Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spiritual Issues in Infertility & Adoption - RESOLVE 1996

RESOLVE NYC Conference
Lincoln Square Synagogue
October 20, 1996
A Crisis of Faith: Spiritual Issues in Infertility and Adoption
Rev. Thomas F. Brosnan

Permit me a few assertions: I am not a medical doctor - I am no expert on infertility. I am not a psychologist - I am no expert on the dynamics of human relations. I am not a charismatic faith-healer--I claim no success in healing either body or soul due to any personal power emanating from me. But I am here giving a workshop concerning the effects of infertility on faith, and the dynamics involved in the healing experience. Why me then? Perhaps because I am a Catholic priest, and as such have promised celibacy, which means, among other things, I have chosen not to have children. And, as a priest, I believe I may be used to convey the healing power of God as he offers that healing grace through the sacraments which I am empowered to administer. I am also an adopted person whose parents adopted him because they were infertile. As an adopted person I know the experience of Loss as it relates to heritage and identity. And as an adoptee reunited with his birth family, I may be able to offer my experience as an example of a journey toward healing, a journey begun with my search for my birth family. Although loss is a universal human experience, the losses surrounding sex, birth, and identity are keenly felt, and find a resonance in each other. Since you are prospective adoptive parents, and so, possible future members of the adoption triad, we share a certain proximity of experience. As St. Thomas Aquinas once said: " desires two things above all. In the first place he wants to know the truth, which is peculiar to him; secondly, he wants to continue to exist, which is common to all things." As an adopted person I desire, perhaps more than some others, to know the truth peculiar to me. As persons struggling with the affliction of infertility, you seek, perhaps more ardently than most, to fulfill the desire to continue your existence through children born of you.

I wish to suggest to you this afternoon that healing the wound of infertility involves a clear decision and decisive action on your part.

A reminder however is in order. From the Christian perspective, healing can never be complete, in the sense that the wound is entirely erased. There are always scars, just as the risen body of the Lord bears the marks of crucifixion even in eternity. In Christian theology, all affliction is, in some sense, a resonance of that original catastrophe we read of in Genesis, incapable of total remedy until some unforeseen future. C.S. Lewis put it best I think in his small book on Miracles: "Spirit and Nature have quarrelled in us," Lewis writes, "that is our disease. Nothing we can yet do enables us to imagine its complete healing. Some glimpses and faint hints we have: in the Sacraments, in the use made of sensuous imagery by the great poets, in the best instances of sexual love, in our experiences of the earth's beauty. But the full healing is utterly beyond our present conceptions."

But you and I can begin the journey toward that fullness of health--which in Christian theology is synonymous with the word salvation. But the healing, I think, is often cloaked in oxymoron and paradox. Like the invitation to adventure and risk, dramatized in the opening scenes of the old TV serial Mission Impossible, your task, if you choose to accept it, will be to discover what it means to be made in the image of the God who creates ex-nihilo, out of nothing. You, too, are invited to generate a life-giving garden from a barren desert, to find, what might be called a creative infertility; to discover in infertility, an advantageous Loss, that is, to take great advantage of your most profound Loss.

Let me begin then with my story:
My name is Tom Brosnan. I am a Roman Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, where I presently live and work with Korean Catholics. In 1953 I was born Thomas Jones in Misericordia Hospital, then located in Manhattan. These are some of the events that led to my birth. In 1952 a young woman of 25 was living in a boarding house connected with the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Maryland. She was not a music student like her roommate and the rest of the inhabitants of the house, but was invited to stay there because female boarders were needed. She met a music student from Toronto--and they fell in love. After her boyfriend returned to Toronto at semester's end, she discovered she was pregnant. She visited, she pleaded; but he said, because of religious differences, he could not, he would not, marry her. Meanwhile another student from Peabody, a gallant young man from Virginia, who knew she was pregnant, offered to marry her. The other students, not knowing she was pregnant, had a bridal shower for them in their boarding house. Within a few weeks however she informed her friends that they decided not to marry. Despairing, the young woman told her older brother she was pregnant with no hope of marrying. The brother, a Jesuit priest, arranged for her to enter Rosalie Hall, a home for unwed mothers connected with the Catholic Home Bureau in New York City. There she delivered and relinquished her baby for adoption. The priest, the boyfriend, the gallant Southerner, and her loyal roommate, Sophia, were the only ones who knew of her pregnancy. She delivered her child on January 10th 1953 at Misericordia Hospital, naming him Thomas after her brother, the priest, and shortly thereafter relinquished the boy to adoption. He waited in a foster home for six months and was eventually adopted by a couple from Brooklyn where he would live with them and his adoptive mother's parents in a small row house in Flatbush.

My parents told me I was adopted when I was 12, though I can remember knowing since I was 5. I vividly remember the day my parents told me I was adopted. I had come home from school and they were sitting silent in the living room. They told me to sit down and my mother ordered my father to "go ahead and tell him." My father, obviously nervous, coughed a lot, which reminded me of the time a few years earlier when he sat me down to tell me that my grandmother had died. My father told me (and this is the part which remains fuzzy in my memory) that either he or my mother suffered from something--he used a long medical-type word which I cannot recall--I suspect though that it was he who was infertile. And because of that--that foreign sounding word--he told me I was adopted. My parents asked me if I had any questions. I remained silent. They both breathed a sigh of relief and said we would go out to lunch. I remember that day as you remember the traumatic moments of your life. B.J. Lifton says that the Telling is as traumatic as the actual relinquishment: it re-presents to the adoptee, on a visceral emotional level, that initial rejection of the child by the mother, only now conveyed through the Telling. But this telling is essential in order for the healing to begin. This I know as the experience of Loss. Loss of mother, of father, of heritage, and, once a new birth certificate is issued, loss of original identity.

My parents and I never talked about adoption; yet, it seems to me, these many years later, that adoption, with all its cumbersome baggage, was the air we breathed. This is precisely what the film Secrets & Lies portrays so poignantly. The secrets and lies we tell surrounding infertility, illegitimate birth, relinquishment, adoption all contribute to undermine the trust which is essential to relationships. My parents and I lost an important opportunity to acknowledge the truth about the losses each of us had suffered. We were, I believe, victims of the closed adoption system, which exerts an extraordinarily powerful hold on all members of the triad. It is a cruel task master and demands untold sacrifices. It is merciless in its destructive power. Secrets and lies attack the very fabric of trust which families are meant to be built upon.

When I was 33 I searched and found my birth mother. I had a very difficult time deciding whether to tell my adoptive parents, but I felt I must. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, because I was so convinced that it would hurt them terribly, and I had learned very early on that I did not like making my mother sad. Yet, telling them gave them permission to talk about my adoption. My parents were not as hurt as I thought they would be--and they offered information about my adoption that I never knew. They said they didn't tell me more before, because I didn't ask. But I didn't ask because I sensed it would hurt them, and so the vicious circle continued through the years. Secrets and lies breed silence and misunderstanding - the erosion of trust.

It was the sadness that I sensed in my mother every time a story about adoption would come up on the evening news or in neighborhood conversation that inhibited me from asking questions. I think my mother projected her sadness on me, albeit unconsciously. It was expressed in a particular phrase she would use when I would become angry with her because I perceived her trying to undo major events in my life. She would use this phrase when I was about to take the test to get into a Catholic high school, or about to go on my first date, or on my way to a party with new friends, or about to swim in competition. "I just don't want you to be disappointed," she'd say. But I think it was her disappointment that she did not want to see reflected in my eyes that made her so anxious for me. It was not a healthy sympathy. Ungrieved loss can manifest itself in myriad ways and take a significant toll on one's emotional well-being. Psychologists say that anger is an appropriate response to loss. But, of course, anger is not summoned, it comes along on its own. But if we do not permit that anger to express itself in healthy ways, it will inevitably express itself in unhealthy ways, perhaps like my mother's disappointment.

Anger over infertility must be fierce, akin to the anger felt at the
death of a loved one, perhaps even greater. You see, infertility is not just a medical condition; it does not simply rob the couple of the ability to reproduce; it robs them of their most precious dreams; it robs them of their progeny; in a manner of speaking, it robs them of their eternity.

Anger can often emerge as jealousy; it is a conviction that one has been cheated of something priceless and irreplaceable. In the film Secrets & Lies Maurice is a photographer who makes his living shooting wedding scenes. He sees the promise of a new family before him each week, and must sadly accept the fact he will have no children. Meanwhile his wife, Monica, hates his sister Cynthia who has had two illegitimate daughters. Monica, the infertile partner, enfolds herself in her beautiful house; her neat existence erupting in rage each month when the PMS is overwhelming. I recall an article on infertility in the New York Times Magazine from a few years back. The quotes seem tinged with bitter sarcasm and a certain unresolved qaulity:

"(after seven years of undergoing different fertility therapies and techniques one woman says firmly: '...we're past all that now. We've adopted two children from Korea, they're the right kids for us. Though my husband was reading about a balloon technique the other day...and everytime I talk to my fertility doctor (I still talk to him a lot) - I can't resist asking, 'So, what's new?'"
"Another woman, Nancy, suffering infertility, states, 'My husband is older and has children from his first marriage...neither of us was all gung-ho about adoption. So I have dogs. And my bitch got pregnant on her first try."

The name of your organization is Resolve--seeking resolution to the wound of infertility--resolution is what we must now discuss. It seems to me, resolving infertility might take one of the following two directions. First, healing. Healing is a process; and processes advance in steps which must be climbed one at a time, lest you fall and have to start all over again. What you do not want to do, I would respectfully suggest, is to adopt so that you get pregnant. We all know stories of people who did just that. But it is really important for you to appreciate the fact that adoption can not cure infertility; adoption can never make you fertile. It can make you good parents; it can even make you the very best of parents. But infertility is a life-long condition, raising it's unpleasant head when adopted children reach puberty, and when they have children of their own.

And you don't want to play it all close to the chest--with your partner, I mean. I think it is very important that you talk about your feelings surrounding the infertility with your partner. The anger, the jealousy, the feeling cheated--all have to be openly aired. They have to be cried about, hollered about. Infertility must be grieved, like the loss of miscarried or aborted children. Grudges do a marriage in.

So what do you want to do as you travel on this journey of healing? At the risk of sounding preachy, I'm going to say: you gotta be humble. Humility though is a great virtue which we seem seldom to practice correctly and often misunderstand. Humility does not mean to put yourself down. It does not mean believing you are being punished for something you might have done in the past. True humility means to acknowledge the truth. It is as simple and direct as that. St. Therese, The Little Flower, put it best: "Humility, " she said, " is truth." And what is the truth you must face? The terrible truth is that infertility is a profound loss; it is a death of sorts. Ah, I'm no good trying to explain, let the words of an old Irish ballad illustrate my point:

"I walk the road again my love/ where we walked hand in hand/ and kissed all through the lovers' rain/ in our green and pleasant land.
Along the foil in secret times/ when passion graced our forms/ how many dreams we shared my love/ now gone like summer's storms."

(By the way there is another imporatnt theme in all this, as the song points out. It is something that lies unspoken of beneath all the talk about infertility, illegitimacy, adoption--and that something is passion and sex.)

Back though to the theme of loss. What comes to mind is the poignant story told by Joyce in The Dead. (I think the irish are experts on loss.) Gabriel and his wife Gretta, married a number of years, have attended a dinner party. It's time to leave and Gabriel is about to call to his wife whom he sees at the top of the stairs. Her expression seems melancholy as she listens to the music coming from the next room. Gabriel knows that something profoundly important is taking place within Gretta at that moment. Observing her from the shadows kindles a renewed passion in Gabriel, for he assumes that he is the cause of her wistful look and tearful eye. Later, in their hotel room, Gabriel is keen on renewing that passion. He confidently asks Gretta what she was thinking about when he saw her listening to the old Irish ballad. It is then that Gretta breaks down and begins to sob uncontrollably. She tells her bewildered husband how long before she met him she was courted by a young man named Michael Fury who sang that same ballad to her beneath her window in the drenching rain the night before she was to leave for a convent school. Young Michael Fury caught his death that night, and she knew he died for love of her. This poignantly sad yet beautiful memory was Gretta's, but it was not Gabriel's. The cold reality that Gretta had had a history before him is like a slap in the face to the middle-aged Gabriel. It was the tune of the ancient ballad that triggered the memory, and Gabriel realized he had no right to transgress such a sacred place.

Loss, when embraced with respect, can be a holy thing. It is never intended as a punishment; but is an invitation--a doorway to the divine.
And here I think is where faith and prayer might enter the picture. People who have experienced a profound loss often are very good pray-ers. They know what it means not to be in control, and so look to rely on a stronger, more steady shoulder. But, I think, it is not just the act of praying that counts; it is the intention for which you pray that can be extremely important. I do not mean to say that God does not know what you want, whether you verbalize it or not; but often, very often, it is we who do not know what we truly want. Discerning your intention--what you really want--is of the utmost importance in the process of healing.

And how do you discover what you really want? Sometimes we go to the scriptures to help us find an answer. And the Bible is filled with stories about infertile people. We read of Sarah giving birth to Isaac after her long barren life. We read of Rebekah becoming pregnant with Esau and Jacob; Hannah given Samuel, whom she returns to the Lord through the old priest Eli. We read of Rachel bearing Joseph and Benjamin for Jacob. And in the New Testament, Elizabeth, Mary's kinswoman, bears John the Baptist. All these barren women of the scriptures become pregnant through the power of God. So often we read of them and think: well, I must be doing something wrong; or, God doesn't love me enough; or, I am being punished for some previous sin. If that is happening to you, may I suggest that you are reading the wrong stories. You've been misdirected. You are looking for biblical stories about infertility--but these are not stories primarily about infertility--they are primarily stories about God's power, using infertility as a vehicle.

What you need to read is something like Genesis 22, which speaks directly to your loss. I'm sure you already know the story. It is, some argue, the most dramatic story in all literature. It is the story of Abraham's sacrifice. God has promised Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation, and fulfill his promise by making Sarah pregnant with Isaac. But, then, God requires Abraham to sacrifice the very boy he gave him. Abraham obeys, and leads his son, the fruit of the very promise God had made, up Mount Moriah to be offered as a holocaust to the Creator. And as Abraham lifts the knife to slay his son, the angel of the Lord descends, and stays his hand. When you read that story and come to that most poignant moment, on which we could say salvation history hung in the balance, know that you are greater than Abraham, for God does not spare your desired child; he invites you to offer your dream, to sacrifice your long-held and deepest desire, on the altar of infertility. After so many tries at fertility techniques, endless explorations, surgeries, or other unnamed tortures, there comes a point when you must give it up. The key though is to give it up completely--no strings attached--so that you will then allow God to use you in ways you may never have imagined--to guide you to your rightful destiny. In this you will let yourself become that paradox of creative infertility, to perceive in your profound loss, infinite advantage.

I mentioned before there were two ways to resolve infertility. I have outlined what I think is the process of healing but now, reluctantly, must mention the other possibility. And that other possibility concerns miracles. Some can not walk the walk, so to speak, up Mount Moriah with Abraham. They need to hold onto the hope for some intervention, or some extraordinary experience that will enable them to conceive. As I said, I reluctantly mention this avenue toward resolution. Being a priest, ironically, I hesitate to talk about it because, when misunderstood, it can leave the person profoundly damaged. But I feel I must mention this possibility, and do so through stories related to me by upright, honest people.

When I was first ordained a priest, I was assigned to a parish in downtown Brooklyn. On separate, unrelated occasions three old women told me that when they were first married they could not conceive. In those days there were no fertility clinics, and being Irish Catholic they naturally went to their parish priest for advice. The priest told each of them he wanted them to make a donation of food (this was during the depression and such donations required great sacrifice). But he told them they must make their donation to a little known Carmelite Convent in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. He told them that when they left the food with the veiled nun behind the iron grill, they were to ask her to ask the nuns inside to pray for their intention. "But," the priest said, "be very clear about what you want them to pray for--write it out, pray about it, and be sure, very sure, that is what you really desire." Each of the women did exactly as she had been instructed, and each in turn got pregnant. Please not there are no such statistics on those that didnot get pregnant.

Our Lady of Mt Carmel Monastery still stands behind high concrete walls on St. John's Place in the Bedford Stuyvesant Section of Brooklyn. A few years ago the NY Times Magazine did a cover story on Carmelite Convents throughout the world. This Brooklyn Convent was judged to be the most austere and the most strict of any Carmelite Convent in the entire world. To this day it has no phone. The nuns are never permitted to leave, except for severe illness. Their sole task is to pray, and this they do rigorously. They have no income and rely completely on the kindness of strangers. When their food is running low, they ring the convent bell, and pray that someone will donate a little food. It is a remarkable existence, especially when you realize that it is in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. I mention this because I too have told a few women who have come to me over the years, desperate from infertility--I tell them as a last resort to bring a little food to the nuns and ask them to pray for your intention. But I tell them that they must be very specific in their request--they must decide what they really want.

An act of charity can produce a powerful results--and depending on your perspective--is always miraculous, no matter what the result; that is, if you understand that the greatest result lies not with what will happen or not happen in your womb; but rather, what will happen in your heart, enabling you to acknowledge and accept the truth--which is the practice of humility. Then, I believe, you will live the paradox, and if still childless, enter a creative infertility where you become empowered to perceive your profound loss as infinite advantage.

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