Mother’s Day is a joyous observance for most of the 85 percent of women who have borne a child by age 40. But not so much for women who have neither procreated nor adopted, who find Mother’s Day a painful reminder of their childlessness.
Perhaps they squandered years on a relationship that resulted in neither marriage nor children. Perhaps they were so career-driven they had no room in their lives for a husband and offspring. Or perhaps they wed and tried to have children, but their wombs were barren.
For women of faith despairing on this Mother’s Day that they are childless – whatever the circumstances – let them be consoled by the word of God, which promises to “comfort all who mourn” and “give them beauty for ashes.”
Indeed, there have been throughout history spirit-driven women anointed not to be fruitful and multiply in their own bodies, but to be mother figures to hundreds, thousands or even millions of God’s children.
One such modern day mother figure was Florence Nightingale, who at 16 years of age felt the call of God upon her to nurse the sick to health. At 17, she heeded the divine call, eschewing a marriage proposal because, she would later explain, her spirit “require(d ) satisfaction” that she “would not find it in this life.”
In 1853, the Crimean War broke out between the British and Russian Empires for control of the Ottoman Empire. Nightingale was asked to organize a corps of nurses to minister to sick and injured British soldiers.
So she assembled a team of nurses from various religious orders and arrived at Scutari, the British base hospital, where wounded soldiers were laid on bloody cots, water was contaminated, rodents and lice overran the facility and food was rancid.
“Surely this is the Kingdom of Hell,” Nightingale wrote, before tasking her nurses with scrubbing down the entire hospital, employing sanitary practices that would become standard the world over. Nightingale saved the lives of thousands of British soldiers,to whom she referred as “my children.”
Eglantyne Jebb was 20-something years old when she saw a vision of the risen Christ. As World War I neared its end, the Allied nations blockaded German and Austria-Hungary, continuing it even after an armistice was signed.
Jebb felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to hand out leaflets in London’s Trafalgar Square, with a disquieting newspaper photograph of emaciated children. Because of the blockade, the leaflets decried, “millions of children are starving to death.”
Jebb was arrested for her protest, put on trial and found guilty. The crown prosecutor found her spirited defense of her actions so compelling, he actually went so far as to pay her fine. It turned out to be the first donation to the charity she would found in 1919 – Save the Children.
The aim of Jebbs’s charity was to “provide relief to children suffering the effects of war,” no matter on what side of a conflict the children found themselves. That God-inspired mission was put to the test during the Russian famine of 1921, when Save the Children faced criticism is many quarters for offering aid to the children Britain’s war-time enemy.
But Jebb was not dissuaded by her critics, but guided by a question she asked herself whenever facing a challenge: “What would Christ do?” So Save the Children sent 600 tons of relief supplies to Russia, including 157 million rations. The lives of nearly 300,000 starving children were saved as a result.
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhui was born in Skopje, which today is the capital of Macedonia. In 1928, the 18-year-old decided to become a nun, taking the name Mary Teresa. Nine years later, she took her final profession of vows, becoming thereafter known as Mother Teresa. She spent the next decade teaching at a convent school in Calcutta, India.
In 1946, Mother Teresa experienced what she would refer to as “the call within a call.” It was the voice of Christ who told her to move on from the comfort of teaching to the discomfort of the slums of Calcutta, where she would minister to “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for…”
So it was in 1950 that she started up the Missions of Charity, which over the following two decades established a leper colony, orphanage, nursing home, family clinic and number of mobile clinics.
Today, the order also cares for alcoholics, the mentally ill, former sex workers, people with AIDS, street children, sick children, victims of floods, famine and epidemics all around the world. .
Neither Florence Nightingale nor Eglantyne Jebb nor Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhui ever married, ever bore children of their own. Yet, few mothers have had so much love for so many of God’s children.