The Visitation: St. Elizabeth’s Life Was the Life of a Mother

No woman will escape the crosses of motherhood because every woman was made to mother, whether physically or spiritually.

José Moreno, “The Visitation,” 1662
José Moreno, “The Visitation,” 1662 (photo: Public Domain)

My husband and I were blessed to witness the priestly ordinations of two close friends in recent weeks. The joy they shared with those who were present was apparent: I’ll never forget the wide smiles on both of their faces as they processed through a crowd of faithful following the ordination Mass. It reminded me, appropriately, of the procession I shared with my husband at our wedding Mass nearly 10 months ago — a “Matthew 17” moment, as one might call it, reminiscent of Peter’s words: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

But as anyone who has been married or ordained can attest, we all must come down from the mountain eventually. Christian knowledge of this reality accompanies these moments of joy. To know the Lord intimately is to know that the Resurrection was necessarily accompanied by the cross; the news of a miraculously conceived Christ was accompanied by unideal circumstances.

Years ago, I developed a devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows. I remember being particularly intrigued by the fact that each of our Holy Mother’s sorrows seems to be wrapped up in moments of joy. The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, for example, are laced with the Sorrows of Our Lady. The Child is born, but has nowhere to rest his head. He is presented in the Temple, but Simeon foretells Our Lady’s heart will be pierced.

Our Lady’s Visitation to St. Elizabeth seems to be an especially pure moment of joy: How could the celebration of a woman’s long wait for motherhood be met in any other way? But this pure joy at the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, we can imagine, is accompanied by the many years of sorrow at her apparent infertility. This sorrow feels real and close to home for us. Who doesn’t know a couple that shares this cross?

My husband and I had been married for only seven months when we found out we were pregnant — but the news was, nonetheless, a welcome surprise and a relief.

After the disappointment of what we suspect was a very early miscarriage — a “chemical pregnancy,” as some might call it — six months of negative pregnancy tests followed. All things considered, the faint second line that appeared on that small slip of paper in February felt unbelievable to me. In some moments, it still feels unbelievable.

I’d certainly not count us among the many couples who have experienced or are currently experiencing long seasons of infertility. But our short season of waiting gave us a small taste of this cross. During that time, a friend who experienced both waiting and loss shared with me her belief that, for some, the cross of motherhood takes the form of infertility. Whereas we often view infertility as an obstacle to motherhood, she wisely told me that every woman is given the heart of a mother and the unmet desire to bear life is how some women experience the Lord’s statement to Eve that “in pain you will bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).

The Resurrection necessitates the cross. For many, the cross is remarkably heavy.

In the pro-life movement, we often witness the opposite scenario: Mary’s scenario, if you will. A woman in a vulnerable situation — lacking resources or support from her community — is surprised to learn that she’s pregnant. In many cases, because of her circumstances, this woman is horrified at bringing a child into the world — so horrified, in fact, that abortion is more acceptable than the future laid out for her. 

But as Mary illustrates, the acceptance of the cross bears good fruit.

Joy accompanies a life freely given.

If I have learned anything from these 10 months of marriage — six of which were marked by a desire for children and four of which are defined by much “letting go” in pregnancy — it’s that the mountaintop was never meant to last. The Fall promised us that. What’s more, no woman will escape the crosses of motherhood because every woman was made to mother, whether physically or spiritually. Elizabeth is an emblem of this reality: an entire lifetime of waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled, for her cross to be met by resurrection.

For joy to bookend her sorrow.

But I imagine that Elizabeth lived her motherhood long before she became a biological mother. I imagine she lived out her desire for children by accompanying women who crossed her path. I imagine that Mary’s visit was a reciprocal gift, a gift returned for the many “visits” that Elizabeth had paid others in her lifetime. I imagine Elizabeth’s life was a life freely given.

Elizabeth’s life was the life of a mother.

My prayer for women who consider today’s Feast of the Visitation will be that they might see their own crosses in the crosses of these women. Whether we are waiting hopefully for the future or anticipating the suffering it holds, we face these realities with hearts given to us by God — hearts made to mother, made to be given freely for others.

And just as the Resurrection necessitates the cross, so does joy accompany a life freely given.

Mary Kate Zander is executive director of Illinois Right to Life and has previously been interviewed by the Register and served as a Register contributor.

Wilhelm von Kügelgen’s 19th-century painting, “The Visitation,” depicts the encounter between the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Elizabeth, a patron saint of infertility and pregnancy.

Dealing With Infertility (May 20)

The month of May, with its celebration of mothers, can leave some women feeling desolate. Today we talk with two women, writers and advocates Leigh Snead and Mary Bruno, who have experienced the pain of infertility and who have leaned into their suffering, through God’s help, to yield beautiful witness to adoption and spiritual motherhood.