Reflections in the Spring

They thirsted not when he led them through the deserts;
    he made water flow for them from the rock;
    he cleft the rock and the water gushed out.
Isaiah 28:21

Meeting at the Gate

~ Katie is a wife and mother living in Virginia. She’s also co-founder of The Joyful Leap, which “aims to spread awareness of Christ’s presence in the everyday mundane.” Find Katie’s booklet, “Waiting with Mary: A Seven Sorrows Devotional for Catholic Women Facing Infertility” here

Editor’s Note: The Protoevangelium (“first Gospel”) of St. James is an apocryphal text. The Church doesn’t recognize it to be inspired in the way the Gospels, Epistles and other books are, so it’s not included in the canon of Scripture. It is, however, part of the Tradition, and readers will recognize many of its stories and the feasts we celebrate (like the Presentation of Mary in the Temple) that aren’t found in the Gospels.

I was 3 years into this season of secondary infertility when I found the protogospel of St. James thanks to a suggestion from my dad. If you haven’t read it, and you are facing infertility, you should definitely read it, at least the first few chapters.

St. James begins with the story of Sts. Anne and Joachim, the patrons of the Springs in the Desert ministry and grandparents of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Reading it provides many things to think and pray about, but for today, I want to focus on St. Anne and St. Joachim and what we can learn about marriage and navigating infertility.  

At the opening of the gospel, Joachim is on his way to the temple to make an offering.  We are told he is “a man rich exceedingly; and he brought his offerings double.” But then he is stopped by Rubim because he hasn’t “made seed” in Israel. Joachim is ashamed and goes to check the books for surely, he isn’t the only one who hasn’t made seed in all of Israel. But the books confirm that he is.

Much distressed, he flees into the desert, sets up a tent, and says that prayer shall be his food and drink for 40 days. But… he doesn’t let Anne know his plans. So she thinks he has died. And she calls out that she will “mourn two mournings and lament two lamentations. I shall bewail my widowhood. I shall bewail my childlessness.”

After some time (and a beautifully painful prayer under the Laurel tree), Anne is visited by an angel and told that God has heard her prayer. Joachim is not dead, and they will be blessed with a child who “shall be spoken of in all the world.”  Joachim, too, is visited by an angel and told that God heard his prayers and Anne shall conceive.  

If you’ve ever seen an icon of Sts. Anne and Joachim, it was likely one that portrayed the following scene.  Anne waits for Joachim at the gate. When she sees him coming, she runs to him, hangs from his neck, and boldly proclaims “Now I know that the Lord God has blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow no longer a widow, and I the childless shall conceive.”

They meet at the gate.

What struck me most is the unintentional separation Anne and Joachim experience and then their subsequent reunion.  In reaction to the humiliation he experienced at the temple, Joachim flees into the desert to fast and pray for the blessing of a child. But what if, instead, he ran to Anne to pour out the sorrow and humiliation that he had faced that morning?  If St. Anne is anything like me, she would have loved to have shared in the sorrow Joachim felt from his experience. Husbands, letting your wife know that they are not the only spouse unexpectedly struck by feelings of sadness, emptiness, or embarrassment because of your shared situation eases the weight of this cross. Of course, timing and the manner in which this is shared is important, but not sharing can lead to your wife experiencing additional feelings of self-loathing and shame because she believes she’s the only one not handling it all “well.”

I am not knocking a decision to pray and fast for this particular struggle, but what gets to me is that St. Joachim fails to fill Anne in on his plans, leading her to believe he is dead.  Without communicating to your spouse your plans to undertake fasting and giving additional time to prayer, it could easily appear that this is a ‘dead issue’ to you, furthering the emotional isolation your wife may be feeling.  From the outside, nothing is happening, making it easy to assume you’ve stopped caring, that you have “checked out of the cyclical struggle.”

And as a woman, your wife can’t ‘check out.’ She is the one who has to notice and track signs of ‘fertility.’  She is the one getting her blood drawn (again) or having an invasive and uncomfortable ultrasound (again, helloooo ‘Wanda’). She is the one keeping track of what supplements to take, when to start post peak hormone support, having those follow up calls with her NAPRO doctor.  Husbands have to choose to be involved and informed about all this.  Wives have no choice.

All this to say, throughout the mess of trying to conceive, discerning treatment options or alternative ways of bringing children into your family, it’s important to find ways to ‘meet at the gate.’  The internal experience of husband and wife while baring this cross is different and silence can lead to untrue or uncharitable assumptions and resentment.

How can you meet your spouse at the gate today?

A Broken Heart in the Care of the Holy Mother

~ Susan is a wife, mother of five – and one in heaven – and an empty-nester. She has a heart for those in grief and sorrow.

I never tire of its beauty and the emotion it evokes.  As I enter the quiet, unlocked neighborhood church to pray away my fears from this Coronavirus, my gaze quickly settles on the hammered copper altarpiece beneath the tabernacle.  The Mother is gently caressing the hand of her Son, with a kiss.  He has been taken down from the cross of crucifixion.  His dead body awaits burial.  His wounds—they are my wounds.  His wounds are yours as well.  “Yet it was our infirmities that He bore.  Our sufferings that He endured.” (Isaiah 53:4)

Imagine how she must have felt to see her son this way.  How can you relate to her through your own disappointments and the grief of infertility?

For years I have contemplated this artistic rendition of Michelangelo’s Pieta, trying to grasp its meaning beyond the obvious:  the strength of the Mother’s love willing to sacrifice her own safety to comfort her Child.  Or perhaps it is to remind us that no pain of ours ever goes unnoticed, no matter what the circumstance.   As she grieves the death of her Son, may this scene imprint on my heart the love that I see, and may I know it is for me, as well.

      Place your own broken heart in the care of this Mother’s love.

Pain and suffering can be defined and described from the perspective of “Me” or “You.”  Mine is so real to me, and your pain is so real to you. Is it possible to honor the uniqueness of each other’s struggle, joining our vulnerability together to become a “We?”  YES.  This is what we are encountering in these uncertain times.  It is the power of sacrificial love that we are seeing through many stories of compassion and generosity in the midst of confusion and fear.

       In the most unexpected time and places we often find the other part of the we.”

The challenge of experiencing pain is not to get stuck in it.  Tunnel vision keeps me looking inward.  We have to calm the nonstop interior chattering to hear the voices of those around us.  During 2019, the I picked to focus on was HIDDEN.  Instead of having a New Year’s resolution, I wanted to take notice of the ways I felt hidden—in other words, invisible. Reflecting from another vantage point, Henri J. M. Nouwen wrote, “We will always remain partially hidden to ourselves.  Other people, especially those who love us, can often see our twilight zones better than we can see ourselves.  The way we are seen and understood by others is different from the way we see and understand ourselves. “

      When we come out of hiding, we offer someone else a chance to give us a gift of friendship.

Ironically, my hidden self needs the benefit of being open and available to others.  Our current “shelter in-place” lifestyle will require us to think outside the box, perhaps after St. Francis of Assisi’s well-known exhortation, “For it is in giving that we receive…”  The unknown artist of the copper altarpiece has given me a precious image to visualize. May this be a time of gratitude for what we do have,  more than a yearning for what we (think) we should have.

     Which of your lists is longer…the haves or the should haves?

During this time of “Stay at Home” I’m wishing that I had purchased shelving for all the books that are stacked throughout the house.  Whichever book is closest to my resting spot is the one I direct my attention to.  In the quiet calm of the morning, today I discovered this quote from Chris Padgett’s book Wholly Mary as I sat outdoors reading: “Mary did not become Mother as do all mothers.  She became Mother because of her surrendered and freely given yes.  She heard the word of God and embraced it within the fertile grounds of her heart.”  As I stared at these words I knew that my own heart needs a spring cleaning.  Perhaps we have all been given this moment in time to do just that. 

As I ponder the Blessed Mother’s yes, I believe she is asking of me, and each of us, three things:  To listenTo surrenderTo embrace

Let’s anticipate what might grow when our hearts become fertile.  We might be surprised what happens.

Infertility in a time of Quarantine

~ Amy and her husband live in New Jersey

If you are anything like I am, initially the idea of being home for 2 weeks isolated wasn’t too daunting…home cooked meals, an afternoon nap, a chance to finally clean out that closet that never seems to be organized!  I expected this was going to be somewhat “easy;” I even made a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish so I didn’t fall into a bad habit of sleeping in and turning on the television for the full morning of news and bizarre talk shows! What happened though I didn’t expect. In addition to some old favorite recipes being made and a closet full of meticulously folded towels and sheets came some frustration and even some tears.

Among the social media posts about supporting our health care workers, cleaning out your fridge, recipe challenges, and working from home tips came a plethora of parent complaints, memes, song parodies and selfies about home schooling.  

As these comments and complaints came via social media, zoom interruptions, text or email, I began to feel personally affected.  I was not angry but more jealous, it seemed.   I have been working with children my entire career so of course as each friend or family member voiced struggles

I daydreamed about my own dining room table and how it would’ve been the best home school ever, with themed days and special homemade snacks, virtual classes and organized bins and books.  And in my utopia, of course my already grateful and polite children would LOVE Mommy School! My husband, while working from home in his office too, would be in awe of how effortless I made it seem and how this time of pandemic just enabled us to become better parents and a family more devoted to God and one another!!

But, as I felt the emptiness of my table I tried to be positive and sent cards to my friends, asked my nephew to color Easter eggs for my front door and invited my neighbors to use our driveway too for their chalk art.  I wanted to be a part of it all.

I have been told before that others aren’t always as “mindful” as I am, but I always find that hard to comprehend because when thinking of my friends, we all have been through so much, and have supported one another with respect and love.  As per usual these days we have a Facebook message chat with about 20 of us who have been close for over 25 years, and one morning a friend posted a video of their kids literally screaming at one another (but politely taking turns)!  My friend turned the camera to show their own face and commented on how they have given up and their kids are now up for sale!  Of course we all knew it was a joke and the kids were even smiling as they screamed (with their bowls of snacks and tons of toys).  But for whatever reason that day, this silly video was like a punch to the gut and my flood gates opened so to speak.  I couldn’t stop myself from the ugly cry and running nose.  I went to my room and let it all out.  I didn’t know how much I had really been holding in.  A wise spiritual director once told me that if I am up for it when those tears flow, talk to God during and after them. For as long as you can just let him hear you until that moment when you have physically exhausted yourself, and then lay still and listen to Him.  So I tried to talk to God and as I cried I asked why my friends didn’t remember how painful it is for me and why my home school is empty and why I have such a love for children and desire for motherhood…a lot of why…a lot of it’s not fair…and a lot of pleading to change this situation for me.

And as it happens, I physically exhausted myself and took a deep breath and asked God to speak back to me, and promised Him I would do my best to be open to listen.

And thankfully He did speak to my heart, He reminded me of my gifts and talents, and the love of my family and friends.  He reminded me of the 100’s of kids I had guided and cared for over the years and how they had benefited from my faith, humor, art classes or special snacks.  And then He reminded me of a lesson I had forgotten about, “Fair is not always Equal”.  I cried more tears that it wasn’t fair, that God seemed to give these miracles to everyone but me, it wasn’t fair.  I have been a good person, why didn’t I get what everyone else has???

 He reminded me that I have been given different blessings and miracles and those gifts were not measurable against another’s gifts.   And as I sat in my warm and welcoming home, with a pantry and full fridge, as my husband worked from home without missing any pay, as my family only miles down the road sent messages that they are healthy I was able to remind myself that I am truly blessed by God.  In a world filled with suffering and pain, in a time of pandemic and uncertainty, I still needed to stop in wonder and awe of what blessings and miracles have been a part of my life.  And although they may be different from what I have asked for, God has been faithful in His kindness and generosity to me.

So instead of focusing and maybe even obsessing about what others are doing with their children, I am focused on the joy that is promised in the Resurrection and striving to thank God for and recognize all the blessings in my life that I have been given; all the miracles I have been witness to and especially for the love of family and friends.

The Heart of a Mother is Built Into Me…

~ “L” reflects on the potential for motherhood as a single woman

It was a typical afternoon on my period. My cramps, though they started out mild, grew increasingly severe. Despite the ibuprofen I took, I eventually found myself doubling over in pain. In the shower, waiting for the hot water to run over me to ease the pain, just a little. As this particular spasm moved through me, I found myself thinking, I have been dealing with these painful cycles month after month for nearly 25 years now. I used to be able to make some sense of this experience by dreaming about potential children I would bear in the future. That someday, this painful cycle each month would all be worth it because I would give life to a new life inside me. We can suffer much if we know it will bring about a greater good. However as the years slip by, I find this less and less of a vague future consolation. I found myself thinking recently “But what is this even worth? To go through this each month, and what if I never have a child to at least make it feel like this was all worth something.”

And then suddenly, in that moment, something pieced my heart. Something that said, “You are a woman. Your body is designed to give life. This is the price you pay to have that incredible reality etched into your soul. You bleed because in your nature, you are made to be a gift. Your body is a mark of your femininity. It reflects that ability to pour yourself out to the world. The embodied experience is part of the whole.” 

In that moment, something in me shifted. Somehow I accepted this meaning that was offered to me. It wasn’t any certain consolation that I would one day have a child. It was the conviction that to be a woman, to have this capacity to bear life and nourish life, that was a privilege. I don’t experience the pangs of childbirth but I do experience the pangs of that monthly reminder of that call that I have received.  My body was designed to nurture and give life; right now that is not in a concrete physical life of a baby but rather through the daily people that the Lord puts in my path. 
I don’t need a pregnancy or a baby to give meaning to the pain and hassle I experience from being a woman; the hormonal swings, the imbalances, the pain and the frustrations. My body is a concrete expression of my femininity and my femininity is a gift to the world. It is through my femininity that I encounter the world. 

I don’t know if I will get to be a mother. But I do know, I will get to be a gift.