Rosemary Haughton on Mother Church and her twin sister

…here I want to suggest an answer by sketching two allegorical figures.

One of them is a very familiar personage. Her name is “Mother Church.” She is, in many ways, an admirable and dedicated person, deeply concerned about her children, endlessly and tirelessly careful for every detail of their welfare. Her long experience has taught her to understand her family very well. She knows their capabilities and she knows their weakness even better. She is patient and imperturbable, quite unshockable (she has witnessed all of the considerable range of human wickedness in her time) and there are no lengths to which she ill not go to educate her family. She has a huge fund of stories, maxims and advice, all of them time-tested, and usually interesting as well. She is very talented, skilled in creating a beautiful home for her children; she can show them how to enrich their lives with the glory of music and art. And there is no doubt that she loves God, and wishes to guide her children according to his will.

On the other hand, she is extremely inclined to feel that her will and God’s are identical. In her eyes there can be no better, no other, way than hers. If she is unshockable, she is frequently cynical. She is shrewd, with a thoroughly earthy and often humorous shrewdness. She knows her children’s limitations so well that she will not allow them to outgrow them. She will lie and cheat if she feels it is necessary to keep her charges safe; she uses her authority ‘for their own good’ but if it seems to be questioned she is ruthless in suppressing revolt. She is hugely self-satisfied, and her judgement, while experienced, is often insensitive and therefore cruel. She is suspicious of eccentricity and new ideas, since her own are so clearly effective, and non-conformists get a rough time, though after they are dead she often feels differently about them.

This is Mother Church, a crude, domineering, violent, loving, deceitful, compassionate old lady, a person to whom one cannot be indifferent, whom may one may love much and yet fight against, whom one may hate and yet respect.

But when Mother Church was born it appears that she was not alone. A twin sister was also born, and her name is Sophia – the Greek word for wisdom; but in fact this name is seldom used because she is one of those people who show a markedly different side of themselves in different relationships, and her many friends, as well as her enemies, tend to call her by pet names, or (in the latter case) by uncomplimentary nicknames. Among her many names are Romantic Love, Mysticism, Superstition, Inspiration, Adventure, Imprudence, Sanctity, Folly. Another reason why few people know her real name is that as they grew up together her twin sister found her so difficult to deal with and so embarrassing that although she was both too good-hearted and too conscientious to turn Sophia out she did do her best to minimize her part in the business of caring for their common charges. Mother Church, in fact, did not much like it to be known that she divided the responsibility with her twin, though sometimes her better nature prevailed and she admitted, in bursts of generous homage, that she couldn’t possibly manage without Sophia.

It was, in fact, easy for Mother Church to allow the impression to prevail that she alone had the care of all those children, because Sophia was often not in evidence. You never knew where she would be or what she would be doing. At one time she would be telling marvelous tales or singing strange songs to the babies. At another she would be found inexplicably and bitterly weeping, and the next moment swapping outrageous jokes with somebody. Sometimes she was inaccessible at the top of a turret, wrapped in prayer, after which she returned to the family with reports of marvelous visions seen from her window, which upset everybody and sent them off on quests and adventures. When her sister asked sensible questions about her methods and aims, she gave ridiculous answers or refused to answer at all. Frequently she did not come in to meals, didn’t hear quite clear request for help, or came to greet rich visitors in clothes fit for the barnyard. She also wrote and illustrated books which the children read instead of learning their lessons, and played the piano to them when they were supposed to be doing the dishes. She grew roses in the places where her sister wanted to plant potatoes, and when the roses bloomed she cut them all to make wreaths for the children’s heads, instead of decorating the house when visitors were expected. (But the wreath that she wore on her own head, when nobody was looking, was a wreath of brambles.)

Nearly everybody loved Sophia, because one couldn’t help it, yet even those who loved her admitted that it was just as well Mother Church was there also, to sort out the muddles Sophia made, sweep up after her riotous games with the children, apologize to the neighbors for her odd behavior, provide answers to questions she raised, and generally keep the place going. Otherwise, how could anyone grow up properly?

But the strange thing is that the two sisters, in spite of everything, have always been devoted to each other. They still are, though their respective admirers, alas, do not always copy them in this.

— Rosemary Haughton, The Catholic Thing, 9-11.

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