This post by Eric Immel, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.
There’s a book for everything. Everyone Poops is a seminal tale that comforts children when they start to realize that their bodies produce smelly, tummy-turning gifts for their parents. Other books teach us where our belly buttons are, how bulldozers and cranes rest after long work days, what personified upright-hopping inchworms and lady foxes do for a living, and just how curious monkeys can be. In my case, they taught me about the thing I remember learning first in the world–that I am adopted.
I have never met my biological mother. I know her name–Nancy. She sent me a Chicago Cubs jersey in the mail once. She might live in Chicago, where I am now. She is the reason I am here, not in Chicago, but in the world. A Jesuit, sitting in a library, avoiding the papers I have to write and the books I have to read, and thinking of her.
Until recently I took it that my adoption was relatively easy for all involved. My parents were looking to grow their family, and adoption was the way to do it. The arrangement was made before I was born, and on July 17th, 1982, while my dad was running some sort of road race, the call came in that I was on the way. Soon enough, I was nestled into a comfy crib at 2701 Lola Drive, out of the arms of the woman who bore me into the world, and into the home of my parents. I am their son now, the second of three adopted children, and their baby boy. Easy.
I grew in awareness of adoption and love while sitting in my parents’ laps and reading books. The message was simple: you are loved because you are adopted, and because you are adopted, you are loved. I was proud of that. I felt unique. Love and adoption were inextricably linked. Once, in second grade, a class rival of mine called me an orphan–a clear attempt to shoot down my adoption pride–and while it hurt (I still remember it), it was easy to overcome. I am adopted, and I am loved.
During Advent of my first year as a Jesuit, a kind and thoughtful older priest gave us a three-day silent retreat. In his first talk, he posed a seemingly painless query: “Where did you come from?” Like a good little novice I settled in the dining room of our house to prayerfully ponder the question. Where I came from flooded my imagination as I retold my own story.
My life spread out before me. The cookie monster birthday cakes, the all-cousin wrestling matches in my grandmother’s basement at Christmas, the haunted house-inspired hand hold with my first ‘girlfriend’ in 6th grade (the zombies didn’t make my heart pound nearly as much as she did), the eighth grade and high school graduations (and piles of thank-you cards I never sent), the first 8-hour drive to St. Louis for college, the pain and joy of becoming an adult, the first real job, the bills and impending debt, the ashamed (and privileged) calls home for a little extra cash, and, of course, the discernment that led me to that table in that dining room in that novitiate on that day during Advent. That’s where I had come from.
But then, I opened the Bible, a different kind of book to be sure, but another one that I started exploring as a child. I read about a young woman named Mary. I suddenly realized–I always knew that I was adopted, but I had never really thought about the fact that I was born.
At some point, she figured out she was pregnant. I can’t ever know the true feeling of what that means, but here’s a reality: I was a mistake, the product of a love that didn’t last. At least, a love that wasn’t ready for me. I wasn’t expected or planned. I wasn’t wanted. There must have been fear, frustration, hurt, anger, and darkness. And yet, for nine months, she carried me, she fed me, she gave me herself and then she gave me away. I trust that the fear made way for faith. The frustration made way for conviction. The hurt made way for healing. The anger made way for love. The darkness made way for light.
When that angel showed up for Mary and told her, I imagine that her breath was taken away. She had been daydreaming about her betrothed, looking forward to a long life with him, raising children, working hard, enjoying his loving arms at night. In an instant, though, everything changed. Jesus was unexpected and, perhaps for a moment, unwanted. As the poet Denise Levertov writes, “This was the moment no one speaks of / when she could still refuse. / A breath unbreathed, Spirit, suspended, waiting.”
God waited and Mary responded in love. She remained in that love despite everything. She made Him possible. It is this that we celebrate, and this that we remember.
I am here because she loved me. She loves me because I am here. Jesus lived because she had faith. Jesus and I — just a couple of unwanted baby boys — born in darkness but adopted in love. If Nancy ever reads this I hope she knows that she is loved too. I hope she knows that she was brave and that I am grateful.