Our very bodies are designed for giving and receiving love. Being open to this divine purpose makes us more receptive to the gift of birth.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
To pray means to open your hands before God. It means slowly relaxing the tension which squeezes your hands together and accepting your existence with an increasing readiness, not as a possession to defend, but as a gift to receive.
(Henri J. M. Nouwen, With Open Hands [Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1972], 154.)
This article is adapted from chapter three of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust. Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar.
So much of being in relationship—to each other, and to God—is about giving and receiving. The more intimate the relationship, the more deeply we give and receive.
Henri Nouwen, a priest and spiritual master of the past century, wrote a small picture book called With Open Hands. It is worth finding and reading prayerfully. Nouwen says that we can see our relationship to God through our hands: When we approach God in our minds, in our prayer, do we come with open hands? Or are our hands closed, clenched, hidden, and maybe even ready to strike? If they are closed, how could you possibly receive any gift God wants to give you? If God wants to take your hand in friendship, how could he do it? If you wanted to give someone anything, how could you do it with clenched hands?
But look at open hands. They are relaxed, comfortable, unprotected, a bit vulnerable. They are waiting. You could form them into an offered embrace. You can share what you have. You can form them into a begging bowl. You can receive and you can give with such hands.
These open hands are open to relationship. And this should be our spiritual disposition as Christians: we should remember to be in relationship to God with open hands, ready to give and to receive.
How we are created for giving and receiving
When the Theology of the Body says that the ensouled body has a spousal meaning, it means that as men and women we are created to give and receive. And this goes beyond our hands (although how we hold our hands is an important reminder): we are designed to give and receive love in the most intimate of ways. John Paul II offered that women were created with an essential femininity that is receptive, and men were created with an essential masculinity that is generative. In practice, and especially in a well-lived marital covenant, this giving and receiving is mutual and reciprocal. But to stay with women: part of the spousal meaning of our bodies is that we were created with an ability to receive. When a woman receives the love of a man through the conjugal act of intercourse, she opens herself to the designed consequences of that mutual self-gift, one of which may be the gift of new life.
Jesus Christ: “Into Your Hands . . . .”
If you are thinking, “Well, that sounds very poetic, but I’m not sure how love-filled giving and receiving is a sign, or a meaning of the body, or anything beyond my love for my spouse,” I have news for you: the Law of the Gift is the very language of Christianity. And we see the most dramatic example of it on Good Friday: when Jesus Christ gives his life on a cross, to the Father, for our sake, out of love for fallen humanity, so that we “may all be one” (John 17:21). Perhaps Christ even sensed the open hands: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
Theologians call this self-gift of Christ on the cross kenosis, a Greek word that means self-emptying. It is the word used in Philippians 2:5–8:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (emphasis added)
That is giving to an infinite degree. But did he receive? Was there a dynamic? Yes. Jesus trusted that he would receive the continued love and nourishment of the Father beyond his death, and he did. We cannot see the death of Jesus outside of the resurrection. But even beyond the resurrection, he went to his death knowing that choosing to give up his life would bring forth new life for humanity. He offered his life trusting that this horrible gift of dying was intensely fruitful.
And then, as he promised, he sent to humanity his Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The dynamic of giving and receiving is the only way we can understand the relationship of love the Son of God has with the Father, the Holy Spirit, and humanity.
The Holy Spirit: The Lord, Giver of Life
In the Creed, we name the Holy Spirit as the Lord, the Giver of Life. Immediately you may see the relevance to the gift of birth! But for now, we focus on the Holy Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is the “most high gift of God” (donum Dei altissimum) and the One who teaches us how to give and to receive.
St. Augustine, working from Scripture, argued that the Holy Spirit is God’s gift of himself to humanity: “He is given as the gift of God, in such a way that he, as God, is himself the giver giving himself.” It sounds like a tongue twister, but we ought to see it as a mind twister: God gives himself to us in the Holy Spirit (remember, we are “temple[s] of the Holy Spirit”), and that same Spirit teaches us to receive and give ourselves to God and to others. The Holy Spirit taught the frightened apostles to run into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim the Good News. He taught the persecuted Christians what to say in court. He teaches us to trust God’s plans through his peace and consolation. And, most of all, as Love Himself, he teaches us to love God and each other. Love always bears fruit.
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa says that marriage, as the sacrament of reciprocal self-giving, is special witness to the life and work of the Holy Spirit. As we continue, we will attempt to invite the Spirit with open hands into our reflections on the gift of childbirth.
For prayerful reflection
1. When you pray, take some time to pay attention to the position of your hands. Many people pray with hands gently clasped together as a sign of internal recollection. But when your hands are open in front of you, do you sense a different openness in communication? Try to pray with hands clenched. Is it even possible?
2. “In the end, a life of prayer is a life with open hands—a life where we are not ashamed of our weakness but realize that it is more perfect for us to be led by the Other than to try to hold everything in our own hands.” (Nouwen, With Open Hands, 158). Ask the Lord what you are unconsciously clutching in your hands, what needs to be let go—especially in relationship to an impending birth.
3. What does it mean to be a temple of the Holy Spirit? In Jesus’s time, the temple of Jerusalem was understood to be the earthly home of the God of Israel. But when Jesus died on the cross, the curtain that separated that home (the Holy of Holies) from the rest of the Temple tore in half, “releasing” the Spirit of God. After Pentecost, the Spirit resides in the temple of each human being. Write out what it means for you to serve as a temple of the Holy Spirit: how you carry yourself, what you do, what you say.
Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.