Childbirth as Rite of Initiation

Lately, in my house, we’ve been thinking about the reality of death. No one is terminally ill, and no one we know has recently died, so I realize this sounds rather morbid. Let me explain.
Last May, my husband joined a hundred other men in the desert of New Mexico for five days to participate in a rite of male initiation. A year ago, neither of us had ever heard of such a thing—at least not in our modern Western context—but when he stumbled upon Illuman and got to know the purpose behind it, he was intrigued. As he researched more on the subject of rites of passage, we were both fascinated to find that some form of such a ritual is present in almost every indigenous culture on earth, and has been throughout history. Clearly, there is something substantial here that our “advanced” Western culture is missing.
His story is not mine to tell, but yes, it is fair to say he was changed—even months later I can see that. He is simultaneously more confident and more compassionate, and there is an awareness of his unconscious that he did not have before. Where did this transformation come from, I wondered. According to my husband, a rite of initiation includes the following:
  1. There must be a loss of control and a reckoning with the truth that your life is not about you.
  2. A confrontation with death that was more mental, emotional, and spiritual, rather than physical.

Shannon Evansmotherhood
Lauren Walsh Gallery, Etsy

“I thank Thee God, that Thou hast made me a man and not a woman.” 

So prayed every faithful Jewish man in Israel first thing in the morning, every single day, at the time of Jesus’ birth. Even the most pure-hearted of men, like our beloved Saint Joseph, would have recited these words with the rising of the sun; and so, its only fair to say it's not an indictment against moral character but a product of the time and place they were in.* And yet, there the words are: suspended as the backdrop for every single Bible story we know so well. Potent. Formative. Far from neutral.

Lately, due to circumstances in my personal life, the severity of Mary’s situation has become more obvious to me. Not just in being found with child before marriage, although that alone was cause for capital punishment. But after a good man spared her life—once word got out that she was claiming her baby was the Son of God. Once she refused to denounce the message she had been given, the part of God’s Self that had been revealed to her. What then? Herod sought to end the life of the one-day king, but how many others wanted to snuff out the light of his mother?

How despised Mary must have been by men, especially the religious! She thinks she knows God in a way we don’t? She thinks God could dwell inside her? She thinks God drinks from her breasts?! I cannot fathom a historical reality in which her life would not have been threatened.

The punishment for a woman caught in adultery was public stoning, but what for a woman who claimed to have conceived by the Holy Spirit? At best, she must have been the subject of misogynistic ridicule. At worst, you can’t tell me there weren’t men ready to see her dead.

Shut the woman up. She’s trying to tell the people something about God without our permission. Throw the stones and watch her bleed.

Perhaps this is why men have been so weird about Mary for over 2,000 years, arguing about whether her hymen had torn and composing hymns called “Gentle Woman,” when for all we know she was the fiercest female in all of Galilee.

Why does no one talk about how dangerous Mary was? How endangered she must have been? Mary was too threatening, too powerful. Men couldn’t kill her, so they painted her black eyes blue, muzzled her, and put her on display in European art museums. But she would not be silenced.

She arose in Perpetua.
She arose in Catherine of Siena.
She arose in Clare.
She arose in Hildegard of Bingen.
She arose in Sarah Winnemucca.
She arose in Harriet Tubman.
She arose in Dorothy Day.
She arose in Rosa Parks.
She arose in Madeleine L’Engle.
She arose in Frida.
She arises, she arises, and still, she arises.

And by the grace of God, woman, may she arise in you and in me.

* (The words continue to be recited as part of the morning blessing by Orthodox Jews to this day, but I leave the contemporary wrestling with it to my Jewish brothers and sisters. My stream of faith has enough problems of its own without judging the predicaments of others.)
Shannon Evans
Bearing Light
artwork by Erica Tighe of Be A Heart Design

One year ago I was numbly picking up the pieces of a broken dream when my friend Jenna Guizar called. Not long before, our family of five had packed up and moved to start an (admittedly, poorly planned) house of hospitality—only to return two months later when it became painfully clear that it wasn't sustainable. The house itself had been a small dream, but it was the larger, older dream that contained it that fell so hard: the dream of doing something big, radical, and impactful with my life. The dream I was sure we were headed for when we said "I do" a dozen years ago and that had disappointed me more times than I could count along the way. That dream died—at least, it felt like a death to me, though no one quite understood why. But I had seen my own littleness, and I grieved the woman I would never be.

When Jenna called to ask if I would write the 2018 Blessed Is She Advent Devotional, I was making healthy steps toward believing that maybe my small little blip on the radar of human history wasn't so insignificant after all—radical though it wasn't. I was writing a book, part spiritual memoir, part theological nonfiction, and I saw God in the surprise that was. I was also nearing the end of another pregnancy, marveling at the astonishment of being a co-creator of an actual human life. 

A little book and a little baby: bit parts in the Divine narrative, but parts to play nonetheless.

I groaned and labored and brought forth my son on the day after Christmas, the feast of the first Christian martyr, and I laughed in the face of a death that couldn't steal life. Week after week, month after month, that baby nursed and napped as I punched key after key, forming words and shaping meaning that would never change the world but might just change me. 

Some days I wrote the Advent book; some days I wrote the little book on weakness. Some days I felt called; most days I felt uncertain. Every day I felt grateful.

I began to observe the people in my life—the women, especially—who toiled and sweated to bring forth something out of nothing in their own ways. I began to notice that God was there, in that labor: God in the nothing, God in the something, God in the in-between.

They were bearing Light. They were bearing God.

The Latin phrase imago Dei means "image bearer," and we are each that: formed in the image of God, Genesis 1 tells us, passively imbued with a dignity unparalleled in creation. But so, too, are we active bearers of the image of God in the world: already, and yet still more to be, in ways smaller and more profound than we expect or believe.

This bringing forth of God is the central point of Bearing Light, the Advent Devotional that has finally come into being. Using treasured traditions of the Church—the Visitation, the Magnificat, Lectio Divina prayer, and three powerful female saints—we will walk through this Advent season exploring what it means to be both made in the image of God and called to birth God into the world.

This book is an offering to all of us who have lost our way and need to find it again. It's for us who question our worth. It's for us who thought we were stronger than this. It's for us who dreamed of changing the world and are finding ourselves the ones changed instead. It's for us who whisper "yes" to God on our pillows at night, having no idea what it means. It's for us who have been so busy under our roofs we've forgotten there is a waiting world outside of it.

We are light bearers; image bearers. And this Advent, we will carry our candles the long way home. We'd love for you to join us.

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Shannon Evans