Many have heard of Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian who in 2009 enraged the Muslim women with whom she was harvesting berries by drinking from their well. She was beaten, arrested, and convicted of blasphemy—which is a capital crime. Conversion to Islam would end the ordeal, but that is unthinkable to Mrs. Bibi, a Catholic, and thus she lingers from appeal to appeal, trusting in God.
She lives in solitary confinement, is given the means to cook her own food (because of the fear of poison), and receives visits from her family—which is a very hard way to mother. Amidst the betrayal by her neighbors, the injustice of the system, and the courage required to remain Christian, she also endures a particular hardship in that this mother of five cannot engage properly with her children.
Being a Christian in a country that is 97% Muslim is a challenge, as is living in dire poverty where the opportunity to earn almost $4.00 for a day’s work in oppressive heat would be enticing to the wife of a bricklayer. But neither of those circumstances prohibited Mrs. Bibi from attending to her family the way her confinement has, and one can imagine the pain of knowing that your children live and work and study in a world apart from your own.
Despite visiting their mother in the jail cell, the children must cope with a death sentence hanging over their family and the taunts and barbs of their peers, both of which create a perverse psychology. They know that to cling to her is to risk greater heartache, and yet to abandon her is to betray their very souls. As for Mrs, Bibi, for seven years she has been unable to offer the countless daily gestures of affection integral to every family—agony for her, and an eternity for the children!
While we cannot neglect to pray for her and for all who suffer persecution, as we embark on a month dedicated to Mary and mothers we should remember that there are many women who are unable to mother as they wish. Women can be separated from their children for many reasons—work, displacement, incarceration, and war—and every situation is its own cross. Prayer may seem an empty gesture when the arms ache for hugs, but don’t be fooled. Prayer is the first gift—even when the children are within reach!
The fresh beauty of spring is not far from the shade of the Cross, and Our Lord’s words from its boughs offer seeds of healing. As he said to Mary: “Behold your son,” he not only entrusted John to her maternal care but taught us an essential lesson. All of our children should be offered to Our Lady, who then places her mantle of protection around them. She is the treasured bride of the Spirit whom we will soon celebrate on Pentecost, and thus a special channel of divine grace that will safeguard their path.
For many broken souls, motherhood is either a void or a cloud of confusion, and they too are invited to reach out to Mary, who wants to embrace every child of the Heavenly Father. All it takes is a moment of whimsy, in which we turn our own toddler steps to the Woman who knows. She knows the anguish of frustrated dreams that lie in many directions, and is the mother we all need—the one who steps in when the vagaries of life sever the ties God intended. Mrs. Bibi, who clings to faith in the direst of circumstances, knows that; likewise we would do well to entrust our children—and ourselves—to the Mother of Fairest Love. Her embrace will suffice, her maternal gaze will heal, and her hand will lead us home.