4 years ago, when I was pregnant with Olivia, I misheard a line in the U2 song Yahweh as “always pray before a child is born”. Which I did. I suspect we all do. Either with great faith, or, you know, just in case. Because we are fearful, or thankful. Because we are both.
For better or worse, I have long listened to Bono. I pull myself together, I walk on. His voice has a certain encouraging authority over me.
The line turned out to be “always pain before a child is born”, which is true, but my misheard line had struck me, in the way these things do. The line, the season of life in which I heard it, the fact it was Bono… meant it struck me hard, and stuck. Through both my pregnancies those words buzzed through my mind about a zillion times. They came with Bono’s weird authority… all the more important and urgent somehow. They came with the potential to calm and steady me, or to increase my anxiety. Sometimes they came as an ominous “always pray… OR ELSE!”
Pregnancy and motherhood are the walks of life that, for me, expose most starkly our vulnerability when we hope. They expose my struggle with the unseen and my longing, at times, for certainty, control and guarantees, for this world’s idea of ‘perfect’, for no need of grace, for a life that could depend entirely on just praying right, or praying hard enough.
I can take that misheard line as an invitation to have God with me through all of the journey, through come-what-may, with these still-being-made-little-babies, with these unmet children, with these girls now on the living room floor whose futures are ‘?’.
I can pray before, and pray all of their days. I can pray to say God, this is your business. I can pray to unclench the fists of my spirit.
Or I can take the line to hold on tighter, praying that it will be like THIS, and please not like THIS. I can pray the kind of prayers that will only seem to convince me that I don’t believe in prayer, not really. I can pray controlling prayers, which ultimately, turn out to be empty prayers.
Prayer can so easily unravel for me.
I’m praying some ordinary little thing for my daughter, the kind of thing I’m coming to believe God is really interested in…. or I’m praying maybe just for rest or sleep for myself… and then I think, well, Madeline McCann is still missing, and it all becomes undone.
I remember complaining dramatically about the reading material my friends and family gave me during my first pregnancy. Every novel someone lent me seemed explicitly about WHAT COULD GO WRONG. One broken story built on another built on another. Illness, loss, disability. The coup de grâce was ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ . As if I didn’t have enough to worry about… MY CHILD COULD GROW UP TO BE A MASS-MURDERER!!!
But of course they weren’t picking out books for the TOP 5 MOST INAPPROPIATE BOOKS TO GIVE SOMEONE WHEN PREGNANT. They were just books, good books. Novels that told stories well. The kind of stories I have always wanted to read. It was just that there was a fear awakening in me that was attaching itself to every possibility in life.
I think sometimes that I must have the worst employment history for someone becoming a mother. I don’t really need to open a novel to know of the many disabilities that can affect our children, to know about childhood cancer and other serious illnesses. I even worked with paedophiles, for goodness sake. What was I thinking?
What do I do with all of these stories?
Last December I was following Bono’s misheard advice near the end of my last pregnancy, when I still couldn’t see if she was being knit together ‘right’, when I certainly couldn’t see if she would be safe and happy all of her days. I was finding the peace of that place of knowing: this is the baby I want now, no matter what. She is part of our story. She is a story. I was finding peace and then 20 kindergarteners were shot dead on their classroom floor. Children with the names of my daughter, and her cousins, and her friends. And the peace all becomes undone.
There is always pain. There is pain. And I wish I could pray it, or organise it away. I wish I could ignore it, or avoid it, but that would mean ignoring and avoiding people, and their stories.
I don’t think Bono’s unintentional advice did me much good, not as a sound bite. It made me wish for that magic prayer. I tried to slap ‘pray’ on top of ‘pain’, and it didn’t work.
But unclenching the fists of my spirit, awakening to God’s presence within me before, after and during… that sounds like all kinds of good for me.
Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you….remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business….even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought…. UNCLENCH THE FISTS OF YOUR SPIRIT AND TAKE IT EASY…..
What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in within ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort….than being able from time to time to stop that chatter…
Frederick Buechner (Telling Secrets)