What to do with a childless mother?

“We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture?”
— Meister Eckhart

On Christmas Eve, Leo and I left the house around 7pm. It was an unseasonably warm evening, muggy and grey. As we walked past the gigantic storage facilities and warehouse grocery stores in our Brooklyn neighborhood, this urban setting seemed particularly harsh for a night that’s “supposed” to be festive and magical. It felt as though we were on the set of some bizarre dystopian holiday film and, indeed, the rest of the evening played out like a movie in my mind.

The day had already been an especially full one. I woke up with my senses on fire – everything seemed more vibrant, more fragile, more beautiful while simultaneously sadder and dirtier. My heart seemed more tender and sensitive than usual, imprinted upon by every sigh I heard or smile I saw. I found myself tearing up at the moments of raw humanity I witnessed on my way to work and then at work and then on my way home from work as I read Mirabai Starr’s memoir, most of which revolves around the death of her daughter. My heart finally broke open as I read about Jenny’s descent into madness (or was it mere mysticism? or some combination of both?), her dramatic end (of physical life), the outpouring of love from Mirabai’s community, as well as the ongoing internal battles experienced after the death of a loved one. I wept on the B train over the Manhattan bridge, holding in audible wails until I was on the sidewalk.

I can not, nor do I attempt to, claim to understand what it’s like to lose a child. The grief I experienced on the train is an ounce of what I imagine it must feel like. But, something inside of me was touched, a deep knowing of motherhood without having a child of my own. I can’t explain it – and even as these words flow out, they feel awfully inadequate – but I feel like a mother of the world. I look at people, everyone from strangers to acquaintances to close friends, and often see the child still living, or struggling to live, within. I look at refugees swimming to the shores of Greece and I long to give them care. I look at the suffering of so many of the world and my heart shatters as I feel a mother’s might. I feel like I know what it’s like to be a mother who can only stand by and watch her child endure one of life’s lessons, who can merely step in to say, “I know, sweetie, I know,” or “show me where it hurts, honey,” and stroke her child’s forehead with soft fingers. As no one’s yet everyone’s mother, my heart constantly breaks open and flows forth with love.

Leo and I made our way into midtown, into a small office-turned-sacred-space, where we gathered with a few friends for an evening of prayer and street outreach. Ximena, Leo, and I smeared peanut butter on sandwich bread and cream cheese on bagels as Adam and Theresa chatted quietly in the corner. Once the sandwiches for our homeless friends were made – a poor though made-with-love Christmas dinner – we gathered in a circle on the floor, our faces lit only by soft candlelight. The five of us prayed and sat in silence, chanted and blessed the food, then quietly made our way to the streets.

We ran into Charmaine, slight but bursting with energy, who loves to have her picture taken. She welcomed us to her holiday altar – a cardboard box adorned with cheap, red and green decorations. Some reporter had taken a photo of it and Charmaine showed us the clipping with glee.

Our little group ran into several familiar faces and many new ones. It’s hard to tell what plagues each. Some are sluggish and slur their words. Alcohol or heroin, perhaps. The light has disappeared from their eyes. In others, it’s as though the dial has been turned to the highest setting. They’re jittery and their eyes, though glassy, are fiery. Of course, not all struggle with addiction and have merely fallen on hard times. How does one become homeless? It seems like such a thin line as I see people of all races and socioeconomic statuses dealing with addictions. People everywhere deal with cruel parents or spouses. I am reminded over and over again that there is little difference between “us” and “them.”

I was disappointed that I couldn’t find Hasan, an Egyptian man who shyly tells me I’m beautiful and teaches me bits of Arabic. He might have already been asleep in one of the box shelters in front of St. Francis, a church where so many congregate. On the other side, I met Denise, a husky-voiced woman who looks much older than she probably is. She was crying because her 16-year-old daughter had called her by her first name instead of Mom. I thought of my own mother who would probably have a similar reaction if I had done the same (which I might have) in my high school years. I tried to reassure her that all teenagers go through rough patches like this. I asked Denise what she was like when she was 16. That was her first time living on the streets, she told me, where she’s been ever since her father raped her and she left home. How can you reassure someone when you’re not sure yourself they’ll ever break out of this type of life? I couldn’t even say Merry Christmas. All I could do was try to reflect back the love I saw shining in her large hazel eyes.

Our sandwiches distributed, our crew wove through the bustling Times Square crowds to The Church of St. Mary the Virgin for its “midnight” mass that begins at 10:30pm. What a breathtaking contrast to the holy evening we had spent thus far on the streets of New York.

The church itself is a marvel. Everything on the inside seemed to be touched with gold and enormous bouquets of crimson roses splayed across the nave. Stars are painted on the towering ceilings, intricate etchings in stone, ostentatious statues and icons and crosses, oh my! And, I’ve never heard such bombastic sounds from an organ in my life. Yes, some of the music was gorgeous and I was moved by the story of God being birthed as a human child on this earth. It matters little to me whether the story is myth or factual. I can feel the immensity of what it might mean to bear witness to the mystery of God shrouded in human form, to be able to touch It and see It. I know that’s why the music was so grandiose and the decorations so elaborate – an attempt to come close to the majesty and glory of the Divine. But, I couldn’t help but wonder what would Jesus do if he saw this pompous celebration of his own birth? I imagined him walking in, rolling his eyes, and walking right back out to hang out with his friends in the gutters. (To St. Mary’s credit, they are one of the few churches in the city that has an open door policy 24/7 and allows homeless to sleep inside.)

Of course, I felt close to Mary on this evening and Meister Eckhart’s words touched me as I thought about giving birth to this christ consciousness everyday. Like Eckhart asks, what good is it to celebrate the ultimate Goodness one day of the year? I ask, what good is it to imagine the embodiment of that Goodness residing in only one person ever? What if we all looked upon all of our brothers and sisters with such awe all the time? What if we celebrated each other as we do this child?

All of that praying and singing and communion with one another made us hungry and we wandered the emptying-but-never-empty streets of New York until we found a Sbarro, where we plopped behind sticky orange tables and scarfed down cheese slices while the workers closed up. I don’t know where we got the energy to keep chatting, but chat we did until 2am when we finally parted. ‘Til we meet again in the new year and continue to birth God in our own unique ways…

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