I am a mother and a theologian. These two facts belong together, inextricable as they are for me and my experience of them. I was pregnant with my first child as I began my doctoral work; I carried her to French and German exams and interminable seminars. I brought her as an infant to a reading course on Ricouer, her own little board book in hand. I nursed her during a first-year colloquy that was a waste of all of our time, my male colleagues kindly enduring this. I was hugely pregnant with my second son when I defended my prospectus, and he lay and then crawled beneath my desk as I wrote my dissertation. These little ones and their demands have always populated my work and how I think.
As a theologian, it is common to be asked what is “the nature of your work?” It is a pleasantry, a formula, and still I cannot answer it. Technically speaking, I work on the period after Chalcedon, when thought and language about Christ bounced about and took a particular shape, the shape of the cruciform one. I think about what this means for bodily particularity, what it means for difference and imitation, for women whose bodies stretch and take shape as they bear other’s bodies.
I can do technical work, but these children are always populating the margins. Their near-constant interruptions are now my marginalia, bursting at the seams. Even as I write, even within the words, they demand my attention—take account of us! Remember our need.
The heart of Chalcedonian Christology is not about formulas or language. Rather, it is the question of transcendence, of how God could become human. To say God is “transcendent” is to say that God is other than the world. The trick, of course, is to say “other” without saying “far from,” for those are two quite different things.
I am not you, and so I cannot know you apart from your invitation, nor can I know you as well as you know yourself. I cannot reside in your actual space with your precise experience of it, and if we lift a couch together, your work will offset mine. Two people cannot be entirely present one to another, working equally toward a common end. One’s work always offsets the others. The closest approximation of union is often thought to be sexual intimacy, whereby there is a union of body and desire, a union that might seem to be one of soul. And yet I think maternity is a better picture. Mother and child for a period of time take up the same space, the mother’s body stretching and enlarging to contain the child. The margins of which is mother and which is child are blurred, as blood and matter is passed back from one to another. My well-being is inextricably tied to the child I bear, and it will be forever more. A mother is always in labor.
There is a virus lingering in the air, causing grave suffering and death. We are all at risk, though some of us more than others. It has put mothers in an impossible position. How can we mother during a time of contagion? Our one job, it often seems, is to keep our little ones safe. Ducks in a row, fed and fluffed and ordered. Our Instagram culture makes a mockery of this, dressing children (so many children!) in matching clothes. (Matching pajamas, clothes you sleep in! It is unbelievable when you stop to think about it.) Perfect pictures capture them at play, at rest, always at peace. To be a good mother is to create these conditions not only of success but of beauty, of harmony. It is the classic Aristotelian forms (beauty, goodness, truth) but morphed into something almost unrecognizable. Beauty when commodified becomes little more than commerce. To be a “good mother” looks like what it looks like, what it appears to be. Swipe up, and you can buy this matching, this happiness, this childhood.
This virus has made it impossible to be a good mother. We are presented with daily choices but they are not choices, not really. The most urgent one is what to do about school. Do we send them to school, a place that for some of us is one of flourishing and friendships and certainly also germs? Or do we keep them home and seek to provide ourselves all of the things they otherwise would have- play, learning, nurture, happiness with friends—things that for whatever reason we feel we cannot provide ourselves? We seek to provide everything, and then also the picture of it. We will teach them and take a picture of their learning, we will nourish them and do it beautifully, they will be happy and fed and we will be satisfied. We will give from our own bodies, just as we did when they were within us. We will take a picture, and if it looks beautiful it will certainly be good and true.
But unlike in pregnancy our bodies no longer contain their need. The milk dries up, the body is tired, so tired. I cannot of myself provide for their hunger, their need. What these innumerable little ones now need they need others to help provide, and I cannot provide it all. The grief is too deep to speak of. I cry when I wake, when I read with them, when I write. I have been home with them all their lives, even as I wrote and taught a bit here and there. I did not want to stay home, not exactly, but their happiness became so connected with my physical presence that it came to feel impossible to do otherwise. I was the anchor of their happiness, my body the source of their peace. I feed them still from my flesh, a metaphor that somehow explains my fatigue, my grief, my sorrow. I feed them, and yet they hunger.
I speak with one friend, and then another. One is pulling her children from school, the risks too high. The other is pulling because her children will not wear masks, an overreaction to the virus in her mind, but at a deeper level certainly an uncomfortable reminder of the risks. Fear of the same thing raises its head. Our children must remain safe, free of the risks of contagion, the world must not touch them.
We are not what we thought we were. Pictures in small grids have offered to us a balm of security, of assurance, a picture of the lives we so wanted for ourselves. We placed our children in these grids, but they have outgrown them. The world that we made was an allusion. Mortality is a cruel mistress. The finite cannot be contained.
We have made an idol and we must now lay it down. The idol is our children, our dear ones. We have put on a pedestal their youth, their beauty, their innocence. We have confused our children for the Chosen Ones, misread their youth for moral innocence, their pliability for Good.
Augustine understood this. It is a modern past-time to pile-on Augustine, to blame him for our hang-ups around bodies and sexuality and much else. This is lazy reading. Augustine was many things (sometimes wrong among them), but what he understood was the way the body reveals to us God’s care. Augustine gets an especially bad reputation for his treatment of children, but I find him especially tender on this score.
Augustine reflects on his own infancy in the Confessions:
I do not know where I came from. But this I know, that I was welcomed by the tender care your mercy provided for me…The comforts of human milk were waiting for me, but my mother and my nurses did not fill their own breasts; rather you gave me an infant’s nourishment through them in accordance with your plan, from the riches deeply hidden in creation. You restrained me from craving more than you provided, and inspired in those who nurtured me the will to give me what you were giving them, for their love for me was patterned on your law, and so they wanted to pass on to me the overflowing gift they received from you. It was a bounty for them, and a bounty for me from them; or, rather, not from them but only through them, for in truth all good things are from you, O God. Everything I need for health and salvation flows from my God.
Augustine patterns the care he received from God on the care that his mother provided, and indeed on the care she herself received. This care he receives in the body is how he understands God’s grace. He was not neglected and left to starve; rather, he was met by those who tenderly saw to it that he was fed. Indeed, the bodies of those woman who nursed him were supplied with milk that met his need. In the overflowing milk of his mother the natural and supernatural meet, as it is God who graciously has filled his mother’s breast. Her breasts were filled with milk, thanks to God’s kindness, and so he drank.
Here the transcendent and the immanent meet. In Augustine’s mother’s milk he sees the God who is not other than the world, but entirely present in it. God is not his mother’s milk, but this matter mediates to him God’s care. Grace does not float free from matter.
Augustine’s discussion of infants, however, is not only relegated to his discussion of tender care. He speaks later of evidence of sin already in the minds of infants, who exhibit jealousy and “livid fury at his fellow nursling” and refuse “to tolerate a rival for a richly abundant fountain of milk.” To a modern reader, for whom the child is the purest form of moral innocence and potential, this discussion of a hungry babe is horrifying. Augustine here is often understood as moralizing an infant’s hunger and falsely equivocating basic human need with moral failure. What more could be expected of an infant, than a hungry cry? How could we ever call this sin?
But Augustine’s treatment of infants here is about something else, and very much at odds with modern worries about attributing sin to infants. Augustine’s concern is that God is seen as one whose grace extends to all creatures regardless of their ability to choose God. That God’s grace extends to infants is due not to their innate goodness but due to God’s character as the one who is “for” all that God has made. He speaks of the infant as orphaned without the sacrament of baptism, and sees the church as caring for them by seeing to it that the sacrament is administered rightly:
But if we are taught to render help to orphans, how much more ought we to labor on behalf of those children who, though under the protection of parents, will still be left more destitute and wretched than orphans, should that grace of Christ be denied them, which they are all unable to demand for themselves?
Infants are dear ones seen by God, provided for through a mother’s breast and nurtured even in the hunger and satiety of their bellies. God sees them. Instead of being loutish or ignorant in his discussion of babies, Augustine instead includes them as recipients of divine care.
Infants, too, are a “limit case” of those whose Christ is concerned to save, those without the ability to do anything of their own or even turn themselves toward God. The hunger arises, the breast is filled, the child is sated, God’s grace is presented to nature: “even for the life of infants was his flesh given”.
Catechesis comes from the Greek, “to echo”. To train our children in the faith is merely to teach them to do what we are doing. There is no “mere” to this, however. There is no mere echo when we are weeping, despairing, denying our mortality by putting a filter on it. There are no thin places. The world is just worn threadbare from daily use, its seams popping and the fabric worn soft between my fingers. The vale of creation, this beautiful orb, shows its underside, its tragedy and horror. I am Rachel weeping for her children, weeping for the future she can no longer provide.
We cannot parent our way through this virus in the ways we have done before. Our milk will dry up, our creativity shows itself lacking. We must rely instead on what Augustine saw in that hungry jealous infant: one whom God has called and touched already in their baptism, an exhibit of God’s tender care. Augustine calls the crying infant “sinful” not because they are rotten but because they are those whom God calls God’s own, those whose very desires God attends to. Sin is but the underside of grace, it’s echo, it’s calling card. Sin is the response to God’s having already acted in grace. To be a sinner is to be one who knows themselves as already met by God. For Augustine, God has met the infant and already called her his own.
I trace the sign of the cross on my children’s forehead each night, before they fall to sleep. I say their name, then, “Child of the Covenant, You belong to Jesus.” It pains me, because I want them for myself. But I cast them nightly on God’s tender care—“even for infants was his flesh given.” I pray they will echo what they hear.
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Thank you so much for blessing me with your words. I was deeply moved by your discussion of sin as the underside of Grace. It reminds me of a passage:
Thank you and I look forward to buying your book when it is published. Where would I be able to do so?