The Old Testament readings in Common Prayer this week have followed the story of Hannah, a childless woman who prayed for a son, conceived, and then surrendered that son to the Lord (1 Samuel 1). I've known this story my entire life, but today Hannah's tale has turned my heart toward the company of the barren. I think about all the women in the Bible who wait for children--not only Hannah, but her sisters Sarah, Rachel, Ruth, Elizabeth. Again and again we see how God turns these long-expected children into prophets, patriarchs, and ancestors of the Messiah.
Is this only a pattern for Bible stories? How does God bless the company of the barren in an age where there are very few things that a young, educated, American woman cannot have if she wants it?
As a chaste person (can I say that without sounding affected?), questions about childbearing have long been distant from my concerns. Until I was nearly grown, I assumed that most people had children as my parents did: they planned a baby, had her, and then stopped. Only as I left college did I begin to hear snatches of the joy, uncertainty, serendipity, and agony that surrounds questions of having--or not having--children.
My own friends represent a variety of convictions and experiences. Some do not use birth control, others waited years before having children right on schedule. Some have given birth to a series of healthy, easy babies, others have miscarried year after year. Many have adopted. Some are still waiting to conceive.
These experiences concern me because I love my friends. I want to know how to pray for the couple who has miscarried, and to intercede for a man and woman who wait to adopt. Being in church has given some guidance for these prayers: I have heard prayers for healing, prayers that a woman might carry her child to term, prays for funds for an adoption to go through.
But I have never heard a church pray that the child of a barren woman would become a prophet. That's no surprise, I suppose: prophecy doesn't look much like most Americans' idea of happiness. When I pray for my friends who wait for children, should I pray that they give birth to an Isaac, a Samuel, a wild Baptizer?
What should childless women learn from the fervor of Hannah or the cynicism of Sarah?
I ask these questions for my friends, but as I type it strikes me that I might also ask for myself. For I, too, am childless. Though not physically barren, I have no children, and I see no sign that I will soon. Some days I am thankful that I have no children to tend, and other days it grieves me. I don't know if I wait for a husband, or for the day when I have the resources to foster or adopt, or both.
In the meantime, or perhaps for all my earthly life, I am in the company of the barren. Tell me, church: tell me, Bride of Christ, what this means.
"He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!" (Psalm 113.9 ESV).