I almost missed my daughter’s birth.

While my wife and I were preparing for this event, she decided that she wanted to experience it to the full and to avoid any possible ill effects on our daughter. So she decided not to have an epidural anesthetic, and she asked me to support her in that decision.

The nurse, on the other hand, glared at me when I encouraged my wife not to have the offered epidural. The nurse kicked me out of the room, told me to go get some food and come back in half an hour, after the epidural had taken effect.

After a few minutes I heard the whole-hospital intercom calling my name, telling me to head back to the delivery room. Immediately. Our daughter had decided that several hours’ labor was enough and that she was going to pop out. Maybe she didn’t want that epidural either.

In Sermon 55*, Tauler says that Jesus is born eternally as the Word of God. The same eternal birth within the Heavenly Father also took place in time, in Mary. And we too must “rise above ourselves so that we too may be sated by the fruits of this wondrous birth.” Jesus must also be born in us. “Holy wisdom spoke: ‘All you who really desire me, and who desire this birth truly and genuinely, will at times be touched by a beam of its radiance.’ Thus our desire is made to surge upward and is caused to grow ever stronger.”

But that birth is not without its prolonged pangs. Life presses in on us. There are everyday pains and stresses. There are special times of grief or pain or sickness or pressure. And then there are the times of absence, the times when heaven itself seems to be trying to squash our souls into pancakes. In such times, do you accept the anesthetics the world has to offer? Do you seek society or entertainment or experience? Or do you seek God? Tauler continues:

Then let us say with Saint Augustine: “Lord, thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” This divine restlessness, which should always be ours, is smothered and dispelled by all kinds of alien forces generated in us: transitory, fleeting, and sensual things that come before our minds; inordinate affections for creatures, animate or inanimate; friendships, society, fashions, food; in short, everything which distracts us from our primary search for God. These divisive forces generate alien births in us, and as soon as we deliberately consent to them, however trivial and petty they may seem, the divine birth will not occur. Such trivialities deprive us of the most high God and of that wondrous birth He wishes to bring to pass in us. Moreover, they deaden desire for God and His birth and rob us of that splendid anticipation which we should cherish. Of such great things we are deprived by such trivial attachments.

And then people will come and complain: “Alas, I have no love and feel no longing for God!” Well, it all depends on you. Why do you allow earthly attachments to smother that love? Search your hearts and consider what obstacles come between your love and God; after all, you know best. Do not ask me but ask yourselves why you are lacking in love and longing. If you wish to possess God and creatures both together, you are bound to fail. You cannot choose both, no matter how many tears of blood you may shed.

A simple barometer: what cares and concerns run through your mind at night? What do you think about when you take a walk or fall asleep? What kinds of pros and cons do you weigh when considering a life change? Are there attachments and cares in your heart that fill it, leaving no room for the birth of Jesus?

In truth, we have little direct control over the cares and loves that fill our hearts. What we may be able to control is how we deal with them. When concerned or anxious or oppressed or in pain, do you take an anesthetic, or do you feel and experience the pain, seek its source, and then give the concern to Jesus? When you realize that you are inordinately attached to something or that you love or seek something apart from God, do you push away that thought and cling to that love, or do you remember your restless desire for the eternal birth and turn toward Jesus?

There are times when God seems to help us maintain that orientation toward Jesus, that continuous prayer, and there are other times when he seems to hide himself and leave us on our own. Where has your beloved gone? Which way has he turned? In such times we discover what is in our hearts. In such times inordinate attachments can be broken. When God has forsaken us, the pain of absence may be great, the pain of seeing what we are without him. But we must follow the path laid out for us, even the road to Golgatha.

Lift high the cross. Its pangs are the pains of death, the seeds of resurrection, the glory of the eternal birth.

*Johannes Tauler: Sermons, Tr. Maria Shrady, Paulist Press, 1985.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.