The Holy Spirit is right there with us as we prepare to give birth—but we don’t always know how, or where, to look. We need to be taught, by the Holy Spirit himself, where to see God at work in our lives.
Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from Chapter 4 of the forthcoming book, The Gift of Birth: Spiritual Direction for Expecting Mothers, to be published by Gracewatch Media in January 2016.
by Susan Windley-Daoust
Birdwatchers are a marvel to me. I have no real experience bird watching, but when I go bird watching with someone who knows what they are doing, I stand back in amazement. We’re walking around, and I see trees and sky and the occasional squirrel darting about. They see more. They know where to look, andvoila: birds. Not just birds, but specific species, male and female, in molt or not. I hear a cacophony of bird calls; they hear individual songs and can say “this one species is nearby.” When the bird is sighted, there is a motionless smile of wonder and pleasure. They see and can enjoy what I usually cannot.
And yet the birds are right there. I know it is a matter of practice, learning to see through the environment and find the bird.
The Holy Spirit is “right there,” too—but we don’t always know how, or where, to look. We need to be taught, by the Holy Spirit himself, where to see God at work in our lives.
We begin by learning to pay spiritual attention.
God is actively preparing us for birth
Every child is desired and designed by God, a moment and reality in God’s great plan of creation and salvation. If every child is desired by God, does it not make sense that every mother is being prepared by God to give birth and be a mother? We mothers and future mothers are his children as well. God doesn’t just want the goodness of the new baby, he also wants goodness for the baby’s mother. Gestation and giving birth have their challenges, but they are also windows to the work of the Giver of Life. Our role, as birthing mothers, is to cooperate with the Holy Spirit as we can to give birth to this child, created as a son or daughter of the King of Kings. It is an awesome responsibility, and comes with real joy—which is, indeed, a gift of the Holy Spirit.
So how are we prepared, not just to receive a child, but to give birth? Much of this book encourages us to pay attention to specific moments that women have felt are encouragements, consolations, and challenges to bear. For example, the first time you hear your baby’s heartbeat, you know: that moment is bigger than the medical notation of how many beats per minute. It is usually your first tangible evidence that there is a living child in your womb, with a beating heart, just like yours. Many parents react with a motionless smile of wonder and pleasure.
Learning to “behold”
Pay attention to the “wow” moments. They are gifts, and meant to prepare you for birth. They become part of the tapestry that makes up the gestation and birth of this child, as well as your motherhood. They become part of your story, your life in the Holy Spirit.
The scriptural term for “to see with attention” is behold. And a common philosophical term for long, loving beholding is to gaze. This is a time where we are called to gaze upon our lives. It is a time where, if we cannot see the work of the Holy Spirit in our calling to give birth, we can learn to ask the Spirit to help us see. Unlike the elusive bird the birdwatcher seeks, the Holy Spirit wants us to see, wants to be found. Sometimes, with a simple request, the branches of our lives simply brush away and we see the Spirit in his glory.
Birdwatchers look and listen for bird calls, fluttering, darts of color, and other patterns that point to the elusive bird. Those of us looking for the Holy Spirit begin by looking for senses of wonder, peace, joy. No evil spirit can mimic these, and human interest, contentment, and pleasure pale by comparison. Where wonder, peace, or joy is found—stay there. It is meant to be savored with gratitude. After all, it is a gift.
But also pay attention to sadness, anxiety, and confusion. Childbirth is not only challenging, it is fallen (see ch. 5). Most women do not walk around in perpetual bliss throughout their pregnancies. Beyond the everydayness of it (for nine months, anyway), impending birth and parenting can awaken every fear in the book. Fear of this type does not come from God. But now is an excellent time to practice the lifelong work of handing over your fears to God, rather than letting them define your life.
This kind of paying attention to the spiritual realities in our lives is sometimes called living with a contemplative attitude. Contemplative prayer is about receiving the Holy Spirit: instead of speaking to God (discursive prayer), contemplative prayer is about listening to God. A contemplative attitude is about fostering a life that listens or looks for God in the ordinary details of daily living. You keep living your life, but with one eye slightly squinted, always on the look for the Holy Spirit. The more you do it, the easier it becomes (the Holy Spirit is not hiding, right?). I encourage you to use this pregnancy, or your remembrance of a recent pregnancy and birth, as a place to foster a contemplative attitude. This attitude is where we learn to give and to receive, where we become students of the Holy Spirit. This giving, receiving, and cooperation with the Holy Spirit will also help us learn how to give birth.
Susan Windley-Daoust teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University. She is the author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying (Lectio Publishing), which was awarded first place in the small press category at the 2015 Catholic Press Association awards.
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