May 7, 2014
The Natural History Museum in Vienna houses ancient statuettes of women dating from circa 15,000-10,000 BC, the Upper Paleolithic period. Among these are figures of Venus, the Roman parallel of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. These miniatures have no facial features but are shown with their sexual characteristics emphasized or enlarged. As the source of birth and life, the mother is a power, a life force that supersedes the male power of the hunt. Mystified by this miracle of birth and life, men worshiped women’s power and reverenced the mother goddess or Earth Mother. We shall return to the topic of motherhood.
The Analogy of Power
In its basic meaning, power connotes dynamism, energy, or a force that effects change. Think of the many men and women who exercised power on the stage of history! In 1940, as the war clouds hovered over Britain, the newly-elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill pledged to the nation not power, prestige and prosperity. Instead, he intoned those chilling words that still ring with depth and power: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, blood and sweat.”
The word power may be used in different ways, yet its core meaning remains the same: It brings about change through persuasion, vitality and energy, or through forceful means. We may speak of physical, psychological, mental, and moral power, the power of good and evil, political and military power, solar, water, air, and sea power. There are other uses: power structures, power plants, power plays, the power behind the throne, the power of prayer, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Such is the richness of analogy as a linguistic tool.
Negative and Creative Uses of Power
We are all too familiar with the consequences of nature’s power to destroy. Power that abuses, represses, and persecutes others unmasks its ugly face. The medieval adage, ‘might makes for right,’ still holds. Because of its intent to control the inviolable freedom and dignity of human persons, it must be condemned. Men and women seek power because it puffs them up.
Raw power that lords it over others makes us cringe. Exercised at the political or academic level, in religious life, in or by the Church body, it is repugnant to the law of God and human persons. Pilate boasted of his power over Jesus’ life or death. St. John of the Cross was imprisoned by his own Carmelite brothers for trying to reform the Order. How many others have lived under the same threatening sword!
Creative power harnesses energy for good. It seeks to build up and not to tear down. Such is the power of the Lord’s good news: ‘Pray for those who persecute you; do good to those who treat you badly.’ Jesus spoke with authority, and power went out from him.
And consider the power of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, surely a secular gospel: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the world we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Equally powerful is the secular gospel of his Gettysburg address: “That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Here is the face of creative power, noble through and through. Lincoln used his authority in such a way that power went out from him.
Power, Authority, and Motherhood
The miracle of life is an unending source of wonder. From the first stages of developing life in utero, mothers are endowed with power by the sheer physical and psychological union with another life within them. What is more powerful than a mother nourishing and cherishing her newborn except the powerful image of contemplating her newborn receiving that loving attention? Motherhood is God’s instrument through which the sacredness of life comes forth, and through which mothers instinctively guard that life. From pre-historic times, men have worshiped women for this power.
Mothers use their authority in the most creative and effective ways. The mother of Glenn Gould stands out as one such example. Her son Glenn (1932-82), the famous interpreter of J.S. Bach’s keyboard music, was often asked about his early love for the composer’s music. Gould’s parents were musical, but his mother exposed him to the music of Bach and other classical composers during her pregnancy. From infancy to his early death at the age of fifty, Gould cherished a special love for Bach’s music that bordered on ecstasy!
In the Christian East, the Mother of God is known as the Theotokos, the one who carried God. In her divine motherhood, Mary of Nazareth gave Jesus his humanity, nurtured him, and stood beside him to the very end. She is the model for all mothers who speak to us in the way a rose spreads its perfume.