My friend Lea recently gave birth to her 5th child, and wrote a beautiful essay on her experience. I wanted to share it with all of you.
Passing Over: Temporal Breath, Eternal Spirit
“If, then, when death takes possession of a man, it drives life away from him, and proves him to be dead, much more does life, when it has obtained power over the man, drive out death, and restore him as living unto God. For if death brings mortality, why should not life, when it comes, vivify man?” (St. Irenaeus, c. 130-202)
I first sensed the relationship between life and death when I was pregnant with my second son a decade earlier. My aunt was dying with breast cancer as we celebrated Mother’s Day at the rickety picnic table in my backyard. Her long gray braid had been shorn, and her face was softer, thinner. My womb was new with life, hope sweet like the plume of her favorite lilacs set on the table between us. Though I sensed that death and life seemed to relate, I hadn’t found the words to describe this connection, and my experience was yet immature.
Seasons of life continued, and seven years later we were expecting our second daughter, the fourth of our eventual five children. At this time, another aunt was passing away. My womb was round with life as I sat beside her on the hospital bed, softly reading a prayer for the dying. She was feeble, and so real. Nothing pretentious separated our spirits, which seemed melded by a single mission. The heartbeat within my womb was one with the thread of life that weaved through my aunt and me.
“Read it again. It comforts me,” she said. Family warned she wasn’t cogent, that she was exhausted, but I knew she heard, understood, that she was present in the words that breathed through my spirit. I asked the nurse to put the prayer in her medical folder. This wasn’t about religion. No, this was about faith realized in the tender moments of pain that asserts only the real. There was no longer a world of things to distract my aunt from the reality of her body and soul. She realized the relationship of her whole personhood, and I also felt the synergism of our bodies and souls. I felt this connection of body-soul within myself personally, with my aunt, and even with the whole world somehow.
Experience, rather than theological discussion, doctrine, or philosophy, was teaching my heart something powerful, though still unclear to me: “If you realize the symbiotic relationship between the body and soul, then you perceive the Body of Christ, which is the Church.” Whatever this was coming to mean, it was beyond what a book or even a priest might tell me.
We conceived our fifth child two years later. It had been an exhausting end-of-pregnancy, as I was busy caring for our two small girls, the two older boys with needs of their own. Depression born from weariness and impatience with the physical and emotional strains of pregnancy flooded me at the end. Earlier in the pregnancy, I had determined to have a natural childbirth and induction at week 39 hadn’t been in my plan. So when I went to the hospital at 5 a.m. for the elective induction, carrying a hose brought from home to hook up to the hospital’s (rarely used) birthing tub, the nurse gently told me that my expectations may not be met: natural childbirth in a hospital where I had opted to be induced one week early.
The day before my induction, my body had been preparing for labor—all of the normal you’re-almost-there signs of labor were present like sporadic contractions, thirst, and extreme heaviness. My mother was with me and my small girls as we passed time slowly in the heat of the afternoon. It had been an excruciatingly hot summer, even if one weren’t prego, but I don’t think I had ever minded the heat so much as then. This was another one of those hot, bright days, but my mind, or was it my heart, soul, did not feel the weight of my body in an acute and uncomfortable way. Instead, there was a sense of ease bleeding into me, an unreal sensation of total peace.
“I feel like I could… die or sleep,” I told my mom. She asked me to please sleep. The feeling was unexpected and difficult to understand, though I wasn’t bothered by the inability to grasp it. The freedom from the weight was great, and beautiful. It was true that the end was nearing with each moment and soon the baby would be delivered. That would of course be glorious and of course brought a sensation of relief, but the intoxicating release of ease moving through me wasn’t so much attached to the induction that guaranteed delivery of our baby. It seemed beyond me, until the labor and birth of my son, Alexander.
My fifth labor and delivery of Alexander was without pain medication. It was “natural,” though it seems to me that birthing a baby, like death, is supernatural, however it might occur. I hadn’t before felt pain in my body that would not be eased by some outside aid. This time, as I did, I went inside myself, looking hard for God.
“Jesus Christ,” was in my mind, flooding my whole body, and I was strong and able to submit to the burn of pain. My face tensed with my fingers wrapped tightly around steel. Release, I heard. When the pain would begin, and mount, I moaned, deep and loud. Bring it down, I heard. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. And I could do it. He could do it. We were doing it.
“You’re a rock star,” a well-meaning nurse encouraged, and I snapped out of the zone. I lost the Name. I felt the searing pain and feared it with all my strength.
“Is it too late for the epidural? How long is transition?” I was overcome by the world, its force was against me. I couldn’t do it without the aid. The answers to my questions didn’t come; faces didn’t explain: blank. There was only Jesus Christ. Returning to Jesus Christ…
The intensity of pain in childbirth is the intensity of pain in dying. It is not always physical, but sometimes it is. The soul is pained, too. The soul leaves the confines of the present place and time, and for an indiscernible period of time, one’s spirit enters another realm. It seems a place where God is. A space that is beyond all the cares of our universe. Life and death is rebirth. Life and death is passing over, and entering into… We—Alexander and I—had truly been somewhere else. In this silent place of Truth and Love, where birth and death occur, the world pales, takes second seat to spiritual reality.
On a Sunday after I had returned to church, my priest spoke on how each baptized enters the death and life of Jesus Christ. We are “clay jars,” and we walk around in “potshards.” Our lives are for us to carry out acceptance of the Cross of Christ. St. Paul says that we should show the life and death of Christ by our lives, and my priest explained that by this we deny ourselves things in this life that do not please our Lord. This is our Cross, in part. The life of Christ is seen in our joy and peace, in the beauty of God that can shine through a “clay jar” that is filling with the Holy Spirit. Others are drawn to the Light of Christ in a Christian. Life is sacrificial, as Christ's own was and continues to be—our Eucharist, our life and salvation. Death is passing over into the life of Jesus Christ, and faith is living this reality by cleaving to the Name and believing it is all that is needed. Such faith moves us to endure all things and to sacrifice because of heartfelt love of God.