Memories that Bless and Burn

There is a powerful pathos in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

Autumn is heavy with such imagery and recollections. Falling October leaves preach poignant panegyrics as they go. November makes us vulnerable to the ache of a lasting loss. For countless Christians deep memories of those whose lives ‘are changed not ended’ will soon again be awakened by the perennial Feasts of All Saints and All Souls.

Of all the memories that bless and burn perhaps those around our mothers are among the most persistent and intense. The death of a mother, the giver of our lives, opens a space in us unlike any other loss. ‘Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love,’ wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. ‘It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but keeps it empty and so helps to keep alive our former communion’.

Our hearts stay open and vulnerable to those random, tender, sacramental moments that were ordinary enough when they happened, but exquisitely piercing when remembered later. Patrick Kavanagh, in his ‘In Memory of my Mother’ recalls many beautiful moments spent in her company. They might meet by accident on her way to the shops or to second Mass on Sunday and she would say, ‘”Don’t forget to see about the cattle”.  In a whisper of hope he concludes,

‘O you are not lying in the wet clay.

For it is a harvest evening now and we

Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight

And you are smiling up at us – eternally’.

After Margaret Kathleen Heaney died, her son Seamus wrote of a ‘sunlit absence’.  In an interview he described her work in the kitchen as ‘love made visible’. It is there that he remembers those precious, poignant moments he spent alone with his mother. In ‘Clearances’ he wrote:

‘When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.’ 

On the day she died, while the parish priest upstairs at her bedside ‘went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying’, the poet with infinite tenderness returned to that golden moment.

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives,

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.’

‘I came to say goodbye, Mammy’, wrote John McGahern in his ‘Memoirs’.  ‘Her eyes were fixed on my face; she seemed very tired.  I bent to kiss her.  She did not move.  I was bewildered.  Both Maggie and the nurse turned away.  I tried to hurry.  If I did not get away quickly I’d never be able to walk out of the room.  I wanted to put my arms round the leg of the bed so that they wouldn’t be able to drag me away and they’d be forced to leave me with her in the room for ever.  I went out the door, crossed the landing, went down the stairs and out into the blinding day.’

From where does this intense bonding, almost desperation, expressed so touchingly by the poets, come? How much of their mothers’ essential spirit would they have caught, how much of their light and shadow? Later in life, at times of creativity and imagination, of holding unbearable pain and loss, would they remember them with souls of gratitude? And how much are mothers aware of the unique and divine mystery they incarnate in their offspring? ‘Once a woman has carried her baby inside her body for nine months and brought it forth through the pain of childbirth,’ writes Richard Rohr OFM, ‘she knows something about mystery, about miracles, and about transformation that men will never know’.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, theologian of beauty, tries to describe this human/divine dynamic: ‘After a mother has smiled for a long time at her child, the child will begin to smile back. She has awakened love in its heart, and in this awakening love, she awakens also recognition.’ And the poet Rainer Maria Rilke believed that an infant’s journey into human awareness depended on the beckoning, beguiling voice of the mother, ‘easing the child into self-hood, lessening the shadows of the abyss that trap us in inarticulate darkness.’ Co-creating life with God, there is a sense in which you could say that a mother’s role is eternal – beause what she is, and what she does, will never die.

As with all mothers Mary would have carried, formed and nourished Jesus for nine months in her womb. How much of her very being would have been visible in him? Working, eating, sleeping Mary was forming Jesus’ body from her own – his features, his limbs and his divine powers. Did he have her colouring, her eyes, her smile, her way of walking? Would the neighbours have said, ‘For sure, that’s Mary’s boy – just look at the freckles on his nose’.

Holding him and gazing at him with tender power she sowed the seeds of an immense courage in his heart. Was it through his mother that he experienced the security, intimacy and tender feminine energy that empowered his divine ministry? And at that last moment on the cross, bereft and hopeless, did his desperate eyes catch the quiet intensity in his mother’s uplifted face, and did those memories once again burn through his despair and bless his breaking heart?

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote;

Under the blood-smeared cross

She rocked his mangled bones,

Remembering him, moaning,

‘This is my body, my blood.’

During these days of fall many of us will have memories that bless and burn. Even as his cancer ushers him towards ‘life’s departure lounge’, and ‘burned by my vision of a world that shone’, Australian broadcaster Clive James wrote Sentenced to life by way of ‘starting to say goodbye’.

Now I am weak. The sky

Is overcast

Here in the English

autumn, but my mind

Basks in the light I never

left behind.