Sacramental Motherhood: Confessions of a Gnostic

Elisabeth Morrell
Friday, May 7th 2021

My husband, Todd, describes the year we married as one of “free-falling” through life’s milestones. He was soon to graduate from medical school which brought on a household move, followed by pregnancy, baby girl, and parenthood. . . all in 10 months after our wedding ceremony. Swoosh. Thinking back, I mostly remember the old gray couch that Todd had re-upholstered. It became my daily companion through first trimester napping and nausea, postpartum recovery, and nursing our sweet daughter.

What happened? Life had changed so drastically, so quickly, and with such intensity and force. I was twenty-nine and had enjoyed living in the halls of higher education and the Reformed Christian church for the past decade. Todd and I had met 6 years earlier at church, where we volunteered side by side with the high school youth group. Our years of friendship and dating while students, afforded us lots of time to study and meditate on the Scriptures and enjoy Christian fellowship. Life was full of church beach retreats, dinners with friends, group Bible studies, personal Bible study, and discipleship from pastors. Truly, we drank of the Living Water in gulps. As a twenty something, I felt a new confidence and freedom as a Christian as never before. The joy of the gospel, through comprehending the gift of Jesus Christ was life-giving. I am forever thankful for that time of growing in knowledge and understanding.

Then came the gray couch days. Life changed, seemingly overnight. It had gone from cerebral satisfaction to physical pain and rigor. From a lifestyle fueled by mental gratification at church, job, and with friends, to constant physical demands. Contemplative moments? Morning devotions with a mug of coffee? Not for a long time. Instead, there were inconsolable children, messes on the rug, overflowing kitchen garbage, dirty dishes, dirty floor, dirty bathroom, and no matched socks. There was also lifting, zipping, buckling, wiping, pushing, holding, and always—exhaustion, red eyes, and management of people and stuff every waking minute.

“Lord, have mercy.” I begged. I could not put a more eloquent prayer together. “What am I doing?”, I wondered. “I’m up to my eyeballs in needy people and their belongings. I didn’t think stuff mattered. But now, all I’m doing is taking care of people and objects. I am so doomed, and for at least a decade or so. I can’t get to the believing part, in order to get to God, because of all the needy people and work! (Sigh) If I could just get over the hurdle of my current life, then I could get back to being a Christian.”

I questioned: Did those of us who had a choice (many women don’t) and stayed home, just not get it? Did I jump on a hamster wheel of house chores and so am missing out on the real and significant parts of life? Is Salvation even happening here? I was feeling very jealous of all the people “out there” who got to do the real and important stuff.

I trudged on. Limped on, pushed on. However, and to be fair, there was joy in the journey. Honestly, I was crazy about my little band of munchkins and had moments of heart-bursting delight with them. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I wanted to be with them. I loved them desperately. Nevertheless, I was bothered by a nagging sense that the day-in day-out life I had with these tiny humans was meaningless, and even coming between me and God. Was He still present and near? Or had He left during the toil, commotion and noise?

Then it struck me—what a first world, 21st century question. There have been two thousand years of Christians (not just mothers)—many illiterate, many who labored as slaves or indentured servants, or free men from dawn in the rice fields to dusk in the barn yard. Many in the factory, mill, or hospital, who, no doubt, worked with God’s word hidden in their heart, hymns on their lips, but little of what we might call contemplative time. Was God any less faithful or near to them? Just because we live in a century and culture where we can read and have disposable time, is God more faithful and nearer to us? That can’t be.

Yet undeniably, contemplation of God is good. Jesus encouraged Mary for choosing to sit and adore, to be taken in by the Savior’s beauty (Luke 10). That said, there are seasons when contemplative moments are scarce. Seasons when corporate worship is all you have. During these times, God has not left you, and your salvation is not on hold. Worship is born through and includes dirty dishes and dirty laundry. The faith of motherhood looks to Him through sacrifices of sleep, and giving up our plans and our way. These times may be challenging and rigorous, with suffering present, but they are not empty, devoid of meaning or salvation.

God Draws Nearer

In Ephesians (2:6) the Apostle Paul states that we are seated “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus”. Hans Boersma explains that our citizenship in heaven isn’t simply a wistful identification with a faraway place nor is it some kind of schizophrenic “I’m-here-but-I’m-really-there” type-thing. Rather, as Boersma puts it, “life on earth takes on a heavenly dimension”. He says that “the purpose of all matter…is to lead us into God’s heavenly presence, to bring about communion with God, participation in the divine life (9). That is, our lived lives are actually part of our salvation pilgrimage. By salvation, I mean our union with Christ, “whereby [we] are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as [our] head and husband. (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 66).

Was He somehow abiding in my dirty physical life and I, in a heavenly reality? Is Creation more than meaningless stuff? Was it part of God’s kingdom? Is the now part of God’s story of salvation for me? I felt drawn in a desperate sense. Boersma continues, “By treating the world as a eucharistic offering in Christ, received from God and offered to Him, we are drawn into God’s presence (8).

The Church Fathers looked at creation as a mystery. Not a mystery in the same way that you can figure out that it was Professor Plum with the lead pipe in the conservatory. Rather, as Boersma states, “For them, ‘mystery’ referred to realities behind the appearances… That is to say, though our hands, eyes, ears, nose and tongue are able to access reality, they cannot fully grasp reality.” Simply put, God’s kingdom is grander and more expansive than what I’m seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. “They [Church Fathers] believed that the created order was a sacrament and that the sacrament was a sign of a mystery that, though present in the created order, far transcended human comprehension. (21-22)

Spending time in the Reformed tradition had taught me about the sacraments in communion. I believed and treasured that God would draw near and commune with me in the bread and the wine. Could it be, and in some lower sense, that our “tending of the garden” and the garden itself serve to bring us into the presence of God?

I’m not saying that our household is like being in church (on many different levels). I don’t mean that special presence found in the bread and the wine and the preaching of the Word. Church and world (nature) are not the same; connected, but not the same. I do mean that as we tend the garden, as we work to render present God’s truth, beauty and goodness, despite evil’s intrusion, that He is present. I do mean that we can enjoy a peaceful confidence that God remains near to us and our children through the endless days of trying to bring order from disorder. In this, we share in the life of God from where all goodness, truth and beauty are derived.

That is why Boersma’s assertion of a connection between heaven and earth came as an immense comfort. Right when my mental faculties just couldn’t do it, when paralyzed by anxiety and suffering from exhaustion. When I wouldn’t and couldn’t “get to God ” (through prayers and thoughts). He was still getting to me. Thank you, God, for being a part of the sleepless nights. Thank you, God, for being a part of changing soiled sheets during those sleepless nights and 409ing the floor, all the while connected as Your worshipping child.

So, the stuff meant something. This “garden” was not working against my communion with God but was part of it. Admittedly, it didn’t feel like it. It sure was back-achey, smelly, and interrupt-y. Does all this have a place in the heavenlies? Is there a mystery here that empiricism can’t explain?

Further In

Alexander Schmemann, a 20th century Eastern Orthodox Christian priest, talks about the sacramentality of man and the world in his book, For The Life of the World. He begins by asking, what is this “life” that Jesus Christ came to redeem? John 10:10 states, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I [Jesus Christ] came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” What does this life include? Just the sacred life, or the secular too? Or are they really just one thing?

According to Schmemman “secularism” is a refusal to give thanks, an insistence on the world’s autonomy and self-sufficiency in terms of reason, knowledge, and action (118,129). So we, being postmoderns, may acknowledge God’s hand, presence, and action, for instance, when a child is “miraculously” cured of cancer, but do not see His presence of action when our skin heals by forming a scab, then a scar and finally turning invisible. One is supernatural, the other one is natural. It’s easy for us to fall prey to this dichotomy, to imagine the world as a closed system. God is King up there, and maybe involved in some miraculous intervention (once in a while), but humans are king and master down here.

The secularist believes that man and the world are understood, experienced, and acted upon in their own immanent terms. So why would you have cause to give thanks for your apple orchard — or even dinner? The secularist also assumes that symbol can be separated from something real, the natural from the supernatural. But for Schmemman the whole ball of wax, the entirety of the cosmos in its becoming in time and history is an epiphany of God. That is, it is all a means of His revelation, presence, and power. He claims that this whole cosmos, not only testifies to a higher power as its rational cause for existence, but also is a means of knowledge of God and communion with Him. For the cosmos to be treated like this is its true nature and ultimate destiny. For me, this was the exciting part: We join in this work as kingdom priests. As we worship by working to render the true nature and vocation of the world; and while doing so, we are swept up in God’s salvation

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian master writer, understood this in his short story “Lucerne” when his character first spied the lake:

As soon as I went up to my room, and opened the window facing the lake, the beauty of the sheet of water, of the mountains, and of the sky, at the first moment literally dazzled and overwhelmed me. I experienced an inward unrest, and the necessity of expressing in some manner the feelings that suddenly filled my soul to overflowing. I felt a desire to embrace, powerfully to embrace, someone, to tickle him, or to pinch him; in short to do to him and to myself something extraordinary.

Enchanted. Sacred. All included in God’s work of redemption. All parts are His. We, in a glorious way, have the privilege of rendering God’s truth, goodness and beauty present and to mysteriously get caught up in this joy.

This is good news and great comfort. Not only am I not alone, but there is dignity and worth even in this place. Even in the futility of washing again, ordering again, cleaning again, consoling again. I am being caught up in His Kingdom coming—seemingly unawares.

Still, Lord, as you gather us into this joy and salvation, You remark that Mary chose the greater thing (Luke 10). That contemplation of You, gazing at You, is the greater thing. In the end, You are the all in all. You have graciously given us the Church, “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). You have told us to gather. You meet us in a unique and special way through the preaching of the Word and the eucharist. We ascend to heaven and are fed by Christ.

Thank you for church nurseries. Thank you for one hour to sit, be still, rest, breathe in your grace…and not be in charge. Thank you for the peace and stillness. For walking forward and taking You in, as I eat the bread and drink the wine. You said that the gates of hell would not prevail against this institution, Your church.

It is a both/and. Not equal; but both.

As I sit and scribble these final thoughts, I’ve celebrated my fifty-first birthday. I’ve watched with anxiety as my sweet daughter backed the old Volvo station wagon out of the driveway and off to college. I now make the bed. Someone isn’t crying all the time. Walking barefoot in the house doesn’t attract as many crumbs. There is less constant urgency afoot. In a lot of ways, my physical toil with the kids has ended. What does heavenly participation look like now? Now that I have a schedule for reading the Bible, time for a prayer journal and contemplation.

All is still sacred, not futile, not ending, not nothing. Not just Algebra or Chem 101, but Your kingdom coming. Crooked paths being made straight through Jesus Christ’s inauguration of the kingdom. Choosing “heaven” (Deut. 30:19). Choosing to push back the Fall, participating in the good, true, and beautiful. Human flourishing. Communion. Blessing all nations through Abraham’s seed. Lord, have mercy, as we taste and see, accept, and say “yes” to the sacred work and life you have given today.

I watch my grandmother, who was born in 1917. She has buried two husbands and her oldest son, my father. She wakes, makes her bed, dresses, cleans her teeth, pours her cereal, and washes the bowl. I imagine she is blessed by the water running over her hands. Her Bible is well worn and sits on the end table, beside her.

She is participating in the kingdom, being faithful with the work God has given her to do. She waits upon the Lord in her simple way. There is glory in her union with Christ as she trusts and works. She will not tell you that she’s trusting, but her manner in waking, dressing, and fluffing the pillows on her bed is her confidence in the Savior. Would she still be able to articulate a doctrine of the faith? Maybe, but probably not. For certain, she is secure, and she is part of the beauty. So, I am learning now, in this fast-paced digital information age what my brothers and sisters in the medieval Church understood, and what my grandmother of 104 understands—that You, O Lord, were coming all along. You were there all along. I was drawing near as your child in a way I did not know or understand. Thanks be to God.

Elisabeth Morrell lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with her husband and not-fully-grown children. They attend Holy Trinity Anglican Church. An unabridged version of this essay can be found in her forthcoming book, Sacramental Motherhood,Confessions of a Gnostic; and Other Collected Essays.

Friday, May 7th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology