In the New Testament, widows flourish in their ministry as they draw close to Christ and to Christ’s people. They are free to follow the Crucified One … Concerning widows in the early Church … some of them constituted the first form of consecration in the Church!
Recently I was asked by another widow, “Why do you refer to yourself as a widow? Why not just as a woman who lost her husband? Widow has a bad connotation—black widow spider? Merry widow, not so good either.” Yet, one reason for calling oneself a widow would be that the life and the “vocation” of a widow is quite different from the life of a married woman or a single woman. In “the world,” this difference can mean many things, often depending on the age of the widow and the predominant characteristics of her marriage(s). For a younger widow, the first thing many think about is whether she has the funds to take care of her children. For an older widow, the first thing most people think of is how lonely she might be, and what could be done to help her. Furthermore, for those with long, very close relationships to their spouses, the grief is different from that of a widow whose marriage was rocky; in which case, a feeling of liberation might be present.
A look at famous widows in Scripture provides clues to their state of life. Passages, especially from the New Testament, offer ideas about ministering to them. And a study of the widow-saints can inform about their options and the joy they feel as they grow closer to Jesus, the Second Bridegroom. The insights in this article are based on my book, Walk with Me, Jesus: A Widow’s Journey, published by Simon Peter Press. It is a revision of a previous book I wrote, called A Widow’s Walk: Encouragement, Comfort, and Wisdom from the Widow-Saints, published by Our Sunday Visitor.
Old Testament Widows
In Scripture, we find forlorn, poor widows (in Old Testament times, widows could not inherit wealth or property); heroic widows; and widows in the Early Church, free to serve more easily than before when they were busy serving their husbands.
Examples would be Ruth, first forlorn, but then heroic in her willingness to leave her own people and follow her mother-in-law to a foreign land. Later, an older man marries her (see the Book of Ruth). Ruth serves as a model for widows who need protection from second husbands, or more often, from older men in their families, and in the parish.
Heroic Judith (see the Book of Judith) not only delivered her people from tyranny, but refused to marry, instead living to 105 years old, it is recounted, as a teacher to the elders! Here is a model for widows who make a private vow or a public consecration. As a teacher, the widow acts as a prototype of Mary, exalted widow (an appellation to be found in a Hispanic novena), teaching the Apostles after the death of Jesus (as described so beautifully in private revelations such as Bd. Maria Agreda’s Mystical City of God. Of course these descriptions are only “alleged.”
Most widows in the New Testament are described in roles of service. I find it sweet that the widow Tabitha (Dorcas) is raised from the dead because she was so useful to the community, they couldn’t do without her (Acts 9:36-42).
Contemplative widows are foreshadowed by Anna, early widowed, praying in the Temple for decades for the coming of the Messiah. We usually think of Mary as a contemplative widow, especially from traditions surrounding Ephesus. Some say that Jesus was especially sensitive to widows because he knew his mother would be one! He gives Mary into the hands of John, which he would not have done if Joseph were still alive, it is thought.
New Testament Widows
In the New Testament, widows flourish in their ministry as they draw close to Christ and to Christ’s people. They are free to follow the Crucified One, and even in Mark 12:38-40, we learn of leaders who devour widows’ houses. This passage might be related to some strong male spiritual leaders in our times, on whom widows sometimes dote, causing fear of loss of inheritance by their adult children! (“Give your money to our movement, parish, project vs. saving it to give to your worldly children?”) When working on the rule for a lay community, I was struck by the priest leader’s insistence that widows handle their own funds, precisely to avoid fears their adult children might have. Of course, the male leader, to whom the widow wants to give her money, could be holy and right about the children.
The widow’s mite (Mk 12:41-44; Lk 21:1-4) has a meaning of its own. The mite is a symbol of total self-giving and trust in Divine Providence. Some scholars think the passages indicate that widows wore a special kind of dress for Jesus to have identified one in a crowd.
The widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17), overcome with grief because of the death of her son, can serve as an example to persuade widows in a parish to accept the help of Grief Ministry groups. The not unusual combination of “losing” a husband and an adult child often calls for even more than the typical need for help.
If I may introduce a humorous note, the nagging widow (Lk 18:1-8) probably requires no commentary for priests sometimes beset by widows, bereft of husbands, seeking a protective male figure to take on the burden of all their problems. The passage suggests that it is better to accede!
Concerning widows in the early Church, you might not realize that some of them constituted the first form of consecration in the Church! The ministry of consecrated widows gradually disappeared with the founding of communities of nuns. It is presently being revived. (The Vatican is working on an official ritual for the consecrating of widows whose lives would be similar to that of Consecrated Virgins, i.e., they would typically not live in community, but each one would have an approved rule of life. Some bishops throughout the world are experimenting with consecrating widows. About such options, see “widows” on my homepage www.rondachervin.com.)
In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, we find important references to widows: “Widows with children or grandchildren or elderly parents are to take care of their own families.” Widows who are alone, however, are to live in prayer. Care should be taken that younger widows not make commitments they will later regret if they desire to remarry. But remarriage is not contrary to the faith.
The gossipy ways of widows is explained as resulting from going from house to house. I came to understand perfectly this seemingly strange passage when the big Northridge, California, earthquake occurred two months after I was widowed. The part of my family I was living with fled from California. I was taken in by different well-wishers. Well, mea culpa! In the house I would visit second, I would talk about the troubles in house one, and in house three, of the troubles in houses one and two, and so on.
Passages about drunken widows also became more understandable. A wife may have been used to having, say, a cocktail before dinner with her husband, wine at the table, and maybe a liquor after dinner. In the grieving process, she notices that she feels a little better when she has these drinks. How easy to decide that having some more of these at lunch would improve that time of day as well! This is a serious subject, as it is said that there is a large problem of alcoholism among the aging, especially widows and widowers, if they choose to live alone.
You probably know that one reason the early Christian community was urged to take care of widows was because if they were Jews who became Christians after their husbands died, the family wouldn’t necessarily take care of them as they would have if they had not converted.
Do you know the reason widows and orphans are coupled in many passages? I was told it was because the widows took care of the orphans!
Inspiration from the Lives of the Widow-Saints
The Common of Holy Women, Evening Prayer I Intercessions refers to widows who ease their loneliness and sanctify it by prayer and hospitality.
I broaden this description so that hospitality includes all the roles of service of widow-saints. From shorter and longer biographies, you probably know how well these words describe such widow-saints as St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Catherine of Genoa, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Elizabeth of Portugal, St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Jane of Chantal, St. Monica, and St. Rita of Cascia. In the history of U.S. saints, I love the accounts of St. Elizabeth Seton’s hospitality to priests!
You might increase your knowledge of less known widow-saints. For instance, you will find St. Paula interesting, a spiritual friend of the great scholar, St. Jerome, and a scholar herself. And Bd. Angela of Foligno (1248-1309) was one of the greatest Third Order Franciscan mystics of the Medieval Church. Investigating the life of Ven. Concepcion Cabrera de Armida (1862-1937) can aid in the instruction of Hispanic Catholics. Conchita, as she was called, was a grandmother mystic, foundress of five religious communities, and author of more than one hundred books. Her most popular translated book contains meditations for Eucharistic Adoration. A member of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit described her spirituality as being something like that of St. Therese of Lisieux, but more motherly. St. Frances of Rome (1384-1440) and St. Louise de Marillac (1591-1660) are models of active women foundresses. Bd. Marguerite D’Youville, an eighteenth century Canadian saint, might console widows whose husbands were addicts. Bd. Marguerite’s husband bankrupted the family, gambling with money he got from getting natives drunk and buying furs cheap. Bd. Marie of the Incarnation (1566-1618) experienced Jesus in mystical visions while watering down the horses in her husband’s carting business!
Servant of God, Praxedes Fernandez (died 1936), became the maid in her family’s home after her husband died, because her sister refused to let her come with her four little sons unless she was willing to take care of the whole household. Having no money of her own, she had to make clothing for her boys out of old garments in the attic.
Meeting Jesus in the Problems of Widowhood
I used to think that the more saintly a married woman was, the easier she would find widowhood. This was partly because I was under the illusion that most of the widow-saints were unhappily married (unequally yoked). Not so. Going through Butler’s Lives of the Saints, I discovered many widows who were reasonably happy in their marriages before widowhood. I also realized that the holy, sensitive heart of a woman saint is likely to experience grief even more poignantly than that of the more worldly woman!
You will find that if the death of their husbands comes after a long, drawn-out illness, most new widows feel piercing grief, but then recover soon afterwards. On the other hand, if the death was sudden, widows go through phases of numb shock, followed by a myriad of practical problems, and then settle into bewildered misery. Even widows whose husbands were not paragons of virtue may find that, no longer victims of his faults, they miss what virtue he possessed more than they ever could have predicted.
During the often long, long process of grieving, widows report that the greatest help was simply loving family and friends being with them and hugging them. Widows especially benefit from invitations on holidays and anniversaries.
Grief Groups are enormously helpful to some, but others of a less extroverted disposition sometimes wish that parishioners would not try to push them into activities they would not choose themselves. Such widows want loving company but not necessarily sharing their sorrows with relative strangers.
The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, certainly brings consolation to widows through such ministry of love by family and friends. At the same time, Jesus himself longs to become the Second Bridegroom of the widow by using her often expanded leisure time for more contemplative prayer. Eucharistic adoration is often the best way for the widow to come into such encounters.
Single Parenting after Becoming a Widow
My own children were already adults at the time of my husband’s death. My knowledge of the difficulties of single parenting came mostly from researching the widow-saints. I find especially applicable to present-day widows the experience of St. Bridget of Sweden (fourteenth century), the mother of eight. She had the most difficulty with an adult son she left in Sweden while she went on pilgrimage to Rome. A spiteful woman told her that her son had been hanged for his criminal ways. How Bridget suffered, worrying about the soul of this son! Finally, it came out that this was a calumny, and eventually the son was converted. A beautiful daughter came on the pilgrimage with St. Bridget. She didn’t want to traipse from church to church all day long, but it was feared that if she stayed alone in the hostel, she could be raped. The daughter was so rebellious that she decided to go off alone and disfigure herself so that no one would want to rape her. Happily, God prevented this by sending angels to protect her.
A more famous example is that of the sons of St. Rita. After their father’s murder, they were determined to kill the murderers in revenge. But she persuaded her sons to repent just before they died of an epidemic. Widows need to be encouraged to fling their anxieties for their children into the heart of Jesus.
Many are the financial worries of widows. They range from bankruptcy immediately after the death of the husband, to severe loss of income, fear of inadequate resources for disability in old age, all the way to adult children taking in the widow because of her income and exploiting her! Trust in the providence of God should in no way substitute for seeking good advice from prudent professionals, relatives, and friends.
Among the most severe of such financial problems were those of St. Marguerite d’Youville. Her husband’s gambling bankrupted the family. She was left with children to support and the conviction that she should pay her husband’s debts. This she did by opening a little store in a plaza. In the process, she started taking care of street people and eventually founded a religious community. Being holy didn’t exempt widows such as St. Marguerite from money worries. Rather, through constant prayer, they sought to help the poor more than financial security.
The way Jesus chooses to woo each widow will be highly personal. All widows, in fact, all human beings, are invited to experience Jesus as the spouse of their souls. With those who are married, or who remarry after widowhood, usually the love of Jesus takes this form: we two married people, hand in hand, adore the heart of Jesus.
But in the case of singles and widows, whether divorced or consecrated, there is a less divided sense of Jesus as the Bridegroom of the soul. Men and women usually experience this in different ways, but some of the most mystical love poetry was written by such holy men as St. Bernard and St. John of the Cross.
For some widows, it can be like this: at least in courtship, she experienced her husband as a beautiful, beloved man, as wonderful as the man in the Song of Songs. These feelings probably diminished with the cares of family life or, most of all, with chronic non-forgiveness. Even with forgiveness, renewed feelings of romantic love would not be constant. Jesus may choose, as the Bridegroom of the soul, to come into the pain and yearning of a widow’s heart, to win her for himself. Widowhood may usher in a time where previous obstacles to a deeper union with God can yield a new closeness to the Lord.
Widows with less than happy marriages may feel liberated by the death of their spouse. Along with this new feeling of freedom, they may also delight in experiencing daily life in the companionship of Jesus, the perfect Bridegroom. He may choose to speak to them in their hearts, bringing them new levels of desire to welcome him in their daily encounters with others.
Others may at first be angry at God for taking away a cherished husband. They may come to a new realization of the love of Jesus for them as they experience him saving them from depression, anxiety, and despair, often through the ministry of loving people in the Church.
Many widows, having much more time for prayer and Church activities, will be drawn to daily Mass and to lay groups for fellowship and service. With all the experience of marriage and family, they may find themselves, after the first years of exhaustion from the stresses of widowhood, full of energy and wisdom to help others in church and society.
With widowhood comes a different vision of eternity. Ardent prayer for the spouse, presumed to be in purgatory, lifts the soul of the widow above the concerns of daily life on earth. She begins to sense a reality of the beloved, helping her from beyond and awaiting their reunion.
Here is a daily prayer I wrote for myself and other widows:
God the Father,
I offer you the rest of my time on earth that I may serve with love and come to eternal life.
May my husband be blessed on his journey in eternity and everyone in my family be saved.
Holy Spirit, be a comfort to all widows, especially the newly bereaved.
Jesus, my bridegroom, savior of my soul, delight of my heart, help me.
Mary, exalted widow, mother of the Church, my model and intercessor, pray for me.
St. Joseph, protector of Mary and the child Jesus and helper of widows, guide me in the trials of daily life.
As a widow, may I be a spiritual mother to all I meet today.
All you widow-saints, pray for me:
St. Monica, pray for me.
St. Paula, pray for me.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary, pray for me.
Bd. Angela of Foligno, pray for me.
St. Elizabeth of Portugal, pray for me.
St. Bridget of Sweden, pray for me.
St. Rita of Cascia, pray for me.
St. Frances of Rome, pray for me.
St. Catherine of Genoa, pray for me.
St. Jane of Chantal, pray for me.
Bd. Marie of the Incarnation, pray for me.
St. Louise de Marillac, pray for me.
Bd. Marguerite d’Youville, pray for me.
St. Elizabeth Seton, pray for me.
Servant of God, Praxedes Fernandez, pray for me.
Ven. Conchita of Mexico, pray for me.
All other widows now in heaven, pray for me.
You might consider having such a prayer available for widows in your parish. On my website, www.rondachervin.com, under Widows, you can find a Stations of the Cross I wrote for widows which, like the above prayer, can be easily revised to fit an individual widow or group. For more information on widows in Scripture, see Bonnie Bowman Thurston, The Widows: A Women’s Ministry in the Early Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).