“Hope is the virtue of people who know they are infinitely weak and easily broken, and rely firmly on God with utter trust. … Theological hope can only come from a radical experience of our poverty. As long as we are rich, we rely on our riches. To learn hope, we have to pass through impoverishment. These experiences are the prelude to experiencing the goodness, faithfulness, and power of God in a quite extraordinary way. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” – those stripped of everything by the Spirit – “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”Interior Freedom, by Fr. Jacques Phillipe
It was the beginning of Advent, and I was just beginning to accept the fact that I was infertile until I had surgery. Six months prior, I had been evaluated for an isthmocele, a condition caused by an issue with C section sutures that thins the uterus at the cite of the incision and traps menstrual blood. An isthmocele can lead to higher rates of miscarriage, uterine rupture, and infertility. Read more about what that is here.
It was in this reluctant acceptance that I felt God call me out. “Emily, you’ve become a real cynic. It’s time you have some hope.” I hate it when God calls it like it is. I had become incredibly cynical about my fertility. I had two surprise babies when we had serious need to avoid pregnancy, and once we actually tried, we had trouble. It brought up a lot of feelings and questions, not the least of which was, What’s the point of being faithful?
But I leaned in and decided, Ok, I’m going to try to be hopeful. I read the daily readings for Advent, which were full of themes of hope and justice, a pertinent addition since my fertility journey felt so unfair.
As I was waiting for an appointment for sonogram to diagnose the isthmocele, I found out I was pregnant 2 weeks after Christmas.
I felt fear, guilt, joy, disbelief and whiplash all at once. And strangely, in the midst of everything, there was peace. I understood why God had told me I needed to have hope, hope that he would not abandon me again as he had in the past. It’s unbelievably hard to have hope when experience makes hope seem like nothing more than a set up to be deeply hurt again.
As I processed my cocktail of emotions in the ensuing weeks, I realized the fact that I am even pregnant is an absolute miracle. Leading up to that cycle, I had been under more mental and emotional stress than I had in a long time, and to top it off, I had a stomach virus. Knowing what I know about how cortisol (the stress hormone) and sickness affects a woman’s cycle, the fact I produced a viable egg is beyond my comprehension.
The fact that this was all happening for a reason didn’t offer the greatest comfort. You see, there were a lot of wounds I was unpacking from my previous births and pregnancies, wounds that were making it hard for me to receive what God wanted to give me.
Radical Experience of Poverty.
About 3 months before finding out I was pregnant, I realized that I had processed both my birth experiences and my second pregnancy as trauma. In essence, trauma is defined as the experience of feeling powerless to stop something bad happening to you, and then feeling abandoned by those you turn to for protection or help.
Under that definition, experiences that haunted me suddenly made sense. It explained why I blanked out and sobbed on the bathroom floor when I found out I was pregnant a second time, and why I spent that whole pregnancy feeling impending doom and deep shame. It explained why I felt unbridled rage when I was told about the possibility of an isthmocele, sobbed uncontrollably after my first tele-evaluation, and felt overwhelming terror at the thought of having my uterus cut open again. It explained why the mere thought of stepping into an OBGYNs office for a routine checkup brought feelings of anger, disdain and panic. It explained a lot of other patterns of behavior that had cropped up after those experiences.
Laying on the C section table, being numb to the birth of my child was the most de-humanizing experience I have ever had. And having to do it twice, the second time with 9 months of foreknowledge, was unbearable. I felt completely disconnected from the entire experience. Strange as this may sound, I felt like it could have been any woman laying on that table having my children. I didn’t feel like I needed to be there at all.
As I unpacked my experience, I watched a C section on YouTube, wanting to know precisely what had been done to me. The word that came to my mind as I watched was “brutalized.” My doctors preferred to brutalize my body to avoid a potential lawsuit. I realized I hated OBGYN offices because I had been treated as though I was some idiot who didn’t know how to prevent a pregnancy, who got a second C section because she refused to take a pill. One doctor told me at my 6 week postpartum check up that I needed the pill because “men have needs.”
By revisiting all of this in therapy with a lot of curiosity, I identified three main wounds.
- I have been abandoned.
- I am an object.
- I don’t matter.
And God allowed all of that to happen.
He saw it all and did nothing to stop it, to save me, to offer any ounce of comfort. He went as far as to abandon me when I felt abandoned and used and dismissed by others. To be suddenly asked to hope that he could heal me after all that felt like a slap in the face. Why would he step in now when he hadn’t before? I thought of the many stories of the martyrs. Their bodies were brutalized too. But it didn’t matter because they gained the eternal reward of Heaven and the glory of God. I felt the same was true for me. The belief I didn’t know had crept in was that God didn’t care about my body so long as my faith remained, even if by a thread.
Stripped of Everything.
When Nick and I first decided to try for another baby in June of 2020, I prayed that my next pregnancy would be a healing one. In my mind, that meant I would have a perfect pregnancy and the VBAC I had more than earned. I wanted an experience that would replace – or more accurately, erase – the ones I had before. But God had a very different idea of what healing meant.
A year after trying for a baby, nothing happened. I couldn’t help but laugh at first at God’s sense of humor. Two surprise babies, 3 methods of fertility awareness, traumatic births, and after all those rewards for faithfulness, now when we were ready to try for a baby, infertility. I jokingly told a friend, “It feels like God hears my requests for children and just goes, ‘No.’” But my laughter faded as my period came month after month, and the “I don’t matter” wound got poked.
When I shared about how we were having trouble, I was asked if I had been evaluated for an isthmocele. When I learned what it was, all I felt was rage, which I know now to be a trauma response. My reaction became the push for me to start therapy, something I had put off for years.
I felt a responsibility to share about the isthmocele on my platforms because I had learned it was a criminally under-diagnosed condition, and I wanted to bring awareness. I thought if my story could help one person, my pain would make some sense. There were actually a couple people that told me they were diagnosed and treated as a result of my sharing. But that desire to do good backfired. It poked the “I am an object” wound. I started to feel God was using me, and not in the good way, using my story to help others, but never me. It seemed he was content for me to continue to hurt so long as my story could lessen the pain of others.
I got angry.
Oh, I got angry at God many many times throughout all of these experiences. A lament is a powerful prayer, a cry raised to Heaven that is purely vulnerable. I exposed my deepest, rawest emotions, and let him have absolutely all of me, parts of me I rarely, if ever, show to anyone. And he sat there and listened. He sat with me in my anger, he didn’t run away, or judge or berate me. And afterwards, there was a new level of intimacy between us because he had met me there and he treated me with a deep tenderness. He saw me at my most messy and loved me.
Goodness Faithfulness and Power.
“I can work a miracle in you.”
I heard God clearly speak these words to my heart in the early weeks following that positive pregnancy test. I could feel that God meant, “I can heal your wounded womb, just as I have been healing your wounded heart and wounded mind. I can heal it all if you believe I can.”
“But why? I don’t matter. I’m not worthy. You weren’t there before. Why show up now?” Still a cynic.
I reached out to our priest not long after discovering I was pregnant, asking if it would be appropriate in my circumstances to receive the sacrament of anointing of the sick. He gave an easy yes, and administered it to me when I was six weeks along with our whole family together in the sacristy. He even added on a special blessing for expectant mothers, the theme of which was hope. The words washed over me and gave me immense comfort.
The following Sunday as I sat listening to the homily, a wave of exhaustion hit me, and I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Suddenly, I felt so clearly the Blessed Mother on my left and Jesus on my right, pressing their bodies next to me. Mary raised her left hand and Jesus raised his right, and they laid both their hands over my my C section scar, cradling my belly. Their hands were bathed in light. I felt so comforted and uncomfortable at the same time. Though they said nothing, I knew they were healing my body, assuring me with physical touch that my body mattered. But it was hard to accept. I forced myself to just sit in that moment and allow them to love me, and asked for the grace to receive what they gave.
That Tuesday, I read the readings of the day, a practice I had begun in Advent and continued after. The gospel told the story of the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years who was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ tunic. As I read it, the thought hit me, “Jesus healed her body. He cared about her body.”
And then the thought that brought me to tears:
Jesus cares about my body. Because he made it and it is good.
My mind was being healed in therapy. My heart was being consoled in new ways by His Mother and through some wonderful friendships. I was undoing a lot of lies I had unknowingly accepted over many years and I was changing in many ways for the better. It was exhausting and incredibly liberating.
But the one lie that remained without my knowledge was that my body doesn’t matter. That the physical is less than the spiritual. And that belief was undermining my ability to receive God’s love and be healed in the way I needed and the way he wanted to give.
Be Careful What You Pray For.
God is using my third surprise pregnancy to heal me as I asked him a year and a half ago, not in the way I had imagined where my pain would magically disappear, but in the way I truly needed where my pain would be confronted so my life could be lived to the full.
He knew what my wounds were, patiently waited for me to uncover them, and now he wants me to hope, to believe that he does want my good. He does not separate me into parts – emotional, mental, physical and spiritual – and treat each part in a separate, hierarchical fashion. He created them all and treats them all as carefully integrated, each affecting and being affected by the other, that a wound in one part wounds the others.
I will admit that this is a scary and challenging mindset to lean into, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still a little cynical. I’ve had the thought that God could still bring healing even if I lost this baby, or had a near death experience with a uterine rupture. But I recognize this is my own wounded way of presuming worst case scenario to try to protect myself from the possibility of more heartbreak.
I realized when God called me out during Advent that I had become a cynic because cynicism is the easy choice. It is a protective mechanism that let’s my desire to avoid all future pain dictate how I live, and while it may prevent pain without the need to confront it, it also prevents me from experiencing the beauty and goodness God wants for me. In other words, it’s not a “life abundantly.”
Hope requires reckless bravery to refuse to believe that pain and sorrow will have the last word. Hope is not for people who have need of nothing. It is for people like me who are broken and longing, and finally willing to be humble and admit it.
“Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”Mark 10: 24-27