“When a woman is carrying a child she develops a certain instinct of self-defence. It is not selfishness; it is not egoism. It is an absorption into the life within, a folding of self like a little tent around the child’s frailty, a God-like instinct to cherish, and some day to bring forth, the life. A closing upon it like the petals of a flower closing upon the dew that shines in its heart.
“This is precisely the attitude we must have to Christ, the Life within us, in the Advent of our contemplation.
“We could scrub the floor for a tired friend, or dress a wound for a patient in the hospital, or lay the table and wash up for the family; but we shall not do it in a martyr spirit or with that worse spirit of self-congratulation, of feeling that we are making ourselves more perfect, more unselfish, more positively kind.
“We shall do it just for one thing, that our hands make Christ’s hands in our life, that our service may let Christ serve through us, that our patience may bring Christ’s patience back to the world.” – The Reed of God (by Caryll Houselander)
In this chapter on Advent, Caryll Houselander begins to unfold her reflections, through Mary, on the primacy of Christ in our lives and the gentleness of the workings of the Holy Spirit within us, noting as Teresa of Avila more famously preached that Christ has no body on earth now but ours. She observes that often our circumstances do not seem extraordinarily holy, but that like pregnant Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, it is enough that we are present, bringing with us the silent presence of Christ within our souls.
Caryll’s writing (you must forgive me for taking liberties in referring to her by her first name, but she is too intimate an author to be referred to coldly by her surname) reveals a remarkable sensitivity to the experiences of a mother. She herself never had children, yet she understands the experience of a mother stunningly well. She clearly had a remarkable gift for empathy.
The extraordinary act of Our Lady visiting her cousin immediately following the Annunciation has won my admiration all the more after three of my own pregnancies. It’s possible Mary was spared many of the pains of pregnancy, but the growth of another human being is an enormous undertaking. I have yet to meet a mother who is not completely wiped out in her first trimester, yet it is in these first three months that Mary runs to assist her cousin, a time when most of us would prefer to be waited upon ourselves! In my first two pregnancies, the exhaustion was such that I remember excusing myself from charitable deeds. It was only through the example of others going out of their way to help me during a very difficult time that I learned to shift my perspective from self-absorbed to self-giving. And not only self-giving, but Christ-bearing. Yes, we necessarily are preoccupied with an awareness of a secret life within, but while we nurture that life, it directs our life: we do everything for our child, and we must to everything for our Christ.
I was impressed with Caryll’s identification of that “worse spirit of self-congratulation.” We have often been reminded not to act as martyrs (“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” Matthew 6:16), but the spirit of self-congratulation is subtler and certainly more insidious because it is more prideful. I am no stranger to this temptation! It is easy enough to reprimand oneself for desiring the acclamation of others, but to route out from one’s heart the desire of one’s own self-affirmation? When you are battling this, you have levelled up in your fight to live for Christ alone! For it is complete poverty when you renounce even your own evaluation of your deeds — the complete poverty of total freedom, I would add.