SummaryDom Alban Baker observes that the maternal heart, essential and unseen, is that which gives life to her family. Truly the woman is the heart of the family.
In his encyclical Casti Connubii, Pius XI, when outlining the roles of husband and wife in a family, wrote that “if the man is the head, the woman is the heart,” and that she “may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.”
At this time of year when we celebrate motherhood, it is good to reflect more deeply upon this statement. What does it mean to say that the woman is the heart of the family?
First of all, from a biological point of view, the heart pumps the body’s blood, and blood carries vital materials to the rest of the body. In the same way, a good mother pours love and encouragement into her children.
We know from solid psychology (and common sense) that the way a mother treats her children is pivotal to their healthy emotional growth. If the mother is selflessly responsive, children grow up knowing they are loved and are able to love others generously in return.
And this is not a small thing: Aristotle says that the habits formed in youth “make a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” There is no more fundamental habit to form than the one which moves a child to consistently say to himself or herself, “I am lovable; I am loved.”
In a family, the mother removes all things that do not belong there: impurity, calumny, pusillanimity (little-souled-ness). Her house is a place where the dignity of man and woman is upheld, both in body and in soul.
The body is honored as the vessel of the Holy Spirit; thoughts, words, and actions unbecoming to Christians are not allowed to take root.
The souls of her husband and children are treated with proper dignity because a mother’s heart ensures that charity reigns: no evil talk is permitted to pass their lips, either regarding one another or those outside the home. St. Paul’s words are incarnated in that place:
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear… and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Finally, magnanimity (great-souled-ness) is the norm, while little-souled-ness is banished. “Magnanimity by its very name denotes stretching forth of the mind to great things,” as Aquinas says; this is what the mother as heart brings about in her family.
Secondly, consider the meaning of the heart in the Bible. There the heart is associated with excellence, as being the place where the most noble psychic and emotional powers reside and whence they emanate.
For example, in Proverbs 15:13, the state of the heart determines the state of the rest of the organism: “A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is broken.” This is a truth we all know—if the heart is at peace, it is manifest in our person.
So with a mother: if she is happy, the family is well, because the goodness in her passes on to all the members. In a similar way, Jesus says that our true self is manifest in the thoughts of our heart.
Put negatively, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.”
But out of the heart also come the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. When the heart of the family, the mother, brings forth these virtues, the family’s identity arises from her holiness.
In the New Testament, the heart is also the seat of divine operations which transform the Christian from within. Writing to the Ephesians, Paul admonishes them to allow Christ to dwell in their hearts through faith.
In an individual, Christ dwells in the heart; in the family, using Pius XI’s analogy, Christ dwells particularly in the mother, not in the sense that she alone possesses Him, but that her faith and her willingness to surrender to Jesus nurture the whole family.
In like manner, Paul says in Romans 5:5 that the Holy Spirit is poured forth into our hearts. In some mystical way, the divine person who is most fittingly called Love dwells in that place that we call the heart, and in a mystical way, He dwells especially in the mother, chosen by God to be the focus of love, radiating to her spouse and children the divine charity that dwells in her.
Thus, just as God first converts and renews our heart so that the divine presence may reside in all other parts, so He transforms the mother to make holy the family for which she gives her life.
From all this it is not hard to see why St. Thérèse of Lisieux is said to have written that “the loveliest masterpiece of the heart of God is the heart of a mother.”
The maternal heart is that which gives life to her family, while she is given life by divine grace from the “heart of God.” And there was no greater maternal heart than that of the Blessed Virgin, a heart pierced by suffering, but a heart that continues to be the source of joy and consolation to so many souls who seek to love and serve the Savior she bore.
Dom Alban Baker, CRNJ, received his Licentiate in Sacred Theology (S.T.L.) from the Dominican House of Studies in Washington DC. He is a member of the Canons Regular of the New Jerusalem, a monastic community serving the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston in West Virginia.
Header photo CC: Adobe Stock: lisovoy