What We Cannot Hold

Owen turns four on a Sunday, and he doesn’t want to go to Sunday School. “I won’t get bored in church, Mom, I promise,” he says, and slides close to me in the pew, grabbing a prayer book and flipping its pages gently. I don’t like to admit it, but I have a hard time saying no to him. 

Of course he gets bored. But he crunches rainbow-colored Goldfish crackers and sits on my lap and hugs and kisses me. The rest of the children come in for the end of the service, the baptism and the Eucharist, and when his sister joins us in the pew, he holds a red goldfish to her lips. “Red,” he says, and then instinctively, “the blood of angry men!” Les Miserables gives us a moment of goldfish eucharist. The French Revolution in the mouth of a four-year-old boy in an Episcopal church, a song of sacrifice, a song far too serious for a child who, as far as I’m concerned, will never be fighting with his very life for liberte, egalite, fraternite.

But I think of sacrifice again a few minutes later. Owen drapes himself across my lap, his neck reclined in the crook of my arm, his legs dangling long over my lap, his body far too big to cradle. The feeling of recognition startles me: we are Michelangelo’s Pieta.

* * *

I am twenty when I spend a semester studying in Italy, and becoming a mother is the last thing on my mind. But Mary the mother of God is everywhere. I see her hundreds of times, painted and frescoed and sculpted in museums and churches and gardens. With an angel, with a baby, with a full-grown son. Every time, the Holy Mother leaves me unsatisfied and confused. She looks so calm. Was she always so sweet, submissive, and docile? Didn’t she ever feel confusion? Why do I never see her in pain?

At twenty, I cannot comprehend why any woman would choose motherhood. Why would you give birth to someone knowing that you will inevitably screw him up? Why would you give birth to someone who will steal your heart and then leave you? How can any woman summon the courage to bring into the world a creature who will hurt her, who will be hurt, and who will one day die?  

The paintings lie, I think to myself. It wasn’t that beautiful. To always paint her placid is to deny her great courage in assenting to bear a child, the enormous pain she agreed to bear.

Michelangelo’s Pieta is one of my favorite of the Italian Marys. His Mary cradles the lifeless body of the crucified Christ. She is too young to be the mother of an adult man; Michelangelo has made her face smooth-skinned, maybe sixteen, the age she was when she conceived, calm and beautiful and sad. I like how the sculpture brings realities together: the youthful Mary reminding us of the moment new life was announced, the broken body of Christ reminding us of the death that came. Did she know at that age, at the Annunciation, the depth of agony that her choice to bear the Son of God would bring to her?  

Don’t they suffer a little,
the silent golden madonnas,
who for centuries have worn
placid eyes
and closed lips.

More heroic than seven labours:
The choice to bear him
she cannot hold.

* * *

I am in Italy with students from three American universities. One of the art students is a mother; she’s brought her seven-year-old son Raleigh with her for the semester in Italy. She is slender, with a young body but a lined face. Close-cropped brown hair might fall into her eyes without the bright green scarf holding it back. Her eyes are tired from perpetually seeking out Raleigh. He wears baggy jeans, sweaters, boots, and a newsies cap.

One morning at breakfast the woman who runs our Italian kitchen grabs Raleigh’s shoulder and kindly lectures him: You can do whatever you want to. Do what you love to do — follow your dreams. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.

Raleigh’s mother sits down across from me at the breakfast table and smiles wryly. I wish someone was still telling me that, she says — You can be whatever you want to be.

In the courtyard the early morning sun splits the mist and strikes the 400-year-old tree. Raleigh’s mother sets down her fork and replaces it with a pencil to try to work out the light on paper. Raleigh puts his dirty dishes on the cart and slips out the glass door. 

He plays in the light while his mother tries to capture it.

* * *

Do any of us ever know what we’re getting into when we bring life into the world?

“Motherhood is an open wound,” Jessica Mesman Griffith writes to Amy Andrews in Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters. Earlier in the book, she writes of Mary’s open wound:

There’s new life in me, with a heartbeat. 

And yet I’m so aware of death! It’s no longer a mere possibility but a real thing taking root in my uterus, a being that will live and die. I remember a painting of the Annunciation I saw in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, the angels coming to Mary with the news. They also carry the implements of Christ’s death: the crown of thorns, a nail. Mary tries to shield her eyes, her body. How did she manage to rejoice, to say yes?

I did not choose to become a mother because I had dealt with all of my fears. We say yes to new life not because it’s logical, not because we believe we are prepared to handle the brilliance of the pain and the complexity of the relationship. We say yes because of love, which as Pascal said, “has reasons of which reason knows nothing.” Our yes means accepting mortality, feeling life and its frailty in our very bellies. 

And that love bears more love. When nursing, our breasts sometimes leak milk at the sound of any baby’s cry, not just our own. We’ve been split open, stretched, sectioned; we’ve been initiated into the realities of life, blood and shit and salt, and we are forced to live outside of our heads and into earthbound realities. Our hearts now exist outside our bodies, curled up on pews next to us, running outside to play in the light, enlisting in the fight for justice, dying so that others may live.

We are little Marys, cradling love too big to hold from the very beginning, cradling it forever with our broken-open bodies, our split-asunder hearts: earthen vessels carrying death, bearing life.

Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors program at Taylor University. With a B.A. in English Literature from Texas A&M and an M.A. in Intercultural Studies from Wheaton College, Amy taught ESL for two years in Southeast Asia before returning stateside to teach. Amy has written for Books & Culture, her.meneutics, Comment Magazine, and The Living Church, among other places. At work on her first book, she is represented by Heidi Mitchell of D.C. Jacobson.

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