Caregivers of the Soul

In the first dwelling of her spiritual classic, The Interior Castle, Teresa of Avila cautions us: “We know we have souls. However, we seldom consider the precious things that can be found in this soul, or who dwells within it, or its high value. Consequently, little effort is made to preserve its beauty. All our attention is taken up with the plainness of the diamond’s setting . . . that is, with these bodies of ours.”

What is the most fascinating part of our human person? We cannot see it, understand it, measure it, or evaluate it, for it is beyond our human capabilities. Of course, it is our soul. The soul is the vital life force of our body and mind, and the most authentic and eternal part of our personhood. Since our soul houses God’s presence within us, soul care is essential to our spiritual well being. Appropriate focus on our soul elevates our thoughts, hopes, and aspirations to a realm beyond that which our physical development or mental skills can attain. Our soul is a splendorous continuation of ourselves that extends beyond time, space, dimension, or cognitive theories. Soul development is a sensitive and ongoing process within our spiritual dimension.

Many people may not be aware of their spiritual dimension. Even if it is unrecognized, or even scorned, the spiritual dimension is the core of our being. It is where we perceive God and communicate with him. The spiritual dimension reveals to us that we are worth more than what we do or how much we achieve because we are already made in the image of God, and are precious in his sight. Our spiritual dimension encompasses our relationship with God and our response to the supernatural.

The spiritual journey of our soul does not elevate us above the human family. It does not distinguish us as singularly sacred beings. It is the most noble and the most difficult journey on this earth. We may experience the worst of times while moving ahead here on earth, but we will experience the best of times when we reach our eternal destination. It is a sound idea to seek help on this journey.

Out of all the hearts in humanity, a mother’s heart may feel loss, distress, and anguish most acutely. Deeper still is that which Mary experiences within her heart. It is not possible to envision the deep movements of love inside of Mary’s heart. Louis de Montfort wrote, “If you put all the love of the mothers into one heart, it still would not equal the love of the heart of Mary for her children.” She urges us to invoke her in times of trouble. We cannot comprehend how this tender, motherly heart endured so much sorrow and anguish during her lifetime. Mary can see the sins and faults of those who do not care to know God and the thoughts and desires of those who love God. She is acutely aware of how evil alienates people from God. Her faith shines like a beacon of bright light in a sin-darkened night. She desires that all people know her Son and live by his teachings. She never gives up on her children, even on the most hardened of sinners.

Mary’s life is the best example of what it means to be a courageous Christian. We are encouraged by her motherly gaze which engraves on our hearts the assurance that we are loved by God and will never be abandoned by him. She urges us forward to remake society through our own personal holiness. Isn’t this an inspiring challenge worthy of our commitment?

The Call

In today’s world, Mary helps us understand the true value of femininity and the exquisite beauty of purity. With her help, we can spread Jesus’ message of authentic love and tender mercy. She is our spiritual mother par excellence and encourages women to maintain a tender love for her and follow her in the vocation of spiritual motherhood. She welcomes Christian women to this vocation as her helpers in building the kingdom of God on earth.

John Paul II extends Mary’s torch of spiritual motherhood to all women who follow her Son. He wrote: “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. . . . For in giving themselves to others each day women fulfill their deepest vocation. Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts. They see them independently of various ideological or political systems. They see others in their greatness and limitations; they try to go out to them and help them.”

How are Christian women predisposed to recognizing and appreciating their souls, the most beautiful part of their being? Spiritual motherhood is an invitation for Christian women to actively care for the spiritual development of God’s people. When they look around, they see many people who need spiritual nurturing, affirmation and guidance. Many people are unaware of their ache for spiritual sustenance. People who are spiritually bereft are everywhere. They are in classrooms, shelters, wealthy neighborhoods, sickbeds, malls, bars, and waiting rooms. Most social encounters skim the surface of who we really are. Temporal needs are addressed, but spiritual needs are easily dismissed. From time to time every one of us needs advice, assistance, and encouragement from a trusted spiritual mentor or a holy friend.

Spiritual motherhood is a calling that is often overlooked or undervalued, even in religious conversations. In subtle ways, spiritual mothers nurture the spiritual lives of others by helping them grow and develop into the persons God intends them to become. This is accomplished through prayer, companioning and compassion, many times in small ways. Many women have a gift of seeing beyond a person’s outward disposition and into the deeper concerns and anxieties of the heart and soul. A person may be laughing on the outside and crying on the inside, or hiding deep hurts. Perhaps a few unassuming questions can bring peace to a troubled soul. This is one facet, but not the main facet, of being a spiritual mother.

Spiritual motherhood is usually hidden, formed in the love of God and love for others. Christian women of every age and station in life, single, married, widowed, or in consecrated life, can answer the invitation to be a spiritual mother: a single middle-aged woman weakened by a chronic disease but strong in faith; a young mother who makes it a habit to pray after her husband goes to work and her children leave for school; a teenager who is wise beyond her years and knows the value of and the need for prayer; a small group of retired religious sisters in the parish convent who taught at the parish school, but now have more time for prayer and pray for all the parishioners; an office manager who is not aware that she is a spiritual mother to the person in the next cubicle; a frail elderly woman who keeps specific people in daily prayer. Good Christian women who are known for virtues such as kindness, gentleness, or patience, but have never heard of spiritual motherhood.

Whatever her station in life, the spiritual mother must have time to be a woman of prayer because her primary apostolate is intercessory prayer. This call to prayer is lived out in the ordinary everyday routine of her day in which prayer is an intrinsic part. Those for whom she is drawn to pray is her sacred trust. Her awareness of others who are entrusted to her leads her to entrust them to God. A woman can be a spiritual mother to people of any age. She may not know them personally, and they may not be aware of her existence. But what matters is that she holds them tenderly in the strong bonds of prayer.


Spiritual mothers do not have the many demands, concerns, and responsibilities of mothers who are biological parents. Spiritual motherhood is not like physical motherhood. Spiritual motherhood is not being above or better than others, not something of which to boast, not a topic for lengthy discussions. Its duties should not upset emotional well-being.

As spiritual mothers pray for others, they are convinced of their own need for reform by acknowledging their own sinfulness and trusting in the mercy of God. They know they are perpetual students in the school of prayer and commit to perpetual learning about this fine art. As a sacred trust, spiritual motherhood is a precious service held within the heart. Their heart guides them to walk beside certain people, as a companion or mentor, on a shared journey. They walk humbly with common sense and a lightness of heart. Direction and decisions confirm identification as Christians and principles as Catholics. A sound spiritual dimension keeps God present in the heart and in the days, thereby giving deeper meaning to what they do, and creating better relationships with those they know.

Spiritual mothers are called to be signs of God’s love, tenderness, beauty, dignity, and mystery. The prayers of the spiritual mother are not superficial. Spiritual motherhood is not taken lightly. It is more unknown than known, even though it is based in God and bonded with strength from Christian values and sound faith. Christianity needs the support of deeply virtuous, God centered prayerful women in order to foster the spread of faith. The quiet, disciplined, consistent commitment to prayerful love has more impact than academic reasoning. Remaining faithful to the still small voice of God within leads to the depths of prayer. Prayer is not sweet imaginings that delight spiritual appetites, but a spiritual hunger that, if not fed, creates an unexplainable void within.


What is prayer? Teresa of Avila wrote that prayer is an exercise of love, a friendly conversation with God who loves us and an intimate sharing between friends. The primary service of the spiritual mother is prayer. However, this prayer must not interfere with, or be an escape from, fulfilling the duties of one’s station in life. The number of people a spiritual mother holds in prayer is up to her. Somehow, she believes she is called by God to pray for specific individuals or groups. The call for whom to pray is unique to each woman and held in the inner recesses of her heart, which means it is usually confidential. In other words, she does not boast about it. She prays for those for whom she has a special interest. She can pray for a newscaster, health care professional, teacher, athlete, singer, actor, or politician. She can pray for ethnic, cultural, religious, marginalized or persecuted groups of people. She can pray for those she likes and those she dislikes. She should pray for what the Morning Offering asks: “The salvation of souls, reparation for sin, and the reunion of all Christians.” With graced discernment, she discovers who God has put in her path to adopt in prayer.

Spiritual mothers wrap those for whom they care in tender wings of prayer using an arrangement of prayers that appeal to them. They are constant and consistent with their prayers even during days when they have no incentive to pray, feel like prayer is worthless, or feel abandoned by God. Prayers can be as varied as the flowers of spring. They can include visits to the Blessed Sacrament for clergy, a rosary for a missionary, the Sacred Heart litany for a person in distress, a chaplet of mercy for the traumatized, the Liturgy of the Hours for those in consecrated life (religious, consecrated virgins, diocesan hermits), a Memorare for battered women, a song for little children, or a spontaneous prayer for a special purpose. The length of time to keep a person in prayer depends on the spiritual mother. It can range from praying them through a short-term need to praying for them as a lifetime commitment.

When she meets with the people for whom she prays, the spiritual mother does not regard herself as their spiritual superior. As with all human relationships, equality reigns over dominance, kindness over confrontation, helpfulness over bossiness, humility over arrogance, listening over talking and glorifying God over glorifying themselves. The spiritual mother’s presence should reinforce the dignity of the other person by holding high the truths of Christianity. In the hidden service of spiritual mothering, those truths bear fruit, many times unknown by the spiritual mother.

A spiritual mother needs time for prayerful silence. Esther de Wall wrote: “Unless I am silent, I shall not hear God, and until I hear God I shall not come to know God. Silence asks me to watch and wait and listen, to be like Mary in readiness to receive the Word. If I have any respect for God, I shall try to find a time, however short, for silence. Without it I have not much hope of establishing that relationship with God of hearing and responding which is going to help me root the whole of my life in prayer.”

The spiritual mother’s contact with those whom she serves is often, infrequent, once or maybe never at all. If she meets with someone it is usually not regularly scheduled, but rather as a need arises. Meetings are more likely to be in a backyard or at a kitchen table, rather than in an office or at an institute. Her wisdom may be gleaned more from frontier country axioms than from hallowed halls of academia, and lean more toward the little way of Thérèse of Lisieux than a tome of theology. Wisdom sentences are gems that say a little and mean a lot. A spiritual mother’s words are few, her service simple, and her demeanor gracious. Her primary concern is the spiritual health and growth of those for whom she cares, because her love for them is always directed toward Jesus. As she strives to keep God as a reference point, she can share so much: parables from the Bible, good spiritual books, shared prayer, stories about saints and blesseds and people today who inspire others by their faith.

At times spiritual mothering includes being a cheerleader for one who is trying something new or needs a boost in self-confidence. A written note, a phone call, an email, or a voice message are simple ways of reminding a person that he or she is not alone. However, most of the time spiritual motherhood is a service of prayer. Attentiveness to God in prayer deepens listening proficiency by increasing a quiet listening presence. This can be defined as a call of the quiet light that offers hope. Sharing someone’s pain by listening with the heart can provide more solace and be a greater help than words can convey.

A middle-aged man had a deeply troubling problem. He went to a park, sat down on a bench, and thought about a few aspects of the problem. A friend came by, sat down next to him and asked how he was doing. The man shared a bit about his problem. His friend gave him unasked-for information, unsolicited advice, personal experiences, and solutions. He talked continually, and when he left, the pensive man was glad to see him go, felt relief, and did not remember a thing his friend said. Soon after, another friend came by. He sat down quietly and said little. The silence revealed a quiet concern. He got up and left. His silent presence was remembered and appreciated by the perturbed man for a long, long time.

Soul Health

“Lord Jesus, once you spoke to men upon the mountain, in the plain. O help us listen now, as then, and wonder at your words again. We all have secret fears to face, our minds and motives to amend. We seek your truth, we need your grace, our living Lord and present friend. The Gospel speaks, and we receive your light, your love, your own command. O help us live what we believe in daily work of heart and hand.”

H. C. A. Gaunt

Spiritual mothers try to “live Jesus,” the beautiful motto of the Visitation nuns. Today, much emphasis is placed on maintaining physical health, but little addresses the health of the soul. Jesus shows people how to keep their souls healthy through his teachings in the Gospels. Just as a person’s body can contract a serious disease, so can a person’s soul. The neglected soul, the dark soul, the withered soul, and the malnourished soul are a few examples of maladies of the soul. A spiritual mother must maintain a healthy soul before she can pray for the souls of others. The heart is the home of the soul while on earth. Prayer is the service of the heart, and regular prayer takes a certain spiritual fortitude and diligence. How does a spiritual mother maintain a clean and vibrant soul? The soul needs nourishment through a spiritual diet that includes attending Mass, receiving the sacraments, daily prayers and personal devotions. Spiritual exercises, such as daily meditation, days of recollection and retreats energize her on the spiritual journey. Her spiritual path can include visits to religious art galleries, attendance at sacred music concerts, and enjoying other artistic expressions of faith that refresh the soul.

Elizabeth of the Trinity, a young Carmelite nun, tells us: “Always love prayer, and when I say prayer, I don’t mean so much imposing on yourself a lot of vocal prayers to be recited every day, as much as that elevation of the soul towards God through all things that establishes us in a kind of continual communion with the holy Trinity by quite simply doing everything in their presence.” Living as if the Second Person of the Trinity was standing beside us is a sure sign of our belief in this presence.

Spiritual motherhood does not require a doctorate in theology. However, they do need spiritual vitality and the desire always to strive for holiness. Soul care motivates the spiritual mother to try hard to imitate Mary, and to see this as a sacred and doable daily activity. Like a guiding star, the spiritual motherhood of Mary directs spiritual mothers. They say, with her and through her, that they are the handmaids of the Lord. With her bright lantern, Mary walks ahead of spiritual mothers as they navigate through the dark days and nights of life. Each spiritual mother carries her own lantern, each different in shape and size, but with the same flame that burns for the love of Jesus, and illuminates the path to him for others. Prayer is the fuel that keeps these lanterns glowing, so spiritual mothers may see more clearly the people God has put in their path to adopt as spiritual sons and daughters. Mary is forever reassuring them that God is always with them as she shows them the myriad of beauties along the road of holiness, most of all, the magnificent beauty of her Son. Spiritual mothers, as caregivers of the soul, are her children too, as they sing:

Mother dear, O pray for me!
Whilst far from heav’n and thee,
I wander in a fragile bark,
O’er life’s tempestuous sea.
O Virgin Mother, from thy throne,
So bright in bliss above,
Protect thy child and cheer my path
With thy sweet smile of love.

Mother dear, O pray for me!
Should pleasure’s siren lay
E’er tempt thy child to wander far
From virtue’s path away.
When thorns beset life’s devious way,
And darkling waters flow.
Then Mary aid thy weeping child,
Thyself a mother show.

Mother dear, remember me!
And never cease thy care,
Till in heaven eternally,
Thy love and bliss I share.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. You can find her reflections online at