2 Aug 2023
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
One of my sisters in community tells the story of how her mother once said to her on her home visit, many years after she had made her final profession as a Dominican, that while her daughter’s world got bigger upon joining the Order, her world as a mother got smaller, with the necessary familial separation that religious life entailed. Her feelings were shared without bitterness or regret, but with poignancy – she had surrendered her daughter to the Lord, an act which took time and faith. The mother’s experience is one that is echoed throughout many families who have in some sense lost a child to the following of Christ.
Fr Walter Wagner, a Dominican friar of the Province of St Joseph in the USA, said in his series of conferences for the Dominican nuns in Summit, New Jersey, that “celibate chastity is the ultimate form of poverty…in the sense that if you look at how most people understand their lives the most important wealth they have is their spouse and children”. This applies to both those who surrender the opportunity to found a family of their own through the choice of celibacy, but also the surrendering that must take place of one’s family of origin – parents, siblings and suchlike. For most of us, it is our family – especially our children – who are our most precious treasures, for which we are ready to divest ourselves of everything in order to secure their existence, their presence, their future. This is understandable, commendable, even to be expected most of the time.
However, Jesus challenges natural human inclination. In today’s Gospel, we hear the parable of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price, for which a person sells everything to obtain. The treasure, of course, is an allusion to Christ Himself and the kingdom of Heaven. These parables call us to re-evaluate our hierarchy of values, and ask for both a radical generosity in giving everything and a radical detachment in letting everything go for the sake of what has eternal value. Where is your treasure? Where do you find your value and what do you value above all else? Whether we are married or celibate, we must remember that our treasure and value in pre-eminently in Christ and through Christ, not our familial bonds.
In our liturgical calendar last week, we celebrated several saints who were mothers. Last Tuesday, we celebrated the feast of St James, whose mother’s request to Jesus – “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom” – is forever memoralised in St Matthew’s Gospel. Last Wednesday, we kept the memorial of Saint Anne (alongside her husband Joachim), the mother of Our Lady. And today, we keep the memorial of Bl. Jane of Aza, the mother of our father St Dominic. The Church has always recognised the goodness, integrity and dignity of motherhood and family life. Too many children today do not grow up with the secure foundation of a healthy family life. For those that are blessed with such a gift, it is possible that the family – especially the children – become our ultimate treasure, to be hoarded, coveted and valued above all else.
The mothers we remember this month then, women like Saint Anne and Blessed Jane – offer an important example in relation to today’s Gospel. What these mothers witness to – and what contributed to their holiness – is that not only did they treasure their children as precious gifts from God, but they also gave them back to God.
The studies in child development since the time of psychologist John Bowlby have emphasised the importance of an infant’s attachment to a prime caregiver for healthy human development. These early years of life should focus on building and maintaining a secure attachment. However, the later stages of development should begin a process of healthy detachment as the child matures into their own unique personhood. Looking at the examples of the mother-saints, this holy detachment, contrary to being destructive, allowed both parents and children their natural freedom. Their children were free from the expectation of having to be the prime treasure of their parent’s lives, they were freed from excessive investment, evaluation and protection. They were free to find their own treasure. This was possible because the mothers had themselves found their abiding treasure in Christ, which allowed them to love generously, radically and with a sense of careful stewardship, for every child ultimately belongs to God first.
And what was the consequence of the mother’s surrender? The mother of Zebadee lost James and John first to the call of full-time discipleship and then to martyrdom; Sts Joachim and Anne dedicated Our Lady and formed her for her singular mission as the Mother of God; Bl Jane gave three of her sons – Antonio, Bl Manés, and St Dominic as priests in his Church. Bl Manés and St Dominic were then subsequently given to the newly founded Order of Preachers and eventually raised to public sainthood. In each of these stories we see both glory and sorrow held together – the glory of martyrdom, of gift of the priesthood, but also the sacrifice required, for both the children and their parents.
In our culture, we don’t teach people how to truly leave home well. It is one thing to leave physically, quite another to leave spiritually, emotionally and mentally. This unresolved separation can leave a difficult legacy which people bring with them into their marriages or religious life. I’m sure we all know of situations in which the mother-in-law is pulling the strings, or the expectations that celibate children are automatically free to pick up the majority of their elderly parent’s care. If we are to be truly free to follow Christ, a separation needs to come, for the treasure and the pearl are only obtained through the relinquishing every other good thing first.
What we can rely on is our Lord’s promise that by seeking first the kingdom, all other things shall be added unto you, even a hundredfold. To return to my sister’s experience on joining the Order, her family did eventually find a new and expanded family through their daughter’s bonds with the Order. It may take time and cost to seek and find the hidden, unexpected treasure in our midst, but it is there, waiting to be discovered.
Scripture passage from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright 1989, 1993, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.