AT THE extreme margins of life and death, theology is stretched uncomfortably by reality. We talk easily of life and death as polar opposites, of one being the negation of the other: absence or presence, being or non-existence, the animating breath or a profound and enduring stillness. We also delineate sharply the notion of the person: created in the image of God, loved into being and willed by him, unique, discrete, possessed of an immortal soul. We are called into the flesh, then beckoned beyond.
Our family’s recent experience of miscarriage has coldly unpicked these theological assurances, and has refashioned existence and being as slippery and elusive concepts.
We were surprised and delighted when “we” got pregnant. This would be our second child together, and I have two children from my first marriage. We felt blessed and thrilled. This had, of course, been in our prayers. We moved from the phase of hoping and waiting to prayers for safety and protection.
Attending the hospital for a scan at about eight weeks, my wife was told that the foetus had not developed, had hardly grown since the previous check, and would not develop further. The news was, therefore, that this pregnancy had come, or was coming, to an end.
MISCARRIAGE is common: it is estimated at about one in five in the early stages. It can happen at any stage, and the reasons are often unclear. It can happen to a couple who have previously had healthy pregnancies, or it can reoccur again and again. “One in five” put what was happening to us in perspective — ours was just one story in millions — but, when it is your one in five that is at stake, that is cold comfort.
We were both in great distress, and, as with that period that lies between a death and the funeral, time was filled with things that had to be done. There were several long visits to hospital, but, while we were moving towards a medical end-point, it was clear that the emotional road beyond stretched out uncertainly into the future. We swayed helplessly between competing extremes of emotion, all the while pulled along unwillingly by a deep undertow of loss.
There was one certainty — that the life inside my wife was not viable, and could not, in any circumstances, have progressed normally. An ending was a given, but we wondered whether there was an ending that held on, even if tentatively, to some theology of the person.
This is because, beyond the physical, one is left with so many theological loose ends. What had we been praying for before, during, and after? Whom had we been praying for? What of gender, of potential, of the lack of baptism? Were body and soul really present in those few cells?
And, above all, what language were we to use? One of the wonderful nurses used these words: “tissues, reabsorbed”; “dividing cells”; “baby”; and “remains”. “She’s lost the baby”, people say unthinkingly, as if it were an inadvertence, a slip. And there is a stigma, an unspokenness about it all, a desire to turn inwards.
Whenever my mind searched for the word “miscarriage”, it encountered a blank, as if it had hidden the word away quietly. We veered between using “it”, “what happened”, and “what remains”, but there was no truly appropriate language. What had happened was pre-lingual: it had not achieved definition.
BUT the questions remain: had there been a person, or should we talk of dividing cells? Easy here to ask the theology of personhood to step back and give space to nice, clean science. Easier still to talk of the natural waste that occurs, the thousands of unfertilised eggs, the many miscarriages that happen but the woman is not aware.
But that path would sidestep the concept of God’s creation of the individual soul. The transformation of our bodies that St Paul speaks about is just as difficult to imagine about the 90-year-old dead body as about the unseen and rudimentary life that had come near to our hearts.
When we first heard the news, it felt that perhaps we needed more than mystery from our theology — as if we would like someone to tell us some answers, define things for us. In the end, the mystery was the only place where we could lay our hopes. Perhaps the business of having hope at the very limits is where reality quite properly tests theology.
T. S. Eliot says, “Unless you test the boundaries, you will not know where they are.” More uncomfortable still, though, is perceiving that at the supposed boundaries there is uncertainty.
At the extremes, our language and our theology prove themselves insufficient. The cross lies at another extreme limit, one of apparently complete abandonment and dereliction — another place beyond language. As we move into Holy Week, we need to be standing very close to that reality, if we are to catch a word of hope just now.
The Revd Dr Martin Thomas is Team Rector of Catford and Downham in the diocese of Southwark.