The Immaculate Conception and Mary’s Spiritual Maternity

Early on in my priestly ministry a woman who is a very good friend of mine confided to me about her state of frustration and annoyance when she discovered that she was pregnant with one of the “middle number” of her six children. Being a good Catholic, she never entertained the thought of abortion and surely never deliberately “rejected” this new life in her womb. Her attitude seems to have been characterized by that Stoicism which many of us try to pass off as “abandonment to Divine Providence,” but which, in reality, represents a rejection of God’s will for us together with those people or situations which He has brought into our lives without our permission.

The invitation to say with Mary “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38) was not readily accepted. Rather, she “resigned” herself to the presence of a child whose “timing” did not coincide with her’s or her husband’s. It may seem a bit harsh to describe her stance as one of rejection, but at base that is what it was: an unwillingness to accept God’s plan and this new life. On the other hand, with three little ones already “under foot” and vying for her attention along with her husband, her attitude was quite understandable. No doubt the rejection was not a conscious refusal, but for all of that it was nonetheless real.

Surely one of the great contributions of modern psychology to child-rearing in our century has been to highlight the importance of the relationship of the mother with the child in her womb from the very time when she becomes conscious of its existence. No doubt mothers have always grasped this intuitively. Still, it is one of the merits the nascent disciplines of psychology and psychiatry in our times to have underscored with ever greater clarity the inestimable importance of the mother/child bonding process which begins in the womb.

When the mother is happy, the child is at peace; when she is upset, the child experiences unrest and disquiet. The primal communication which takes place between the child and its mother cannot be discounted and nor should it be minimized. The healthy development of the infant in the womb depends not only on its mother’s physical well-being, but also—and even more importantly—on her emotional and spiritual state. In this context one can begin to appreciate the emphasis of the so-called “French School of Spirituality” (which had its beginning with Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629) and continued with his disciples such as the Venerable Jean-Jacques Olier (1608-1657) and St. John Eudes (1601-1680), on the nine months during which Jesus lived in the womb of Mary. These men rightly perceived the mystery of the beauty and depth of the communication which took place between Mary and her Son during this blessed period. Olier and Eudes especially would speak of this communication as being between their hearts (1).

If even just for a time during pregnancy a mother should seriously consider terminating the life of her child by abortion—even though she never carries out such an act—this contemplated rejection will have its inevitable effect on the child. The child (and eventually the adult) may never be able to put his finger on this spurning or be able to articulate it, but he or she will have been “hurt” by maternal rejection, even if the rejection was only temporary and this hurt will most probably, in turn, contribute, at least to some extent, to the malformation of a human personality. Here is how the Dominican Father Paul Hinnebusch puts it:

Though most children are lovingly received by the mothers who conceive them, many children are unwanted. An unwanted child in his mother’s womb already senses that he is unwanted, even before his sense of touch has developed. For his nerves are already responding to the nerves of his mother’s body. If she resents his presence in her womb, he feels this in all the fibres of his being, and he reacts with an incipient fear of the very one who should be loving and cherishing him (2).

It seems to me that one of the great merits of the “charismatic renewal” in recent decades in the various Christian Churches and ecclesial bodies has been to facilitate the Spirit of God in not only indicating the existence of such hurts, but even more in pointing to the possibility of their being healed.

Let us turn again to my friend. Eventually, by the gift of God’s grace, she became consciously aware of her previous negativity toward the child she was carrying and told me that after her birth (the child was a girl) she did all she could to lavish special affection on this child to make up for her attitude of unwelcome during those important first weeks of life. My friend had become sensitized to a profound fact that is more and more recognized by modern psychology, namely that from the beginning of life in the womb a child (fetus) is influenced by the disposition of those closest to it, most especially by its mother.

What we have considered here from a psychological perspective translates into an equally important theological one. It speaks of original sin as the state of “being hurt by the sins of others through no fault of one’s own.” It is a process which began in Adam and Eve and, as attested to by the Psalmist (Ps 51:5), affects each of us concretely from the first moment of our existence. Quite without our being able to do anything about it, we are marred in our very formation, not insofar as our life comes from God, but insofar as the effects of the sins of others are communicated to us and hurt us. Father Hinnebusch puts it this way:

The sin of our “first parents” is transmitted to us in the sins of our more immediate parents, and we in turn ratify it. Thus, the child who is already fearful and resentful in his mother’s womb is likely someday to accept consciously and ratify willingly this resentment, which at first is but the spontaneous reaction of the nerve fibres of his sense life. His is likely to turn the resentment into sin when he comes to the use of reason by consenting to it and turning it into a willful act of rejection of those who have rejected him. And thus he too will become a full-fledged sinner like those who have sinned against him (3).