Behold thy mother. Jesus
A mother is a mother still,
The holiest thing alive. Coleridge
The woman soul leadeth us upward and on. Goethe
In the early and middle centuries of our era, organized Christianity made many mistakes. It formulated some doctrines that were very unreasonable. Nevertheless, an impartial survey of its history forbids unlimited condemnation of its actions. Back of its errors there was a sincere intention. If its mistakes some-times became crimes, it is because such results were unforeseen. Its doctrines were not intentionally irrational. Those who formed them thought they were stating an essential truth. In their beginning many of them reposed upon a reality ; and it was by over-development and losing sight of all proportion that they became more false than true.
One of these historic mistakes was that of calling Mary the “Mother of God.” Reason now rejects that doctrine. Yet, when its history is known, it is not difficult to see that, in its origin, it was not wholly unreasonable. It was in harmony with its surroundings. The religion that Christianity was displacing had pictured a goddess who was the mother of life, and to whom worship had been given in recognition of the mystery of birth. Hence, the beginning of the Christian doctrine of the “Divine Mother” was only a survival of the older doctrine concerning mother-hood in nature. As such, it was not far removed from reason, or, at least, from a natural and profound sentiment. The descendants of those who had paid divine honors to wisdom, in the form of the virgin goddess Athena, and to fruitfulness, in the form of Demeter and Ceres, were simply paying similar honors to the Bethlehem Mother.
The year 431 was the time, and Ephesus the place at which the doctrine of the Divine Mother was formulated. Both time and place were favorable to such work. Many myths of former times were still active in the fifth century. In the city, where the council met, had stood the famous temple of Diana, whose ruins still attract the curious traveler to the Orient. Diana was also a virgin goddess. A part of her honor was due to her care for the sick and unfortunate. She was supposed to guide maiden instincts ; to keep girls in paths of purity; and to sympathize with mothers in their most trying hour of existence. At such time and place it was not difficult to change Diana into Mary.
Another reason for exalting the Judean woman in the Christian system is the longing of the human heart for compassion. In the beginning of the new religion, Jesus met and satisfied this need. He was pictured as full of pity and love for all human beings. But, gradually, that phase of his character disappeared. A hundred years before the Council of Ephesus called Mary the Mother of God, the council of Nice had exalted Jesus to an equality with God. His human personality more and more retreated from the common earth where common mortals were toiling and sinning and suffering and dying, and finally almost disappeared in the vast realm of remote and awful God-head. At first a great hearted man, touched with feeling for human infirmities, he became an august monarch, devoid of compassion. The man of pity, was changed into a relentless judge. In giving heaven an additional God, the council of Nice robbed earth of its kindest Man. Sad exchange ! Wishing for sun-beams, humanity was sent a thunderbolt.
But, ,on these terms, life cannot be lived. Justice is no more indispensable than compassion. To be human is to be frail; and frailty must have pity. In the old order, Jehovah was the embodiment of justice. Jesus was the kind-hearted friend, the elder brother of the race. But, in time, he became as full of vengeance as was God. The son was as merciless as the father. Then, when mortals saw their friend becoming their relentless judge, they turned to his mother for compassion. She would plead on their behalf. Thus that which was taken away from man by one, a hundred years later, was restored by another council. One took Jesus away from the mercy seat on earth and placed him on a throne of judgment in the sky. The other did not disturb him in his exalted position in heaven, but it placed a chair for his mother, idealized into a form of beauty and kindness, by every earthly hearth-stone. Having lost its divine father and elder brother, the race found its divine mother.
Against the theological dogma of the mother of God many a protest might arise. It might be called unreasonable, wicked, idolatrous. To some it may seem this and even more. But, when it is seen what lies back of it, much is forgiven those who formed it.
No one can doubt that, as a sentiment, it possesses great beauty. The way in which it passed into art shows at once how profound was the feeling beneath it, and how widespread its influence must have been. With but little material furnished by early tradition, at the call of art, stimulated by a reverent imagination, the simple life of this Judean woman assumed many different forms ; but through all of them shines forth an ideal and universal resignation and pity and purity. Bayard Taylor tells of those British soldiers in the Crimean trenches who all sang “Annie Laurie,” but each one recalled the form of a girl whom he had known and loved beneath the hawthorns of England, amid the shamrocks of Ireland, or on Scotland’s heather clad hills.
“They lay along the battery’s side,
Below the smoking cannon:
Brave hearts from Severn and from Clyde,
And from the banks of Shannon.
They sang of love, and not of fame ;
Forgot was Britain’s glory;
Each heart recalled a different name,
But all sang Annie Laurie.”
So artists of many schools and many places all painted the Galilean Mary, but each thought of another woman, the mother that is everywhere and is self-sacrificing and compassionate.
Thus while we may reject the ecclesiastical dogma, we may cherish the sentiment which first inspired it and like a halo still encircles it. Fourteen centuries were required to complete the doctrine. Within memory of some of us the absolute sinlessness of Mary became an article of faith. It was established by papal decree on December 8th, 1854. But through all those centuries which debated her sinlessness, her sacred motherhood shone forth like a fixed star. It is not strange that artists were inspired by it. By its rays many a maiden’s feet were kept in the paths of purity. In its light many a youth learned more reverence for woman. In its mild radiance many a mother found her tears turned to jewels.
In the great Rose of Heaven, sitting at its center, Dante pictured the Beautiful One. Around her played a multitude of jubilant angels. Toward her were turned in love and gratitude all faces of seraphs and redeemed mortals.
The Poet merely pictured in heaven what was actually occurring on earth. All eyes were turned toward her. Under her protection, children played. In her name, lovers whispered their vows. In the hour of surpassing anguish, woman looked to her for help ; and, when the “baby’s low cry” was heard, to her a glad prayer was offered. Shepherds sang hymns in her praise among their flocks on the hillsides; and, when night descended on the belated and lonesome traveler, he repeated her name to keep him company and ward off his fears. Out on the ocean she was the seaman’s guide and protector. She was called “The Star of The Sea.” In translation this is a fragment of a song in her praise :
“Star of the Deep ! When angel lyres
To hymn thy holy name essay,
In vain a mortal harp aspires
To mingle in the mighty lay.
Star of the Deep ! One living ray
Of hope our grateful bosom fires,
When all the storms have passed away
To join the bright immortal choirs.”
Minerva or Diana or Aphrodite could not have in-spired such a song. It rises far above the common import of life. Its compassion is divine ; its hope immortal.
Thus instead of blaming the old church for every-thing, for many things we forgive, and for some things we praise it. We may condemn it for teaching its children that God was a revengeful tyrant and Jesus a relentless judge, but forgive it for permitting its children to believe that a saintly woman supplied the pity and gentleness denied them by the awful Godhead. Mary was no better and no more powerful than multitudes of other mothers in all lands and all ages. But we may praise the church that, in a time of cruelty and vengeance, in the person of this woman, tenderness and compassion and renunciation were held aloft that all might behold and admire them. The influence of this idealized form is incalculable. Names and persons are temporary,mere symbols that come and then go. But their meaning is permanent and advancing. Divine honors given to Mary may have been a mistake; yet we must not forget that the exaltation of one woman exalted womanhood. The divineness of one mother made all motherhood more divine. When the cloud lifted from the middle-ages a whole sky full of stars was seen as bright as that one which for a time hung alone. This may sound like pulpit rhetoric, but it is rhetoric that has risen out of plain history.
But science has as much to say on the subject as history. Interesting as fiction and almost as exact as mathematics, are the pages of evolution that deal with motherhood. Beginning low down in the scale of life, and tracing it through many changes and progressions, maternity is seen as a preserving and refining agency. This was the form which for myriads of years nature was trying to bring to perfection. Tennyson tells of those,
“Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravin shrieked against their creed.”
But this final law could never have come except through motherhood. Merely physiological functions were not the object. These were only the stairs by which life was to ascend. When the soul heights were attained, a new scene in the great drama was enacted. The struggle for individual existence was changed to love and care for others. Physical maternity gives the body, but spiritual motherhood gives the soul. The plaintive old song of former days asks :
“What is home without a mother?”
and then in other lines tells how lonesome and desolate it is. But, in these later days, science is telling us that, without a mother, there would not have been a home of any kind, either sad or glad. She made the home, and the home became an arena upon which affection wins its greatest victories. When the home was established, the finest results of evolution were produced and a diviner destiny for the race was made possible. A common saying is : “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” It is not an exaggeration. The hands of that woman who, long ago, first began to minister to the helplessness of the child beside her, laid the foundations of the permanent home, and the home is the chief cornerstone of civilization. This is not poetry ; it is science.
For a long time there was an unbridged chasm in the plan of development between the material and the moral. On one side was man the physical ; on the other was man the spiritual. The link connecting them could not be found.
Now it is thought to be seen in the prolonged period of human infancy. Helpless itself, a child must be cared for by others. On one side nature is individual and selfish and aggressive. This is masculine. On the other it is social, passive, self-sacrificing. This is feminine. In triumph of the first, nothing is spared. The myth represents Chronos as destroying his own offspring. Perhaps it meant only the disappearance of each new-born day in universal Time. But nature sometimes seems no less cruel. Yet, in the course of things, a different principle was unfolded. It is the outgoing of sympathy and self-denial. When the first mother became conscious of a tenderness within her heart, was pained by the cry or moan of the helpless creature by her side, and was content to forego some selfish inclination and endure discomfort for sake of another, then were laid the piers of that bridge by which the race passed away from the animal and is still passing toward the angel. Is woman only the mother of children?? Unless science is mistaken she is mother of everything that sweetens and ennobles existence. Blessed Mother, indeed, who has brought into being and nourished love, home, and self-sacrifice. The Bible story says that woman was the destroyer of Paradise; but science says she is builder of whatever Paradise there is or ever was upon earth.
The question assumes a practical import. The same forces that have made, must also preserve society. The providence that protects is one with the creator that produces.
In the new agitation concerning the rights and du-ties of womankind, some have expressed the fear that certain distinctive and precious qualities of woman will be lost. In the enlargement of the circle of privileges and occupations she may lose sight of some of her former offices and their attendant graces and refinements. Her home will become a thing of minor importance. Deliberately, or from necessity, renouncing motherhood, there may go with it into a common ruin many of the finer instincts which form the glory of womanhood.
It is true that occupation and association help form character. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to become greatly alarmed over any change that may be taking place. If political and industrial opportunity for women is right, it is difficult to see how permanent harm can follow. Our world is not so constituted that right culminates in a final wrong. Sharing equally in the domestic purse will not unsex a woman. Because she would like to express her opinion in public matters, especially as to the taxation of her own property, it does not follow that on election day she will want to do everything a man does. There is no danger of her progressing so fast or so far in her “newness” that she will become a man. Some of those small ecclesiastics who denounce the present movement and aspirations of women may withhold their angry words and dismiss their fears. Unaided by their words, their example will prevent any large feminine movement in their direction. Women are not likely to forget them-selves so far as to wish to be like them.
Solicitude, therefore, may be modified by unalterable facts. The Latin Horace wrote a couplet of poetry to the effect that if nature be driven out with a pitch-fork she will run back. Thus we need have no fear that the essential womanly instincts, strengthened and refined by a hundred generations of experience, will be absent when they are most needed. They are at once guide to find, and inspiration to impel in the right way. Motherhood and all its implications of sympa-thy, providence, sacrifice and love will not be left be-hind in the new advance of womankind. Having done so much in preparing the fair garden of altruism, in which so many of life’s richest flowers flourish, let us not misjudge modern woman’s new activity. She is not trying to destroy it, but to enlarge its borders. The same influence which once made the home, then society, then religion is still active and increasing in power. Advance is being made upon wilderness places, where war and hatred and competition still rage like wild beasts. There, too, sometime, flowers of the heart will be seen sparkling in the morning dew, swaying in the noon-day wind, and filling the evening air with fragrance.
To accomplish this result, the best that is in the woman-soul must manifest itself. Cleopatra cannot be a type of those who are to redeem the world. With beauty to intoxicate sense, preferring dalliance to duty, and dying with an asp at her bosom, she only serves to recall a shameful page in the history of woman-hood. Neither can that Lucrezia, of Florence, become an emblem of those who, hope to exalt society. Her patronage of art and learning cannot redeem her name from wickedness. Those women by the Ganges, who are slaves of foolish and cruel traditions, cannot be-come worthy of imitation. Neither are those modern women, whose highest ambition is to shine as social stars or blaze for a few seasons as social comets and then pass away and be forgotten, of much importance. To use the language of mathematics, in computing moral values they are “a negligible quantity.” Much less can the world expect any help from those who permit themselves to become unlawfully entangled with men as base as they, and in some hour of jealous rage resort to suicide or murder ; and, if the latter alternative be adopted, plead for justification at the bar of an imaginary “higher law.”
Only those are fitted to lead who have found the essential meaning of existence, and whose minds are an abode of wisdom as their hearts are of affection. The torch of Hero made Leander dare the Hellespont. Perhaps it always will have such power. But woman should wave many a torch besides that of love. She may attract the world toward a purer literature, a more refined art, simpler social customs, and a holier religion. She should allure and guide society to those heights where marriage is a sacrament; home a temple; the material is dominated by the spiritual; and where childhood is the meeting place of all that is best in parenthood.
The education now coming so freely and impartially to woman will not destroy her primal instincts. In becoming a scholar, the mother will not disappear. Education only adds to her power, and points out a nobler path along which she may lead her children. Coming in advance of all other teachers, if her mind is trained to discriminate and her heart animated by noble motives, as a mental and moral guide to sons and daughters she cannot be surpassed. Fortunate youth who, in his early years, has constantly near him one whose taste is refined, whose ambitions are noble, and whose religion is composed of goodness toward the world and trust in God. There are those for whom, in youth, the actual presence and, in after years, remembrance of such a woman makes all women sacred. If a son’s veneration should become a kind of idolatry, heaven would be swift to pardon him.
But here is not the danger. Oh no! it lies quite elsewhere. Not .that, while she is with him, a youth will love his mother too much, but not enough, is most to be feared. Often only after we have lost Paradise do we fully realize how sweet it was. Only when miles and miles and miles of thorny wilderness lie between us and the blessed gates through which, long ago, we passed from that garden where, in the form of a mother, we seemed to walk with God, do we appreciate its true worth.
If one might draw near enough to youth to whisper confidential words, they would be concerning this very thing which cannot be expressed in public speech. You cannot overestimate all that is meant by the home and the one who makes it. With much foreboding and anguish, you were brought into the world. The Christ child was no more wonderful to Mary than were you to your mother. Wise men from the East brought no richer gifts than she would have lavished upon you. Then there were years of tender solicitude ; she was sad with your sadness, glad with your gladness; bearing your weaknesses, and praying that she might en-dure your pain; counting every sacrifice a joy; if possible, and need were, willing to give her life for you ;it all lies beyond description ! Of course you are not intentionally unkind to her. You would spurn the imputation of wilful cruelty. You wish her to be happy. But are you doing all in your power to make her so? Are you trying to answer her prayers on your behalf?
Is your confidence shared with her? Are you still keeping your heart pure for her sake? Are you, day by day, making her more thankful that you are her child? If so, happy mother is she. If not; but we will not pursue that ! Only remember, that unlike Orestes, you cannot plead that you are a victim of Fate; and there are many ways of killing a mother besides the one that Nero chose. If, in after years, you would rather be cheered by angels than lashed by furies, then be wise in these passing years.
Sacred Motherhood ! How it has brooded over the world ! Source ,of self-denying lové creator of home ; refiner of civilization. By sorrowful centuries crowned queen of heaven, out of all the flowers that have sprung up along her pathway, we, children of a glad-der age, will weave a chaplet for woman’s brow and hail her queen of earth. Whither she leads, we may follow, well assured that in so doing we shall go up-ward as well as onward. Like him who, by the spiritual womanly was led from world to world, thus guided we, too, may pass from one noble realm to an-other more noble, and, at last, shall reach the untreated Love that knows nor sex nor bound of any kind
“The Love that moves the sun and stars.”