It is a breach birth. The child’s life hangs on a breath. The young mother, screaming with the pain, understanding the danger, is overtaken by terror. “No!” she shouts, “don’t let my baby die!” The young nurse, clothed in the white habit of a nun, uses all her skill to turn the baby, to draw him alive, whole, and show him to his mother.
This fragment from the 2013 film “Philomena”, brings alive the raw pain and terror that can accompany giving birth, raising some new questions within me about Mary’s birthing of Jesus.
But this is Philomena’s story. I watch the film, and wonder, was Mary standing near this achingly young woman, so terrified, so alone? Was she perhaps standing behind her, holding her, as Philomena gave birth to her son Anthony? Was Mary guiding the skilled hands of the young nun who delivered him?
If so, I believe her heart would have broken at the unfolding story as did Philomena’s. Mary would have wept tears of compassion to see Anthony taken away by his American adoptive parents from the Irish convent where he was born, where he lived for a few short years, while his mother worked off her “debts” in the Convent Laundry, permitted only one hour with her son each day.
The true story of Philomena is a wrenching tale of a fifty-year search for her son, finally ending when a journalist takes on the search with her in hopes of a good story.
Secret dealings. Cover-ups. Burned records. As the treachery of the “Sisters of Little Mercy” is revealed, what is most horrifying is the cold righteousness of an older nun who justifies it all because these young women got what they deserved for their sins, whereas she herself, true to her lifelong vow of celibacy, is ready to welcome the Lord Jesus…
In what I consider the best line of the film, the journalist tells her that when Jesus does come, “he will overturn that (^&*%ing) wheelchair and dump you on the floor.”
“Philomena” shows the power, the passion, the aching tenderness of a mother’s love for her child, love enough to fuel a lifetime’s search and longing.
Philomena’s all-consuming love for her child sheds light for me on Mary’s passionate love for her infant son. The film brings emotional intensity to an aspect of Mary’s life that can be missed when the story focuses on the struggles of Joseph to understand, on the dangerous, cold, uncomfortable journey to Bethlehem. We sigh over the no-star accommodations in the stable, the rough bedding, the hovering odours of the animal companions, but do we ever really take time to focus on the heart of the story?
What must it have been for Mary to embrace the beloved one, drawn forth from her body, to press his small mouth to her full breast?
John O’Donohue comes closest to imagining both the pain and the bliss:
No man reaches where the moon touches a woman.
Even the moon leaves her when she opens
Deeper into the ripple in her womb
That encircles dark to become flesh and bone.
Someone is coming ashore inside her.
A face deciphers itself from water
And she curves around the gathering wave,
Opening to offer the life it craves.
In a corner stall of pilgrim strangers,
She falls and heaves, holding a tide of tears.
A red wire of pain feeds through every vein
Until night unweaves and the child reaches dawn.
Outside each other now, she sees him first.
Flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.
(John O’Donohue Conamara Blues)
To carry us through these post-Christmas days, let us hold this fragment within us:
“She sees him first, flesh of her flesh, her dreamt son safe on earth.”