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The Law of the Gift: The Birthing Body As Spiritual Sign

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Two spiritual masters, John Paul II and Ignatius of Loyola, teach us that all things are designed to draw us to God. How might that be true for the birthing body?


by Susan Windley-Daoust

God’s plan and its renewal by Christ, the redeemer, is imprinted deeply within the bodily nature of the person as a pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness.
(John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, Waldstein introduction, 105.)

This article is adapted from chapter two 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.

Your body is spiritually meaningful

When I ask my college theology students how to define the body, inevitably someone will say “a vessel.” And that understanding has a history in the Western tradition. But the Theology of the Body argues that this understanding of the body is fundamentally wrong: vessels, after all, are decorative, inanimate containers for “what really matters.” By contrast, Christian theology has argued throughout its history that we human beings live as a unity of body and soul. Of course, the soul “really matters.” But the soul is expressed through the body—which also matters. You are not an angel, an all-spiritual being, but incarnate, a human person—and your body was created by God to be spiritually meaningful.

But meaningful in what way? There are two primary themes and insights in the Theology of the Body that speak to that meaning. First, the body was created with a spousal meaning. Second, the body was created by God as a sign.

To say that the body has a spousal meaning is to say that we were created for intimate relationship: not just friendship, not a casual acquaintance, but an exclusive relationship that involves a “sincere gift of oneself.”19 If we go back to Scripture and God’s original intention, we see this clearly: Adam and Eve were designed in similarity and in difference (“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”) (Genesis 2:23) for a relationship of reciprocal self-gift that ends in “Be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).

It didn’t have to be this way, you know. If God wanted the universe to teem with life, he could have created human beings to reproduce through binary fission, like bacteria: “Let’s all split in half!” Or by pressing a button. Or by waiting for storks to bring babies from . . . somewhere. But instead, nearly all earthly procreation involves the intimate union of two beings, male and female, who are similar but different, uniting and bringing forth life. Love is designed to unify and to bear fruit.

Love is also designed to operate according to what many call “the Law of the Gift.”

The way in which we were created as women and men is meant to serve as a sign that points toward our destiny—union with God. God wants us to be in relationship, and we are created to thrive in relationship. We know that although we are created whole—created good, a unity of body and soul—we are also lacking the fullness of relationship. We thrive in loving relationship, and that love is crowned in fruitfulness.

All of this John Paul II calls “reading the language of the body.” It is a beautiful thing: before humanity had the revelation from God that we call Scripture, before we had the witness of the covenant with the nation of Israel, before we had the witness of the Church, we had the primordial language of the body. The ensouled body senses a lack that is ultimately fulfilled in God. The “spousal meaning of the body” refers to a desire for union and exclusive covenant with another. Even the most remote person without exposure to the Christian message bears in his or her body this sign, desires more, and senses that intimate relationship with the Creator brings new life.

This is the Law of the Gift, that we become most fully ourselves in covenantal relationships through the dynamic of giving and receiving.

All things are given to draw us to God

Although the Theology of the Body offers a new language for understanding the ensouled body as a sign that points to God, the idea that we are called to give and receive is not new. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, wrote a famous set of retreat instructions called the Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises open with this passage, known as the First Principle and Foundation (or simply “the First Foundation”):

The goal of our life is to live with God forever.
God, who loves us, gave us life.
Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.
All the things in this world are gifts of God,
presented to us so that we can know God more easily and make a return of love more readily.
As a result, we appreciate and use all these gifts of God insofar as they help us develop as loving persons.
But if any of these gifts become the center of our lives, they displace God and so hinder our growth toward our goal.
In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance
before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice
and are not bound by some obligation.
We should not fix our desires on health or sickness,
wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one.
For everything has the potential of calling forth in us
a deeper response to our life in God.
Our only desire and our one choice should be this:
I want and I choose what better
leads to the deepening of God’s life in me.

This is a bracing opening, written by a man who is essentially saying: Today, reader, you face God. Everything that comes your way—that is given to you—can and will lead you to God. Everything is God’s gift to us. Take, receive, and see how what is given calls forth a deeper response to our life in God.

I include the First Foundation here because birth is one of God’s gifts to you. How you respond to the challenge of birth can deepen God’s life in you. The Theology of the Body implies that giving birth was designed to deepen God’s life in you.

Giving birth is a gift, no matter whether you “achieve” what you think is a picture-perfect birth or not. Most women have challenging but medically uncomplicated childbirths. Others require significant medical intervention. Some are easy, others are hard. The deepening of God’s life in you does not occur if you get an A+ on the Childbirth 101 exam. The deepening of God’s life in you occurs when you deliberately open yourself to the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of giving birth, no matter what the birth ends up looking like.

All sorts of signs in childbirth may draw you to God. We will try to “read the language” found in the stages of childbirth. But first, let’s reflect on what it means to be open to God.

For prayerful reflection

Reread Ignatius’s First Foundation (above).
1. Are there any gifts that have become the center of your life, displacing God?

2. Are there realities in your life that you have not seen as a gift from God, but that could lead you to God?

3. Can you pray that this pregnancy, however difficult or easy it may be, will lead you closer to the heart of God? Write that prayer here, if you choose.

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.

Follow Jerry Windley-Daoust:

Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

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