The Grandmotherly Love of God
Published February 2010, St Anthony Messenger
When he’s happy, he does a run-hop-run in a sort of galloping, skipping gait. I can hear him skipping down the hallway, his bare little feet in search of me. All wound up this morning because he’s found an old Tootsie Pop in the bottom of the toy-box, he jabbers excitedly in the language of a two-year old, breathlessly amazed that such a treasure could be found buried under the Legos. Calling my name in his wonderful gibberish, he pants, “Maama, Maama!” He cannot yet say Grama, which pleases me because there is no one else named Maama. It is a name that belongs to our relationship only, to him and to me.
When he finally skids into the living room and finds me there, I act as if I don’t even know that he exists. With my feet propped upon the footstool, I turn to the local section of the morning paper and take another leisurely sip of coffee. I can see over the ruffled edge of the flimsy newsprint that he’s now jumping up and down in front of me, trying desperately to communicate. I know that if I ignore him long enough, he will climb up onto the sofa next to me, take my face in his warm little hands and turn me toward him. That’s all I really want from him. His nearness. I bide my time reading and, sure enough, he is soon next to me, sitting as straight and tall as possible, stretching his short legs to their full length and even then they do not reach the rim of the couch cushion.
“Maama?” he asks tapping his two biggest toes together.
“Yes?” I pretend halfhearted interest, barely glancing in his direction. He knows he is going to have to carefully plead his case. He does not know yet how easily my heart will burst for him.
“Wook,” he says. “Sucker.”
“Hmmmmmm,” I say, acknowledging his find.
“Open?” he appeals to me with his eyes widened, brows arched and head leaning so far to the right that his tiny ear rests atop his shoulder. I am nearly drawn into this trap. His eyes so blue and pure, his face so beautiful and near that I can count the ten freckles sprinkled across his nose and I want to smother it with kisses. But, I cannot because he will know then that he has won and how easy it was. Instead, I say, matter-of-factly, “Not now, Aiden. First you must finish your cereal.” I point sternly back in the direction of the kitchen.
“Oh, no!” he laments and buries his head into the sofa cushions with great sorrow and high drama. His worst possible fears were coming true. His mouth is hanging open as though grieving and I pull in my cheeks to avoid smirking. I go back to reading the paper as he sits and stews and contemplates his next move. From the corner of my vision, I can see him picking slowly and carefully at the candy wrapper just to see if it is possible to remove it without adult assistance. Every time the stiff waxy paper makes the sound of a crinkle, he looks quickly up at me to see if he has been observed. After partially freeing the wrapper, and realizing he that he could go all the way with it, he stops himself—apparently deciding that ultimately it is in his best interest to win my cooperation. I am unsure now who is manipulating whom.
Suddenly his mood changes and he snuggles close to me. I know now that his plan has hatched and that he has likely broken into an angelic smile for my benefit, so I must look down upon him—because this is the part I cannot miss. Unconsciously tapping the Tootsie Pop against the palm of his tiny pink hand, he turns and plants kisses upon my bare arm. I cannot decide if I should die laughing or weeping.
“Pweeaassse?” He implores and I can now see my own son, his father, in his face. I am so full of love for both of them that it causes me a twinge of pain and sudden unexpected waves of lonesomeness wash over me for my own children when they were young. “Pweeaase, Maama?” this new young child, this gift of God, this vessel of pure love, asks again.
I think about making a deal with him, demanding that he eat three more spoonfuls of Cheerios before candy can be allowed. I’m sure that’s what he expects, but if I do that he will soon be off in other parts of the house playing and running again, forgetting that I exist and I will sit alone again with my newspaper. I must think quickly. “Grama will open the sucker for you, but you must sit right here next to me while you eat it. We cannot have you running around with a sucker stick in your hand. You could fall down and get hurt.” Safety makes sense to him, so he nods in agreement. He cannot hide a look of supreme satisfaction. He actually thinks he has been victorious over me. Of course, he is right.
Though he thinks we are bargaining over a piece of candy, I am bartering for something far greater. He makes me laugh, but not in the way of having heard a joke, rather in a bubbling up of joy. He began unknowingly teaching me something that I could not, at first, name. Something of which, I had not even been aware, I had been longing to learn. The child was leading me to God in a new way, taking me upon a path I could not have traveled when raising my own children. I was too exhausted then, too obsessed with getting it all right. This child was placing me inside God’s heart so that I could taste more closely what it is to love as God loves, for God surely loves like a grandmother. I began seeing the world, seeing him, seeing myself with the eyes of God.
In the past few years I have only scratched the surface of this grandmotherly love of God, this new kind of love. Or rather, this particular face of love that is new to me. So many of us, when young, thought that romantic love was real love, when in fact it is only the mustard seed of true love. And though the love of parent for child and child for parent is closer still to god-like love, grandparent to grandchild is the closest I have come to glimpsing the love that God has for us. It is more pure than what we feel for our parents, our spouses, even our own children because it is unencumbered by expectations; is uncluttered by disappointment and the only burden of responsibility it carries is boundless love.
One year for Christmas, when he was just learning to walk, I gave him a small baby-doll dressed in blue. He was immediately smitten with it and for several years would not sleep without it. When my own sons—five grown men—saw that I had given the boy a doll for Christmas, they gasped in unison. A communal surge of testosterone filled the room as they all objected to the gift. But I told them that when boys learn to hug teddy bears and dolls, they begin learning how to be more affectionate fathers—so I won that small battle—though they continue, even today, to refer to the doll as an “action figure”.
A few years later, when my grandson entered kindergarten, the children were invited to bring a favorite toy or book to class for Show-n-Tell. He was very excited to share his most valued possession with his new friends, but when he pulled from his bookbag the battered and well-loved doll, the entire classroom burst into teasing laughter. He was surprised and confused and tasted humiliation for the first time in his life. Yet, his parents reported, by the end of the day he seemed able to shake it off.
However I, months later, could not shake off the pain of the incident so easily. Even though I knew this was a miniscule bump in his life’s journey, I wanted to throw my body in his path to absorb any hurts before they reached him. I not only regretted giving the gift that led to his embarrassment, but I visualized myself marching into that classroom and committing horrendous acts of violence against other five-year-old children—other children who were also innocent and ignorant. From my vantage point of age and some wisdom and understanding, I saw the imperfection of this planet beginning to move toward him and I saw again the world with the eyes of God. I saw that even in innocence and ignorance—or perhaps especially in innocence and ignorance—we cause other members of the human family pain and I wondered if God finds that unbearable.
I saw, through tears, that after only five years on this planet, my grandson was already learning how to build that protective shell around his psyche and I realized what a profound waste of human energy that is. I wondered if this, a small example of our human condition, demonstrates how it is that God might weep over—whether we are victims or perpetrators of—acts of unkindness, sarcasm, racism, sexism and homophobia, selfishness and apathy, consumerism and greed, isolation, loneliness. Not because we have broken a rule and landed ourselves in a state of sin, but because we have—with our words and attitudes and beliefs—pierced thorns through others’ skins, left scars on their hearts; we have all drawn blood.
Having come into the experience of tasting the grandmotherly love of God, I could not help but to see (and believe me, I tried to look the other way) the glaring difference, the gap really, between the love I feel for my grandchildren and the love I feel for others in the world. I do not know if it is possible, but I began to wonder, to fantasize, what the world might be like if we all loved as though we were grandmothers, which, I have come to believe, is what we are called to. I decided to pay closer attention to this and began wondering what this kind of love, if global, might look like. Then, while at Mass, I heard something in the Gospel of Matthew that I had never before noticed. That’s the beauty of repetition. Things often pop out when you most need to hear them. The small detail that struck me anew is an easy detail to miss because this gospel is so familiar we could snooze through it. Most of us can recite it from memory:
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come… For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
Then the righteous will say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?”
And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”
We know these words. We pray the words. We weave the words into our liturgies and sing them in our hymns. Yet, we sometimes miss the most astounding aspect of this story Jesus tells, which is that neither group, those on His right hand nor those on His left—the “saved” nor the “unsaved”—neither group realized that they were serving God—or not serving God as the case might be. The righteous were just as surprised as the sinners to learn that God had been waiting all along—all their lives—in the poor, the imprisoned, the excluded.
The righteous had no idea that their acts of kindness had anything whatsoever to do with pleasing God. This point bears repeating. The good were not consciously trying to be good and loving, rather their actions were innate and reactionary and, possibly, even pro-actionary. Their actions were not about gaining merit, chalking up points, or storing up heavenly treasures. So if they expected nothing for themselves, what then motivated them?
I can tell you, for myself, as a person who would never pass up a few brownie points, this whole concept rattled me, left me scratching my head—until I learned of my grandson’s experience in the classroom. Then I understood. Because the immense love and empathy I felt in that situation had nothing whatsoever to do with pleasing God or gaining anything for myself. I saw that the empathy of God’s sheep is born of pure love, love without stipulation or promise of reward, love that is not even about pleasing God—yet is, whether we realize it or not, born of and planted by God.
This grandmotherly love of God is something I can remember and carry with me into the world. Because I’ll tell you, it is not easy for me to remember to see the face of Jesus in every other face on this planet. I forget. But I can easily imagine the faces of my grandchildren. If it were they who were starving, if it were they who had no place to call home, I would act without hesitation, without stopping to consider personal consequences. We are not only capable of such love, and called to such a love, but according to this gospel it is our one and only purpose on this earth. That’s the picture of love that Jesus paints and the picture of Judgment Day seems not to be about fear, but rather, about how we will be each asked in the end, “How well did you love?”