We sat in the car, my husband and I, still stunned, trying to eat a quick dinner before we drove to the hospital. I was avoiding looking at the medical building we had left earlier, the one with the unfamiliar doctor’s office where I’d heard the terrible words: “I’m so sorry, I see your baby’s heart…but it isn’t beating.”
I broke the silence, plaintively: “I just don’t feel prepared for this—spiritually prepared. I should feel more ready for something so big. I haven’t been praying as much, doing what I should. I’m tired. I feel completely unready for what is going to happen.” In my head, I was running through all of the heroic stories of saints and other Catholics I’d read about who had faced losses of children or spouses and terminal diagnoses with expressions of their trust in God. How could I possibly do that?
He nodded. As usual, we were of the same mind, perceiving what lay ahead—the stillbirth of our fourth child—as a kind of spiritual challenge to which we felt we should be able to rise. We should know how to pray through it, or “offer it up,” or explain it to others in spiritual terms, including our other children.
But we couldn’t.
The experience was a crisis. It was the traumatic loss of a child who we never got to know, one that upended our lives and changed the future we expected for our family. In the words of Pope Francis, describing “crisis” in his recent address to the Roman Curia, it is “an extraordinary event” that creates “a sense of trepidation, anxiety, upset and uncertainty in the face of decisions to be made”. Crises prompt our response, whether we face them as individuals or as a society.
This year has undoubtedly brought some sort of crisis into all of our lives, to be honest. “If we can recover the courage and humility to admit that a time of crisis is a time of the Spirit,” this pope with the heart of a spiritual director tells us, “whenever we are faced with the experience of darkness, weakness, vulnerability, contradiction, and loss, we will no longer feel overwhelmed. Instead, we will keep trusting that things are about to take a new shape, emerging exclusively from the experience of a grace hidden in the darkness.”
God in his mercy allowed my husband and me to be disarmed and disquieted and completely vulnerable in the crisis we faced. There was simply nothing we could do: nothing could change the fact that our child had suddenly and inexplicably died before birth, at 22 weeks gestation. All we could do was to feel ourselves completely at the mercy of the situation, to accept what would come next, and to allow others to guide us and minister to us.
It felt foreign and exposing. We were powerless. In our privileged lives, we’d never experienced anything quite like it, not to that extreme, and there was no way out but to go through it all. This reality tested the limits of our ideas about how faithful people respond in suffering and tragedy. I had heard the expression before—from St. Therese and Bernanos’s country priest—that “everything is grace,” and it sounded beautiful and meaningful. But did I really know what those words mean? Did I truly believe that God is love and is always with us?
The truth is that God uses these moments of profound vulnerability to draw closer to us. At the edge of our inadequacy, in his goodness, he comes to us. This can only happen when we put down (or are forced to put down) our defenses and accept the realities in which we find ourselves—in my case, beyond the ability to understand or explain—and allow him to come to us.
It was in our great need and only because we were forced to accept things as they were that God was able to break through our attempts at self-sufficiency with his love. “God always loves us with a greater love than we have for ourselves. This is his secret for entering our hearts,” said Pope Francis in his homily on Christmas Eve. “God knows that the only way to save us, to heal us from within, is by loving us: there is no other way.”
It is into this space that God enters and is with us: the concreteness of our reality when we accept it and allow him in. “He knows that we become better only by accepting his unfailing love, an unchanging love that changes us.” And he comes as a child, as a son who is given to us, and who has a name: Emmanuel. “Only the love of Jesus can transform our life, heal our deepest hurts, and set us free.”
Francis returned repeatedly during this Advent and Christmas season to the tenderness and weakness of the child Jesus, the son given to us who is the source of our strength and courage to accept things as they are and to therefore enter in more deeply to the place where God meets us. “Jesus’ appearance in our midst is a gift from the Father,” he wrote in Patris Corde, his letter on St. Joseph, “which makes it possible for each of us to be reconciled to the flesh of our own history, even when we fail to understand it completely.” It is the coming of Emmanuel which has the power to open our hearts to God’s love and to prompt our love in response. “In the Child Jesus, God shows himself to be lovable, full of goodness and gentleness. We can truly love a God like that with all our hearts.”
The coming of Jesus in his lovable littleness is proof for us of the goodness of God whose love gives us life. It is only in our vulnerability and neediness that we can begin to accept this gift, because we knew then that “this is pure grace, not by any merit of our own.” Christmas reveals to us present to our painful reality that “Everything is grace, a gift of grace,” said Pope Francis in his catechesis on Christmas. “And this gift of grace, we receive it through the simplicity and humanity of Christmas … in the rediscovered awareness that that humble and poor Child, hidden away and helpless, is God himself, made man for us.”
All night long, we tried to rest while the induction of labor began. I listened to music—lullabies like I the ones I played every night to put my three-year-old to sleep—and prayed, feebly begging God for peace when I couldn’t sleep. I wanted the peace of Assisi, a place we visited on an Easter pilgrimage in 2018 and left me with an imprint in my memory of what can grow from a single life radically given over to God, even centuries later.
That night, I wanted to escape, and I filled my mind with thoughts of quiet, warmly-lit streets that wound their way to the basilicas on either end of the medieval Italian hill town. I thought of how easy it had been to feel God’s presence there, in the very stones of Assisi. Throughout that painful night, I longed to feel his presence again. “Give me the peace of Assisi” was my prayer. God would not fail to answer it.
With his Ignatian heart, Pope Francis always draws our focus to how our feelings and our senses respond to our human experiences. The emotions are indeed where Our Lord can speak, and Francis at Christmas drew our attention back to that place inside ourselves where the response to a crisis begins: “Do you have a feeling of failure or inadequacy, the fear that you will never emerge from the dark tunnel of trial? God says to you, ‘Have courage, I am with you.’”
I always had the impression that courage was a human virtue, something we did because we knew something others didn’t. I thought courage was how, when we were beyond our strength, God would fill in the gaps with his love and grace. But looking back, I learned that night that God’s presence with us doesn’t remind us to be strong or courageous; rather, as Francis reminded us, Christ is our strength and our courage. “Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations and disappointments,” Pope Francis writes in Patris Corde. And the courage we receive does not come from a show of power, or only in special places, but from presence, the presence of a child: “He does this not in words, but by making himself a child with you and for you.” Again, Emmanuel.
In reflecting on St. Joseph in Patris Corde, Pope Francis called this “creative courage”: engaging with the reality of our own lives and stories, no matter the crises they entail so that in hope we may creatively move forward with God. “In the face of difficulty, we can either give up and walk away, or somehow engage with it. At times, difficulties bring out resources we did not even think we had.” This is not drawing on our own strength, but on God’s. When God is with us, he acts by trusting that we will lovingly receive him and courageously and creatively act with him. Joseph did this when God trusted him to care for Mary and Jesus and to flee Herod’s slaughter:
Our lives can be miraculously reborn if we find the courage to live them in accordance with the Gospel. It does not matter if everything seems to have gone wrong or some things can no longer be fixed. God can make flowers spring up from stony ground.
While laboring later that morning, we heard a knock on the door and the familiar, though subdued, voice of our pastor outside. It had been a difficult few hours and I wasn’t sure I could bear to see anyone. My husband left the room to talk to him and soon returned—with a pyx.
Emmanuel. God with us.
And peace. Christ, our Peace, the peace of Assisi.
Our child was not born silently during a dark sleepless night. He was born in the late morning, a few hours after sharing in the Eucharistic feast with his parents.
My midwife asked after wrapping him in a tiny blanket, “are you ready? It’s a boy,” and to us a son was given.
We named him Francis.
This is the undying heart of our hope, the incandescent core that gives warmth and meaning to our life. Underlying all our strengths and weaknesses, stronger than all our past hurts and failures, or our fears and concerns about the future, there is this great truth: we are beloved sons and daughters. God’s love for us does not, and never will, depend upon us. It is completely free love. Tonight cannot be explained in any other way: it is purely grace. Everything is grace. The gift is completely free, unearned by any of us, pure grace.
— Homily on Christmas Eve