The Distaff and Spool and the Present Moment


With the March for Life on the 18th and the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade on the 22nd, January is often lived as a second “Respect Life” month in the Catholic Church in the United States. Perhaps as part of our New Year’s resolutions we can resolve to deepen our respect for the dignity of human life, right here in the Present Moment, in the ordinary situations and circumstances of our lives. Perhaps we can do this simply by living the grace and mercy of the Present Moment, as the Blessed Virgin Mary was taught to do by her mother, St. Ann.

Recently my dear spiritual director, Fr. Bill Quinlivan, introduced me to an 1892 painting by French artist Jeanne Rongier. He took a photo of it on a pilgrimage, but he’s not sure where! The painting hangs in a church, likely somewhere in France, where Rongier lived. Being of 100% Irish heritage, Fr. Bill was delighted to see the young Blessed Mother depicted as a redhead. Having been born on St. Ann’s day, I was delighted to see a different depiction of St. Ann. Usually she is depicted with a book or scroll, teaching Mary to read, or instructing her in her Jewish faith. In this painting, however, St. Ann and Mary are spinning thread. They are using ancient thread making tools, the distaff and spool.

Looking at this painting immediately brought to my mind another thread-related devotion to Mary: Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. Before a ball of thread can become knotted, the thread has to be made. That is what a distaff and spool are used for: taking raw materials such as wool or flax and spinning thread out of them. These predecessors of the spinning wheel were used for millennia, mainly by women. Because of this, there is an old, derogatory use of the word distaff to mean “of a lesser, female point of view or characteristic,” as in the senator’s baby kissing ways were an obvious attempt at courting the distaff vote. But to the Catholic mind, the ideals of humility and femininity regain their stature in St. Ann and Mary, and the distaff and spool are ennobled in their simplicity. We revere, not despise, the humble, the simple and the feminine. But do we live that way? Does our technological, mechanized life allow for the humble, the simple, and indeed, the feminine?

Historically, as the distaff and spool gave way to the spinning wheel, which in turn gave way to textile mills, much was lost in the supposed economic boon. The home with the mother and children present, doing the work of caring for the needs of the family and community, became less and less possible over the industrial centuries. Now we are at the point where many women would love to be at home, but must join their husbands in the pursuit of money, to afford the home they wish they could spend more time in. The humble, simple and feminine life in the home is out of reach to all but a few. Even those women who are able to stay at home are discouraged from “wasting” their lives in home pursuits. Yet we see in Rongier’s painting the great joy and privilege St. Ann had in teaching Mary the simple, everyday tasks of life, including how to take the raw materials of God’s creation and make them into something useful, necessary, and even beautiful. St. Ann taught Mary to make what God gave into something good and useful, with simple tools, in the haven of home and hearth.

More than Ancient Tools

The symbolism of the distaff and spool, along with the raw materials, is lovelier than the ancient textiles themselves. The Lord provides one thing abundantly: moments. In this life He provides moments and asks us not to maximize and exploit them to the best of our ability, but to simply use them as best as we are able, as simply as possible, having no anxiety for anything and trusting Him for all. The “raw material” of our lives is the Present Moment. St. Ann taught Mary to spin this raw material into the thread of her days, and then weave those days into the cloth of her life. Mary learned about God’s will and His grace by being held in the dignity of the Present Moment. She was raised to respect each moment of life, each person she was with, each gift God gave, as a treasure to be received and shared. When her training was complete and God’s will was presented to her by St. Gabriel, she understood the dignity of her choice, of her receptivity and of her fecundity, nurtured all her life by living moment to moment in His grace. At that moment she was able to give her FIAT, her great “yes” to God’s work in and through her, and all of heaven rejoiced. Each of her other gracefully lived “Present Moments” lead up to this great one, the Annunciation, and prepared her for God’s amazing Salvation Story unfolding in her life.

By living receptivity to the Present Moment, each one of us can grow in the respect for the life God gives. In living in that receptivity simply and humbly, we can teach our children and others the joy of doing so, too. Holding the treasure of each eternal Present Moment in reverence increases an overall reverence in us towards each other and ultimately toward human life in general. Each moment we live fully gives Mary more holy thread to weave into a bigger and bigger mantel to enfold all of humanity in God’s mercy and grace.

Treating Humanity like Industry

Unlike the simple, humble and feminine distaff and spool, our society treats God’s raw materials more like a merciless firetrap of a textile mill. Less and less children are at home at their mothers’ knees and sickeningly, more and more are being treated as industrial fodder, bought and sold for the satisfaction of depraved human will. Abortion, porn, trafficking, abuse, indifference, all fall on a continuum of rejection of the Present Moment, grace and mercy of God. Our distaff lies in disuse. The thread discarded in a knotted ball on the floor.

But Mary. Ah, but Mary! Thanks be to God – but Mary! But Mary, Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, grown up at the knee of St. Ann, will take our balls of tangles and knots, and carefully, reverently, and, ugh, yes, slowly, undo each one if we ask. We need only hold that messy ball, by retraining ourselves to being present and dignifying each moment, while she and her angels undo each knot and tangle. Then our lives can be woven, according to God’s master plan, into the great cloth of His people, which is our Lady’s Mantel, bringing under protection each soul, each unborn baby, each vulnerable child and each prodigal adult.

Yes, it’s all about God’s grace. True, it’s all about Jesus and His Mercy. But without our continual little “fiats” in each Present Moment, God’s will won’t be done. Without our “fiats,” human dignity will continue on its current trajectory into a dystopian abyss, a black hole of clones, robots and realities which, not too long ago, were the stuff of science fiction fantasy.

Do you want to live there? Do you want your grandchildren to live there? Or course not. Start your own earthquaking revolution this New Year. Pray. Go deeper into the Sacraments. Live in the Present Moment and stop allowing this technological age to rob you and your family of the graces therein. Let St. Ann and the Blessed Mother teach you how to wield the distaff and spool, to take each Present Moment and create life out of it. St. Ann and St. Joachim had one child. Just one child, but one who changed the course of humanity by her “yes” to God’s grace in each moment of her life. Each one of us is one child of God who can change the course of humanity by our “yes” in each moment, by allowing God’s will to be done in and through us.

St. Ann and Blessed Mother, please teach us, your confused children, the value of simplicity, humility and femininity. Show us the grace and mercy to be found in the Present Moment. Help us not to eschew the simple for the complex, the humble for the false. Help us to cooperate with God’s will for our lives to rebuild the Culture of Life for ourselves and the generations to come.   

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