Converting to the Catholic faith has been good for my imagination, and my wife's.
I am not speaking simply about the aesthetic treasury of the Church — the architecture, the icons, the music, the liturgy — but the expansion of our souls to include what we thought was too difficult, if not impossible, in our lives.
My wife never thought she would be waddling around just prior to her 40th birthday, wheezing for breath, unable to sleep at night, battling her own body, waiting for the agony of childbirth — for the sixth time. But her imagination has had to stretch to accommodate the reality.
That stretch of the imagination is painful because it is a stretching like the one on the cross and, as with all crosses, the cross of childbirth is hard to bear.
I can hear the gasping in the audience. “Don't make your wife look like a martyr! That'll just fuel the hellish fires of the pro-abortion movement!”
I beg your pardon. My wife is a martyr, and at nine-months pregnant, a rather conspicuous martyr at that. A martyr is a witness, and she is a witness to the central truth of Christianity: What is good is worth suffering for, indeed, must be bought by suffering. Is that not the tale the other martyrs tell? Is that not the lesson of the cross?
How many women, facing their 40th birthday and a pregnancy, have turned away from the suffering, the nausea, the throbbing varicose veins, the shooting pains, the swollen limbs and sleepless nights, and turned toward the abortionist? How many women have not taken up these crosses, but have shaken their heads, unburdened themselves and walked away, leaving those crosses to become the silent grave-markers of the lives they would not bear?
Not my wife. She is giving her life for this new life. If no greater love has any man than to give his life for his brother, then no greater love has any woman than to give her life for her child. I am not using “give” metaphorically here. I know even as a father who has lost much sleep with sleepless children that I have aged more quickly than those rosy-cheeked, taut-skinned, gym-committed fathers of one or two.
But a mother really gives her life. And, to return to the Gospel, a woman who tries to save some of her life by abortion shall lose it, and a woman who loses some of her life in giving birth shall save it. Such is the paradoxical law of the cross.
My wife? She is the queen, and her throne is a rocking chair by the fireplace.
There is more to the paradox. By virtue of being united to Christ's sufferings, the nausea, the throbbing varicose veins, the shooting pains, the swollen limbs and sleepless nights become redemptive both locally and universally.
To the woman herself, they are the purgative fires of sainthood. For the women who have refused these sufferings, great rivers of grace flow out from the trials of those who have refused to refuse motherhood. One woman's unhardened heart, by the mysterious, magnifying power of Christ's redemptive grace, radiates the solvent of charity to countless other hardened hearts, making them repentant flesh again.
Now I do not want to make it seem like having children is all crucifixion and no resurrection. So let's talk a little about Easter.
My wife was one of two children; I was one of three. How small was the world of our childhood. How correspondingly compressed our imagination.
Our children, on the contrary, live in a much larger world, quite full of each other, but happy to expand at any moment. Whereas we couldn't imagine having six children, our children hope to have twice that many. Our hearts are still stretching to accommodate the children we have; our children's hearts are ready to reach all the way to China and gather more siblings by adoption.
Nor could I imagine, when I first got married, that some day I would be met at the door each day by a thundering herd of overly affectionate offspring, as if I were some kind of king whose subjects swarm around him in undying devotion. And I am indeed a king, for I have twice, three, or six times as many loyal subjects as those poor, unimaginative fathers with so few. A king I am indeed, for a large house with a single child is far smaller than a smaller house with a large family. The latter really is a castle.
My wife? She is the queen, and her throne is a rocking chair by the fireplace, and woe the child who does not yield to her majesty when she approaches with her afternoon tea. There she surveys her realm, adjudicates disputes and issues edicts. There she receives her adoring (sometimes even smothering) subjects. As queen, she has found that a heart divided between more children — by some strange equation — multiplies rather than divides love.
And here also there is a witness. Few things are as conspicuous as a family of seven marching grandly past the far less grand, constricted “normal” families. They cower when they see us coming; they part like the red sea before us; they gasp, astounded as our great train of fecundity rumbles by.
We shall soon be a family of eight, and the queen and I shall be far the grander for it, witnesses for both the trial and the glory. Imagine that.
Ben Wiker teaches classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.