Memento mori: A good motto for preparing to give birth

Preparing for labor and birth has reminded me of the ancient Latin and monastic saying: memento mori, remembering your death. As I wait through the last weeks of pregnancy with our first child, a daughter, I contemplate living in constant preparation, both for birth and for the eventual time of my own death, acknowledging that I do not know the day nor the hour (cf. Mt 25:13).

There are multiple parallels between preparing for the birth of my baby and imagining death. For one, I have a human fear of what unknown sufferings will be prepared for me when my hour comes, as well as how long I will be asked to suffer before its completion. There is also the freedom given to me as a rational human being to suffer well and to offer it to God in complete trust. Finally, I cling to the faith and hope that, on the other side of the pain, there will be more love than I can possibly imagine.

I have been pregnant for nine months, and yet only the last three have been obvious to the view of any casual passerby. I’ve gotten all sorts of interesting comments since then, including the comically contradictory ones — such as when people ask me how far along I am, only to reply, “Wow, week X. You’re so close. She’ll be here before you know it!” While another person will say only a moment later, “Only week X? You’ve still got a long way to go.”

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It’s tempting and all too human to fall into one of these extremes of thinking — either rushing ahead to get to the next benchmark in our lives or complaining that the season of life we’re in is moving by too slowly with no change. Yet both extremes close our hearts to God. We either grasp for the next things to come with impatience and miss the beauty of the present, or we fall into despair that the things we hope for will never come. Taking the middle way looks like embracing what St. Teresa of Avila once said: “May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.”

God alone knows when my pregnancy will end, just as the heavenly Father already knows how long I have yet to live on this earth. Each hour is a precious gift, because it is an unrepeatable hour of my life. Nothing happens too soon or too late when we are living by God’s timeline.

I’m reminded that just as my body was designed to labor and birth a baby, so, too, was my soul made to be birthed into eternal life, and my humanity to be joined with three persons of the Holy Trinity. That is what each of my days are for — to get to heaven. Everything else, even the uncertainties and the sufferings of this life, are just the “birthing process.”

When I think about my deepest fears, I admit that losing my husband, daughter, a loved one, as well as dying “too soon” top the charts. Recently, when I received a prayer request for a young wife and mother of eight whose life was threatened by stage four cancer, I internally fell to my knees and begged God to let such a trial pass me by, while also offering her my prayers for healing.

It can feel impossible to believe that I will ever live from the perspective of the saints, who saw the approaching hour of their deaths as the greatest gift Jesus had been preparing for them. The saints, however, drew their strength from love of God and trusted that there were neither too many nor too few hours left to complete their earthly mission, and that nothing they would leave behind in earthly terms would be wasted.

How profound when I think about St. Gianna Molla and her willingness to lay down her life so that her daughter could be born, knowing that she would leave her husband and three small children on this earth. But it is possible to believe that Jesus is loving us in all the circumstances of our lives, even when our human perspective shows us only tragedy, because death is not the end for any of us. Death is a second birth, a birth into eternal life, either with God or eternally separated from him based on our response to his invitation of unconditional love.

Only in heaven will we see how much God returns every sacrifice we offered him in this life with his overabundant love. The greater the generosity of spirit we have, even to the point of abandoning our whole life and death to him, the greater will be the joy we have with the Father when all things are made new as Jesus promised (Rev 21:5).

Yes, there are inevitable sufferings to come in both labor and death, but no, it cannot overtake the joy in giving myself as a gift in this offering, a pleasing sacrifice to God. Before we are made completely pure and ready to see God, there is necessary and redemptive suffering.

The mystery of this little life inside me remains hidden until my hour comes, and when she is finally here, all the pain and sorrow that it took to bring her into this world will be overshadowed by the joy and bliss that lights up the smile of mothers who tell the stories of the euphoria of meeting their children for the first time.

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