A Playlist for the Rosary: The Sorrowful Mysteries

JesusarrestedContinuing the series of music for meditating on the rosary. For the Glorious Mysteries, click here. For the Joyful Mysteries, click here.

 

The First Sorrowful Mystery – The Agony in the Garden

Meditation 4: The Agony in the Garden by Simon Johnson

If the counter on YouTube can be believed, I was the first person ever to watch this video, perhaps because it truly portrays agony.

The Second Sorrowful Mystery – The Scourging at the Pillar

“He was despised” from The Messiah by G.F. Handel, sung by Sarah Connolly

The Third Sorrowful Mystery – The Crowning with Thorns

Crown of Thorns by Danielle Rose

The Fourth Sorrowful Mystery – Jesus Carries His Cross

Jo Krus Pe Kurbaan Hai by Vijay Benedict

Unfortunately, this title stumped both Google Translate and Babelfish. Vijay Benedict is a former Bollywood singer who now writes and performs Gospel songs in Hindi.

The Fifth Sorrowful Mystery – The Crucifixion

O vos omnes by David N. Childs

“O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow.”

I have to direct you to an external Website to allow you to hear this piece for free. It is worth it.*  Click here, then hit play on the sound file.

crucifixion2

* I was privileged to help bring David Childs’s music to Europe alongside David himself. He was a doctoral student in choral conducting, and I just one of the many voice majors who performed in the LSU A Cappella Choir. One of the stops on our European tour was at the Mendelssohn Conservatory in Leipzig, Germany. During rehearsal, moments after we began this piece, the conservatory’s choir director leaped out of his seat with the look of a salivating wolf and began hovering at our director’s shoulder, trying to see the score. As soon as the song ended, he snatched the music off of the stand, demanding, “What is this? Where did you get this?” I think he nearly fainted when our director introduced him to the composer.

No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross

Carrie and Lowell

When I first listened to Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, I thought it beautiful. At second listen, I found it frightening. I now find myself unable to stop listening. Stevens has a gift for gorgeous melodies, and in his work he often romanticizes the world and reveals beauty.

In this interview, he explains,

I’m prone to making my life, my family, and the world around me complicit in my cosmic fable, and often it’s not faith to manipulate the hard facts of life into a vision quest. But it’s all an attempt to extract meaning, and ultimately that’s what I’m in pursuit of, like, What’s the significance of these experiences?

There can be a dark side to his method. In the past he has waxed eloquent, for instance, of serial killers and cancer victims. Sometimes, we want so desperately to find meaning that we struggle to admit that not everything in life has one. There are times when sin and chaos so overwhelm us that there is nothing to be found but pain and suffering. If there is meaning to be found, it must lie beyond this life.
In his new album Stevens confronts the death of his mother, Carrie, and attempts to find meaning. His mother abandoned the family Sufjan Stevenswhen he was only 1 year old and their relationship was ever after, well, complicated. The poetry in the songs is so personal and raw that it almost feels voyeuristic to be listening in, and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to write this review because it seemed somehow invasive, and yet, the artist himself has polished these tunes and invited us to take the journey with him. After spending a lot of time with the songs, I have to agree that there is plenty of meaning to be found. So, here goes…

Art has the power to make a universal out of particulars, to climb the ladder from limited, personal experience up to profound insight concerning fundamental truths about God and nature. If we are attempting to ascend closer so as to gain a whisper of a heavenly refrain, it is music such what Stevens has made that forms the rungs on the ladder.

Let’s listen closely to a few, specific songs.

 

Fourth of July

At first listen, this is a sweet tune. Stevens has always had a gift for melodies so catchy that they border on twee, but after living with the song for a while the bitter begins to seep in. There is a gentle pulse in the instrumentation along with slowly changing synths. The sound brings to mind cherubs lazing about on heavenly clouds. But if this is a pulse, after a while it becomes awfully insistent. The recognition eventually dawns that, if it represents a heartbeat, it is not gentle at all. Rather, the pulse is elevated, a sure sign of stress.

We struggle to come to terms with death. In one sense it is a natural end to our time here and it deserves a lullaby, as if we are putting a dear loved one to bed for the night. We may miss them terribly but everything will be alright. On the other hand, death is and always will be an affront to the dignity of human nature. It is disorienting, frightening, and unnecessary. It runs counter to the eternal soul and is a sign of brokenness. What has gone wrong? How do we fix it?

The evil it spread like a fever ahead
It was night when you died, my firefly
What could I have said to raise you from the dead?
Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?

There is no escape, nothing we can do or say to avoid death, no way to become the atmosphere by which another continues to breathe deeply and shine brightly.

The hospital asked should the body be cast
Before I say goodbye, my star in the sky
Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth
Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?

Shall we look at the moon, my little loon
Why do you cry?
Make the most of your life, while it is rife
While it is light

I don’t quite know how to comment on these verses, they are melancholic and tender and haunting all at the same time. I’ve written and erased a few different attempts and officially declare that I give up. Let’s be content to allow them to stand as their own heartbreaking  tribute to a man’s mother.

 

The Only Thing

The death of another brings about thoughts of one’s own mortality. We all end someday, so how do we come to terms?

The only thing that keeps me from driving this car
Half-light, jack knife into the canyon at night
Signs and wonders: Perseus aligned with the skull
Slain Medusa, Pegasus alight from us all

There is a world beyond this one, sparingly glimpsed through signs and wonders, and yes, even death. In the mystery of human solidarity is the dawning realization that these miracles are part of who we are. Sometimes, it is almost too much too bear.

Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to you somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel returns to you somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow

We wish to save our beloved, to protect them, and yet we cannot. Instead we dolefully gaze at that which reminds us, we are haunted by memories long past and yet somehow present. It is the nearness that we still feel that makes the pain so acute. Like a limb that has been removed that is still felt, it is never truly gone. We are part of each other, and when one sorrows, all sorrow.

When it is your own mother you wish to save, I imagine that the grief is all the worse. It is the final alienation of the nurturing, creative life-giver. If she can die, so can we all. This doesn’t rest easy with me. Not at all. It is a counter-sign that puts humanity at odds with ourselves; we refuse to accept that this is the true destiny of any person, to die and disappear, let alone a mother! She, of all other creatures, will not suffer such a fate.

So we mythologize the Mother, search for her in the midst of a world that is slowly but inexorably wearing itself out. Stevens seems to have no answer and knows that behind his carefully constructed fable the truth is often far more complex. He wants to immortalize his mother, to honor her, and yet he cannot help but show the scars of their actual relationship while she was alive. She “tired old mare”, and he was “afraid to be near you.” In spite of these flaws, he sings “I forgive you, Mother”, a name he admits he never actually used for her when she was alive. In death, perhaps it becomes more clear than ever that the sacrifices parents make overwhelms their shortcomings. The sacrifice overcomes all. The gift of life is supreme. Stevens himself says that “Parenthood is a profound sacrifice”. It is a sacred, priestly act. The Church goes so far as to say that it is a Vocation; the father a domestic priest and the mother an icon of the Blessed Virgin.

Is there meaning in the death of the Mother? Can it be anything other than pure, unmitigated loss? If not, it is surely an act of desperation to attempt to make it so. It seems to me that there is only one possible way to bring the universalizing quality of art to the grief of losing a mother, as in, my own mother, in such a way that it participates in beauty and thus in goodness—to situate it in the context of a truly universal Mother. If each of us has our own, natural mother, we also share one, single Mother in the order of grace, Our Lady the Church, exemplified by the Blessed Virgin who, by mothering the God-become-Man has become Mother of us all. It is the Blessed Virgin who willingly enters dormition out of love for her children, the result of which is that she is now resplendent in heaven mediating for her children. Her suffering is a form of love, and her death a transformation so that she might watch over her children more closely. She stands death on its head, voluntarily accepting it so as to emerge on the other side victorious.

If I may be indulged to create my own fable, the sorrow that I hear in Carrie and Lowell is a searching glance to Our Lady of Sorrows. Stevens doesn’t intend this (I don’t think), and to the extent that he doesn’t see her clearly there is confusion and despair in his work. How wonderful for us all that a mother does not require perfection from her children before she loves them.

 

A Playlist for the Rosary: The Joyful Mysteries

annunciation

Continuing the musical meditation on the mysteries of the rosary. For a Playlist for the Glorious Mysteries, click here.  For the Sorrowful Mysteries, click here.

The First Joyful Mystery – The Annunciation

Ave Maria by Franz Schubert, performed by Kristina Murphy, organ and Karen Ullo, soprano

Because there are few things more joyful than when a child sings to her Mother.

 

The Second Joyful Mystery – The Visitation

Magnificat by Arvo Pärt, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir

Arvo Pärt is an Estonian, one of the most widely performed living composers of classical music. The Magnificat is the Canticle of Mary from Luke 1:46-55.

The Third Joyful Mystery – The Nativity of Jesus

Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Eleventh Century carol, performed by Larry and Carla Sue

The Fourth Joyful Mystery – The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Aaronic Blessing in Hebrew, sung by Rico Cortes

From Numbers 6:23-27, the traditional benediction given over the people every morning by a priest of the Aaronic line.

The Fifth Joyful Mystery – The Finding of Jesus in the Temple

My Father’s House by J.P. Cooper

(There is a studio version of this song available here, but I didn’t want to interrupt your prayer with the obnoxious ad at the end.)

Friday Links

The pilot for Jim Gaffigan’s new sitcom, loosely based on his life, is now available for free on his website. Try not to squirm as he tackles the outrage industry and our modern anxieties about religion head on. Matthew Lickona wants you to see Mad Max: Fury Road. Wilfred McClay ponders the nature and aim of the liberal arts, and he wants you to stop calling them the humanities. Stephen Bayley yawns at contemporary art.

Update: Poet and Catholic convert Franz Wright has died. Artur Rosman remembers him at Cosmos in the Lost, plus here’s an old appreciation of his work by Micah Mattix. Requiescat in pace.

Odd Catholicism

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” –ascribed to Mary Flannery O’Connor

It’s hard to know where to start with describing Dean Koontz. He made himself widely known as a Catholic author a few years back in a set of interviews with EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo. Prior to that, he was known mostly as Stephen King’s closest competitor for volume of work as a suspense/thriller/horror novelist. (Indeed, the length of the man’s bibliography is jaw-dropping.) Is he a serious novelist or a schlockmeister? A subtle commentator on the human condition or an exploiter of cheap thrills? Maybe a competitor with Michael Voris for worst Catholic haircut?

Separated at birth?

Separated at birth?

Before being introduced to the Odd Thomas series, my only exposure to Mr. Koontz’s work was his 1988 novel Lightning, a mostly forgotten but interesting time travel story. The protagonist Odd Thomas is an unusual sort of action hero: young, humble, self-deprecating, and able to see dead people. This series has some intriguing (if unsubtle) explorations of moral themes and modern problems.

Thankfully, Dr. Stephen Mirarchi, an English professor at Benedictine College, has written up a short exploration of the Odd Thomas series, focusing on its Catholic themes:

Like many great Catholic authors before him, Koontz knows that writers who are believers get it wrong when they try to represent the divine in their works as a departed God, not substantially present among us at all times. One thinks of Flannery O’Connor’s famous line about the Eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” Koontz instead embraces the “hidden in plain sight” view of literature—an “Adoro Te Devote” (“I devoutly adore you”) kind of writing that delivers the substance of Catholic teaching under the species of ordinary literary devices. Koontz writes Odd as a character who, in light of the Catholic tradition, responds to the extraordinary gift of seeing souls in Purgatory by taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—the evangelical counsels that keep Odd’s life simple, and his heart ready to serve, as he often reminds us with an amusing aside. Odd doesn’t call them that, in so many words, but Koontz’s depiction is something more than implicit, even as it’s just short of explicit—hidden in plain view.

Please do read the whole article over at the Homiletic & Pastoral Review site.

This one’s for you.

Two weeks ago a group of students and alumni from the University of Dallas got together to record an album, gathering in one of the crummy old student apartments that we’ve all loved to hate. They crafted a beautiful and real collection of songs, poems and reflections, some original, some traditional. I loved going to UD for so many reasons. The week in which this album was recorded was an incredible testament to the best parts of that school; a young alumnus had just died very unexpectedly, and alumni from all over the country, even one young alumna teaching as far away as Korea, dropped everything without hesitation to come back to Irving to be with each other, remember their dear friend, and stand by his young widow, Emma.

From the album description: “Anyone who knew Andrew, or had only met him, knew that he lived most of his life in music. In fact, I don’t know of anyone who ever met him without his guitar on. So it was natural, when those of us who first learned of his sudden death and were struck down and sick at heart—, it was natural that we only wanted to hear songs, and only songs that reminded us of him.” Like so many UD students before him, he was also a great lover of poetry and literature, particularly works by Wallace Stevens and James Joyce. All of this is reflected in the tribute his friends have put together. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. There’s no fancy editing, no polishing and perfecting—it’s just exactly what it is, exactly what it is meant to be: a group of friends remembering and honoring one of their own, complete with a few tears, and drinks raised to him. Someone made some short videos of the recording process; here is one of those:

 

Andrew leaves behind his wife, Emma, who was set to graduate this spring, his baby girl, Charlotte, who had her first birthday just after he died, and a second baby girl, due to arrive this fall. You can download and listen to the album for free, or make a donation to help his family, on this page. And, please share it with your friends and families.

andrew1

Defense Against the Dark Arts

Whatever else one may say about a Hogwarts education, it’s clear that it enjoys an advantage over most other schools in the realm of practical philosophy. Instead of bewailing the fate of the humanities, perhaps it’s time to realign our priorities and focus on the true issue at hand: the fight against evil. To that end, therefore, we present The Defense Against the Dark Arts Reading List for immediate adoption by English departments, classical academies, and Comparative Literature professors.

Aristotle, On Dreams
Cicero, On Friendship
The Song of Roland
Dante, The Divine Comedy
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Goethe, Faust
Beowulf
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur
Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
MacDonald, Phantastes
MacDonald, Lilith
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress

A Playlist for the Rosary: The Glorious Mysteries

rosary

In this lovely springtime month of May, the month when we honor all mothers and Our Blessed Mother in particular, I thought it would be fitting to offer a meditation on the rosary. Since my Playlist for the Stations of the Cross received some positive feedback, I decided to offer another meditation through music. God willing, I will post playlists for all four sets of mysteries. (I do not promise to get them all finished during May, but no worries; I have it on good authority that heaven accepts prayers in June.) While we are still celebrating Easter, and while Mary’s crown of Mayflowers is still fresh, I thought it best to start with the Glorious mysteries.

Please feel free to use this meditation any way you choose. You can play the music underneath each decade of your rosary; you can listen to the songs before you begin each decade; you can use the music as its own separate prayer; or you can use your imagination and put it to some other use. My only hope is that it helps draw you closer to Christ through His Mother.

Update: for a Playlist for the Joyful Mysteries, click here.  For the Sorrowful Mysteries, click here.

The First Glorious Mystery – The Resurrection

Sviatïy Bozhe (Holy God) by Georgy Sviridov

I could not find a full translation for this piece. The language is Church Slavonic. The composer was a darling of the Soviet Union, recipient of the Stalin Prize, the Order of Lenin, and a Hero of Socialist Labor. He wrote this in 1992, after the Soviet Union had fallen. God is good.

The Second Glorious Mystery – The Ascension

Psalm 47 by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium, Japan

God mounts his throne to shouts of joy: a blare of trumpets for the Lord. All you peoples, clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness. For the Lord, the Most High, the awesome, is the great king over all the earth. God mounts his throne amid shouts of joy; the Lord, amid trumpet blasts. Sing praise to God, sing praise; sing praise to our king, sing praise. For king of all the earth is God; sing hymns of praise. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne.

The Third Glorious Mystery – The Coming of the Holy Spirit

Give Good Gifts, Shaker Hymn

“Peace, joy, and comfort gladly bestow,” for these are the fruits of the Spirit.

The Fourth Glorious Mystery – The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Sonata 14: The Assumption of Mary by Heinrich Ignatz Franz Biber

The Fifth Glorious Mystery – Mary is Crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth

Regina Caeli, Gregorian chant

Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia. For He whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia. [Now] has risen, as He said, alleluia. Pray for us to God, alleluia.

Dante, Milton, and the Birthing Tub

My wife’s most recent labor changed everything.

To the woman walking her dog down our street around noon a week ago, it was likely just another beautiful spring Saturday. As she passed our living-room window she may have been considering her to-do list, the sound of the birds, her heartburn, or any number of the mysteries of the universe. Chances are, however, her mind never wandered near the truth of the miraculous happenings just beyond the window and drapes 10 feet away. As she left our vantage, I wagered the timing ripe for a jest on just this fact. It was good for a laugh, a moment of levity generally appreciated by every woman I’ve witnessed deliver a child (a grand total of 1). What’s funnier still, is that I, who have only witnessed labor and never labored myself, would wager to write about labor and delivery.

To labor for and deliver a child unto the world, though, is no laughing matter. Such a feat requires the exertion and focus of running a marathon–without the fun of changing scenery or the thrill passing that racer right in front of you. No, laboring is like a marathon where the runner doesn’t set her own pace, and the finish line moves. What’s more, if you are in a hospital setting, it’s like trying to run a marathon while having needles poked in you, fluorescent lights on you, strangers talking about your “progress,” beepers beeping at you, and instead of wearing your favorite running-shorts, -shirt, and -shoes, you have to don a 1980s track suit and velcro New Balance shoes (the ones your Grandpa has). [Full disclosure, I own a pair of these.] Perhaps the most important difference between the marathon and the labor unto birth, though, is this: for the runner, the cramping, fatigue, nausea, thirst, and pain might overwhelm, and she might well decide to throw in the towel halfway through the course, ending her race with a sad but understandable failure. Not so for the laboring woman, though. Ironically, unlike the runner she cannot stop, yet “giving up” is among the more successful strategies she could employ. While no runner ever completed (let alone won) a marathon by giving up, many a birth story I’ve heard (or witnessed) hinge on just such a surrender, a giving up, an admission of impotence, a desperate petition to the Lord for respite. Common phrases include: “I can’t do this! I’m going to die! From now on, we’re adopting!” A whispered prayer, “Jesus, just one break here, Lord. Just one break.” An earnest request – “pray for me.” It seems common for a woman to find her road through labor to delivery shortened by a move found in no athlete’s playbook anywhere ever: surrender.

Wait a second. This blog is supposedly about Catholic arts, literature, poetry, and theology. NOT sport psychology. Hang with me. We’re almost there. Bear with one more series of athletic tropes.

As an athlete, I knew the most important ingredient in victory was the “eye of the tiger,” wanting it more than the other guy, pushing harder, digging deeper, and all those typical metaphors. You get the picture. Well, as a husband and witness to 6 births, I have learned from my wife that some of the typical strengths of the athlete are the bane of labor and delivery. Chief among them, I found, was my favorite… “trying harder.” The laboring woman has little room, it seems, for “trying harder.” Relaxation, comfort, even the appearance of sleep, befit the laboring woman best. No adrenaline allowed! If there is work involved, it is the work of relaxing, of getting out of the body’s way, cooperating with the mystery of the labor of which the woman both is and is not the agent. She at once labors and receives labor. She simultaneously delivers the child and is delivered of the child. How strange, mysterious, and wondrously perplexing! I couldn’t let these paradoxes go.

The theologian in me had to find or give an account of this reality. Ina May Gaskin and Dr. Bradley (in their many books) both offer strong analyses of labor and delivery suggesting and developing psychological and physiological accounts for the importance of surrender in labor, but they don’t satisfy the theologian, or any spiritually curious person. For example, Bradley describes labor has having three emotional signposts accompanying the three stages of labor: excitement, seriousness, and self-doubt. The woman tends to experience self-doubt during the final stage before pushing, namely, transition. Bradley notes that the coach (husband) should celebrate (inwardly) this sign, as bearing witness to the near end of labor. The husband must simply reassure his spouse with praise, expressions of her progress, and encouragement. Bradley does not, however, offer overmuch explanation for whether the self-doubt is instrumental toward or merely a sign of the near terminus of dilation in labor.

Some interesting theological work on labor and birth exists (e.g., the Episcopalian pastor Margaret Hammer’s Giving Birth), but it wasn’t until my wife described her own moment of abandonment and surrender during this last labor that I realized I was still barking up the wrong tree. The theological key to this puzzle, she told, me, is the birthing tub. Now, you are thinking I’m just crazy. Humor me for a few more sentences before checking your Snapchat feed. My wife loves to swim. She’s most comfortable in the water. She reported to me that the change happened for her, she was able to surrender in total abandon to the labor when she was sitting in the birthing tub, and she realized that she was not really in a birthing tub at all, but she was enveloped in the arms of the God who would bring her through this labor and delivery. She could relax through the contractions, rest when they abated, and cooperate with the grace of this passion, this redemptive gift of self in labor for the life of a child. Only by sitting in the arms of the Father could it be done. This had been her longest labor, and her turning point came with this realization of the Father’s grace in the birthing tub. What God wanted to do for her, in her, without her yet with her. It was mystical prayer. It was no longer acquired labor, but infused labor. It was an experience a person cannot demand but can only prepare for, and remove the obstacles to. The best labor is a gift, received when the toiling mother finally steps out of her own way and into the Lord of life’s way.

My wife’s image of the birthing tub as place of rest in the Father’s bosom, a place where “doing nothing” actually gets the most done reminded me of two other notable “water” scenes that splendidly juxtapose her own experience (thank God). They both deal with the fundamental theological reality behind labor and delivery: humility, gratitude, and mystery over-against pride and lust for power.

Consider the first literary exemplar: Dante’s description of hell’s very center in Canto 34 of the Inferno.

“The emperor of that despondent kingdom / so towered from the ice, up from midchest, / that I match better with a giant’s breadth / than giants match the measure of his arms; / … I marveled when I saw that, on his head, / he had three faces / Beneath each face of his, two wings spread out, / as broad as suited so immense a bird: / I’ve never seen a ship with sails so wide. / They had no feathers, but were fashioned like / a bat’s; and he was agitating them, / so that three winds made their way out from him / and all Cocytus froze before those winds.”Inferno canto 34

Satan, a hairy, three-faced giant with six bat-wings grotesquely appended to his head, sits frozen in a lake congealed by the icy wind from his own furious wings, their endless beating stemming from the font of his own abysmal pride. Satan’s pride, we see with Virgil and Dante, bears the fruit of impotence. His labor brings naught but death. The harder he tries, the stiffer he lies in the ice of his own making. It is, moreover, his desire to be God that imprisons him and sends the wind of his error to chill the bones of any who behold his fate. The laboring woman, therefore, magnificently contrasts Lucifer. Her labor bears fruit best when it approaches the receptivity of the new Eve, the Immaculate One who said as no one had said before, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word.” The laboring woman is truly the subject of the labor, but subject of its activity as gift received rather than act consciously undertaken.

Consider the second: Milton’s musings on the great fallen angel in the first book of Paradise Lost.

“So strecht out huge in length the Arch-fiend lay / Chain’d on the burning Lake, nor ever thence / Had ris’n or heav’d his head, but that the will / And high permission of all-ruling Heaven / Left him at large to his own dark designs, / That with reiterated crimes he might / Heap on himself damnation, while he sought / Evil to other and enrage’d might see / How all his malice serv’d but to bring forth / Infinite goodness, grace and mercy / On Man by him seduc’t, but on himself / Treble confusion, wrath and vengeance pour’d” (Bk 1, lines 209–20). Satan here lies cast into a burning lake, the raging flames symbolizing the raging pride and rebellion of his own heart against the God he would not serve. He would rather “reign in hell than serve in Heav’n” (bk 1, line 263).Satan Burning Lake

Satan’s hateful rebellion against God, full of passion for power, leads to his own impotence in Milton’s imagination as well. God abandons Satan to his vice, allows him to pile up burning coals upon his own head. The more he grabs for power, the more Truth and Power takes hold of and turns his evil to an opportunity for grace upon mankind. Fastforward to the present day, and we see our technocratic society faces the temptation to attempt mastery over every mystery of human life. Our passion for control, for power, to put creation at our service rather than serve the God who created extends even to the realm of a woman’s labor and delivery. The more women (and men) see birth as a procedure to technologically or psychologically or physically master, the more thrown down they will find themselves. Labor and delivery is not a puzzle to be mastered but a mystery to be received from the hand of a loving God. To be at the service of God in the labor rather than to reign over the labor is the challenge.

It seems to me, therefore, that the warm waters of my wife’s birthing tub could at any moment have been one of three things: the arms and bosom of the Father of life; the frozen lake or self-defeating pride; or the burning Sulphurous wave-pool of passionate rebellion against the God and the natural activity of labor that God created.

The suffering of labor and delivery, it seems, can serve a pedagogical, as well as redemptive function. The woman learns (and teaches her husband) that progress (whether moral or in labor) comes from cooperation in God’s activity, not as over-against my own activity, but as ennobling my own. “Unless the Lord build the house, the laborers work in vain” (Ps 127:1). The woman is not the master of the labor, but she cooperates with the graced and natural mystery of laboring for and delivering the child. To labor is to learn and teach humility. As to its redemptive character, the woman’s labor can be joined to Lord’s suffering on the cross. A woman might offer her labor for the sake of her child’s soul, for any intention. I have heard firsthand miraculous effects of labor abandoned to God in union with the cross. Moreover, the practice of laboring in grace, praying with and through contractions, disposes the woman (and frankly anyone else witnessing such an event) to radically reconsider the meaning of any and all sufferings and what might be done with those sufferings.

I, for one, cannot but see anew the daily crosses of life from a different vantage, now that I’ve witnessed these six miraculous deliveries of my wife. Having been seen  from the birthing tub, the world can never be the same. Every cross is an opportunity to freeze in pride, to burn with passion for power, or to rest (though not without pain) in the bosom of the Father. Thank you, women who labor, for showing us the way.

Immaculate Mary, pray for us!