Modern and Barren

by Maria Grizzetti

The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah | Mosaic, 432-40 AD | Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome

Abraham and Sarah Receive the Angels | Mosaic, 432-40 AD | Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome


Barrenness is bad word. We simply do not like it. In our post-feminist world it has has the sound of antiquated ideas on women. Biblical references come to mind: Hannah’s tears, the sorrow of Rachel and the helplessness of Sarah, rejection and abandonment, women suffering. But barrenness did not end with the Old Testament. It is a harsh reality today as well. We simply call it something else. In so doing, we have lost its pregnant meaning, and the possibility of truly addressing the suffering it entails.

The ancients knew what we have forgotten: that physical generativity is an objective good and childbearing a privileged responsibility. Its absence in physical inability, conversely, is a privation. After all, not being able to have children back then meant there were really no other options: no infertility clinics, no reproductive technologies, now gamete banks to visit or genetic testing to opt for in the production of the perfect ‘wanted’ child.

On the contrary, we moderns think generativity it is an illness, or at best an inconvenience to our freedom to be limited at all costs. Until we want a child so badly. And this is precisely the difference. We treat fertility as a subjective good, not as a good in itself.

It is possible to consider the history of human existence as the choice between ‘being and ‘having’. Louis Lebret’s brief work Human Ascent offers a fascinating theo-social reflection on this dichotomy: the choice ‘to be‘ fully free, fully human, or live so as simply ‘to have‘ things. Every instance of ancient and modern mass violence naturally falls under the latter category; every instance of sanctity and heroic virtue under the prior. ‘To be‘ fully human is ultimately to be free to pursue God and not things — however good these might be.

Barrenness in modernity can be seen in precisely this way.

To be barren is to experience privation of the good of generativity. It is the physical incapacity to bear children by natural means. It is the severance of conjugal love from physiological fecundity. ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (cf. Genesis 1.28) needs to be understood differently here. The command in Genesis seems laughable to the barren; a curse of fate. Like Abraham and Sarah, we stand in skepticism. We can neither be fruitful nor multiply in the physiological sense.

For one who is barren and desires children the choice seems clear: science and medicine afford us the means to outsmart our bodies. Here reproduction is a marketplace and an endurance game rooted in intense desire. We go to great lengths for as long as our physio-psychological capacity allows us to. Recent medical advances make it possible to have children in ‘inconceivable’ ways. What Abraham and Sarah experienced in the visitation of the angels and her subsequent pregnancy sounds now like a fairy tale. How can a woman, ‘advanced in years,’ conceive and bear a son? And yet, these days, even this is possible. We have done away with belief in visitations of the Trinity and replaced that prefigurative Christological moment with highly specialized geneticists, physicians, surgeons, and microscopic specificity. We believe in evidence more than miracles, as if the two were always opposed. The oldest woman who underwent in vitro and has carried a pregnancy to term is Rajo Devi Lohan. She was 69 when she gave birth. Her daughter is now five.

So, we must ask the question: Who actually lives this way? Is living barrenness actually possible in modernity, or are we incapable of it? If we want them, must we ‘have’ physical children at any cost in order to be happy?

On a superficial level the answer seems highly subjective. Naturally, desire is more intense in some than in others. Health and other infertility factors vary greatly. We perceive happiness individually, relatively, relationally: my happiness and your happiness can entail vastly different things at different times and in different ways. Or so we are told.

And so we believe. The reality, however is quite different. Happiness is not a subjective good, but an objectively possible and intellectually defensible reality. Children are sometimes a part of the picture. And sometimes, however much desired, they are not. But children are never a requirement of happiness, no matter how much we subjectively believe this to be our case. The real question is how we understand fruitfulness, and its varying possible manifestations. After all, Christ had no physical children. But the last thing we can say about Him, or his Virgin Mother is that they lived a barren life.

It must be said that the ‘language’ of the human body is teleological — it has a purpose. Human physicality in its maleness and femaleness speaks a grammar specific to the language of generation. Men and women are physically and unitively capable of bringing forth new human life in the world. Through this teleological lens, barrenness is a significant problem to the ends of conjugal union. However one wishes to consider the unitive dimensions of spousal love, the completeness of that love is naturally generative. Barrenness is a lack, an imperfection. Union is not enough on its own. It must be fruitful or it will wither away.

What do we do when we lack something? Do we steal it? Do we buy it? Do we borrow it? Do we sell the pearl of great price? When barrenness is looked at as the lack of a possession, naturally, the recourse is some form of acquisition, and yes, this usually has a fiscal dimension to it. Reproductive technologies are the preeminent example here, where they are employed not to heal or mitigate illness, but to bypass it and outsmart it so to achieve pregnancy apart from its placement in the natural order of individual human capacity. Interestingly, it is illegal to sell organs or any body parts. Gamates are the one exception for which we compensate. As are surrogate wombs. This alone is indicative of the marketplace we have made of human reproduction. There is significant demand, and significant profit to be made.

Childbearing and child-rearing are not objectively necessary to happiness. They are a privilege, and a naturally fulfilling one. So what if barrenness were modernly reclaimed as that ancient state of being childless without the option of child acquisition modern science avails us of? Would this open the opportunity to reflect on barrenness and its existential significance? Would it return us to a prior freedom? Might we be able to insert a modern reclamation of the ancient sense that physical privation is a foretaste of spiritual need, of longing for the ultimate beatitude: union with God? And should this be possible, could we, like Isaiah, sing about barrenness and believe it good news?

Raise a glad cry, you barren one – who never bore a child,
break forth in jubilant song, you who have never been in labor,
For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife
than the children of her who has a husband,
says the LORD.
Enlarge the space for your tent,
spread out your tent cloths unsparingly;
lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs.
For you shall spread abroad to the right and left;
your descendants shall dispossess the nations
and shall people the deserted cities.
Isaiah 54. 1-3

Certainly, Isaiah here is foretelling the new Israel. Prophets prophesy. The language however remains interesting. There are other images for desolation and rebirth, and in his poetic and spiritual profundity, it is clear Isaiah had other options. Barrenness is specifically chosen for the analogy. Ours is a similar choice rooted in real experience. It is a choice for spiritual generativity that surpasses mere physical want — a generativity that shall dispossess the nations and people the modern deserted cities of man.

The modern dualisms that sever body and soul have deprived us of the capacity to understand that where there is absence of something desired, there is also the presence of a yet unknown and perhaps superior good. We see our lives in terms of the materially obvious, the materially plentiful, the materially pleasurable. We remain blind to the vision that for each of these material goods, we are given access to spiritual ones as well. Barrenness does reveal a physiological privation of the capacity to bring forth lives so desired. Modern society revolts at the thought of living in privation. We deprive ourselves nothing. Sacrifice is undesired. We go at great lengths of suffering even to mitigate the suffering of infertility. Compounding it, we unleash a modern cycle of loss and further privation.

The modern choice is clear: is trying the impossible at great cost and waste the answer to the human ‘need’ for physically generative love? Or could it be that we are actually capable of an ancient surrender, of that particular maternal and paternal strength that sees beyond simply our physical ‘needs’ and ascends towards the spiritual ones? Is it possible to raise a glad cry as barren ones?

The ascent from ‘having‘ to ‘being‘ would help even barrenness take on a new significance of plenitude. God is Life. He is generative, and our physical generativity is only a participation in his creative work — a minor one at that. Our work of ‘pro-creation’ is for God. The greater fruitfulness is spiritual. Parents who generate new physical life are entrusted with the responsibility to educate their children, generating their spiritual lives as well. If this is an integral part of the sacredness of physical generativity, it is possible even in the context of sterility. We have no direct say in the salvation of souls entrusted to our care, whether they be biologically related or otherwise. But we have an obligation, a sacred duty inherent in our baptismal life to raise children of God, whether we be barren or not.

Christ himself set the standard for this. Often He worked miracles, preached, was amazed at the people’s lack of faith, and moved on to do more of the same. Millions more have since then followed in his steps, offering everything, and consecrating their lives in the chosen obedience of celibacy to do precisely this work. To them, the Savior makes his boldest promise

Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.’
Gospel of St. Mark 10. 29-30

Will it be easy? No. Is this a barren life? Certainly not.

The demands of faith do not limit. They set our freedom free to be itself most fully. Healing begins where spousal barrenness meets modernity and its incessant demands for acquisition, makes the difficult choice against acquiring children at any cost, and begins generating the life of the soul — there were greater, deeper desire remains to be satisfied. It is a question of the disposition to grace with which one lives the privation one experiences.

…but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12.9-10

Barrenness becomes the catapult that directs fruitfulness into the realm of the spiritual, transcending the merely physical. The promise of the hundredfold extends even here where children are desired and that desire has to be offered up; where weakness seems to triumph. No longer is barrenness purely a physical reality of absent goods of life and perceived happiness. In its transformation to spiritual fecundity, it begets a particular charity: that of helping the ‘neighbor’ as one would one’s very own child to live a plentiful life of grace; a life free to aim for beatitude

Through love, he who loves leaps toward the beloved letting himself be absorbed by the beloved’s perfection. If the latter is imperfect, he must be led to perfection. This charity is our enlargement, our impregnation for the contemplation of God, or for benevolent action towards men. In our act of charity we join together God and humanity.’
— Louis J. Lebret, O. P., Human Ascent

Barrenness might be the mother of this all absorbing and all generous love. It is a nascent privation; a paradox of creation in absence. For the stuff God works with is human need, and of this poverty, lavish abundance is born when we give Him permission.

It is possible to be modern and barren. In our charity we join together God and humanity; a procreation takes place. Antiquated prejudices subside. What is lost is found; mercy abounds. The greater portion is had. Earth ascends to heaven, man and woman to God, things to their maker. We finally choose ‘to be‘ the human beings we are: persons made for God, begetting with God. This is the delight of union, and of a barren fruitfulness. The Virgin bears a Son. The Incarnation continues.
This continues a series on maternity. See also Conceiving Christ, The Hidden Face of Love, The Common Good of Hidden Maternity, Why I Choose Not to Buy Myself A Child, and Procreation is Not For Us..

You may reach Maria Grizzetti at