Early one Saturday summer morning a number of years ago, I went into labor with my daughter Carly. Having trained for birth by a method which teaches one to hypnotize oneself into perceiving labor pains as “pressure,” I confidently entered into contractions thinking, this is going to be a piece of cake. I wanted a peaceful, natural childbirth with no drugs, in the water, with a midwife and a doula. My husband and I took a couple of walks in the neighborhood while I dutifully breathed through contractions. I was proud of myself. So far, so good.
Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon things got more intense. By the time we got to the hospital I was stuffing my face into a pillow to avoid screaming in the waiting room, while my husband was dealing with a trainee at the reception desk whose response, when told “my wife is in labor,” was to whisper to the person next to her, “what do I do now?” By the time I was checked and settled in, it seemed that my child was ready to arrive into this world. While my husband and the nurses told me to stop pushing, an aide frantically tried to find the midwife. I was completely panicked, no thoughts possible, all systems overridden by a tyranny of pain and the fact that no one seemed ready for what was happening. Eventually everyone showed up just in time to welcome Carly into the warm waters of a birthing pool. While I was delighted to meet my daughter, the overwhelming thought in my mind was utter relief to be freed from what my useless training had called “pressure.”
After a brief rest in the pool we got out of it, and Carly started screaming, which continued, on and off, for about ten weeks. So my panic, which started with the real sensations of childbirth, continued with the reality of mothering: where were the serene moments of mother gazing blissfully into baby’s eyes, completely at one, understanding her tiny infant in all her needs? Instead I gazed in complete disbelief and lack of comprehension: why is my baby crying? I have no idea. She is not hungry, she is not cold, her diaper is dry. Yet she is still crying. What is wrong with her? What is wrong with me?
Fast forward two years. My daughter, at age two, was still not sleeping through the night, and I had been more or less panicked her entire short life. At this point, panic had degenerated into depression, compounded by a few miscarriages in the meantime. I began to believe I was defective as a mother, and in general. I could think of nothing that would help. At a loss, I finally decided to seek a protestant church where they were sure to offer communion every week (unlike my Baptist upbringing, where communion happened once a season or so). I wanted simply to pray, and to follow a nameless instinct to receive the comfort of the eucharist. I didn’t know much about Episcopalians except they had tactile, sensory liturgies like Catholics, yet also were inclusive, which was very important to me. They even ordained women and gay priests. I thought I might be able to deal with a service for the sake of prayer and Christ’s table.
So I found an Episcopal church, one advertising a weekly “healing eucharist,” and went to the service. I can remember thinking, I am defective. I don’t know how to mother my child or to do anything successfully. Please heal me. I haven’t prayed much (at least, not in the sense of asking God for help) for the last twenty years, but please help me anyway.
I didn’t know about the lectionary in those days, but that day all the readings were about bread: manna from heaven feeding the starving Israelites, Jesus as the bread of heaven, God feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty. What the liturgy seemed to be whispering to me was this: You aren’t defective. You’re hungry. Eat.
The next two Sundays I went to two different Episcopal churches, and both weeks, all the readings were still all about bread. I felt profoundly moved. My self-condemnation and hopelessness –“what’s wrong with me?”—had entered into dialogue with a gentler and kinder diagnosis—“you’re hungry.” And I was. Hungry for anything that was nourishing. Hungry for self-confidence as a mother. Hungry for peace and community and adult company. Hungry to feel a sense of spiritual connection and belonging.
Now that I’ve been back in church a few years and am adapting to the rhythms of the liturgical year, I’m thinking more seriously about lent and what it means—and what it doesn’t mean, for me. It seems I’ve often confused “penitence” with depression, that toxic, overly judgmental and hopeless self-criticism that does not lead to life. Today I’m wondering if lent might instead call me to healing rather than judgment: not, what is wrong with me? But, what do I need to be spiritually free, vibrant, and alive? Where do I need to heal? What do I need to let go of that keeps me bound, oppressed, and hungry?
Paradoxically, I sense that lent is also a time of courage, a time that can equip us to enter into the worst of our own pain, shame, and hopelessness. Though in one sense lent is about being more compassionate with ourselves, it’s also about the courage to face the hardened patterns of pain that are entrenched in our systems and that create suffering for ourselves and others. Unlike my experience of trying to deny the pain of labor and then panicking when true pain began, lent doesn’t ask us to disguise our woundedness; it calls us to name honestly the ways were are captive, with hope and faith that we can be liberated and healed.
What I’m really exploring is whether I might imagine lent as the laboring of birth. Though of course we practice lent as a preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus, in a real way something radically new was born into the world through that great event: the possibility of transcending evil and suffering, the possibility of aligning completely with God and with God’s purpose for us as humans, the possibility of true healing. I think lent asks, what is the joyful vision to which God calls us? And only when that vision has been clearly seen—when the epiphany has happened—can we ask, what prevents us from getting there? Or, what labor, what pain must we face to greet the new life waiting to manifest in us?
Lisa Wiens Heinsohn