The world resounds with many voices and noises.
Some voices are good. Some tunes ring with beauty and truth. Other sounds are irritating or discordant. Some words are reasonable and pure, while others are angry and erroneous. The words we use to form our thoughts reveal the heart. The human heart is also revealed in art.
There’s an art to listening well, and many a devoted mom has learned it. Mothers are subjected to frequent clamor and commotion. Children bang pots, coo, sing songs, ask for help, cry, and play loudly. The chatter of childhood can be beautiful—and sometimes chaotic. While little ones amuse themselves by growing and learning through games, moms are often busy with the chores of daily life.
Listening with “half an ear,” mothers learn to distinguish between the chords of revelry and distress, tuning in and out as necessary. Having four children myself, I register the hum of war and peace all day long, sometimes smiling at my children’s activities and other times offering a quick correction. While noise is the norm, total silence can raise alarm. In an active house, silence is rare. In fact, it often accompanies danger. When a little one breaks into the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink and discovers cleaning supplies, everything gets quiet.
The other day, during a precious instance of curated “quiet time,” I sat in the chapel with my 4-year-old. He munched snacks, milled about, and occasionally knelt to offer prayers beside me. After we had been there for a while, our priest entered to pray. Suddenly, with another person in the room, I became aware of just how crunchy a pack of pretzels could be. I laughed and told the priest, “A mom never hears how loud her child is until she realizes someone else is listening.” He answered with a story about Mother Teresa. A new nun once asked the saint if the noise from the busy street corner beyond the chapel disturbed her prayers. Mother Teresa is said to have answered to the effect of, “Noise? What noise?”
Now I know why they called her “Mother.”
From the litany of words, whistles, and disturbances that surround a person in a lifetime, a great part of growing to be strong and sound is learning when and how to listen. It’s critical to discern what’s important and what isn’t, what’s true and what’s false, what’s good and what’s evil.
In a highly politicized society, amid anxious reports of pandemic problems, educational instabilities, authenticity issues, and so forth, Americans are inundated with rhetoric. Media outlets report contradictory accounts of the same events. Politicians scribble out a shifting landscape of essential mandates. Corporate experts impose counterintuitive new norms. “Fact-checkers” crop up across social media platforms to assume a role as the arbiters of truth.
But what qualifies them to dictate the truth? What are “fact-checkers” really? To some, they’re reminiscent of the thought police. For the sake of reminding my children how important it is to think well for themselves, I coined a little acronym: Free American Conversation Terminators.
“Trust the science,” is a common one-liner deployed against argumentation. Yet science is experimental by its very nature. Shouldn’t it be good practice to question and consider the accuracy of new ideas? Like children, young science should be curious.
Another slogan we often hear is “Black Lives Matter.” It’s an obvious truth, yet the slogan implies more than the words suggest. “Black Lives Matter” is a mantra and a title shared with a Marxist organization of questionable quality and intent.
Motherly Love: Teaching Discernment in a Modern World
In the English language, we have fewer words for love than others. Take ancient Greek, for example. The Greeks distinguished clearly between the many and various manifestations of love and passionate feelings. The term “eros” referred to physical love and attraction. “Philia” applied to the high love of friendship. “Storge” was a word created to express familial love. And “agape” pertained to the love of God for man or man for God in a more self-sacrificing manner.
Love takes gravely different forms. Motherly love is one of the most special kinds of affection because it’s so selfless. Authentic love always involves self-giving and seeks the good of the beloved. It will never do harm, although it’s willing to suffer.
St. Paul explained the nature of love exceptionally well when he wrote, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”
Since the English language isn’t overflowing with words for it, the word “love” gets broadly used and misused. How many times have you said, “I love cake” or “I love that car”? The kind of love described in such statements is distinctly different and vastly less significant in meaning from “I love my mom.” In a landscape of rapidly shifting ideas about life and love, pithy slogans often make for poor guides.
Love is central to humanity for all time. It must be practiced, considered, and authenticated. For the occasion of the 23rd World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI offered guidance addressing a mostly adolescent audience.
“Love has a particular trait,” he said. “Far from being indulgent or fickle, it has a task or purpose to fulfill: to abide. By its nature, love is enduring.”
Love carries eternity within it.
Differentiating between feelings, unchecked impulses, and false dispositions is as essential to love as doing good by the beloved. In a time when society is hyper-fixated on feelings, capricious as they are, I remind my children that love is an action word. When we love well, peace, joy, and mercy will be the fruits.
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a French academic realist artist from the 19th and late 20th centuries, painted many images of love in various forms. Like so many great writers, artists, philosophers, and academicians in the generations that preceded ours, Bouguereau made a clear distinction between the various meanings and expressions that so many English speakers today simply lump into the broad term “love.” A magnificently prolific painter, some of the highlights of his work may be viewed here. My personal favorite is the painting “The Shell.” Created in 1871, the image reveals the love of a mother as she gently teaches her child how to listen and make distinctions among the sounds of the world.