Doulas to the World

For all creation is groaning in birth pangs together…     Romans 8:22


It’s like I’m a Carmelite nun, she said, except that I get to have sex every once in a while.

 I laughed because I knew exactly what she meant.

My life is full of women of a certain age. Crones, I have called us, counting myself proudly among that tribe. Graying and wrinkling, we may have cataracts or hearing aids but we see more and hear more than most people: sometimes more than we want to. Our daily lives are brimming. We’ve got partners, most of us. We’ve also got friends with cancer, kids with addictions, elderly parents needing end-of-life care. We are anguished by the consumer economy and the ravaged earth. Some of us are raising our children’s children. We discern starvation of body, mind, and soul everywhere. We see it. We hear it. We get asked to pray about it.

And because we love, we pray. We pray a lot.

When we get together to talk, it normally starts like this: first a question that’s not really a question but a cry. How do I deal with all this suffering? Then comes the list of witnessed miseries, the pieces we are trying to hold, the sheer aching injustice of life.

We confess sleeplessness.

We concede powerlessness.

We admit that we can’t seem to hang on to a clear picture.

We affirm that there is something fuller, deeper, more luminous behind all this sorrow.

We always end by talking about our prayer life.

Sometimes that prayer life feels like a desperate finger plugged in a crumbling dike of chaos. Other times it’s a great shimmering web of grace. Either way, we know that prayer holds things—us—together. Prayer is the response that Love makes in us; prayer empowers our mundane service. Prayer is our daily cri de cœur married to, and equipping us for, the tedious and tender care of life within our orbit.

Crones, I’ve called us. But just recently, a new name came to me for praying, graying women: we are doulas.

If you’re hip to the world of birthing, you’ll know that a doula (source: ancient Greek Δουλη—female slave, wet-nurse) is the new help every expecting mother needs. The role formerly relegated to grandmother, maiden aunt, or nice neighbour lady—that of a female companion who provides physical care and emotional support during and after birthing—is now a job description. Medical training isn’t required but rather the capacity to serve, to stand calm in the midst of tumult. Think cool-cloth-on-sweaty-forehead, cheesy-macaroni-when-you’ve-forgotten-to-eat kind of attention.

Unlike birthing doulas, praying doulas aren’t certified. We may be nuns, environmental activists, ministers, teachers, doctors, chaplains, engineers or therapists, but our central qualification is not the result of professional training. We have learned our trade through the exercise of constancy and forgiveness, through experiences of grief and grace. Surrender is our most important tutor. Our most important attribute is the willingness to love and carry on when things seem hopeless.

Because this work of ours is not hopeless.

This is a birth to which we are attending.

The groaning we hear is creation in labour pains, not death throes.

Imprinted in all of creation is a throbbing thrust toward becoming. Some people call it Evolution. I call it the Love That Pulses at the Centre of the Universe, aka God. Whatever you call it, it’s important to recognize that death is not the whole story. Neither is it the last story.

Remembering that we are handmaids to birth is a difficult task: it requires constant pushing against the collective culture of death, pushing against the fear that we humans are the walking dead. Yes, we are drowning in our own waste. Yes, we are poisoning our earth. Yes, every crack and weak link seems to bloom with disorder and decay. However, if collapse and degradation become the only collective story for these difficult days, we’re screwed. Because what we cannot imagine cannot come into being. If we don’t have a conceptual frame—a new story—that contains birth, we won’t see the life that is rising from these ashes.

So our doula job is to remember—that the spark of life is right here, now, in this disorder and pain—and to pray this new natal reality into being. The writhing of our times is palpable. But ultimately, no matter how many deaths and extinctions we are called to witness, we are here to serve the birthing.

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8 Responses to “Doulas to the World”

  1. Ethelyn Pankratz says:

    Gratitude for your thought, Therese.

  2. Carol Shatford says:

    Therese, this writing of yours caused tears to arise within me — tears of recognition, of knowing the accuracy of your naming. Thank you for giving such eloquent voice to what I intuitively know to be true. And you are blessed to count yourself among a group of women who can share such mysteries of the contemplative life.

  3. Tammy says:

    Thanks Therese for the reminder to continue to strive for hope. Love to you!!

  4. DJ says:

    Yes yes yes….well said, wise friend!

  5. Michael Hoffman says:

    So pleasing to find this in the inbox. I hope the writing “space” will be more and more expansive!

  6. Michelle Barth says:

    Bravo dear Therese!!! Life and living these days can seem hopeless at times. But your words of hope and our place in the continued birthing of life is a needed reminder of an antidote to that hopeless feeling. Thank you dear one. Sending you love.

  7. Corinne Tessier says:

    I appreciate the meaning, and in such a lovely metaphor, that you offer in these times.

  8. Leah Seaman says:

    Dear Therese ~ thank you for these words, which I have read & re-read. You so eloquently give voice to the pain of our beautiful world & our feeling of it & with it. But you also give us hope & remind us of the joy & the beauty in the midst of the pain. It gives me hope that we can & we will make a difference. Much gratitude for your gifts of vision & guidance.

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