A mother has to humble herself even with her own children, so as not to be irritated, and not spare a punishment when it is necessary. And what patience, what sufferings are required throughout the education of her children, in their illnesses and the correction of their faults!
As a mother of four young children I am daily confronted with lessons in patience and suffering. So when I first read this I immediately latched on to those words. But when I went back to re-read it, I was struck by the phrase "A mother has to humble herself". He did not say that a mother will become humble simply by having children; rather he says that she must humble herself.
What does it mean, to humble oneself? Why should I be humble as a mother? I have been pondering these questions over the past week or so and I am slowly beginning to realize how profound the answers are.
I have often thought that being a mother is like having a mirror in front of me at all times. I am continually confronted with my own faults, mirrored in the actions of my children. I suffer great grief knowing that because of my inability to set a perfect example my own sins will inevitably be passed on to my children, and I weep when I think of the suffering that it will mean for them. (I sometimes wonder if this is what it means when it says in Exodus 34:7 that the sins of the fathers will be visited upon the children.) Perhaps this is part of what St. Seraphim refers to when he says that the mother must not be irritated. How can I be irritated when my children are only behaving as they have been taught to behave by my example? Certainly knowing my own sins is a great beginning when it comes to humility, but it is only a beginning. There is more to it.
The word humble is derived from the Latin humilis which means low, lowly, on the ground. It is also related to the word humus which is essentially fertile ground. The ground is a thing taken for granted; always there, never remembered, trodden upon; a place to dump refuse, silent, always accepting of whatever comes.
If I desire to be humble I must be ready to be taken for granted and trodden upon. I must accept what comes to me without complaint, in silence. As a mother I must be prepared to always be there for my children and be willing to drop my own agenda in order to seek God's will for them.
What this does not mean, however, is that I must allow my children to abuse me as a person or as an authority. If I allow them to disobey or to speak to or treat me disrespectfully in the name of "turning the other cheek" I am not being humble. I am instead allowing my own way to take the place of God's way. Sometimes I don't want to discipline because I feel sorry for my children, or because I see that they had a "valid reason" for doing what they did. Many times I choose not to punish or enforce rules because it involves too much effort on my part at a given moment. It takes a lot of energy to keep four kids in order and sometimes I am just tired. I don't want to stop what I am doing to teach them to behave. I want to be able to just finish what I am doing, because I am number one. My duty to my children can come later, after I've finished what I have to do just now.
My role as a mother is to teach my children to behave as Christians behave. I am to train them to obey and to be respectful of others and to forget self in order to serve others. The best way of course is by example. But as I mentioned above, more often than not my example falls short of what it should be. I model sinfulness rather than godliness. And of course my children have their own temperaments and certain actions come easier to them than others. So I must train them. Part of that training involves discipline and sometimes even punishment. If I forgo punishing them for their disobedient or disrespectful behavior I am actually allowing them to build the habits of disobedience and disrespect. I am essentially saying that my way is better than the way that God has established. As St. Seraphim put it, I must be humble enough to "...not spare a punishment when it is necessary." I must have the humility it takes to put down my own project, to stop what I am doing right now and go and take care of another. Charlotte Mason puts it well when she says,
There are two services open to us all, the service of God (including that of man) and the service of self.
I must put my children before my self, and in so doing serve Christ, whom I claim to love better than anything.
May God help me to humble myself, and to put Him first in all things.