Well, it’s that season. I go to the grocery story and the shelves are bursting with ripe produce. Take a drive in the country and the roadside stands are selling fresh corn on the husk. I cannot see all these garden goods without thinking of my own mother, who kept a garden and found herself giving away bushels of produce to neighbours when it was coming fast and furious at the end of the summer. It was fertility in plain sight.
It makes me think of the other kind of fertility because I come from a big family. In addition to raising a garden, my mother had a large crop of kids. One thing I really hated growing up was that people seemed to forget about my dad altogether. They called us “Betty Toop’s Boys”. We were that subgroup long before we were individuals. I can laugh about it now, but there is no doubt that my mother was fruitful. She left behind more of herself than she took away. At my present age, I am distanced enough from my mother’s fertility to think about it objectively.
The Bible has some interesting things to say about life in the womb.
For You formed my inward parts; you covered me in my mother’s womb.
I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Marvelous are Your works, and that my soul knows very well.
My frame was not hidden from You, when I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed.
And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”
It makes you wonder what babies are thinking in there, and how sentient they are to things going on outside the womb, even before they make their great appearance. Whether they will be smarter if you play classical music, or if they will pre-learn their times tables if you repeat them, I cannot know.
The virginity of Mary is a funny thing, apart from being the miracle that sets Jesus apart the rest of humanity. Catholics insist that Mary was a PERPETUAL virgin. She was having none of it, even after all the vows were said. I am not so sure. I am of the mind that Mary got on with things like regular people did despite the complicated theology invented to explain away why James was Jesus cousin but not his brother. The Scriptures clearly note that Jesus had four brothers and more than one sister so it seems that family life at Mary and Joseph’s was busy and fruitful. Mary seems to have followed the rest of mankind in populating the world and this can only be a good thing. If Mary did not live a life that combined the sacred and the flesh, then the incarnation has no meaning to us mere mortals.
This whole focus on the maiden aspect of Mary reminds me of that Catholic school joke. The teacher asks the students if they can name Jesus’ father. One keener puts up his hand. The teacher pleased, nods her head for the answer. “Virgil!” comes the reply. “Virgil?” the teacher says, astonished. “Where on earth did you get that idea?’ The student gushes; “They’re the ones we always hear about. You know, teacher, Virge ’n Mary.”.
Having kids will start you thinking about procreation in a different way. it’s always a thing for a man to wrap his head around the other side of conjugal relations, when he finds his wife is pregnant. You had forgotten this was what it was all about. With my own kids I watched that watermelon grow in the belly with a complete separation from the fact there might be a kid in there. The disconnect was like a parallel universe I had not yet navigated.
Much further down the road you can see the blessings of family life and you will look at the mother of your children in a different way. Sometimes I think about it, a category all to itself, this miracle of being able to produce a baby down somewhere secret in the belly, and bring up a real kicking human being in the process. I look at my wife and realize she shares in a vast secret that men can only ever partially comprehend.
Gabriel announced to Mary: “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” There it is. Our ability to share in procreation is a holy thing. We are born with certain urges that can be hard to reconcile with that - the twinkle in your eye that brings the next generation. I have always felt somewhere between embarrassed and guilty about my own physiology. At an older age once the ardour has cooled down a bit, I can see these things with a clearer head.
Mary seems to get first billing, just like my wife, and just like my own mother. My father far in the background. It’s somehow unjust, but I am struck dumb for words when I witness the one great thing women can do that forever makes them special.