A Fiery Gift: A meditation on birth and the spiritual life
All the adorable clothes for infants, jokes about pickles and ice cream, and debates about appropriate names for children occupy the expectant woman’s mind like sitting-room company sharing a pleasant tea—until labor begins. In a flash, your visitors leave, their cooling teacups half-empty. Alone, or with a trusted companion, you may wait out the beginning contractions by reading a book or watching a movie, but you know as you have never known in your life what the main event is. Birth is the rock of motherhood. It does not easily allow diversions; it is more glorious and messy, more trying and transformative than a person might suspect. Basically, it is a lot like prayer.
If you are an average American, that last sentence may have come as a shock. But it is no groundbreaking metaphor to claim that the spiritual life is like a birth (Jn 3:3). Still, few people look seriously at the physical reality of giving birth as akin to the spiritual struggle of prayer. When I was struggling through a wonder-filled but challenging prayer period recently, a sentence settled within me: This is a lot like giving birth; it feels as if something is trying to be born. And it was not that I was looking toward a positive end—holding the baby—although at some level I was. Rather, it felt “existentially” like giving birth: a clearing of the mind, an expectant and somewhat painful waiting, the sense that my life is changing here and now. There was a concrete moment in my prayer when I thought, with surprise and gratitude, I’ve been here before.
One reason that few people take seriously the physical reality of giving birth as a teaching ground for receiving grace is that sanitized hospital births, with epidurals at the ready, change the experience of giving birth from a gift received to an event managed. When my husband and I discovered I was pregnant with our first child, we stumbled upon a method of giving birth naturally called the Bradley method. Despite the fact that a vast majority of women worldwide give birth in such a manner, this method is seen as the province of hippies by most American medical establishments. The Bradley method encourages couples to understand what is happening and then to cooperate by embracing the situation and “relaxing your muscles” into birth, which, as an incentive, makes it much less painful. I found that to be true: the pain was doable if I could concentrate on relaxing. But when I slipped from my relaxation practices—all the deep breathing, going limp at contractions, imagining muscles stretching and staying calm by repeating “this is good, this is normal, this is getting me to birth”—the difference was radical. I would get distracted, the pain of the contraction would begin, I would succumb to fear and resist by freezing my muscles, then the pain would shoot up dramatically, and I was gone.
All this is like the interior life. I am not referring to births that are horrifically complicated or have tragic ends: I will let those women tell their own stories; they are not mine to tell. But just as John Paul II reflected upon sexual union in his “theology of the body” as a sign pointing toward the ultimate union of God with the human being, a medically uncomplicated “good birth” points toward how all souls, pregnant with the Holy Spirit, are transformed by cooperating with the Spirit, letting God make all things new. And while every moment may not be what you wished for, even in that, it resembles the soul’s journey to God.
Living in Reality
The spiritual path and the path to birth both begin with deciding to live in reality: the reality of your life and the reality of God. Just as we do not initiate prayer, but the Holy Spirit calls us to pray, so pregnant women are called to give birth. When that reality is fully realized, we respond. Jean Pierre de Caussade, S.J., in the spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence, speaks of this response to God’s call as the duty—even the sacrament—of the present moment:
In the state of abandonment the only rule is the duty of the present moment. In this the soul is light as a feather, liquid as water, simple as a child, active as a ball in receiving and following the inspirations of grace. Such souls have no more consistence and rigidity than molten metal…so these souls are pliant and easily receptive of any form that God chooses to give them.
The calling of the present moment is a mystery. We do not control or manage the present; instead, we find ourselves within it. The present is the only place where we can make the choice to yield to God’s will, to receive and yield to birth, yet we resist. We resist reality all the time; it is called self-deception. We see the narrow path but look for the wide road.
It is striking that the language de Caussade uses for spiritual transformation is some of the same relaxation language used by Bradley method teachers in responding to labor contractions: imagine yourself as liquid, imagine riding a wave, receive the birth of your child and allow it to happen. One of the keys to natural childbirth is learning to embrace what is happening to you: specifically, that your muscles are stretching and pushing in ways that may be unprecedented in your body, but it is what they were created to do. The worst physical pain comes in resisting. When you constrict your muscles—trying to avoid the stretching—you increase the pain. After all, you are fighting against your body. You have to learn to keep your muscles as calm as possible so they can stretch into something new.
How different it would be if we saw childbirth as something to receive, a fiery gift, rather than as something to resist or soldier through. We receive a vocation as well: our own motherhood. True, at the moment of conception, you become a mother, whether that child lives or dies before birth. But there is something about the yielding and cooperating with an ultimate Power greater than your own that is the road to every vocation. God wants this child to be born, and for you to be a mother, now.
In Weakness, Strength
Another of the fiery gifts of birth is being forced to love our weakness. St. Francis de Sales speaks to the need to love our weakness, which he calls self-abjection, in order to recognize and magnify the glory of Christ. Many would prefer the term “weakness” to “abjection.” But to be abject—desperately aware of one’s utter poverty—describes exactly how most women feel at some point in a natural childbirth. No word better expresses the painful transition from contractions to pushing than “abject.” St. Paul knew something of that abjectness himself (2 Cor 12:10), and expressed it using the language of birth in his Letter to the Romans (8:22-3, 26):
We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now, and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.…In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.
When we cede our illusion of control and consent to our weakness by allowing others to help, we are at our most human. Stripped of all artifice, we are left with our most radical relationships: God, our child and the person helping us to give birth. That sacrament of the present moment is a window into the interior life.
God does not always perceptibly lead in the birth process. Sometimes women must schedule their births for medical reasons or hasten them with medication. Occasionally that may be in the best interests of the child and the mother and therefore “a good birth.” But when an overwhelming majority of women in the United States have unnecessarily scheduled or medically augmented births, we must ask: Do we lose a window to God? A window to the interior life? When the Holy Spirit initiates a spiritual birth to something greater within us, will any of us be able to say, “I’ve been here before”?
It was only after I gave birth three times—one by Caesarean section and two vaginal births after the Caesarean—that I read up on the theology of the body: that sex within marriage is a participation in the life of the Trinity, a covenantal union pointing analogically to an ultimate union with God. It is evocative teaching.
But I wonder why we do not think of childbirth in a similar way: a gift, a bodily experience that points beyond ourselves, that echoes our ultimate transformation in the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is for many of the same reasons that, according to John Paul II, sex is experienced in such a twisted manner after the Fall. If the Evil One works through lies and deception, disordering what is created good, then there must be fruitful ground in twisting the original experience of childbirth.
Today, doctors routinely treat pregnancy like a disease. Many workplaces regard parental leave as “unpaid sick time.” And our medical system fears malpractice litigation to such an extent that the U.S. Caesarean rate is at 31 percent, breaking records every year. This medical culture teaches women to dread the event that brings them face to face with their children. Still, something in our bones, our muscles and our spirits says that childbirth is greater than all that. It is a transformative experience, the edge of life and death, the play of wind and breath, the shock of pain and joy. It is where a woman is given a new gift: a new relationship with God, her husband and their child—practice in receiving grace.
I’ll be candid: I cannot claim any mystical experience in any of my childbirths. Whether sad, frightening, silly or joyful, much of the work was rooted in a physical reality that kept me firmly on the ground. But my husband remains convinced of a mystical moment in my last childbirth. After a difficult transition, I collapsed on the bed and was able to rest about two minutes before pushing. Everyone in the room became instantly quiet, and there was this moment, he says, a hushed silence, God’s peace present like the eye of the birthing storm. All I remember is that I was beyond thought, exhausted in every possible degree, and taking pleasure in breathing. I didn’t hear any angels. But then, the urge to push came. And you have to respond “Here I am, Lord,” like an ancient prophet, and allow God to push, push through you as you push along. That is the spiritual life. Birth is like that.