Bouguereau, The Virgin With Angels

The Cloister and the Cradle

I have an image of the Child, our Lord, in a cradle. I was so powerfully compelled by my Lord with great sweetness, longing and desire and also by His request, because it was said to me by my Lord: “If you do not nurse me I will take myself away from you at the moment you love me the most.” So I took the image out of the cradle and laid it on my bare breast with great longing and sweetness and felt then the strongest possible grace in the presence of the Lord.

– Margaretha Ebner, Revelations
Entry from December 27, 1344

2007. I’m teaching at Stella Maris, a small girls’ Catholic high school in Queens. Many of my colleagues are nuns. At an in-service day in January, one asks me how old I am. “I’ll be 33 this year,” I say. “The Christ Age,” she replies. “The Jesus year,” another agrees. On the subway ride home, I realize what they’re talking about – I’m the same age as Jesus when he was crucified.

I tell my best friend, Andrew, about being the Christ Age. He frowns. “But weren’t you also Christ’s age when you were, like, 14? Wasn’t he 14 at one point?”

I concede but point out, “But he never got to be 34.”

I have a theory that for every birthday after 21, I have developed one characteristic of an old person. At 22, I got a hearing aid. At 23, I started liking soup. At 24, I began to drive the speed limit. When I finally am an old person, I’ll be all set.

I ask Andrew what old person characteristic he thinks I’ll develop for 33.

“33?” He says. “Easy. You’re going to want a baby.”

The year goes on, and I celebrate my birthday in May, but I don’t want a baby. A baby, by myself, in Brooklyn? No thanks. Instead, I start wearing slippers around the house.

 

2013. In my Medieval Literature class at the University of Pittsburgh, we’re talking about Margery Kempe, a 14th century English woman who wanted very, very much to be a saint, one of the few roles an ambitious woman of her time could aspire to achieve. She talked a monk into writing down her dictated autobiography, a sort of proto-memoir/self-hagiography that – along with a lengthy explanation of how she convinced God to make her a virgin again after having 14 children – includes visions of interacting with the Christ child. There’s one in which she explains to Mary, the mother of God, how to diaper the baby. Our professor, an esteemed medievalist, tells us that Margery is a bit of the butt of the joke at medievalist conventions.

I feel a little sorry for Margery. No one mocks the ambition of medieval men who did some weird things to get God’s attention, e.g. the Crusades, Inquisitions. How hard it must have been for Margery to want to be someone when there was almost no one she could be. She had those 14 kids at a time when many women died trying to have just one, but apparently they still were not enough for her. How different she must have felt.

A classmate speaks up. “They’ve found little cradles in the nuns’ cloisters,” he says. “They think that nuns may have dressed baby dolls of Jesus and used them for worship… or, um, played with them.”

It takes me months to recognize what I thought immediately after he said that: “Well, at least I don’t do that.”

 

2004. My dear friend Diana, round and sweet, pregnancy filling her up, asks me to come up to New Hampshire and go to the shower her husband Peter’s family is throwing. With Diana and Peter, both of whom I’ve known since my second week of college, I feel comfortable cooing over baby toys and squealing at footsie pajamas. But once at the shower, I feel out of place. I skulk around the fringes of the party of women dispensing baby advice, debating baby names, eating baby-themed appetizers. No one asks me if I’m married or have a boyfriend, which is a relief, but then again, no one asks me much of anything. Peter isn’t invited and Diana is the center of attention. We sit in a circle to watch her open gift after gift – hers is the first grandchild in Peter’s family – and after awhile, I zone out, eating canapé after canapé and staring blankly. “Awww,” the crowd coos at the reveal of each gift. “Awww,” I hear myself say, through a mouth full of cracker crumbs, until I realize I’ve lost all emotional heft to my voice.

But on the way home, Diana rides in the backseat with me, so I can feel the baby kicking. “I already love you so much,” I tell her belly. When we get back, we decide to go to a movie, just like we did almost every week in college. “Won’t be able to do this again for awhile,” Diana says, and she’s right. It’ll be 7 years until we go to another movie together. Instead, she tells me stories over the phone about her baby, a beautiful girl named Eva, and I listen hard to them, squinting into my otherwise unoccupied apartment, trying to imagine what Eva is doing.

 

2013. Researching, I learn that some medieval religious women used a cradle or figurine of the Christ child as an aid to contemplation and/or devotion, and many also had mystic experiences in which they interacted with Christ in baby or child form. I read selections from the 14th century nun and visionary Margaretha Ebner’s journal, quoted above, in which she describes her very odd visions. Other nuns from that time period reported suckling the Christ child too. But the majority of visions seem to have been more commonplace, if that word can be used: the Christ child would turn up somewhere in the monastery, at the door, at a meal, in private rooms or in the chapel, usually wanting to be played with or cuddled.

According to Medievalist Dr. Rosemary Drage Hale, writing in her doctoral thesis, many “religious women who recorded visions in which they nursed, cradled or otherwise cared for the infant Jesus frequently had a specific and tangible focus for their devotions: a small statue of the Christ Child.” In The Art of Devotion, Henk van Os describes these statues and cradles as “props in an intimate theatre of spirituality.”

What did the dolls (also called Christkindl) and cradles look like? Most were about a foot tall, although sometimes they were life-size. They were either ceramic, or less delicately, wooden. The dolls were often painted to look like real babies, while the cradles – and the tiny Saviors tucked inside – were gilded with silver or even gold. Their owners sometimes kept both dolls and cribs on altars in their private rooms for devotional use. While many were given to a woman by her family as she entered the convent, some convents maintained communal cribs, kept in the sanctuary and rocked by each member before devotions. And the Christkindl sometimes came with wardrobe choices – robes, bonnets, jewelry – which could be changed to match the current liturgical season.

I imagine the convent cells I’ve seen in the Ireland: spare, beige rooms, offering little in the way of visual spectacle. The silver cradle or gorgeously dressed doll would have drawn the eye whenever the occupant entered, the way a mother’s eye goes to her baby when she enters his room.

 

1998. I start grad school at NYU, and make a living as a nanny. Hallie, the older girl, has to be at preschool by 8:30, so every morning I walk from my home in the West Village through a quiet Soho to her family’s apartment in Tribeca, where I pick her up along with her baby sister, Molly, and take her to her preschool just off of the Christopher Street 1/9 stop. This is our ritual for two years, and Molly grows from being a papoose on my stomach to walking along beside me.

Most nannies in Tribeca are African- or Caribbean-American, and so many people assume I am Molly’s mom. The coffee guy gives her a free donut every day. “Share with your mommy,” he says. In the park, Molly is pushed over by a little boy whose dad turns out to be Robert DeNiro, who makes his son apologize, and then shakes my hand and thanks me for understanding, parent to parent, like an outtake from Meet the Fockers. On the ferry, we’re allowed to ride back and forth to New Jersey for as long as we want for free. Molly stands on the seats to look over the edge, while I firmly hold her legs and listen to a recitation of what she sees: “Water. Bird. Bird. Bird. Water. Bird.” “You’re a good mom,” a commuter tells me, watching us.

I never correct anyone, never reveal that I’m just the nanny. Mostly this is because I am at a stage in my life, at 25, in which I never correct anyone about anything, but also because I like being Molly’s mom, albeit briefly. We look nothing alike, except for both being white, but I think people make the mistake because we love each other, and you can tell, just by being near us for a minute.

 

2013. The more I read about those nuns, the more I’m convinced that they were dealing with major baby jones. I make the researcher’s mistake of seeing myself in them. By the time they were alive, Imitatio, the concept of patterning your life in imitation to a holy figure in order to forge a closer relationship with God, had entered the culture as a powerful spiritual concept, enveloping the Roman Catholic Church in ways that still linger. Flawed ladyfolk, of course, can’t imitate perfect, male, Christ, so the adoration of Mary, Mother of Jesus, shifted into sharp focus for many medieval religious women.

To me, it seems just a short step from imitating Mary to thinking, led on by dolls, cradles and heightened surroundings and companions, that on some level, you are Mary. In fact, as Margery Kempe shows, sometimes Mary seemed to be an actual competitor for the intimate relationship the nun desired (and felt she more deserved) with the Christ child. When Mary shows up in some of the visions, it’s as if the nuns think of her as the nanny – very nice to see her and all, but it’s the Baby Jesus that they really want.

Some got him. There’s Sister Margaretha; Hale writes that she “developed an intensely maternal relationship with the carved wooden figure [of Christ]– caring for it, swaddling it” for years. Sister Willibirg von Offingen’s meditation on a Christ child statue led her to believe that she was pregnant with Jesus; she even felt womb movements. At times, the nuns’ passion seemed to approach mania, perhaps surpassing even Mary’s devotion to her son. While meditating on a statue of the Holy Infant, Adelheit von Frauenberg, another late-Medieval German nun, was filled with a desire to sacrifice her body for the Christ child’s needs, writing that “She wishes her skin to be used for [his] diaper, her veins for swaddling, her marrow for nourishment, her blood for a bath, and her bones as fuel for a warming fire.”

It is difficult to separate my modern reaction to the sight of a grown woman (in a habit!) acting in such bizarre ways, carrying a doll around and pretending it’s real. But I try to remember that for these women, this was an empowering opportunity to be Mary, most holy, most blessed.

But still, baby jones, am I right?

 

2012. I talk to my friend Eileen, the mother of my Godchildren, about what I should get them for Christmas. She’s fighting bad cramps.

“I cannot wait for menopause,” she says through another groan. “Seriously, I thought that maybe it was starting a couple of months ago, but no. Come on, menopause! Mama’s tired of cramps!”

I laugh, and after we hang up, I buy the kids’ gifts online, aware of the quiet of my apartment, how no one demands my attention and I can happily read my favorite blogs for an hour or so.

But, making myself dinner that night, I start to ruminate on what she said. “She’s several years older than you,” I tell myself. “She hasn’t started menopause yet! There’s still time!” I remind myself of how much older women are having babies now, and not just celebrities, either.

I end up in front of the mirror, playing pro vs. con with my appearance. On the con side, I’m going gray. On the plus side, I’m almost wrinkle-free and… I walk away from the mirror, reminding myself that there lie demons. I return to my business: writing a bit, watching television, knitting. It’s a cold night in November, the sun setting early, and I feel more alone than usual.

“What if there were a baby in this house?” I wonder. And immediately remind myself that the hour of writing I just completed probably wouldn’t have happened. I wouldn’t have watched a movie. I wouldn’t have baked some bread. Nor can I say I’d gladly throw that all away – my bread, the writing, the trips to New York, and London, and Paris, the staying up as late as I want, the decision to see a movie at noon on a Tuesday – to have a baby asleep in the spare bedroom.

 

2013. Reading about medieval women fascinates me. I can hardly believe that we’re the same type of creature, with their limitations and lack of choices. I am all choice; even the choice to prolong and suspend choice is available to me. For nearly all of those women, the choice was marriage or convent.

But that one choice was a powerful one. The acts of becoming and being a mother are usually lost upon taking religious orders, but the woman is the rejecter. Not only were they presumably safe from the pain and possible death that defined childbirth at that time, but they had greater energy and resources to devote to their spiritual lives than their peers raising families could possibly spare. Yet I know that the desire for – or, rather, choice to have – a religious life didn’t obviate the desire for intimacy, particularly maternal intimacy. I can’t shake my belief that the Christ child and his cradle might have become the substitutes which helped to mitigate some nuns’ longing for a family life.

 

1994. College. I’m watching the Winter Olympics with Diana and Andrew when an ad comes on. It features a couple, not clearly seen, getting ready for a baby – we see them shop for a cradle, pick out nursery accessories and so on, all at JC Penney’s. This brings out sarcastic hostility for me, most likely because the latest in my long-running series of romantic crushes has rejected me.

“Ugh,” I say, practically spitting. “Look at this, baby, baby, baby, oh, babies make you happy, aren’t we lucky we can have a baby, my life will have meaning if –” Suddenly I cut myself off. The couple in the ad go to an office building and collect their baby from a smiling adoption agency worker. Everything is different now. I burst into happy tears and cry, “Oh, it’s an adopted baby! Oh, look!” to Diana and Andrew, who are both staring at me, and laughing.

Later, I tell Andrew that I think I might want to adopt a baby. Someday.

“Judging by your reaction to that commercial,” he says. “I think you might want to adopt a baby tomorrow.”

 

2013. Although Hale and other Medievalists dismiss as reductive the desire to have a baby as a motivating factor in medieval religious women’s spiritual practices, I unexpectedly find support for my argument for medieval baby lust in a book that describes the religious women’s schedule. They usually were exhausted from rising several times throughout the night, every night, to pray and worship, and weakened from fasting. Given that I can’t drive my car when my blood sugar plunges, and that I require 8 hours of sleep most nights, I can imagine what this punishing schedule did to them. Fantasy and reality, mingling. Need and want, swirled together.

I imagine a tired nun, still fertile but untouched, falling asleep on a thin, hard mattress, her eyes resting on the Christ child statue given to her by her own family: She loves him. Does she want to have a child? Does she wish she had one? Is the statue just beginning to reach out a hand to her? Is he her child?

 

2008. I’m still teaching at Stella Maris, but now I’m in a classroom down the hall from Sister Linda, a rangy white woman in her late 50s. I often stop in to chat with her at the end of the day and notice the photos of an African-American boy of about eight on her desk. Finally, I ask who he is.

“That’s Joseph, my son,” she says. Then, with comic timing, “He’s adopted.”

There’s not much more to the story as she tells it: he was a baby, left at her convent, and she adopted him. She tells me this so matter-of-factly that I can’t find my way to any more questions.

I realize that she’s brought Joseph to school events from time to time, but I assumed he was the younger brother of one of our students. When I do see him the next time at an evening mass, he’s surrounded by the girls, all of who want to entertain him. I couldn’t get close if I wanted to.

I don’t want to. I have realized that avoiding being caught around a cute kid or holding a baby is my one stay against being asked when I’ll be having kids of my own. Dandling a baby, I find it hard to pull off the “Eh, babies, I can take or leave them” attitude I’ve settled on. Watch me holding a baby, and it’s fairly clear that I would like to keep the baby. I would have been one of the nuns who kept my Christkindl in my room so no one could see me with him.

So I just watch Joseph, watch how fast he runs around the gym where we’re setting up; how much he laughs; how quickly his neatly tucked-in denim chambray shirt comes out of his waistband; how he pouts when Sister Linda tells him he can only have one cookie; how, at the end of the night, he’s curled up in her lap, half-asleep. I watch them together. I watch and watch. They look nothing alike but they love each other. I can’t stop thinking about them on the long subway ride home, the nun and her son.

 

2013. In Pittsburgh, I sleep less easily than I did in New York, where I was always too exhausted to stay awake. Here, I take more than two minutes to fall asleep, and sometimes jerk awake thinking about the life I’m shaping for myself, how I’m trying to run the clock on my fertility for as long as possible before time is called, how I can’t decide whether I want to adopt or not, how I seem as wedded to my single life as the medieval religious women seemed wedded to their convents. “What the hell do you want?” I ask myself, sometimes, thoroughly frustrated. “Do you want a baby or not?”

Diana delivers Colin, a tiny, beautiful boy, four days after my 39th birthday in May, a full 8 years after Eva. I meet him via photos and texts first and then hold him in August. He’s a stunner, big blue eyes and squirms a plenty. I go with Diana and Eva to Target to buy her back-to-school things, distracting Colin while they shop. He’s fine as long as he can see me, but gets fussy when I move out of his vision, so I spend 20 minutes pushing his stroller around Target, crouching over him, crooning. “Hey, there, little buddy. I’m here,” I say, over and over, like a chant, like a prayer. “I’m here. I’m here.”

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