Women who shape our lives - Madonna Magazine

Women who shape our lives

Fr Chris Gleeson SJ 31 May 2024

In recent times we have seen the emergence of the word ‘influencer’ in the daily press to describe all manner of people – sporting heroes and their partners, celebrities of various kinds, indeed pretty well anyone who achieves some limelight for a fleeting moment in time.

For me there is a strong sniff of superficiality about the term ‘influencers’ as it is used in the media at present. I much prefer the term ‘shapers’.

That wonderful writer and speaker, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, at one time Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth and later a member of the House of Lords, shared this comment about shapers on BBC Radio in June 1999: ‘Teachers open our eyes to the world. They give us curiosity and confidence. They teach us to ask questions. They connect us to our past and future. They’re the guardians of our social heritage. We have lots of heroes today – sportsmen, supermodels, media personalities. They come, they have their 15 minutes of fame, and they go. But the influence of good teachers stays with us. They are the people who really shape our life.’

In line with the theme of this winter edition of Madonna, I have been thinking about the various women shapers in my life. This is a risky business, because magazine word limits and a shaky memory over the journey might cause undeserved omissions. That being said, and with one notable exception, I will endeavour to focus only on those women shapers appearing in the pages of the Bible.


First mention goes to my mother, Doreen Veronica Hannah Gleeson (Halligan). She and my father were my earliest teachers, successfully shaping my faith and values in a strong family life. I am reminded that there is an old saying in Jewish literature that ‘God could not be everywhere so he created mothers’.

There is no doubt that we learn about God through the best qualities of our parents. In the Bible God is often portrayed as a compassionate mother. When one acknowledges that the mother’s womb protects and nourishes us, that it does not possess or control life, there is no surprise in the prophet Isaiah’s beautiful words describing God: ‘Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you.’ (Isaiah 49:15)

God is more of a mother than any mother. She yearns for us from the depths, from the womb, in a way that nurtures, feeds, and brings us forth into life. Is there any wonder, then, that we hear people praying these days, ‘God our Father, God our Mother . . .’?

Very often we are challenged in the Gospel to achieve the seemingly impossible – namely, to love one another as God loves us. I read recently an article claiming that there are only three entities that can mirror God’s unconditional love – our mothers, our grandmothers, and our pet dogs. They love us without any conditions, any strings, any corners, any ties attached. They forgive us no matter what atrocities we might have committed. They accept us and love us unconditionally, no matter what! And this is how God loves, the model of limitless love.

What a challenge!


The Bible is brimful of stories about strong women. For example, there are those wonderful words of faithful and committed friendship from the Book of Ruth (chapter 1), where Ruth promises her mother-in-Law, Naomi: ‘Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.’

In the Gospels we see Jesus having some amazing encounters with women of splendid fidelity. There is the woman who has suffered with a haemorrhage for 12 years (Luke 8) who believes that she only has to touch the hem of his cloak to be cured. Her persistence is rewarded when Jesus responds: ‘My daughter, your faith has restored you to health, go in peace.’ The touch of God.

Then there is the courage of the foreign Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7) whose determination in asking Jesus to exorcise the evil spirit from her daughter meets with his initial uncharacteristic tardiness to comply. Finally, Jesus gives way with the words: ‘For saying this, you may go home happy: the devil has gone out of your daughter.’


Among the women who offer Jesus generous hospitality such as friends Martha and Mary, I have always been fascinated by meeting a lady named Lydia in Acts 16, who we are told was ‘in the purple dye trade’. Clearly a woman of significant means, Lydia listened to what those itinerant preachers Paul and Timothy had to say, and after she and her household were baptised, she sent them an invitation: ‘If you really think me a true believer in the Lord, come and stay with us.’ She would take no refusal.

So let us thank God for the women who shape our lives, who are true home-makers, true hosts, who reveal the female face of God and generate life at peril to their own.

Let us thank God for our mothers who have nourished and enlarged our lives, who have done without that we might have. Let us pray for those mothers who must mother below the poverty line, who, despite good intentions, are too young to mother successfully.

Let us ask God’s forgiveness for the times we have taken our women folk for granted, and let us pray to share in Mary’s gift of treasuring God’s life and action in our hearts. (Luke 2:19)