What the lives of monks and mothers have in common

With reference to Mrs. Muscat’s speech on woman’s day, parts of which were shown on a YouTube video clip, I would like to discuss the issue of ‘guilt’, that a stay-at-home-mum may feel, from a different perspective.

It is interesting to note that the experience of a newly conceived life may bring with it a renewed spiritual experience to an expecting couple which may culminate in the miracle of birth, yet what usually happens is that having a young baby/child at home poses many spiritual challenges that might make the new parents, particularly the woman, feel ‘guilty’ about not finding the time to pray, to attend mass regularly or attend groups that she previously found helpful in her faith journey’; a guilt felt on the spiritual level and which can also create anxiety in a woman’s life. In this respect, Ron Rolheiser, a leading spiritual author of our times, puts many a woman’s heart at rest by means of a beautiful comparison that he makes between a mother’s life and that of a monk.

This comparison may appear startling at first as the life of monks living in quiet monasteries, away from the hustle and bustle of city life might appear very much in contrast to that of an urban woman busy with a career and a household to take care of. However, he feels that there is a moment when these seemingly parallel lives may intimately intertwine, and that is when the woman becomes a mother. Whether a woman decides to go back to work immediately after her maternity leave or whether she decides to stay at home for a longer period of time, those first very particular weeks that comprise maternity leave are common to all women who become mothers.

In an article called ‘The Domestic Monastery’* Ron Rolheiser describes the monastery not so much a place set apart for monks and nuns as it is a time set apart; a place in which one learns the value of powerlessness; a place to learn that time is not ours, but God’s; a place where one withdraws oneself from the world and brings oneself into harmony with the mild. He outlines his belief that it’s not only the monastic life that offers an opportunity for contemplation and reflection and believes that the life of a mother who stays home with a baby/small child/children has a similar opportunity to live a monastic experience. Babies and children are indeed the mildest of the mild and spending so much time with them gives a mother the privileged opportunity to be attuned to the powerlessness of the mild than to the powerful.

St. Bernard, in writing his rules for monasticism was very strict about the ‘monastic bell’ and told his monks that whenever the monastic bell rang they were to drop whathever they were doing and go immediately to the particular activity the bell was calling them for. And, is this not the experience of a mother raising young children? How many dirty dishes left in the sink, half-eaten meals, hurried showers, burnt sauces fill a mother’s life while tending to the needs of her children who call upon her so many times during the day. For years, a mother’s time is not her own, her needs have to be kept in second place and her plans are continually changed and postponed. The bell is intended to remind the monks that time was not their possession, but God’s and intended it as a discipline to help the monk’s heart be stretched by always taking one beyond one’s agenda and needs toward God’s agenda and motherhood does indeed provide an opportunity for a similar stretching of the heart.
This stretching of the heart is, at times, painful but it also has its spiritual payoffs as the realities mentioned above bring us in touch with our humanity and this humanity brings with it the awareness of our weaknesses and shortcomings that makes our stretched heart a fertile land in which the grace of God can work its wonders making us more ‘whole’.

Rolheiser comes to the conclusion that there are different kinds of monasteries, ‘different ways of putting ourselves into harmony with the mild, and different kinds of monastic bells. Response to duty can monastic prayer, a needy hand can be a monastic bell, and working without status and power can constitute a withdrawal into a monastery where God can meet us. The domestic can be the monastic.’


Mariella studied at the University of Malta, where she obtained a Master of Arts in Theology in 2007. She teaches Religion in a Church School. Mariella is a board member of the Pastoral Formation Institute, in which she also teaches, and is also the secretary of the diocese's ecumenical commission. She is also currently very much involved in pastoral work at the Sgħajtar pastoral centre in Naxxar especially in the areas of liturgy and catechism for the family.

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