My priest came to our home five days after my son was born to bless him and offer us Eucharist. We made an altar out of an empty cardboard Amazon box and a turquoise kitenge handkerchief given to me by Rwandese friends. Father Steve is a hospital chaplain, and his habit of speaking the liturgy at a slow and leisurely pace had always irritated me. Now, however, in my primal, fragile, postpartum state, I lapped up his words with a thirst I didn’t know was there. That plodding pace, which had so often felt annoying, was now balm to my frenzied mind. My husband and I sat holding each other on the couch, our makeshift holy altar on the rug before us, as the words of institution lanced a steady stream of tears out of my weary, new mother self.
Childbirth had opened up a traumatic reservoir from a car accident ten years prior, and in those first two weeks postbirth, waves of pain and grief swept me up without warning, just as they had after the accident. This time, rather than bottlenecking my throat to keep it in, as I had a decade ago, I gave myself permission to wail, letting the grief ride my voice until the wave had passed through me. It was an animal sound, like the call of a forlorn wolf or the bellow of a dying cow. One such wave hit me right as our priest spoke the words, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” I howled as the grief gripped me and an image blazed in my mind. I saw myself sitting in the dark, picking through jagged pieces of glass, when a fierce light broke the darkness and rushed through the shards, shining between them while also binding them together.
The piercing image stayed with me long enough to paint it nearly a year later, an urge that makes me think of Ralph Ellison’s description of the blues. The blues, he writes, are “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it . . . by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”1 This painting is my blues.
My entrance into motherhood was excruciating. During labor, my son’s head was positioned off-kilter, preventing my cervix from fully softening. This meant that while my body wanted to push, I had to try not to—otherwise my cervix would swell shut from the pressure. A friend once described labor as riding on the front end of a freight train going a hundred miles an hour. Trying to stop the urge to push was like trying to stop that freight train. I was caught in the limbo of transition, the notorious final stage of labor before pushing, when the cervix dilates the last of the ten centimeters necessary for a baby’s head to descend into the birth canal. Most mothers and health practitioners agree that this is the most challenging part of labor. Women talk about it as hitting the wall, getting to the place where they can’t go on. Beth Junker describes transition as “the powerful illusion that I am about to die.”2 Typically, this stage of labor lasts about thirty minutes. I was in transition for seven and a half hours.
Trauma shatters our body and mind’s sense of order and time. When it comes to trauma, the brain does not understand past, present, or future. According to Shelly Rambo, “the central problem of trauma is a temporal one,” where the past invades the present and time gets distorted.3 I experienced this firsthand as my labor opened up the chasm of an old wound and fused the two into a jumbled, fragmented, traumatized mess. Ten years earlier, almost to the minute from when my contractions began, I had crashed into the highway median with two college friends on our drive to Florida. And ten years almost to the minute from when my son was born, our friend who had been sitting in the backseat took her last breath and died. The somatic memory of that car accident smashed into me like a tsunami the day after I gave birth.
Penny Simkin links the loss of bodily control in labor with the risk of opening up past trauma:
The bodily process of labor is outside one’s conscious control. Yet a crisis often comes when a woman in labor realizes that she is truly helpless to control this inevitable process. . . . The survivor may feel this as a flashback to her helplessness during [trauma] or to the aftereffects.4
In this way, the typical hormonal roller coaster of the postpartum period was compounded by my trauma.5 When I nursed my son, I felt encircled by a warm glow of protective love, but when I handed him off, I would crumple onto the bed, often howling, reliving the terror and vulnerable aftermath of the accident in my body. I felt as if I had no skin.
In many ways I became just like a newborn. Until babies learn how to regulate their breath, they often alternate between long pauses of not breathing and a noisy crescendo of rapid, shallow, spluttering breaths. Doctors call this periodic, or nonobligatory, breathing.6 My body was so dysregulated that I had forgotten how to breathe properly; when I tried to fall asleep, I would unwittingly stop breathing and then startle myself awake with newborn-like frenzied gulps of air.
Life for anyone with a brand-new baby involves intense sleeplessness, but my traumatized brain, believing I was back in the accident and that my son and I were about to die, was trying so hard to keep me alive that it would not allow me to sleep, even when my husband took the baby out of the house for hours at a time so I could try. I slept half an hour here, forty minutes there, until I began to lose my mind. Losing my mind and finding it again was a bit like journeying through hell and coming out the other side.
Julian of Norwich wrote of God as a mother. Among many layers of metaphors, she imagines Jesus on the cross as our mother laboring to give birth to us. She also imagines Christ breastfeeding us through the Eucharist, nourishing and sustaining us with his body.7 The language of the Eucharist and the cross echoes pregnancy, labor, and delivery. When instituting the Last Supper, Jesus breaks the loaf of bread and offers the cup, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. . . . This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19–20 NRSV). His body and blood are offered up in our behalf, just as a mother’s body and blood, once pregnant, work in behalf of the baby to grow, nurture, and ultimately deliver the child into the world. Blood and water poured out of Christ’s side when he was pierced (John 19:34), just as blood and the “water” of amniotic fluid pour out of a mother during labor and delivery.
Christ’s death and descent into hell evoke the transition stage of labor. It is interesting that even in the twenty-first century, with all the advancements of medical technology at our disposal, women still associate transition with imminent death, even when there is no real threat to either baby or mother.8 This association was even stronger in the ancient Near East. Claudia Bergmann explores how ancient Near Eastern texts, including the Bible, used childbirth as a metaphor for personal or collective crisis—often, for example, to describe warriors in battle.9
It remains true today, and it was even truer then, that one cannot know for certain the outcome of a birth. Neither mother nor child is guaranteed to make it through the experience intact, if at all. Thus, ancient writers used childbirth as the ultimate metaphor to describe events that were “so all encompassing, so painful, and so threatening” that it was uncertain whether one would make it out alive. As Bergmann states, “Giving birth and crisis are both existential events because they bring the persons involved to the threshold between life and death.”10 If Christ underwent the pangs of active labor on the cross, then transition was his descent into hell. As every mother giving birth comes face-to-face with death, Christ came face-to-face with death on the cross and went down into the depths of hell. On Holy Saturday, Christ our Mother was in transition.
Although my seven-and-a-half hours of transition felt like journeying through hell and back, it was the wormhole of postpartum recovery that was even more hellish. Preston Hill, reinterpreting John Calvin, defines hell as the perception that God has forsaken you: “Hell is the condition of soul that results when a person is absolutely bereft of the conviction that God is favorable toward them.”11 Prior to giving birth, I had never been through a panic attack—I had three attacks in the first three weeks postpartum. Each panic attack felt as if I were falling into a pit of pure, unadulterated fear.
As I slipped and began to fall, I tried to bring to mind each image of safety and love that had sustained me through labor. I thought of my husband’s tender, loyal presence, and my mother’s attentive care; I thought of my pastor and professor and mentor; I thought of Aslan and Mr. Rogers. I thought of the people and images who helped me know that I am safe and loved, grasping each image like a tree root to anchor me. But to my horror, the roots slipped out of my hands just after I found them. Eventually there were no more tree roots, and I was falling, disintegrating, and losing any sense of self, like the subject in Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
We use the phrase “hitting rock bottom” to describe the worst experience someone can go through, forgetting how reassuring it is to stand on something solid. During my panic attacks, I longed to reach the rock-solid bottom, but there was no ground to hit. It was as if not only the floor but the entire earth had given way underneath me, and there was only an eternal black hole sucking me into nothingness. I lost all memory of ever having felt safe, along with any hope of ever feeling safe again. The hell of the panic attack seemed to reach out in all directions, erasing any goodness or love I might cling to. Whether I felt more hated by God or simply forgotten by God, nothing in my life up to that point fit Hill’s conception of hell more than those panic attacks.
This is the hell into which Jesus descends, meets us, and leads us out. Hans Urs von Balthasar explores the meaning of Christ’s descent to the dead, suggesting that by going into the ultimate abyss, Jesus “transformed what was a prison into a way.” Christ meets us in hell—in our trauma, our panic attacks, our disintegrated states of anguished terror. Christ is there with us, even when we can’t feel it, even when we feel utterly forsaken or hated by God. Not only does Christ meet us in hell; he also crosses through it, finds the way out, and leads us into resurrected life. Balthasar continues, “Yet the Lord can cross (deambulare) this deepest Hell, since he is not bound by any of the bonds of sin, but is, rather, ‘free among the dead.’”12 As I sat on the couch with my husband receiving Eucharist from Father Steve, all the nerves in my pelvis still fraught from the tearing and the stitches and the tailbone rotating out of place, I saw the fierce fiery love of Christ harrowing my hell, blazing between the darkness and the shards of glass. Christ takes the abyss and turns it into a road; he takes our black hole and transforms it into a tunnel. He takes the finality of death and turns it into a transition.
Mystics write of the dance between life, death, and beauty. As I entered the death tunnel of transition and reemerged on the other side to deliver and meet my son, my body became the site of this mystery. My death—or at least the impression of my impending death—gave way to my baby’s life. My friend riding in the backseat died just as my son was being born. Even though ten years spanned the two events, as far as my body was concerned, it was the same moment. Or perhaps it was a birth for both of them; in the Anglican tradition, a person’s life is remembered and celebrated on the day of their death, acknowledging that this is when they are born unto eternal life. If that is the case, then my son and my friend share the same birth.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes calls this “the archetype of the Life/Death/Life force.” Speaking of the Mayan healing tradition, she writes, “In curanderisma, she [Lady Death] is said to turn the baby in the womb to the headfirst position so it can be born. She is said to guide the hands of the midwife, to open the pathways of the mother’s milk in the breasts, as well as to comfort anyone who weeps alone.” We shudder at death’s silence, its finality, its abrupt truncation of life. What if death is not an end, though, but a transition? Childbirth is the passage between life in the womb and life in the world. Led by the Christ who traversed the abyss, death is the same type of passage. “In the house of eternal belonging birth and death are one,” writes John O’Donohue. He imagines time as a circle, where birth and death embrace one another: “Could it be that where we come from at birth is where we return to at death? . . . If the light and beauty of who we are was dreamed and created in that realm before birth, then death is surely bringing us home to the house of our eternal belonging.”13
Something in me has always rebelled at the platitudes “death is a part of life” and “everything happens for a reason.” No matter how much beauty comes out of death, no matter how much goodness emerges out of suffering, it does not make death or suffering less evil. I turn again to O’Donohue to help me unravel this tension:
Death casts a white shadow. It is the shadow of light bleached by Nothingness. . . . If death had the final word, then beauty would be reduced to a transient, ghostly presence. The heroism of the contemplative endeavour is the attempt to reach through to that final threshold and enter that fierce conversation between Death and Beauty. The irony is that death brings out the fire and fibre at the heart of beauty. Within the white shadow, the gentle eyes of beauty can out-stare the unraveling eyes of death.14
This is what Christians celebrate during the Paschal Triduum—Christ reached through the white shadow of trauma, death, and hell to bring us to new life. This is what every mother does, reaching through the white shadow of transition, surrendering to the freight-train power of being stretched and torn impossibly wide, to bring a child into new life.
Rambo describes trauma as a “dissolution of the death-life boundary.” What if beauty is also a dissolution of that same boundary but unto healing? It seems that porousness is how we get wounded; perhaps it is also how we heal. The Japanese craft of kintsugi is a way of repairing broken pottery using glue that has been blended with precious metals, often gold, in order to draw attention to the cracks rather than attempting to hide the damage. O’Donohue writes, “Each life is enfolded within a circle of time and if we imagine this circle as porous, occasionally, as we journey through our days, time suddenly deepens and all fragmentation coheres as we slip into eternal presence.”15 In my painting, in that image I received during my first postpartum Eucharist, my fragments cohered in Christ’s fierce, loving presence. It is our Lord performing kintsugi on me, repairing my shattered pottery shards, stitching up my torn perineum, meeting me in hell, and leading the way out.
- Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Antioch Review 57, no. 3 (1999): 263. Note that my painting accompanies this essay: Lin, Perinatal Eucharist, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 24 × 18 in. Courtesy of the artist.
- Junker, “Transition in Childbirth: Claiming Our Death and Resurrection,” Daughters of Sarah 18, no. 4 (1992): 5.
- Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 19.
- Simkin, When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Childhood Sexual Abuse on Childbearing Women (Seattle, WA: Classic Day, 2004), 75.
- My primary care physician described the normal amount of hormonal fluctuations a woman goes through immediately following childbirth as “being on about 150 birth control pills a day.”
- “Patient Education: Periodic Breathing (Infant),” Fairview Health Services, https://www.fairview.org/patient-education/116388EN.
- Brant Pelphrey, The Way of the Christian Mystics, vol. 7, Christ Our Mother: Julian of Norwich, ed. Noel Dermot O’Donoghue (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989), 161–65; and Kerry Dearborn, “The Crucified Christ as the Motherly God: The Theology of Julian of Norwich,” Scottish Journal of Theology 55, no. 3 (2002): 293.
- Junker, “Transition in Childbirth,” 5.
- Bergmann, Childbirth as a Metaphor for Crisis: Evidence from the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew Bible, and 1QH XI, 1–18 (New York, NY: Walter de Gruyter, 2008).
- Bergmann, Childbirth as a Metaphor, 218 and 219.
- Hill, “Calvin’s Understanding of Christ’s Descent into Hell” (lecture, The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, Seattle, WA, June 12, 2019).
- Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1990), 175 and 176.
- Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1995), 143; and O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2004), 209.
- O’Donohue, Beauty, 215.
- Rambo, Spirit and Trauma, 25; and O’Donohue, Beauty, 209.