February 14, 2012 / Praxis
In this essay, Ryan Davis wrestles with God’s goodness and Scriptural promises in the face of profound physical suffering.
February 13, 2014
The hour comes at darkness. Long before the sun rises beneath the horizon’s black curtain, the first pain strikes in my abdomen. It squeezes my insides, wrapping my organs tighter and tighter. The pain pulls me in for a minute or two, then releases. This is the warning shot.
Soon, that pit below my stomach will be flipping, twisting, tying, pulling. A song is brewing within me and because of me. So I bring my knees to my chest, swallow down some ibuprofen, and wait for respite.
My eyelids push at each other with great, wrinkling force as my hands, which have made unconscious fists, grab handfuls of sheets and quilts. The pain hits my belly but creeps up my spine, pulling my vertebrae and ribs into the God-forsaken chorus. It moves slowly up and up to my head, beating like a kick drum at my cerebellum.
The song I hear every month is becoming a symphony inside me, and my whole body is now reverberating to this terrible tune.
Jonathan Goldstein, in his fictionalized account of the fall of humanity, wrote that when Eve took a bite of the forbidden fruit she “felt a thousand little kicking feet at her uterus.”1 Soon after, the Lord spoke in the garden, vowing to make our “pains in childbearing very severe” and that “with painful labor” we will give birth to our children (Gen. 3:16 NIV). Those thousand kicking feet were the pain of all the children to come and the pain of the potential children that never come.
And so, it is not only with painful labor that we give birth but with painful living that we one day hope to give birth. The fall does not only prescribe a difficult labor and delivery, nor even an arduous and sickly pregnancy, plagued with swollen ankles and morning sickness. Instead, it follows us for all our days, from adolescence into retirement. Every month we are reminded that we, women, hold the potential for life in our bones. Within our wombs all humankind is grown and nurtured and fed.
And by the same token, within our wombs we are cursed. We hold the potential for losing life, from the searing and dark times of a miscarriage to the monthly cycle of purging the dead and unused. For this is what a period is: the discarding of a potential life that could have been and that, for one of a million reasons, is not. We say casually that the woman’s period is her cycle—and indeed it is a cycle, a cycle of the living and the dying, a cycle born not from holiness but begot from a curse. The fall, which brought death to this world and cast humanity out of the garden, is the same fall which brings death to women’s bodies month after month.
Occasionally, this passing, this monthly ritual, is met with joy, even relief. At other times, the blood is a devastating blow, a reminder that our wombs are both strong and frail. For the mothers who cannot bear or the husbands who will not father, these visceral signs are crushing. This land is barren.
I am again in my bed, removed from work and school and any commitments because I can no longer stand. Occasionally, there’s vomiting, and that would be a relief at this point because with this pain I feel the contractions of a life that isn’t there. I am not delivering a child; I am still just a child myself. I labor under these pains for days until it passes. My doctor told me once that this is labor, this pain each month—the approaching and receding, the thousand little kicking feet at my uterus—this is childbirth. What I heard was that this is the labor of the curse.
One day, I hope and pray that, as the Word says, I will not labor in vain, that this labor will be one of triumph and redemption, one where life, made between my husband and me, is born and breathes this world’s air and cries the terrific and joyous cries of a newborn. Because just as women were the first to take a bite of that forbidden fruit, we are the ones who provided the world with a deliverer. This is grace, that through these wombs we are punished and through these wombs we are honored to carry the Savior, the redemption wrapped in skin. The Lamb of God, who reconciles all of creation to the Father, is the one that was fed from within a woman’s body and nursed at his mother’s breast.
This same womb, the cursed land, is still the one that overcomes. For it is the man born of a woman that will crush the head of the serpent, which strikes at his heel. The ultimate victory is still indeed ours.
Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that “All around us we observe a pregnant creation,” yearning and waiting and panting for full deliverance (Rom. 8:22–25). And indeed, these feelings within me are not for me alone. And they are not for childbirth alone. They are the mark of a fallen world that is waiting for a return. What I feel in pain and darkness is echoed throughout nature and across humanity. It is chanted deep in my spiritual soul.
These fights, these pangs, are not of this world. They lean toward redemption, and they speak of something greater than all this. So my monthly toil is indeed a spiritual battle of good and evil, not unlike that first fight in a garden so many years ago. And lying in my bed, stricken as I may be, I feel the spirit of the Lord hovering over me, whispering that this fight is for all of creation. And the victory will not be just for me, but it will be my own proverbial crushing of the head of the serpent at my heels.
I have come to a peace amid the pain, a peace that upends Gnosticism and says to its face: we are one—the body and the spirit. It is a learned intuition to the rhythm of life. My body reminds me even in, or because of, the pain that there is more. Like Lazarus shedding his death clothes, we shed these old skins as new mercies come again. This is a cleansing, a purifying reminder that through this life and death cycle we live and win because of the power of Christ Jesus.
These implications are not to be taken lightly. This female existence is holy and sanctifying if we choose it. And it is prayerful and contemplative and powerful if we seek it. Even in our basest experiences, even in the pain and mundane routines of our monthly cycle or in the consuming experience of menopause, we can know nearness to the Father that says this is not all. There is hope. There is redemption. And it will come from within you and it will be seen all around you.
1. “Starting from Scratch,” narrated by Ira Glass, This American Life, episode 233, Chicago Public Media, March 7, 2003, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/233/transcript. The episode features a reading from Goldstein, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible (New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009).
Rebecca Parker Payne
Rebecca Parker Payne is a writer who lives in Virginia with her husband and a corgi she named after Wendell Berry. She is director of communications for Third Church.