Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.
Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
Editor, Oblation: Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization
Editor, Church Life: A Journal for the New Evangelization
“Do you have children?” For most thirty-somethings, this seemingly harmless question is the opening volley of a round of socially acceptable chit-chat. Colleagues around the office fill silences with a discussion of recent pregnancies, first communions, and the athletic milestones of their children’s lives. At the salon or barber shop, the shearing of hair is accompanied by regaling the barber with mundane details of one’s progeny. “Sally is six, just lost her first tooth, and has begun to wonder about the origins of daisies.” College reunions become an occasion not simply to reminisce about chemistry class or the bizarre rituals of freshman orientation but to meet the miniature version(s) of the guy down the hall, who used to set up a slip-and-slide on South Quad when the temperature climbed above fifty degrees.
For my wife and I, the question about the quantity and ages of our brood is never an escape valve from awkward social interactions. It is the primary reactant that produces uncomfortable conversations with strangers and confidants alike. “No children,” we say, our voices hopefully revealing our discomfort with the question. Responses generally range from, “Oh, I thought you had a couple,” to “What are you waiting for?”, and an occasional “Oh.” We smile. We laugh a bit. We say, “Maybe, one day.” But, how can you tell a complete stranger, a trusted teacher, a friendly cleric, a college classmate: “We’re infertile.”
The Diagnosis and Aftermath
When I was younger, I always wondered why the Scriptures were so concerned with the childless wife. In the Old Testament, Hannah gives birth to Samuel after years of infertility, and sings, “The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes” (1 Sam. 2:5). As a theologian, I’m well aware of the function of infertility in the Scriptures. When the aged Sarah, the elderly Hannah, and the mature Elizabeth gives birth to a child, the reader is invited to remember that God is the major actor in salvation, not human beings. The surprising reversal of infertility in the Bible is thus a sign of new life coming from death; an action made possible by God, who is the creator and sustainer of human life. But that part of me, who has spent the last six years, praying for a child each day, cannot help but read Hannah’s song as a cry of relief. After years of barrenness, loneliness, and tears, finally a child!
Of course, when my wife and I were first married, we did not even imagine the possibility of joining the ranks of Abraham and Sarah, of Elkanah and Hannah, of Elizabeth and Zechariah. We happened upon each other before our senior year at Notre Dame and fell madly in love. At the time, I was preparing to enter Moreau Seminary. After meeting Kara while serving as a mentor-in-faith at Notre Dame Vision (a summer retreat program for high school students on the theme of vocation), I suddenly became aware that I was to spend the rest of my life with this woman. Our first date was a frenzied session of discernment, asking whether or not I should give up my previously planned life for a girl I met five weeks earlier. By the end of the date, I came to the conclusion that not only should I date Kara, but before me sat the woman who I would marry. Happily, she came to a similar conclusion (mutatis mutandi), albeit just a bit later than me. I chose not to enter the seminary, and a little over a year removed from one of the most angst-ridden first dates of all time, we were engaged to be married. Like so many couples before us, our nuptials took place at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and the priest prayed over us, “Bless them with children and help them to be good parents. May they live to see their children’s children.” And at our wedding, jokes surfaced about when the first child would be born to this Catholic couple. We, of course, hoped not long.
In our first year of marriage in Boston, where Kara was a youth minister and I was a doctoral student, we decided it was time to begin a family. Looking back, we seemed to perceive that having a child would simply happen, once we desired it (of course, we knew the physiology of how such desire would need to be expressed). So, the desiring commenced.
Month one passed. Month two passed. Month three passed. Six months later, our home became the anti-Nazareth, as we awaited an annunciation that never came. The hope-filled decision to conceive a child became a bitter task of disheartened waiting. After a year, we began to see a barrage of infertility specialists, who based upon test results, concluded that we should be able to have a child. No low sperm counts. No problem with reproductive systems. All in working order. The verdict: inexplicable infertility.
Unexplained infertility is a surprisingly miserable diagnosis. Something about my psyche was prepared for a scientific explanation. One in which the very fine doctors with advanced degrees from Ivy League institutions acknowledged that unless an act of God intervened, no human life would emerge from intercourse between Kara and me. Indeed, a fair number of tears would have been shed on both of our parts. But with the diagnosis of unexplained infertility, conception is scientifically possible. With every slight change in Kara’s monthly cycle, a glimmer of hope rises in our hearts, only to be dashed with the arrival of menstruation. Kind-hearted family, friends, and colleagues, who learn about our infertility, share stories about a mother or sister, who finally became pregnant. They recommend “doctors”, who have a proven track record of curing infertility. But unfortunate for us, we have no way of knowing if we will one day join the ranks of the middle-aged first-time parent. And every trip to a doctor is a risk, because once again, we start to hope. Aware now, of course, that hope alone does not fill one’s home with children.
The aftermath of our diagnosis was extraordinarily painful for both of us. The diagnosis affected not simply our friendships, our own relationship, but particularly our spiritual lives. If you speak to an infertile couple, committed to the Christian life, you’ll notice a pattern: the sexual infertility gradually seeps into the life of prayer. Each morning, I rise and ask God that we might finally have a child. I encounter only the chilly silence of a seemingly absent God. Early in the process, I found particular consolation in the language of the psalms: “My God, my God why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief” (Ps. 22:2-3). Like the psalmist, I had my enemies. The well-intentioned barber who stated that the future grandparents must be anxious to get a grandchild out of us. The friendly priest, who upon learning that my wife and I in fact do not have children, made it a point to say each time he saw me, “No children, right?” The Facebook feed filled with announcements of pregnancies and births, a constant sign of our own empty nest. God himself became my nemesis: why have you duped me O Lord? Why us? We have bestowed some aspect of our lives to you, more than many in the world, and our only reward is pain and suffering.
Such self-pity, while pleasant enough for a time, is both exhausting and a sure way to end up not only infertile but a narcissist. You begin to imagine that yours is the only life full of disappointment. Yours the only existence defined by sorrow. You close off from relationships with other people, particularly those with children, as a way of protecting yourself from debilitating sorrow. You cease praying, because the words you utter grow vapid, insipid, uninspiring. In this way, I entered into Sheol, hell itself, cut off from the land of the living. Something had to change.
Infertility as School of Prayer
How did I find myself out of this hell? First, I had to learn to give myself over to a reality beyond my own control. Human life is filled with any number of things that happen to us, despite our desires. We apply to the college of our dreams, only to receive a rejection letter, not because we are inadmissible; but because a fellow student is brilliant and receives what might have been “our” spot. We are diagnosed with illnesses, to which we are genetically predisposed. Our family, despite how much we love them, falls apart because of fighting among siblings over how to handle the remaining years of a parent’s life. We die. In some sense, the beginning of true Christian faith is trusting that even in such moments, God abides with us. And the God who continues to bring life out of death invites us to offer our sorrow, our woundedness as an act of love. As Teilhard de Chardin writes in his The Divine Milieu:
Christ has conquered death, not only by suppressing its evil effects, but by reversing its sting. By virtue of Christ’s rising again, nothing any longer kills inevitably but everything is capable of becoming the blessed touch of the divine hands, the blessed influence of the will of God upon our lives. However marred by our faults, or however desperate in its circumstances, our position may be, we can, by a total re-ordering, completely correct the world that surrounds us, and resume our lives in a favorable sense. For those loving God, all things are converted into good.
For me, praying the psalms was the beginning of this conversion toward the good. In slowly returning to the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours, I learned that in uttering these mutilated words from a wounded heart, my voice became Christ’s. My suffering, my sorrow, has been whispered into the ear of the Father for all time. The echo of my words in an empty room called my heart back to authentic prayer. I used short phrases from psalms throughout the day, whenever I was tempted to enter into self-pity, to call myself back toward openness to the Father. The psalms became for me the grammar of my broken speech to God, a way to express a sorrow where words failed to suffice.
Second, I also began to meditate upon the crucifix in silence whenever I entered a church. Such silent meditation became essential to prayer, for by gazing at the crucifix for long periods, I discovered how God’s very silence in prayer was stretching me out toward a more authentic love. Meditation, as the Catechism notes, is a quest whereby “the mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” (2705). Has God caused our infertility? No? But, have we been called to it? Based upon the six years of infertility, perhaps that is indeed our calling. In contemplating the silence of the cross, the image of Christ stretched out in love, I could feel my own will stretched out gradually to exist in harmony with the Father’s. To accept the cup that we have been given. And as my will was stretched out, I found new capacities for love available to me. A new awareness that the “calling” of infertility has made me aware of the lonely, the vulnerable, the needy, and allowed me to perceive the true gift of a human life. My meditation upon the image of the cross gave me the strength to go forward with the process of adoption; it sustains me as we continue to wait for a child; a child, who may need more love than we can ever give, more care than we can imagine; to enter into the suffering of the widow, the immigrant, the lonely, who also comes to Mass with a heart deeply wounded.
Third, in my formation into prayer through the sorrow of infertility, I have grown in appreciation for the silence and half-sentences of God. The Catechism comments regarding contemplation or silence, “It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, an attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery” (2724). In fact, words often still hurt too much to utter; I at times have no energy to utter in prayer; all I have left is an imitation of the very silence I hear in response to my petitions. Through entering into God’s own silence, I find my own bitter silence transformed into one of trust, of hope, of a kind of “infused knowledge” of God’s love that I have come to savor, to taste, to experience during this growth in prayer. At times, this silence results in a gift of exhilarating bliss, as if for a moment I have totally united to God. Sometimes, it is a restful silence in which I hear no speech. I savor such moments–because only here, do I receive the balm for the sorrow, which so often floods my soul throughout the day.
Lastly, our infertility has slowly led me to a deeper appreciation of the Eucharistic quality of the Christian life. For years, I talked with far too much ease about the “sacrifice of the Mass.” Of the Eucharistic vocation of the Christian. How all of our lives must become an offering, a gift to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Until I came to know the sorrow of infertility, these words were mere straw, to reference Thomas Aquinas, the Eucharistic poetic par excellence.
True self-gift is hard. It’s hard to give yourself away to a God, who doesn’t seem to listen to your prayers. It’s hard to wait for a child that may never come, to prepare your home with the proper furniture for what seems at times as a pipe dream. It’s hard to love your spouse, as deeply as you desire to, when you’re distracted by the phantasms of sorrow that have become your dearest friend. It’s hard to muster a smile when your friends announce that they will be having another child. It’s just hard.
At these moments, I don’t know what else to do but to seek union with Christ himself. To enter more deeply into the Eucharistic logic of the Church, where self-preservation is transformed into self-gift. And the Eucharist continues to teach me that I can’t do it myself. I can’t climb out of the sorrow, the sadness, the misery. I can’t fix it all. But, I can give it away. I can offer it up. I can slowly enter into the Eucharistic life of the Church, learning to become what I receive. To become vulnerable, self-giving love even in the midst of sorrow. Knowing, of course, that in the Resurrection such love has conquered death. Where senses fail, faith alone suffices.
For, it turns out we weren’t married that we could experience the joy of having children. We were married that our lives might become an offering of love for the world. To our nieces. To our nephews. To our friends. To a child, yet to be born, but who we hope to one day welcome. To a child, who has suffered more from neglect, whether accidental or purposeful, than we do from the absence of a child. Our infertility isn’t about us. It’s about what how God can transform even our sorrow into joy; how even in the shadow of this very real cross, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
This then is the drama of a life of prayer. I have come to know God’s grace even in the midst of this misery, this vale of tears. It has not healed the sorrow, washed it away. Indeed, there remain moments in which we are awakened to the extraordinary pain caused by this infertility. Christmas is a dreadful holiday, a reminder of the dearth of stockings hanging from our hearth. Infant baptism in the parish, of which Kara coordinates, can release a flood of sadness seemingly inappropriate to the festive occasion of a parish celebrating new life in Christ. The images of ultrasounds on Facebook announcing child two and three among our friends remind us again that the only images we have to share is a picture of a new wood floor we might install in our home (of course, the wood flooring will be exceptional!). The wound remains and can be opened at a moment’s notice. But prayer has given it a shape, a reason, a participation in God’s very life. That even through this suffering, the Word desires to become flesh in my life through a prayerful obedience to the will of a God, who I can’t quite comprehend.
Sometimes, I allow myself to daydream either about one day getting a phone call from our adoption agency or receiving news that Kara is pregnant. This moment would undoubtedly be the happiest of my life, full of a grace that human words would express only in a stutter at best. Marilynne Robinson gets close in her novel Gilead. The protagonist of the novel, John Ames, finds himself married and with a child in the latter years of his life. His death close at hand, he writes to his child:
I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle (Gilead, 52).
Of course, such a moment may never come. Nothing in a human life is promised. It’s why learning to pray through infertility has been akin to learning to see the possibility of grace, never the guarantee. Otherwise, would such moments be grace, a total gift, in the first place? So we stand waiting for Gabriel. Learning to hear the angel’s voice in new ways. In time spent with our nephew and niece. In time spent with one another. In marveling at the wonder of children not our own. In learning to give ourselves away, not because we want to join the community of parents, but because there are those who desperately need our love, perhaps for but a month.
And the more I enter into prayer, the more I see that in these grace-filled moments, Gabriel has already come.
Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum—Let it be done to me according to your word.