Over the course of writing my recently released book, Under the Laurel Tree: Grieving Infertility with Saints Joachim and Anna, I’ve had the honor of talking to individuals and couples from a variety of Christian backgrounds who have one thing in common: they struggle to integrate the reality of infertility with faith in a God who is supposedly life-giving.
There are many ways of responding to this question, but perhaps it would help to start not from the question of who God is—and what infertility may or may not say about His nature—but rather who we are as creatures.
To put it another way, I believe infertility represents a crucial and under-examined dimension of theological anthropology, one of the most vital fields of inquiry in the Church today, given the impact of rapid social and technological change on our understandings of the human person. It is as timeless a facet of human history as it is grievous and mysterious.
Under the nomenclature of barrenness and childlessness, infertility features as a predictable, if perplexing, leitmotif through the Old Testament. Each time God moves to reaffirm or expand His covenant to the people of Israel, a prominent couple finds themselves unable to conceive—a pattern that, by the end of Genesis, is so predictable you can almost set your clock (biological or otherwise) by it. In the end, the couple always bears a child, but only after intense prayer and crying out to God. In patristic and older Jewish writings, this is typically understood as a sign concerning the person to be born, the pivotal role he would play in God’s covenant with His people.
But I often wonder if barrenness isn’t also indicative of something bigger, deeper, more global—an icon of humanity’s true nature as creatures whose very being is contingent on God’s love.
In other words, what if barrenness is not a pathological but normative aspect of our existence? What if it is not infertility but fertility—the capacity to participate at all in the life-giving process—that is unnatural, unexpected? These questions provide a starting point for reflecting on the salvific meaning of barrenness and its import for theological anthropology.
Recall that the earth, upon its inception, was formless and void (Gen. 1:2). Regardless of the English rendering of these words, in the original Hebrew and in the Greek Septuagint they were tied to emptiness and chaos. It seems the natural state of things is barrenness, even nonexistence. God the Creator brings forth life. It is He who, as is so poignantly described in the Book of Job, “stretches [the North] over the empty space” and “hangs the earth upon nothing” (26:7, NKJV). And it is He who, in accordance with His self-emptying love, fills the barren womb of creation’s non-existence with life.
Moreover, as negatively as certain verses in the New Testament appear to regard agricultural barrenness (c.f. Luke 13:6-9), and as redemptive a role as biological procreation plays in the postlapsarian world (1 Tim 2:15), it is curious that the earliest decades of Christian thought took for granted that there would be no childbearing (or sexual intercourse) in the Eschaton. While some ancient cultures and religions may have envisioned the afterlife as some kind of fountain of fertility, in the Judeo-Christian imagination, it is in many ways a return to (or resanctification of?) barrenness, which is to say a return to the self-emptying and everything-filling love of God, of which human reproduction is merely a shadow.
This is famously evident in Christ’s answer to the Sadducees (who opposed the idea of a resurrection), when He clarified that those who rise from the dead “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). His answer, according to Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, reveals an extraordinary and perhaps surprising aspect of heavenly existence:
Given that Jesus, like all other ancient Jews, thought that sex should be reserved for marriage, it seems that sex is eliminated in the afterlife. Moreover, the structural effects of marriage—of organizing society into couples—are not present in the afterlife. For ancient Jews and Christians the afterlife is a celebration of God, not a family reunion. It is a vision of the afterlife that values fertility and infertility equally. (Candida R. Moss and Joel S. Baden, Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness, Princeton University Press, 2015, p. 217)
The presumption of barrenness would go on to become a “fundamental tenet of proto-orthodox and Latin interpretations of the resurrected life” (p. 227).
This vision of the resurrected life may be difficult for us to come to terms with, at least for those of us who happen to love our children and family members. Yet, in the eyes of faith, it is cause for gladness, as is beautifully prefigured in Isaiah 54. Immediately following the last of the four so-called Suffering Servant songs (Isaiah 52:13-53:12), perhaps the most moving prophecies of Christ and His death in the Old Testament, is a curious line: “Be glad, O barren woman who does not bear; break forth and cry out, you who are not in travail” (Is. 54:1, SAAS).
In the eyes of this world, it’s a glaring nonsequitur: what about the horrific suffering of the Messiah, who was “led as a sheep to the slaughter” (53:7) and who “bore the sins of many” (53:12), could possibly prompt anyone—least of all a barren woman—to sing and be glad?
Traditionally, of course, this “barren woman” is interpreted as the Gentiles, who without Christ are desolate, unable to be reconciled to God, an allegory St. Paul unpacks in Galatians 4:21–31.
But setting this standard interpretation aside for a moment, the jubilation of the barren woman in the above passage also illustrates something of the joy with which barrenness is reinvested in the Eschaton. After all, throughout the Old Testament and the generations that directly preceded Christ’s birth, it was the pregnant woman who proclaimed God’s saving presence among His people. But in Christ, as this passage in Isaiah foreshadows, the barren woman is now called upon to voice the first fruits of thanksgiving. It’s almost as though He is the Life we carry within us, He is the Good News we’ve waited for, His is the salvation we must continually stretch and grow and make room for in ourselves, our souls and bodies, and in all the world—as though we could ever possibly contain it.
Far from minimizing or romanticizing the actual travail of infertile couples in the Church, I believe this discussion validates the almost cosmic magnitude of infertility and its grief. Perhaps in the hereafter, barrenness will be reconstituted as fullness and jubilation, but in the here and now, we experience it through a veil of a grief that at times can seem almost infinite in its dimensions.
And the very fact we grieve infertility tells us we are more than the material sum of chemicals and evolutionary biology—we yearn for new life, to participate in its inception, to bear it within us. What is it we are actually grieving in infertility? Psychology tells us it is the loss of certain roles, identities, hopes, and dreams for the future. But, deep down, from the vantage point of our God-given human-ness, I wonder if we are not also grieving the prospect of our non-being. We are grieving the fact that our existence—and that of all creation—is not merely beyond our control, it’s not even necessary. Barrenness, even the mere possibility of it, brings us to the brink of dissolution. It leads us by the hand back to a primordial precipice, where we see in stark relief the normal state of things when viewed apart from God, and reminds us that none of this had to be. The sole reason we exist, and can hope that anything at all will continue to exist, is by virtue of being known and loved by an eternal, self-giving God.
As an intellectual, it is easy for me to “know,” on a cognitive level, these theological principles concerning creation and humanity’s place within it. But, as a childless woman, to feel barrenness in my body is entirely other. More than anything else in my life, it has caused me to face the full, awe-ful magnitude of humanity’s dependence on God. I don’t know why God gives infertility to some couples and not others. But I do know that they who find themselves in this place will—knowingly or unknowingly—bear witness (the literal meaning of what it means to be martyred) to an element of our humanity that perhaps cannot be communicated to the world in any other way.
***This post was excerpted and adapted from Under the Laurel Tree: Grieving Infertility with Saints Joachim and Anna, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019***