Of the Advent Swell and the Pregnant Pause
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?”
“And you call yourself a detective.”
In the photo above, do you see the woman second in from the left? See the swell at her belly? See how she’s framing it with her arms?
The photo itself is a famous one. Taken by Robert Lax in 1956, it features Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day and others flouting a mandatory air raid drill in Washington Square – a protest meant to highlight the irrational promise of surviving nuclear war. “Refusing to take shelter was not only to practice civil disobedience to a law which was unreasonable,” Dorothy explained, “but also to do penance for our having been the first to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” She elaborated further: “Our demonstration was to show our willingness to go to jail, to be deprived of our freedom, to suffer disgrace in the eyes of those who cannot understand our position.”
As a Catholic Worker alumnus and devotee, I’ve seen this inspiring picture a thousand times – in books, in magazine and newspaper articles, on the internet – but it wasn’t until I married Nancy and became a dad a couple times over that I noticed something: the woman second from the left is pregnant. “She’s cradling her baby just like Nancy does,” I thought – and not just Nancy. It’s a pretty common phenomenon: Young moms-to-be gently touching their mid-sections, even before the rest of us can detect any bump at the belly. A couple times I’ve glimpsed that subtle touch and then later public announcements confirmed my hunch – a regular baby detective, that’s me!
For pregnant moms, however, no detecting is required, and even when hormonal and physiological changes don’t remind them – the nausea, the backaches, the pressure on the bladder – there are always interior kicks and tumbles, day and night, not to mention the inevitable abdominal swell: That growing tide of flesh beneath the heart, and a secret (at first) weight of vitality that accompanies her constantly.
And those subtle touches to the belly? Sometimes they’re conscious and intentional, no doubt, but my impression is that they can be just as often unconscious – an instinctual maternal caress of affirmation and assurance. Like an automatic acknowledgement: “Yes, I know you’re there – yes, I know you’re with me. I’m with you, too, regardless of what’s happening around me out here.” No matter what, the baby’s presence in the mom’s womb changes everything – her focus is mysteriously diverted, it seems to us outsiders, and her life is decidedly oriented toward another.
With regards to the young woman in that photo, I tested my theory by consulting Phil Runkle, Marquette’s indefatigable archivist of the Catholic Worker movement. Phil couldn’t give me absolute confirmation, but he suggested that the young woman glancing down the row was most likely Pat Daw – “twenty-two years old and soon to become a mother,” as Dorothy Day noted.
So, it’s likely my hunch is correct – score another one for the baby detective! But regardless of whether the woman in the photo is the expectant Pat Daw, there’s no question she participated in the event, and that decidedly augments the photo’s Gospel challenge for me. What had been a record of selfless civil disobedience in service of peace – challenging enough itself in our violent age – now reveals an additional challenge: a mother’s stalwart and sacrificial effort to pacify her child’s future home. Pat Daw’s expectant presence at that demonstration was not merely theoretical, but eminently practical – a world of bombs and annihilation was no place for her baby! Daw’s pregnancy adds an intense and tenacious hopefulness to the chronicled event that was hidden for the most part, but still there – and it was totally real, for mother and baby alike.
This seems to be a neglected theme of Advent – which, I grant you, is primarily about preparing our hearts and homes for the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh revealed at Christmas. Nonetheless, isn’t it also true that the presence of God in our lives all the time is equally real? We forget it because it’s not always visible, but he’s there all the same. At the very least, we’ve been baptized, haven’t we? Thus we’ve got God in our hearts – God himself! “The discovery of God present in the soul is one of the most momentous in the soul’s spiritual career,” Hubert Van Zeller tells us. “It is more than a picturesque image, it is a positive theological fact.”
It’s so easy to forget – at least it is for me. Turns out, I’m not such a great detective after all. My pettiness and bitter recriminations; my self-justifying rationalizations and white lies; my envy, my impatience, my pride. Plus there’s the wear and tear of ordinary living: stress and anxiety, confusion and betrayal, shattered dreams and barren horizons. Don’t make me laugh – God, in our midst? God, within me? Not likely.
Still it’s true – though so subtle, so hidden, waiting for our discovery and re-discovery. It’s a subtlety that Frank Capra captures well in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) – have you seen it yet this year? When you do, pay attention at the end of the Martini housewarming scene. George turns down Sam Wainwright’s job offer, and the Baileys glumly walk back to their ramshackle jalopy. In a fit of resentment, George kicks the car door with his foot. Then, the very next scene pits George against Mr. Potter and the latter’s tempting offer of a lucrative but soul-crushing job. George reluctantly holds on to his conscience, rebuffs Potter, and departs in a serious funk – prospects, bleak; future, grim. In other words, no God around, no hope.
“Why in the world did you ever marry a guy like me?” George asks his slumbering wife when he reaches home. “You could’ve married Sam Wainwright or anybody else in town.”
“I didn’t want to marry anybody else in town,” she chirps. “I want my baby to look like you.”
George, heedless at first, continues to mutter about his troubles, then perks up. “Your baby?” he asks. “What – Mary, you on the nest?”
“George Bailey lassos stork!” is her reply.
Totally blindsided – he couldn’t have spotted it. His troubles, his temptations, his seeming failures utterly occupy his attention, leaving no room for hope, no room for babies. And yet, the baby is present nonetheless, offering hope, offering another perspective and even redemption. Is it an accident that the mother who bears and reveals this baby is a Mary?
Certainly it’s true that Mary, our Blessed Mother, is always an Advent of hope for us all – an assertion underscored by her 16th-century appearance in Mexico City. Among the wonders of the Guadalupe miracle is the fact that the Woman Clothed with the Sun depicted on St. Juan Diego’s tilma is unquestionably pregnant – although hardly detectible to the unaided eye.
“The Church not only prepares to welcome Him at Christmas time,” writes W. J. O’Shea. “It rejoices even now in the possession and the presence of its Lord in its midst.” Watch for the divine baby bump – in others around you, in yourself. We have it on good authority that he’s there.