We are over halfway through the season of Lent, and today, Mothering Sunday, is named after a 16th-century tradition of attending the church you grew up in, the place where you were baptized, or the church your mother attends. “Going a-mothering” meant traveling to your home church, the place where you came from.
Secular society would eventually transform this tradition into Mother’s Day, celebrated each second Sunday of May. However, the Mothering Sunday of Lent historically had more to do with returning to one’s religious roots (and giving servants a day off to do so, too) than celebrating woman’s roles of wife and mother (although going a-mothering often involved little children gathering wildflower bouquets for their mothers on their way to the church).
One beautiful tradition from the United Kingdom thought to be associated with Mothering Sunday was “clipping the church,” in which the congregation would stand in a circle around the outside of the church, hold hands, and collectively embrace their church building as a community.
There is such loveliness in this notion of expressing gratitude and affection to the place that introduced yourself to God and spirituality.
I have many friends, myself included, whose testimony of Christ’s gospel and Joseph Smith’s restoration have changed dramatically over the years, stronger in many facets, but complicated in others. I’ve heard more than one person express nostalgia or even an urgent yearning or grieving for a former, less complicated, more “pure” or non-questioning faith: the faith of their childhoods. Of course, things of our childhood always look golden in retrospect, but I still remember many days as a Primary child worrying deeply about complicated questions: What if Noah had missed some animals when he left in his ark? What if I sin after I am baptized and I forget to repent? What if I don’t make it to the Celestial Kingdom—what then? Will I know if I “deny the Holy Ghost”—what if it happens by accident? Will Great-Grandma really have to choose between her dead husband and her current husband someday? What if Great-Grandpa isn’t who she picks? Will he still be my Great-Grandpa? What will happen to my heathen relatives that are lovely and funny and good but who drink coffee and don’t go to church?
My testimony has always been complicated; it’s just that the complications have evolved with my testimony and my psyche over time.
Today, unfortunately, my own sick-with-coughs children keeps me from going a-mothering or even a-churching at all. So today I make a mental journey to the church experiences of my youth. I don’t remember much about the first couple of church buildings of my childhood, but I do remember a Primary teacher I had when my father was finishing school at the University of Utah, before I was baptized, before we moved away from Salt Lake. I want to say her name was Sister Woolley, because I associate her still with the soft image of sheep, but I couldn’t say this for sure. I remember her, because she was a Primary teacher I always felt perfectly safe with and loved by. She was older, I remember—her own children had already grown up. I don’t remember a husband, but he could have existed. I remember she invited our entire CTR-A class over to her home to make Sunday boxes together on a special weeknight. This wasn’t something required—it was something extra that she thought would be nice. She sent us home with cardstock invitations to give to our parents, asking permission. My mom dropped me off at her house (brick, many trees) and told me she would return in a half hour to pick me up. I was a preschooler still getting used to being “dropped off” anywhere. I remember sitting at a large round table with my other classmates from church (people I only ever saw on Sunday); Sis. Woolley had given each of us an old shoe box with a slit in the top like a receptacle for Valentines. There was a pile of markers, crayons, and stickers to decorate our boxes with, and while we worked, Sis. Woolley told us about the slips of paper that our boxes would hold, that on Sunday if we were bored and didn’t know how to keepthesabbathdayholy we could pull a piece of paper out from the box and have our parents help us with the selected task: everything from “plant a flower seed” to “write a love letter to relative that lives far away.” I remember Sis. Woolley had baked cookies for us, too, but the most vivid memory of all were these sheets of scratch-and-sniff stickers she had bought for our boxes. These were the scratch-and-sniff stickers of the mid-80s, the truly potent kind that really smelled like pizza or lemons or donuts or strawberries, probably with the aid of some toxic chemical that we have since wised up about and banned from children’s merchandise. Even still, whenever I get a whiff of stale pizza and old paper (typically during the grading frenzy of finals’ week, when my husband and I are surrounded by student papers, library books, and day-old pizza), I remember those scratch-and-sniff stickers, those Sunday boxes, Sis. Woolley’s (Whoolery’s? Whooley’s?) dining room table, and—most of all—Sis. W’s unconditional love for all of her students.
I don’t ever remember her reprimanding us. I don’t ever remember getting in trouble or being shushed. I do remember her eyes brimming with tears when she told us how much Jesus loved us—how much she couldn’t even tell us because His love is bigger than words.
This is the mental place I am returning to in honor of Mothering Sunday today: a church mother, a Primary teacher, who helped to ignite the first flames of faith in my heart for a Savior that loves bigger than words. Even today, this is what helps me the most as I navigate complicated questions of my faith. In the end, regardless of questions, doubts, and fears, the only thing that matters to me is that Something exists whose love is bigger than words.
Where are the places and who are the people that you would “clip the church” with today, if you could?
The hymn today is a children’s song that, while it focuses more on Mother’s Day than Mothering Sunday, is a lovely little song that celebrates gratitude and helps me to imagine these children hundreds of years ago as they gather wildflowers for their mothers on their way to church during Lent.
Mormon Lectionary Project
Mothering Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent)
The Collect: We are grateful for knowing Thee, and for the places where we were first taught to feel Thy Divine Spirit. We are grateful for the mothers, fathers, grandparents, neighbors, friends, children, siblings, teachers, and companions who have taught us and shown us different aspects of Thee and Thy Great Plan. Please guide us in our appreciation for sacred spaces. Please secure our earliest memories of Divine Light and Truth, that we may never forget, but that we may have these memories brought to our remembrance. Bless us to learn fresh what we partook of long ago, that we may recall the people and places that set the stage for when our testimonies first sprouted, our covenants were first made, and when we were first introduced to Thee and the perfect example of Christ, Amen.