Every year on February the second I receive a phone call from a friend. It is a different friend every year, but always with the same question. "Suzanne," they begin, sounding somewhat embarrassed,"I was at Mass today and I just realized...Simeon... I mean Simeon in the Temple. Did you name him that because of the Presentation in the Temple?" I usually answer this question with a short and simple reply so as not to drag my friends through a long history.
But for you, poor reader-- who has the power to click away from here at any moment with scarcely a trace-- I will answer this question in full...
Three weeks after my wedding day I discovered that I was not alone at home anymore, but was "with child." We hadn't been looking for this, but neither had we been avoiding it, and so I should not have been surprised. I was shocked at first and maybe even a bit nervous, but overall I was happy. My dreams were as bright as the noon sky and as starry as the midnight. I could hardly contain my delight. But news of a new life uniquely our own could not be broken in an everyday way. I had to think of something memorable... and I did. I baked a cake. It was the first cake I baked as a married woman and I decorated it with the words, "We Love You."
When my husband returned home from work, I shuffled about with nervous excitement preparing and serving the dinner. How could I ever sit through a meal and participate in such ordinary conversation when I had the most extraordinary news to tell? Though bursting at the seams, I must have managed well enough because he did not suspect a thing. When I presented the cake, he just looked at it with a smile. Then, turning his smile to me, he asked with the mildest confusion, "Who is we?"
Who is we? Who is we? That question still echoes in my mind because it was never answered. Never fully and adequately answered with a face and a name. In early February, I miscarried. Though I was little more than five weeks along, the pain of that loss was almost more than my young heart could endure. I couldn't understand it. At that time, I had not known anyone my age to have suffered a loss of this kind.
I was hurt, felt very much alone, and was determined to conceive again. After months without success, I was diagnosed with hormone imbalances that were likely the cause of the first miscarriage and threatened any future pregnancy. When these imbalances were stabilized, I conceived again. We were cautiously pleased. I did not bake a cake.
But when miscarriage threatened a second time, I was terrified. My doctor was gracious enough to take my frantic call at home, his wife handing him the phone through the shower curtain. He prescribed regular hormone supplements by injection and it was not a moment too soon. While the symptoms of miscarriage faded, we remained cautiously pleased.
I remember, as those early weeks passed, feeling as though I had been robbed of the simple joy of new motherhood. While I still felt joy, I was also haunted with anxieties and fear. I wanted the joy without the fear. It seemed unfair that my time of expectation, of waiting, quilting, planning, preparing, dreaming... would be tinged with sorrow and surrounded by fear.
We continued for three months with the injections and things progressed well. In late January, we learned we were expecting a boy. By that time, we felt confident enough to make a list of names we liked. Jacob, James, Alexander, Simeon, Nathaniel, Nicholas... I liked them all. How would we ever choose one? (Little did I know I would have ample opportunity to use ALL these names and more.)
In early February of that year we traveled to Connecticut to visit my sister and her family. They took us to the beautiful St Mary's Priory in New Haven on the feast of Candlemas. Before the Latin Mass, there was a candle-lit procession in honor of "Christ, the Light of Nations." As we held our burning candles, the choir conducted a concert-like production of prayers and hymns. With no little ones to distract me, I was easily lost in the beauty of the music and in the prayers.
Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel; and for a sign of contradiction; yea, a sword shall pierce thine own heart also.
These words were repeated again and again throughout the ceremony. They were sung and chanted, spoken and whispered. Suddenly, as if by prompting, I recalled where I had been just the year before. One year before (almost to the day) I had been "presenting" my first born child to the Lord; not in the temple... but in grief, scared and alone in an apartment and I finally understood. I wasn't being robbed of motherhood through these trials. Rather, I was being introduced to it sooner than I liked.
Here was the young Virgin, pure and clean, humbly obedient to the Law her Son had authored and would soon fulfill. She offered two turtledoves for her purification because she could not afford a lamb-- which lamb represented the babe in her arms. Gently, humbly, she receives the words of the prophet,
A sword shall pierce thy heart...
And she wonders over them in her faith-filled heart. On that feast of Candlemas, suspended so perfectly between the feast of the Nativity and the Passion, I began to understand my vocation. To say "yes" to love and to receive new life opens one's heart to the sword of sorrow. Sooner or later and to a greater or lesser degree, that sorrow always comes. On that day, I saw my suffering with new eyes. I suddenly saw it as a privilege, as a gift--however small-- that I had to offer the Virgin Mother and her Divine Child who suffered so to save my soul from death.
As we drove home and talked about these things, we decided to name our son Simeon after the prophet who proclaims the dignity of the vocation to motherhood. It was only an afterthought that our last name happens to be "Temple." While we did not intend this, neither did we change our minds on account of it.
Over the years, I have come to know many, many other mothers who have suffered loss through miscarriage and it is heart breaking every time. But the beauty and the strength of these mothers always seems to shine through their suffering. On this feast of Mary's purification, let us remember all mothers, everywhere, whose hearts have been pierced and purified.
Loveliness fair: The Loveliness of Candlemas