Mothers of Faith

Motherhood in the Christian Tradition

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Wilfred M. Sumani
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , December
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626982574.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this unique treasure of a book, Wilfred M. Sumani, SJ encounters a Christian “mother of faith” in each chapter. First he presents her biography using scriptural sources and historical scholarship, then he offers a reflection and some conclusions on her experience of motherhood, drawing from a delightfully eclectic range of sources: the homilies of John Chrysostom, other Christian patristic thinkers from the East and West, world literature, scriptural exegesis from the ancient world, contemporary scholarship, philosophy, and African narrative. Finally, he closes each chapter with a prayer of his own composition, and here is where his excellent Christian imagination is on display at its finest. 

Anyone familiar with Christian tradition knows that many of its stories of mothers from scripture are not particularly pleasant. For example, there is Hagar, a household slave, whose motherhood is neither by choice nor in wedlock—she is given to her mistress’s husband in order to produce an heir—and which brings her much despair (Gen. 16 and 21). Yet, Sumani approaches his mothers of faith with such care and generosity that he finds, in every case study, much to offer his reader, and he does so without the sugarcoating or bowdlerizing that one sometimes finds in other, less sophisticated pastoral volumes on motherhood. His munificence is on display in his prayer at the close of the Hagar chapter: “Lord God, your mysterious plans surpass our understanding. Of old you chose Hagar to be a mother of Ishmael … Lead all struggling mothers, especially single mothers, to the waters of hope and renew their confidence in you, who live and reign forever. Amen” (32).

His honesty with his sources invites honesty in his readership, too. By telling the stories of mothers of faith in the Christian tradition that have experienced slavery, alcoholism, all manner of oppression, and despair, Sumani affirms that mothers today experience these things, too, and offers them an honest hope amidst their own narratives. After his discussion of Monica, Saint Augustine’s mother, and her troubles with alcoholism and years of pray and worry for her son’s soul, he offers this prayer: “O God, who received the sacrifice of tears of your handmaid Monica for the conversion of her dear son, hear the prayers of the many mothers who cry to you on account of their wayward children, so that they may rejoice at the spiritual rebirth of their sons and daughters” (207). 

In his closing chapters, he addresses motherhood in theological language, especially as used in reference to God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Earth. With his easy frankness, he demonstrates that motherhood is a theological analogy that has been used from the earliest days of the Church—including by Jesus himself and the Church “Fathers”—and that has purchase on African soil. In closing, he suggests that theological concepts of the mother have uniquely consoling powers; as he says, “in many languages, when one is hurt, one spontaneously invokes mother—understandably so—since mother is closest to her child. It is consoling and reassuring to realize that God is closer to God’s children than a mother is to her baby” (287). 

Mothers of Faith: Motherhood in the Christian Tradition is a welcome addition to the slowly growing body of work on motherhood in Christianity and will serve anyone who wishes to further contemplate how this universal human experience is lived, expressed, and understood in Christianity. Sumani’s pastoral gifts are to be celebrated; that someone who, obviously, has not experienced motherhood himself could write such a book is a testament to his incredible powers of observation and sensitivity to those to whom he ministers. His conviction that “motherhood is one of the most theologically fertile human and Christian experiences” (xv) comes through on every page.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carrie Frederick Frost is Professor of Theology at Saint Sophia Ukranian Orthodox Seminary.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wilfred M. Sumani, SJ, holds a doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy, Sant’Anselmo, Rome, and teaches at Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya.

Keywords: 

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