The photo is of my nephew, no longer quite as much a mystery to us all as he was then.
This reflection appeared as part of the Catholic Standard & Times' Advent series on 9 December 2010.
Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name. — Isaiah 49:15-16a
I was pregnant with Chris over a winter, still teaching as my sweaters stretched ever more tightly over my swelling stomach. One afternoon, deep into a lecture on quantum mechanics, one of my students tentatively raised her hand. Hoping I could clarify what was confusing her before she — and perhaps the rest of my class — was hopelessly lost, I called on her.
She pointed at my stomach and squeaked, “Is that the baby?” I looked down to see a clearly visible bump moving under my sweater as Chris executed his signature in-utero flip. “Indeed, that would be the baby.” Physics took a sudden backseat to biology.
“Is that a foot?” she wondered. Me, too. All those months I carried Mike and Chris within me I wondered about what was hidden from me. Was that a foot, or a hand I saw? A full flip or just a leisurely stretch in those tight quarters? What did this mean — should I expect a calm baby or a fidgety child? Boy or girl? I devoured the “what to expect” books, but almost everything about my children remained a mystery during those days when they were tucked inside my womb. Who would they be? Just what was stirring within me?
These Advent days I read Isaiah with similarly wondering eyes. God is stirring within me, stirring within the world; what should I expect? Much remains a mystery: “You are a hidden God,” says Isaiah (Is 45:15). Theologian Father Karl Rahner, S.J., reminds us we are always in Advent, our lives encompassing “faith, expectation, patience and a longing for what is not yet visible.” We are all pregnant with possibilities and with hope.
In due time, my sons were born. Still, in many ways they remain as much a mystery to me now as they were when they were in my womb. Father Rahner reminds us that Advent people are those who nurture an ability to love the provisional, to be patient with a reality that is hidden in the figurative, and in small, unimpressive signs. Parenting teens in particular is an excellent way to hone your skills in patiently reading the elusive, in bearing with the obscure, of living in hope of what might burst forth.
Most of all, I’ve grown to realize I can never know the fullness of who my children are or will be. To consider them “finished” or to hold one image of them in stasis is to have failed. Similarly St. Augustine points out, “God is not what you imagine or what you think you understand. If you understand you have failed.” You can read the books about what to expect, but I suspect with God, as with teens, the more you think you know, the less you are willing to discover.
In a Lenten meditation on Isaiah, Dominican Father Edward Schillebeeckx tells of an abbot who challenges a young monk, “How will you love the Creator if you have never been capable of loving a creature?” Being a parent has taught me much about how to love — and be loved by — a God who is hidden.
Bearing my children was a profound lesson in how completely I could love someone whose face I had never seen, whose being was nearly entirely hidden from me, who expressed himself in small stirrings and tantalizing clues. Isaiah turns the image around to underscore the immense depth of God’s love for us. Though God knows us entirely, we can only express our longings in uncertain words and awkward deeds, in small stirrings.
What can I expect to come of these provisional realities? St. Ignatius of Loyola suggests what it might take to find out — letting go of my expectations: “There are very few people who realize what God would make of them if they abandoned themselves into his hands, and let themselves be formed by his grace.”
God has written my name on His hand, holds me within Himself, like a child within her mother’s womb. As this Advent deepens, I am contemplating the unsettling mystery that not only is God stirring within me, but I am stirring within God.
You have made us to desire only you,
you, our beginning and our end,
you, our food and our rest,
you, our joy and our peace.
Turn us from our desires that obsess us.
Unburden us that we may know
our true desire and end in communion with you.
— Walter Brueggeman, from All Desires Are Known in Prayers for a Privileged People