WDL 3: Juliana Schmemann, Adventurous Women, and Motherhood

WDL 3: Juliana Schmemann, Adventurous Women, and Motherhood

Published: Jun 17, 2011 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

The conference, after generous introductions, was opened by a video of Juliana Schmemman.  Commenting on, and critiquing, Matushka Schmemman feels a bit like publicly questioning everyone’s favorite grandmother.  I appreciate her passionate endorsement of action, of participation, and am chastened by her reminder that joy must be a part of all we do and that we must be grateful for even the smallest moments given by a generous God.  Likewise, the heart of her sermon (that is what it was, a sermon not a talk or presentation) is about the importance of using our freedom well, to love God and neighbor.  Freedom is not simply the motto of the present age, but fundamental to our life in Christ, and it is through freely choosing to follow Christ that we experience, and share joy.

Women are to be sources of life, of love, of joy.  It is women who are called to make every daily moment a celebration.  “Even a single breakfast,” she says, “can be transformed from a chaotic event into a happy one … by noticing the morning light or the snow.  The anticipation of the coming day can be transformed into a source of potential adventure.”  What a delight to hear these words, that live is meant to be an adventure!  She continues: “If we could only become used to seeing each moment of our life as gifts, then we would be offering it to the Lord in thanks.  Instead of just coping with life and getting along, women are responsible for the joy of life because women are the source of life.  Every moment celebrated and enjoyed.”  We are, she declares, “to live life fully with energy, action and movement.”  Here is a vision of being a woman far removed from the quiet receptivity so unfortunately popular.

This joy and celebration, this giving of life, is the central vocation of motherhood, to which all women are called regardless of whether they have borne a child.  Women are life-givers, it is our nature she claims.  From a mother, “be she real, adopted, or simply True Woman, one can rely on receiving love from her.”  Motherhood is a “talent” in the gospel sense, to be multiplied, shared, nurtured.  “Motherhood,” she says, “is our strongest tool.”

It is here, in these beautiful words, that my discomfort arises.  If motherhood is the source of faith, hope and joy, the fruits of the Spirit, what is left for fatherhood?  Alexander Schmemann argues that Joy is the source and result of faith, yet this joy is apparently given by women (perhaps more of his theology is indebted to his wife than he acknowledges)  In this theology though, what is left for men?  I do not ask these things simply to defend poor, maligned men, (though this is a serious problem in the theologies of Evdokimov and Hopko: women must save men from their regrettable ‘functionalism” by injecting joy and life into the world).  I wonder however, is if this isn’t simply a way of claiming, under the rubric of a gift (function?) unique to women, all the virtues?  Yet if men and women have distinct gifts and virtues, what is left for men?  I find it ironic that the early centuries of the church struggled with associating virtue at all to women.  Two thousand years later, we claim them all (or they are graciously given to us by men) under the rubric of Motherhood, which is now everything.  I am not sure that either of these positions is an accurate picture of men and women even if a small part of me, the admittedly spiteful part, delights that somehow, we (women) get it all back.

And yet it does bear to ask, is there something to the idea of women as life-givers that might shape a woman’s ministry than that of men?  Does this exclude women from certain ministries, or perhaps, does it simply shape that ministry in manner different from a man engaged in the same type of service?  And is really connected to nature, biology, and gender?