Sermon from Within the Glass: On Infertility and Revelation

I walk down Sugar Land city center’s main street, Mama, Trip, and Graham–my 1 1/2 year old son–just behind me.  Trip’s guiding the stroller which has become more of a storage device to hump bags and water bottles than the baby throne it’s meant to be.  Other people joined teams, designed t-shirts, walked with their fertility doctors.  We’re new at this, and the older woman manning the white registration tent apologizes in a deep drawl that she can only offer us one t-shirt: Walk of Hope, it reads in blue and yellow block letters, because no one with infertility should walk alone.

A year ago, two years ago, I would never have done this.  My participation in a public walk would have concretized a truth about which I felt deep shame and despondence, and the same fear that had me decline the offer of a support group, would have had me reject “belonging” to a group of people I did NOT want to identify with at all.

Now, on the first Sunday of National Infertility Awareness Week, I see women in shirts with slogans like “One Goal, Two Lines” (as in the two lines on a pregnancy test that mean yes! yes!) or “HOPE” wherein the O is replaced with a pink heart.  There are also couples with no strollers, no smiles, a few women who swipe mascara from beneath their eyes–they’re still in the thick of it, childless, and I have trouble meeting their eyes and feel no small amount of horror when Graham grabs one of their calves, mistaking it from his tiny height for mine.  All around us booths announce their sponsorships from brand name pharmaceuticals to acupuncturists to hospitals.  Everything smacks of revival meeting: the testimonials, the loopy exerts of scripture passages across backs, the balloon release of bright orange “prayers” into a gunmetal grey and yellowing sky.  As if we’re all a little touched.

The religious subtext unnerves me.  It’s so confusing to me, how quickly everyone adopts the language of church when the science of infertility and its availability to women is still endangered by a political culture whose God would have us settle for prayer as our only medicine. Not that I don’t believe in prayer–I do, very much.  But I could write a million pages about the bioethics of infertility treatment, an entire tome of righteously indignant sermons about how we’ve turned the medical problem of infertility into a moral problem.

I don’t want to do that today.  Today, as we start walking across cobblestone that causes my son–a new walker–to lose his stepping now and again, I’m thinking about glass.

IVF is the acronym for in vitro fertilization.  In vitro, in Latin, means “within the glass.”  The glass is the problem for some people.  That fertilization might occur outside a woman’s body, at the hands of doctors and scientists, strikes some people as sacrilegious, as humans playing God.

They’ve missed the point.  There are only two places in the Vulgate–the Latin version of the Holy Bible–that use the word vitro.  Once in Proverbs in a line that warns against excessive drinking.  Then again in Revelations when the angel reveals to John the Holy City, the glorious new Jerusalem where all shall reside in the coming kingdom.  Its walls, John says, “were made of jasper,” the “great street of the city was of pure gold, pure as transparent glass.”

et platea civitatis aurum mundum tamquam vitrum perlucidum

The great street of the city was as transparent as glass, God in all her glory, visible, knowable, finally and fully clear in vitro.

Of course, we don’t live in the new Jerusalem, and what John recounts is called a “revelation” for a reason.  Revelations by definition are small moments of disclosure, whispers, slits in the blinds that paint thin streaks of light across a dark floor and only hint at the full morning. Revelations often arrive in the form of dreams or visions, in moments where our human consciousness bleeds its edges.  In Luke’s Gospel, Mary, the mother of Jesus, has a revelation when Gabriel assures her in a dream of the possibility of Jesus’ birth through her body by reminding her that God cured the infertility of Elizabeth, her cousin and mother of John the Baptist.

I first saw my son within the glass.  Minutes before the transfer procedure, minutes I spent as if in a dream, Dr. Schenk projected Graham’s image onto the wall of the operating room.  In his glass house, his five cells shivered and spoke.  A light so slim and golden.

Most mothers–most people–will never see such a thing.  They will never witness the miracle of reproduction through transparent glass.  Science has revelatory power.  Galileo knew it.  Darwin too.  It does not close the door to faith; it punctures the dense wood of doubt.

I’m not saying infertile women are somehow more holy than other women, or that our medical condition trumps much more severe diagnoses, or that illness itself is holy, except in the sense that the poet Mark Doty writes: illness is torturous but “nonetheless it reveals more of what things are.”

And here we are.  A group of women of every skin color, size, and religious background connected only by our diagnosis of infertility and the people who love us most, our husbands and wives, our mothers, our doctors, not quite enough of our children.  We’re walking down a street as mundane as any across America, its pragmatic hems stitched with chain stores and waffle joints, but I hear the faint bell-like music of so many clinking heels on glass as we move through this new city of our shared vision.





3 thoughts on “Sermon from Within the Glass: On Infertility and Revelation”

  1. I used to tell my Intro to the Bible students to pay attention any time they noticed a barren woman come into any story, whether that barrenness was the result of “God closing her womb” or the lack of a husband. The women who fight for the fulfillment of their desire to be a mother and the children who end their long wait always go on to push limits and ultimately change the world (even if it’s only by becoming another link in the chain to David and Jesus). It’s a powerful, beautiful privilege–and challenge–to have a miracle right in front of your eyes every day.

    Thank you for walking and writing.

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