In Part 1 of Nuns and Babies, I shared my experience of watching nuns joyfully holding babies. I wondered how they were able to do so when I felt so much sorrow myself. After all, neither of us would have children of our own. Witnessing this raised so many questions for me.
What made those beautiful nuns so happy and at ease holding other people’s babies, knowing they would never have their own? Did it ever hurt that they would never be mothers in the usual sense? Did they ever grieve that loss? Was “spiritual motherhood” enough?
I think the deeper question was, “Can I have that, too?”
The prayer that welled up within my heart was something like, “Lord, if having children isn’t part of your plan right now, can you please heal my heart? Can you show me how to delight in the blessings of the babies and children around me again…somehow?”
I had the sense that seeing those smiling sisters with the babies was some kind of clue as to how God might answer that prayer. I really wanted to ask them some of those questions I had been thinking about!
Isn’t it just like God to arrange such a thing? Through the Springs in the Desert podcast, Allie and I got to have an intimate little chat with two wonderful religious sisters who belong to the community of the Franciscan Sisters Third Order Regular of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother. Sr. Anna Rose and Sr. Mary Gemma graciously answered so many questions and shared from their own experiences. Of course what they shared was unique to their own stories, and may not be true for all religious sisters, but it was a blessing to hear their perspective.
As for my question about whether they ever experienced grief and sadness about not not being mothers in the usual sense, their answer was yes. Also, these sorrows are not necessarily a “one and done” experience that they “got over” as soon as they made the decision to enter religious life. Rather, it still comes in waves at times. Grief may come when certain things remind them of the children they won’t have and the type of mothers they will never be. Like when Christmas cards come in with pictures of their friends surrounded by little ones around them. Can you relate? I sure can.
They also shared that, in one sense, their lives are made up of poverty, emptiness, and barrenness. Not only do they not have children of their own, but they do not have spouses here on earth. Although they are brides of Christ with spiritual children, there are times when that doesn’t necessarily feel like enough.
So where does their joy, fruitfulness and fulfillment come from? I know it’s there, because I’ve seen it! Based on our conversation, it doesn’t come in spite of the cross, but because of it. Embracing the cross leads to intimacy with Christ. Being faithful to our vocation leads to abundant life. That is true just as much for our religious sisters as it is for those of us who are married and struggle with infertility.
Here are some of the things from our conversation that I will be taking to prayer:
Be totally honest and vulnerable with God. Share your deepest feelings with Him, even to the point of telling Jesus that he doesn’t feel like enough right now, if that is the truth. Maybe spiritual motherhood doesn’t feel like enough. Grieve with Christ. This is a place of intimacy with Him, from which fruitfulness comes. Coming to him with our emptiness is what allows us to receive from him.
Accept that grief and joy can exist at the same time. As a group of friends’ children embraced Sr. Anna Rose, she reflected, “This is what I don’t have…and yet this is what I do have!” She does not have children of her own, which is a sorrow, but she is being embraced and loved by a whole group of children, which is such a joy. It’s okay to feel both things at once.
Ask God to give you eyes to see where he is fulfilling the desires of your heart for motherhood during this season of your life. Become aware of how you are being so loved by Christ that it is bearing fruit to those around you. Be open to the creative, surprising ways this is happening.
Be faithful to your vocation. Sr. Mary Gemma shared a story of a little boy grasping onto the knots in the cord of her habit and not letting go, and it was almost as if he were saying, “Don’t let go of me!” The knots represent her vows, so this was a powerful reminder that many souls are depending on us being faithful to our vocation. Don’t let the difficulties of carrying your cross distract you from the gift of your vocation–your marriage to your beloved. Maybe one day we will see many souls in Heaven because of our faithfulness to our vocation. All those daily “yesses” to love each other well are very powerful.
Pondering what these sisters shared has helped me to realize a few things about this joyful baby-holding business. What I saw externally was very real joy, but holding those sweet babies may have also brought up feelings of sorrow in the hearts of the nuns as well. It’s just that they were able to hold joy and sorrow in their hearts at the same time. I have great hope that we can all develop that capacity as well.
Oh God, help us to be honest and vulnerable with you. Help us to grieve with you. May we experience intimacy with you, and with our spouses through this cross. May this loving union be so deep that it bears abundant fruit. We trust you to fulfill the desires of our hearts. Give us eyes to see how faithfully and creatively you will fill our emptiness. Help us to delight in all the little ones around us, even while our hearts are still healing.
Cassi and her husband Ian traded the rat-race of the city for the simple pleasures of their hometown in the Arizona desert. Besides enjoying great Mexican food and hiking, they love to share their passion for marriage, inner healing, and spiritual motherhood and fatherhood with anyone who will listen.