This womb of mine will not know the pangs of pregnancy. My skin will not tighten when another body becomes part of my flesh. My inner organs will not shift to make room; my ankles will not swell; my appetite will not increase because my body is making another person.
This womb is empty, creased. That potential has been offered upon an altar, a sacrifice. “I vow to God Almighty to live consecrated celibacy for the rest of my life and into the next,” I once proclaimed in front of my Franciscan sisters, family and friends, surrounded by statues of saints, standing firm. I have vowed to keep this womb empty so that I can live a life of boundless love, devoted service and deep prayer.
This empty womb—and my natural desire to co-create—compel me to make an Advent assessment of prayer.
How do you pray?
Do you pray with hands folded?
Do you air out your words on the line? Do you clip them down one by one, and then let them dance in the breeze until they are fresh, light?
Do you tell yourself stories of meaning and mystery, while you remember your past and imagine your fate?
Mary knew—knows—the pangs of pregnancy, the wildness of Word becoming flesh. “Let it be done to me,” she spoke to the angel, freedom allowing her purity to be the great “fiat.” And it was done to her; her womb filled. As life expanded, I imagine that the pleasure of potential was expressed in Mary’s face, Mary’s body. The word “yes” took up flesh in her, and love was made manifest, true bodily prayer.
Yet I wonder: was her pregnancy painful? As cells multiplied, did the increase of her weight feel like a burden or a blessing? Maybe both are true. Her song of Magnificat is, after all, a song of all order being flipped over, of everything being made new.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
In Mary, the womb and the Word work together to answer prayers, to fulfill promises. The new life to come will be mercy enfleshed. The expansion of her womb is justice to the little ones, strength to the weak.
Through her own pregnancy, how did Mary pray? What did Mary pray?
Do you pray in the silence? Do you pray with song? Do you pray on the busy streets?
Do you pick up your pen and draw circles in your journal? Do you then color that circle in with lines and dreams? Do you ask the Spirit to help you to make sense of what comes from your imagination, from the cavern of your soul?
Do you ask the Spirit to help you make sense of anything at all?
My womb is a like an open bowl, an empty cavern that the Spirit breathes through. The Spirit might make sense of my bizarre offering of emptiness, and make something of it. We may make some new life together; we could pray some words into flesh. Perhaps the words spoken through modern, celibate me will come out on a glowing screen, in a book, in the creased surface of newsprint, on the glossy page of a magazine. Perhaps the words will come as lessons taught to youth, or as a prayer I utter during mass.
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
My empty womb is real flesh, my body a shelter, an offering. In the pangs of this non-pregnancy, I learn to see truth slowly. I am healing. I am healed. What God does with my “yes” may also redeem.
How do you pray?
Do you pray with poetry or psalms?
Do you pray in your sleep?
Do you pray under water?
Do words tick in the territory of your heart? Are they fleshy like moving muscle, tightening and expanding and allowing for the flow of living blood?
Do you let your womb expand, so the Spirit may write beauty and truth through you?
*This essay was inspired in part by “How Do You Write?” by Richard Chess.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Julia Walsh, FSPA
On staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center in northern Wisconsin, Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a Catholic youth minister and a committed social justice activist. Her award-winning writing has appeared in America, Global Sisters Report, Living Faith and elsewhere. Visit her online at messyjesusbusiness.com and @juliafspa on Twitter.