Today my oldest son turns 8. It is also the 25th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen, hands down my favorite spiritual writer of our time.
As I contemplate the birth of my son and the death of my hero, I circle back to a truth that rarely escapes me: birth and death are inextricably connected. There’s so much more death to birth than I think we realize.
Death is part of a much greater and much deeper event, the fullness of which we cannot comprehend, but of which we know that it is a life-bringing event….What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning; what seemed to be a cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage; what seemed to be defeat proved to be a victory; and what seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope. Suddenly a wall becomes a gate, and although we are not able to say with much clarity or precision what lies beyond the gate, the tone of all that we do and say on our way to the gate changes drastically.Henri Nouwen
Every birth I attend as a doula cements this truth in my mind. As I prepare my clients for their labors, they confide their worries, their fears, their anxieties to me.
“What if I can’t handle it?”
“What if the pain is too much?”
“What if I’m unpleasant/too loud/too demanding/not able to speak up?”
Each prenatal visit finds me steadying them, reminding them of what is true, reinforcing their purpose in this event, reminding them that this is sacred work that they do not have to do alone.
And every birth finds my clients face to face with those worries. Looking those anxieties straight in the eyes, nose to nose with the very things they fear will overcome them…and every time, they conquer.
What seemed to be the end proved to be the beginning.
What seemed to be the cause for fear proved to be a cause for courage.
What seemed to be the basis for despair proved to be the basis for hope.
I have seen so many walls become gates, so many women die to themselves, their very identities cracking open to let in new life. I have experienced the despair of transition that signals the imminence of breakthrough, of birth.
Women and men do not walk away from their births unchanged. The person they were before that baby enters the world is not who they are when the midwives finish up and the lights go back down. Birth requires death. Death requires transformation. Transformation becomes a gate to higher levels of holiness and a new understanding of the human experience.
Today I’m pondering all this as I celebrate my newly minted 8 year old, my biggest baby and most peaceful birth. I’m pondering his birth as I think of all the ways we’ve cumulatively died over the last couple of years: so much suffering, so many disappointments, and looming monsters that have forced us all to face fears we never even verbalized.
Our labor is long and hard, fraught with complications, progress alternatively piercing us to the core and seemingly stalling out. If we only view our life experience as hardship and pain, it’s certainly tempting to medicate ourselves with whatever will numb us out. There’s plenty to try: shopping, porn, hidden stashes of cookies, crime dramas that drown out reality. endless hours of scrolling. Of course epidurals and medications aren’t inherently bad. In fact they’re a very effective tool. However, if our motivation in using them is total avoidance of the experience, they’re less of a help and ultimately disappoint. A good epidural takes the edge off while allowing the patient to actively participate in her labor. I fear that many of us would rather feel nothing at all than engage in the dirty work of living. I fear that of myself, most especially.
If we neglect to view our labor through the lens of eternity, we hug up against the wall without ever allowing it to become a gate. The temptation is always there to focus on the hard stuff without letting it transform us. Yes it feels unrelenting, but each contraction brings change, each pain brings progress, each ache is an opportunity to allow ourselves to gradually open up and birth new life into the world.
I don’t know what God is calling you to bring into being. I’m not sure if you’re living in the expectancy of a growing baby, a growing dream, or a growing desire to commit yourself to hard work worth doing. Perhaps you’re living in the static of just honestly not knowing. I don’t know what your fears are, but I’d guess they have something to do with not being good enough for this thing you’re being asked to do. Maybe you’re afraid you’ll fail. I hope you do. I hope you fail and fail well. Maybe you’re afraid of change. Transition is definitely the hardest part of life and of labor. It’s that point of no return when we find ourselves just done with the job at hand, but too far in to turn back now. I’m sure there are nagging doubts and imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy. There are for me. That’s why I write as infrequently as I do, even though I know this is the hard holy work I’ve been tasked to do.
There’s no way for me to know where the gate leads for any of us. I can’t predict what horizons lie on the other side. But in all the haziness, I can remind us of what I know is true. I can remind you of what I know without a doubt. You were chosen for this purpose. You are the only one who can birth this child, this idea, this dream, this product into the world. You are necessary to this specific labor. This will be incredibly hard, but it will not overcome you because it comes from you, from a place deep inside you that is fed by the Holy Spirit and sustained by the communion of Saints. If you approach this birth through the eyes of eternity, you’ll see that you will never labor in vain. If you allow yourself to be transformed, the Lord will use you as co-creator, you will be a channel through which newness enters the earth.
Birth is death is birth. One requires the other. One begets the next. Each is heartbreaking, good, and beautiful. Both will wreck and ruin us in all the best ways.
So my prayer today is one of humility and obedience.
Lord, let me do this work not for what I will gain from it, but because it is what you have called me to. Help me to be faithful when strength is failing and humble in my pursuit of holiness. Let me submit myself to suffering, use it all to transform me into the person you created me to be. Use me as an instrument of your grace and help me to truly desire all these things I pray for. Let each and every death bear forth a birth more spectacular than the last. Grant me eyes to see it and the courage to run tirelessly towards every dead end that leads to you. Amen.