Christmas approaches, and so does the birth of my seventh child. I’ve had the privilege, over the past nine months, of following along with Mary in her pregnancy, and it’s naturally given rise to meditations on the spiritual significance of being pregnant. There’s been a great deal written about the expectation that we feel in Advent, the anticipated joy of the coming of Christ. We have images in our heads of Mary looking down with wonder at her bulging stomach, feeling the child conceived by the Holy Spirit moving silently in her womb. These are beautiful ideas to be sure, but they overlook one of the overwhelming realities of pregnancy: our expectation is not merely a transcendent vision of hope, but also a struggle to accept the powerlessness of our own condition.
Perhaps for Mary this was easy. Conceived without sin and naturally abounding in humility, I’m sure the Virgin Mother didn’t become cranky and overtired or get swamped by feelings of uselessness and inadequacy as the dishes piled up in her sink. But since the rest of us are not conceived without sin, I think there is something about the spiritual life that can be gleaned from the experience of ordinary women expecting the ordinary joys of an ordinary birth.
In God’s hands
One of the most difficult things that we grapple with as Christians is probably the fact that salvation is not something we are able to accomplish by ourselves. We are constantly pushed back onto the resources of grace. So often, even in the moral life, our best efforts don’t produce a particularly great harvest of fruit. And then, one day, fruit appears, and we’re shocked by it. We genuinely don’t know where it came from — certainly not from anything we did.
Pregnancy throws a light on this fundamental paradox of human existence. A pregnant woman certainly has an active role to play in bringing her child into the world. There is the decision simply to consent: to say “yes” to a new life. There are innumerable small decisions made over the course of pregnancy: the decision to eat healthy foods or to avoid alcohol, or give up unhealthy habits like smoking. There are numerous preparations for the baby’s arrival. You can paint the baby’s room and buy baby clothes, ponder names and knit blankets.
Yet when it comes right down to it, most of these activities are peripheral. That doesn’t mean they’re futile. Without these actions, the baby could be born sick. It could be born prematurely. It could even, in extreme circumstances, die. And, of course, having a space prepared for the child is a sign of a parent’s care and love. But none of these things are what actually causes the child to live, develop and grow.
Most of the really important stuff happens without any conscious participation or effort on the part of the mother. In a way, that sounds lovely. A deep, mysterious process takes place inside of your flesh, and new life is molded into being by the invisible hand of God. You get to do the most important thing in the world — and it doesn’t require that you actually do much of anything.
In reality, though, this experience is often one of frustration. Basically, we don’t like being powerless. And pregnancy reminds you, frequently, of how vulnerable we are.
It’s not that it doesn’t take any energy or effort — it’s just that the work isn’t directed by our will. We don’t get to decide when our bodies’ energies are going to be diverted toward growing a placenta, or when we’re going to have the baby pressing on our lungs, or when our uteruses are going to start doing practice contractions to tone themselves up for the main event. All of these things are incredibly demanding and physically exhausting, but they happen without our consent.
Once we’ve made the decision to accept a new life, we no longer have control over how our pregnancies are going to proceed. An immensely powerful reality is taking place in the most intimate spaces of our bodies, but we can’t direct the process. Human beings, or at least human beings like me, are not very good at this. We want to be the active agents in our lives. We want to be empowered and liberated and responsible. We want to be in charge.
But that’s not how life enters the world.
Life comes when we surrender our timetables, our plans, our intentions and our desires, and we give ourselves over to something greater. The great and beautiful irony of human life is that the greatest works — the birth of a child or the salvation of a soul — are not really our accomplishments. Rather, they are works that we have given God permission to perform within us.
Mary understood this. She called herself the “handmaid of the Lord.”
A model in Mary
Mary knew that giving birth to Christ would mean letting things be done according to God’s will — not hers. She was willing to go on a long journey at the end of her pregnancy.
Most of us, however, find this kind of surrender a struggle. Throughout my pregnancy, there have been many times when my energies have been completely depleted by the demands of the baby, and my reaction has been to feel useless, frustrated, guilty even — angry with myself for not being able to do more. The simple knowledge that I’m actually performing a work of unparalleled importance is surprisingly unhelpful.
On some level, I’m convinced I would be a more worthwhile person if I could wash more laundry or teach my child more lessons, or write more blog entries. My psyche prioritizes those tasks that are achieved through my own effort, no matter how trivial they are in fact, and it rebels against the demands of a miracle that is being worked in me and through me by a power beyond myself.
This happens constantly in the spiritual life as well. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the “vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature” (No. 1998).
Yet too often, we come to think of salvation as something we can achieve rather than as a process God works in us mysteriously. We want to be able to achieve virtue all at once by sheer moral effort. Or to convert the world through argument. Or to win divine favor by devotions and prayers.
It’s not that these activities are futile or unimportant. “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response, for God has created man in his image by conferring on him, along with freedom, the power to know him and love him. The soul only enters freely into the communion of love” (CCC, No. 2002).
It is possible, as it were, to abort the life of the soul within us through mortal sin, or, through neglect, to give birth to a soul that is sickly and weak — a soul in need of a long and painful process of purgatorial resuscitation before it can enter into the fullness of eternal life.
Yet, although our efforts matter, they are not the primary cause of spiritual development and growth. We contribute, but we can’t force the hand of grace or make salvation happen on our terms.
The spiritual life demands that we accept this limitation and create space for the Holy Spirit to give birth to our souls. Sometimes, this work demands our labor, but often, cooperation takes a form that seems passive. We experience the growing strength of the life within us as weakness, suffering, even uselessness.
But it is God’s work. The work of a night wrapped in snow and silence, when the Spirit broods over the waters and brings forth life.
Melinda Selmys writes from Ontario, Canada.