand in blessing.  The contemplation and blessing exchanged between mother and child allows for the recognition of the ‘undeserved beneficence’ which is a child.  No matter our history, no matter what the circumstances of the birth of a child, contemplation allows us to see children as a gift based not on worthiness, but love.

I am, of course, left with a few questions, some of which Carrie has already heard (or seen).  My primary question was answered even before her workshop (see quote above), but I want to echo again how helpful it is to have a theology of motherhood that does not presume motherhood as the universal female vocation.  That said, I wonder the following:

How do we distinguish between Mary as both a model of and for all human beings, and for mothers in particular?  Does she, indicated by Symeon the New Theologian’s use of her to exhort his (male) monks to be mothers who birth Christ in their wombs, serve as a model for a more full humanity which ‘bears’ and ‘raises’ faith?  In this, are all human beings called to be metaphorical mothers?  If so, what is unique about literal motherhood?

What of a theology of fatherhood?  Would it be different than motherhood?  Does fatherhood not also involve a choice to raise (perhaps all the more so since ‘bearing’ is not an option)?  Do father’s not contribute to holiness?  Do fathers not experience the undeserved beneficence of God in the gift of a child?  How might these theologies differ without relying on hackneyed stereotypes of assertive and authoritative men and receptive and nurturing women?

3 Comments

Your two last paragraphs are

Your two last paragraphs are so enjoyable, I'm thinking our household should have an essay-writing contest for change of pace. I've got two scholars here that exchange too many verbal lessons... I'd love to see them write a decent answer to either. Thank you for all your posts!

Thank you, Maria.

Thanks so much, Maria, for this faithful and favorable record of my talk.

First I want to make a general observation about the conference. This was my first time participating in an Orthodox setting about women and with women. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever met in the flesh any other female also studying Orthodox theology! I was struck by how many times I heard someone say, “This is a really understudied topic” about their scholarly work, or, “I am one of the few women in the country doing this,” about their ministry or job. There was a real sense of being around pioneers in Orthodoxy, and, wow, that was inspiring and humbling. I was also struck by the lack of artifice in every single person to whom I spoke; even though the opinions on “women’s ministries” were extremely varied, everyone there was very genuine in their presentation of themselves. This made for a very rich atmosphere. It also struck me as courageous: women at this conference were without guile expressing themselves on controversial topics even while knowing not everyone in the room agreed with them. I laud everyone’s honesty and strength.

As for your comments and questions, thank you for them. Any theology of motherhood is going to have some overlap with a theology of fatherhood into a broader theology of parenthood. I absolutely think it is both the task of mothers and fathers to theologically “raise” and not just “bear” children. This language of freedom to raise children does, in my mind, bear interesting fruit when it is applied to mothers particularly, considering the contrast in language of the secular culture about freedom and choice when it comes to bearing children.

Yet I do think there are particular qualities unique to motherhood. As evidenced in my pithiness above, I don’t subscribe to a view of women as exclusively characterized by maternal gifts. Yet I do think women are different from men, and mothers are different from fathers. I see no rush to articulate the male and female differences; again, in reference to my above quote, I think most efforts to do so fall short. There is no disgrace in allowing for ontological differences between male and female which cannot be reduced to biological or cultural differences without naming them. Not everything that is real needs to be named or systematized.

As for mothers and fathers, I am more willing to go a bit farther. I think there is an enduring reality of relationship between mother and child which is different from that of father and child, and which involves the particular role of the mother in the consecration of her child. We see an image of this enduring reality in the way in which Christ entered creation: through a mother. He consecrated motherhood quite particularly. Their mother and child relationship indicates that there are qualities of motherhood which are singular. I am going to leave these ideas here, suggestive and unpolished as they are, and invite Maria or anyone else interested to correspond with me further.

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