The young woman who asked about the Virgin Mary responds to my answer

I just received the below from the young woman who wrote the letter I answered in this morning’s “Why would God degrade Mary as he did?” I asked her if I could share it, and she said okay.

John, this is [X]. I wrote the letter to you about the Virgin Birth, and I just read your response to it. I’m sitting in front of my computer at work fighting back tears, because your response cut to the heart of the matter.

I never thought about how pathetic I sound in the letter, and I’m ashamed that I’ve been exposed. My words convey that I’m repressed, frigid, and unloving, which may be more true than I wish to admit. My use of the word “degrading” was flippant and callous, and I sincerely regret having used it. I didn’t mean to imply that a woman who is pregnant is being degraded. If she is happy, then I see no reason not to be happy for her.

I’ve tried to analyze my anxieties about pregnancy, and I believe their nature is twofold. First of all, I can’t stand the idea of anything unfamiliar and uncontrollable happening to my body. When I was seven years old, I was hospitalized with a potentially fatal illness. I endured a barrage of medical procedures, including chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. My hair fell out. I gained 20 pounds (about a third of my body weight.) And while I’m healthy now, I’ve remained very self-conscious about the photos and testimonies of family and friends that remind me of what happened to me. I know this is nothing akin to pregnancy, but the thought that’s been embedded in my mind is, “This is what happens when I don’t have control of my body. It’s disgusting and embarrassing. I can’t let this happen again.”

The other aspect of my feelings concerns relationships. It’s probably no surprise that I’m a virgin. I’ve never had a boyfriend, and have never really dated. I long to be in a loving relationship with a man, and I grow more and more discouraged that I have not found one. I’ve felt the sting of unrequited love several times. And I’ve attracted attention only from men who don’t respect me. Almost a year ago when I was with a man I was just getting to know, I received unwanted physical contact from him. Not sexual assault – he just put his arm around me. Still, the shock of it caused me to have a panic attack. This triggered a relapse of my anxiety disorder, which temporarily threw my life into chaos.

It’s only been recently that I’ve come around again to the idea of pursuing a relationship. I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with a man that I’ve known for about two months now, and I’ve seized every opportunity to get to know him better. He seems to like spending time with me, but it’s difficult to gauge his feelings. I find myself already grieving over the possibility that he may not love me. Even though it’s ridiculously premature to think that my past experiences mean that I won’t find true love, I’m dreading how much heartbreak I’ll have to go through in the meantime.

It’s difficult to find the connection between this romantic yearning and pregnancy. I think I see in the situation of most pregnant women the model of love and stability that I would like to obtain, but that I am afraid will be denied to me.

This is about as much as I think I can right at this time. I never intended to disclose so much about myself, but I suppose these feelings were bound to surface eventually.

God bless you, John. You are a true friend and a true listener. People like you are rare.

She and I exchanged a few emails after this. I assured her that she had written absolutely nothing about which she should feel even the slightest embarrassment or shame (“If I ever meet someone whose traumatic past hasn’t left them pretty significantly tweaked-up around sex,” I wrote her, “I’ll let you know”), and told her that by sharing with us her story she had helped us all grow a little. (“You’re out there. You’re facing those things about your past which have in some way compromised your present. And you’re looking toward a better future for yourself, and figuring out now how to get it. It’s beautiful.”)

(For what it’s worth, here’s a post I once wrote about why my wife and I don’t have children.  And related to this whole matter is a post I wrote a few years back, Why Must Mary Die a Virgin?)

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter.

  • Connie Roberts-Huth via Facebook

    I’m glad she came to you. I wish her love and peace.

  • Michelle Torigian via Facebook

    To the young woman: it sounds like you had a traumatic medical experience growing up. I pray that you can find a good counselor to work through these issues. You deserve the best life has to offer!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ephnie Stephanie Elaine via Facebook

    Every Jewish woman longs to be the mother of the Moshiach. And yes, “If Mary felt the shame and self-loathing that I imagine I would have felt in her position, would God have chosen her?” God chooses YOU to bear the Christ inside your heart just as he chose Mary.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ephnie Stephanie Elaine via Facebook

    despite our self-loathing

  • http://www.facebook.com/april.leslie April Keech Leslie via Facebook

    You’re a nice guy John. :-)

  • Jamie Stanek via Facebook

    Agreed. She does deserve some help to get her past this and so that she can fully love herself and in turn allow someone else to love her fully back. Peace to her, I hope she finds it.

  • Jennifer Costa Rego via Facebook

    I wish her all the best! I hope she sees that this community you have brought together is ready to rally around her.

  • Richard W. Fitch

    Let [X] know that others are concerned about her situation. The Christmas season dredges up all sorts of things for us – some good; some not so good. Thank her for sharing.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/ John Shore

      I certainly did thank her for sharing. And thanks for writing this, Richard. I assume she’s reading, and I know will appreciate this positive thought.

  • Regina Robbins via Facebook

    I want to hug her.

  • http://www.facebook.com/olwyngdh Amy Butler via Facebook

    Please send her my love, she sounds like a really nice person who has been through a lot of crap. She is, however, a survivor!

  • Jeannie

    Hey “X” here’s avirtual hug and the reassurance that you have done or said nothing to be ashamed of. Life is traumatic and throw in a pediatric hospital stay and serious illness and you have just multiplied the trauma. You are not any of the mean things you said about yourself. You are a human who deserves to be and is loved. I will pray for you to have to wisdom to find the right path of more healing for yourself.

    Thank you for sharing and blessings to you.

    • Diana A.

      This is true.

  • Carolyn Hawkins via Facebook

    I want to hug her, too. she is very brave and has what it takes to move through her pain and into a new life. it is very healing to witness other people sharing about how they have survived. I wish her all the best.

  • Valerie Epstein via Facebook

    Wow… My heart is aching with compassion for this woman. I’m so glad she reached out to you and that you were able to respond in such a meaningful way. God bless both of you.

  • Ann Hagler via Facebook

    Searching plus honesty equals Truth. Truth plus goodness equals Healing.

  • chi

    Even under the best of circumstances, pregnancy *is* your body seeming completely out of control (though it’s not really as much as it seems), so it’s completely understandable that it would seem horrifying to someone with a medical history like that. I very much wanted to be pregnant, and in many ways I loved being pregnant, loved the coolness and the wonder of it, but it definitely did feel like my body being wrenched away from me and changed in many ways for the worse. Pregnancy can be very easy or very hard or even life-threatening. We take the risk because the reward is huge.

  • Karen Park

    I thought the original letter was perceptive, both psychologically and theologically. As the mother of 3 children, I found the experience of pregnancy and childbirth fascinating, sometimes exhilarating or awe-inspiring, but also scary and yes, degrading. I became the object of unwanted attention and advice and also became, in some ways, everyone’s property. I lost my autonomy and moral agency overnight. Waitresses said things like “Of course I won’t ask you if YOU want a drink” or “I know YOU aren’t ordering sushi” as if I had suddenly lost my ability to make moral or even gustatory choices. That was degrading.

    Things happened to my body that were strange, painful and embarrassing. I bumped into things as my body became awkward and ungainly so quickly. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. At the end of my second pregnancy, just before giving birth to a 10 lb boy, I could watch entire limbs moving across my abdomen and hands with identifiable fingers and thumbs pressing out from the inside. This wasn’t cute. This was a bit appalling and it was also painful. Childbirth itself (something I did 3 times without an epidural) meant pain on a scale I had never felt or even knew existed, and involved a room full of strangers watching me experience this pain while wearing nothing but a hospital gown hiked up somewhere around my armpits.

    And there is more. Pregnancy and childbirth and parenthood mean that you are living in a state of profound risk and potential loss, forever. The knowledge that these people I had given birth to utterly depended on me for their survival, hour to hour, was at times very overwhelming.

    I write this as a person who did not experience post partum depression, I do not have a problem with sex, or children, or pregnancy, or childbirth. I don’t have body issues, or an eating disorder, or a history of abuse in my past. But these are physically and ontologically overwhelming experiences–pregnancy and childbirth. And to have them forced on you would, in my view, always be profoundly immoral.

    In the Catholic tradition of which I am part, we are taught that Mary had a choice. She could have said no but she chose to say yes. But if one believes that she had no choice, that God overpowered her with his will, forcing her to bring Jesus into the world through her own body, then this would, indeed, be degrading.

    • Diana A.

      Yes, I agree.

      To me, the tone of the gospel of Luke indicates that Mary was a willing (if somewhat bewildered participant) in the conception of Jesus. She’s always represented as being so sweet and innocent, but she must have been one tough broad underneath it all.

  • http://www.trinabrunk.com Trina

    This is the kind of dialogue that is truly a blessing for all. Thank you, (X) for even giving words to these places that are inside so many of us . . . the healing can only happen when we let this kind of pain be seen in a loving context . . . . .

  • Kerri Baysinger via Facebook

    So glad you and she were/are able to have this exchange…I hope it leads to much healing for her. Cuz healing is good.

  • Peggy Tener Taylor via Facebook

    John, thanks to you and her for posting this. I feel like she was meant to connect with you to help her face some things in her past. I hope she finds peace and healing and I thank you for putting yourself out there for all of us Christian lefties.

  • Robin Clark Kuppusamy via Facebook

    I pray this exchange with you will lead her to healing. I hope she finds an amazing man who deserves her and spoils her rotten! And, in time she finds what amazing surprises there are when you let go and give yourself to someone else. ♥

  • Chris

    What an interesting thread to come into relatively late in the day!

    Dear X,

    Reading both your letters sounded familiar. I could have written them in my 20s. I was 4, not 7, when I had my traumatic medical experience, and the treatments were different, but they played a role. I’m now in my 40s, but in my 20s I carried my virginity like a stain I had to hide and feared I’d never remove. And I just want to tell you God is faithful. It was a helluva lotta work, gut-wrenching, agonizing, please-don’t-ever-make-me-work-so-hard-again work, but it was worth it, and God consistently sent the people and experiences I needed to learn what I needed to learn. Eventually I was healthy and whole enough to marry. I even gave birth to a couple of kids, who I love more than I knew I could love anyone, but I HATED being pregnant, hated every second of it, and didn’t really start enjoying my children until after their first birthdays. (I loved them even while I was hating being pregnant, but nothing really started being enjoyable until they could walk and talk to me.)

    Which is just to say, you don’t have to follow any storyline but the one you see stretched out before you. And you get lots of choices in that line (look at it branching every which way). And you don’t need to justify your choices to anyone (see John’s post from yesterday). And you are beloved. Feel it. Read it in these comments. God made you; God knows you — all of you, the bits you like, the bits you fear, the bits you hope to keep secret from everyone (even yourself) — and calls you Beloved, through and through.

  • http://betgleason@comcast.net Betty Gleason

    My heart goes out to [X]. Her extreme reaction to a simple arm around the shoulders fills me with sadness. Married love is touching on every level of our existence. Motherhood, as with everything else, is influenced by your attitude. All families should receive each other in joy and wonder. Hope, love and prayers of healing flow to her.

  • Grace

    Well, I wrote a reply in the previous note before I read this.

    Please tell her — somebody here has been there, done that. Got help. Moved on to a wonderful relationship and life.

    Turns out this is not at all uncommon. It is a phobia, and it can be overcome by a caring therapist who knows the territory. If you’d have told me when I was 23 that I’d be looking at the beautiful children I have now — I would never have believed you. But there it is.

    • Grace

      I want to add — I loved pregnancy. Because I felt triumphant! And childbirth was really not such a big deal — again, more feelings of triumph, and you get through it the same way people get through migraines and the stomach flu.

      Help is out there!

  • Tim Northrup

    It is good that this young sister can open up about these things. I do agree with your former post that she should seek some sustained help, and mostly to get to know what she has to do to move forward. (and yes, I agree that we are all tweaked up about sex, and there are some of us for whom that only gets more confused by heteronormative values and other stuff, so she isn’t alone).

    God steps in and heals either immediately or over time. And she is 23, by the grace of God she will have decent time enough to let this too pass. We can only hope and pray for her that her healing is swift and that this man is either that guy who will love her for who she is or lets her learn something about what that man will be.

    • Diana A.

      Awareness is half the battle. The other half is finding a good therapist–and I emphasize the word good.

      • http://leap-of-fate.com Christy

        So true.

  • Donald Rappe

    I’m happy that John’s reply was insightful and helpful to X. Her words ” Nevertheless, it seems to me that making a woman have a child is invasive, even abusive. ” would be correct, if they were accurate. But this sacred story of the maiden Mary conversing with the great archangel Gabriel ends with these words of consent: “Let it be unto me as thou saith.” The conversation is not over until Mary consents. This seems to me to make all the difference in the world.

  • John Oyler via Facebook

    If every jewish mother longs to do this, doesn’t that strike you as unhealthy? Any mother who has any child, no matter how mundane that child grows up to be, is special in a way that has no equal. To feel that a child need be anything more than just a good human being… something is wrong there.

  • Christy Caine via Facebook

    Maybe it’s not the specialness of the child so much as the worthiness of the mother.

  • RoeDylanda

    I sincerely hope this young lady is reading this. These feelings are not permanent, and they are not an immutable part of her. One of my earliest memories is of being restrained on an ER table while eleventy billion doctors, nurses, and who knows who else looked at, poked around in, and shone very bright lights into a severe injury just under my eye, all while yelling at me, “Don’t cry! You might lose the eye!” (a nuclear nonsequitur, by the way). OF COURSE she’s tweaked about losing one iota of control over her body. She’d be a robot or a psychopath if she wasn’t. Sweet young lady, help is out there. You can get better. All the love in the world to you, and a nice, safe, way-over-here-not-touching-you hug if you want it.

  • Dave Huff via Facebook

    Peace, peace, and peace to your amazing friend. Thanks, John.

  • Rose

    A bone marrow transplant is a life-threatening experience, and I would imagine that being so sick, with parents who were grieving the possible loss of their child made an indelible impression. Perhaps you are deeply afraid of suffering the loss of the child. Try the American Cancer Society for support groups for other survivors.

  • Susan in NY

    Everyone’s pregnancy is different. Mine was very medically invasive due to a chronic condition, and frankly, I felt crappy pretty much the entire time. Labor and delivery were nothing short of horrific for me. The whole experience left me with symptoms of PTSD for a year. Oh, and I had a beautiful, wonderful, healthy son.

    My second pregnancy was a breeze. I had some anxiety and I gained some weight, but when my son was born, I hopped on a plane to pick him up and finalize the adoption. I keep in touch with his birthmother via facebook, so that she can see how wonderful he is.

    Adoption is a wonderful thing. : )

    Much peace and joy to you during this wonderful season.

    Susan in NY

    • Mindy

      Hugs, Susan. I wrote a comment about my failed pregnancies and adoption and how that has skewed my view of pregnancy at different times in my life – and my computer crashed before it posted. I was too tired to retype it. But the nutshell version is that after having my parts removed, every pregnant woman I encountered felt like a personal affront, like God and the universe taunting me with what I couldn’t have. It was, obviously – that is simply how I felt at one point in my grieving process. Now I am simply fascinated by it (I have a pregnant student and a pregnant niece in my life right now) – and see the great joy it brings to those ready to parent. I feel wistful around them, a bit, but mostly joyful.

      Just as when I think of my girls’ unknown birthmothers, who either weren’t ready or weren’t allowed to parent. I feel wistful again – for their loss and for the loss my girls feel, not knowing. And yet for myself, great joy, because I was given the honor of parenting the two most delightful human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. I love them beyond blood, beyond life. We are, most definitely, connected at the spirit – which is how i feel about Jesus, Mary and God.

  • Nicole

    Boy, I can sure identify with this young lady. The idea of sex always seemed so invasive to me that, even when my mom first told me in a lovely and beautiful way about the male-female relationship and how babies are made, I was pretty horrified. I couldn’t imagine letting anyone that close to me. Like the writer, even something as simple as holding hands was incredibly forward and intimate to me. So I get it. It has taken a long time to identify and overcome those preconceived notions and become a more sexually aware and ready woman. Relationships are still scary things, but I’m sticking close to Jesus and sharing with him all my fears and doubts. Slowly but surely, I’m coming out of my shell and look forward to deeper relationships in the future.

    To the woman who wrote the letter, like John said, you have encouraged many. Thank you for sharing your heart and story.

  • Diana Avery via Facebook

    “So I’m getting ready now to call it a day, and so will end comments on this post. (For this one, I want to be nearby in case anyone shows up lugging a spray-can of crazy.) Thanks to all who here today left the kind of supporting, loving comments I knew you would.” Thank you for the sensitivity you show on this and so many other issues. Peace, brother!

  • Susan too

    I have survived a few medical (and personal) horrors in my life, and trying to build a life as a healthy, loving, sexual being has been the hardest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. And so many forms of therapy dont seem to help you do more than pay a lot of money to talk about the same thing over and Over. But there are newer, more effective options theae days. A therapy I’ve found extremely helpful is Network Spinal Analysis- it uses extremely gentle bobdywork to release old traumas and emotions. Another very effective therapy is new school of talk therapy and bodywork combined called Intergrated Bodywork Psychotherapy (IBP) that uses breathing and talk therapy to help release old fears and patterns and help you move on and create a life filled with the things you want- warmth, love, positive relationships. Another good book is “Intimacy Anorexia” by Weiss. While the therapist who wrote the book focuses a bit heavily on the sex addictions (a behavior some people turn to when they’ve been too traumatized to develope healthy relationships) the patterns the book talks about are so familiar to me as someone whose early relationships left her damaged, and the exercises he

    gives for working on them are quite good. I’m no expert, and these are just tools I’ve stumbled across through God’s grace. But you’re not alone in your fears, struggles, and loneliness, and there are paths towards hope and love in this life. We’re here on the path with you- you’re not alone.

  • http://flamidwyfe.wordpress.com Sandi

    If I could just say one thing to this young woman it would be this… So many women (and men) have this same fear. As a midwife, I have seen it numerous times. My recommendation for you would be to seek a loving, compassionate, empathetic maternity care provider when you do find that special someone, marry and think about having a child. Many blessings to you!

  • gretchen

    John, please let her know that she is not alone in some of her fears. We’ve all struggled with that. Help really IS a wonderful thing to have. Also, please know that enjoying the present time with the man you like is extremely important. It’s okay to stay in the NOW when it comes to building a friendship/relationship.

  • JulieD

    I have problems with panic/anxiety too, and it greatly affected my own ability to relate to the opposite sex in a healthy way. Overcoming those fears, getting married, and having kids were all a big gift of grace for me, and I pray the same thing for you. Be patient with yourself, don’t beat up on yourself, and most importantly, try to instill the habit of healthy “self-talk.” I mean those internal conversations where you compare yourself to everyone you know and wind up berating yourself for having issues. We all have issues. Speak to yourself as kindly as you would to a good friend.

    Also, for all of us who were raised in conservative churches, doesn’t it seem weird that you were told (either in an outright or an implied way) that sex is bad, don’t think about it, sublimate all those feelings, etc. … and then the minute you get married, that switch is suddenly thrown, and you’re supposed to feel “it’s good!!!” In fact, it’s wonderful, God-given, do-it-every-night good! For some people, that transition can take time after all that repression!

  • Serena

    My two cents for ‘X’:

    Please consider reading Peter A. Levine’s work. A good one (that comes with a CD) is “Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body”. He really is kind of a pioneer of modern trauma therapy, and addresses the sort of childhood medical trauma you suffered, as well as a range of other types. His program is aimed at bodywork, not reliving the trauma (because that’s not necessary).

    I don’t think you are pathetic. I think you are authentic. I feel sad that you feel ashamed to have been seen in your vulnerability, and hope that you will cut yourself some slack. There is such strength in vulnerability.

  • Allie

    I gotta feel a little sorry for the guy who didn’t realize he was stepping on a land mine by putting his arm around his date.

    I’m not seeing that anyone else has said this, and it needs to be said: feeling revulsion about the idea of pregnancy is NORMAL for someone who is in a situation where she feels really, really unsafe. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Your body says, “Hey, you feel safe with this guy, make a baby!” or “Hey, maybe now is not a good time. I mean it, NOT A GOOD TIME.”

    You’re not messed up, or at least the messed up part is not that part. That part is working exactly as it should. You don’t feel safe so you don’t feel sexy.

    The idea that getting pregnant could be nausea-inducing terrifying instead of joyful is something a lot of comfortable women have trouble understanding. It’s one reason so very many rich ladies are up in everyone’s business about reproductive rights. I have talked to women who quite literally couldn’t imagine how a pregnant woman could even want an abortion or feel anything except overwhelming love for her unborn. But, yo, that’s a serious failure of empathy on their part! Not something to brag about, and (ironically, since they accuse others of lacking love) not very loving.

    Sorry for bringing abortion into it. My point is more that not everyone wants to be pregnant, and that not wanting to be pregnant is not an illness. John’s earlier response misses the point that Mary was picked because she was special, because unlike 99% of women who would have screamed and thrown objects, she started singing. Being made pregnant against your will IS degrading – just ask the soldiers in the Congo who routinely impregnate women to degrade them! It’s only love which makes pregnancy beautiful. Mary had that love for God.

    Before you get to the point of wanting to be pregnant, you need to get to the point of feeling safe and secure about your own body. Baby steps – love your body, then get used to the idea of someone else loving your body, then forward from there. Definitely get some professional help. But if I can offer a little advise, be a spectator for a while. Watch other people in love, pay attention to your friends, how they date, how they flirt, how they touch each other. If you don’t have a lot of friends make some. Not boyfriends, just face-t0-face friends you hang out with. Watch people who seem to have it all together, and visualize yourself doing the things they do.

  • Julianna

    I appreciate that the questions we ask about God say a lot about us and can give us a window into things that we need to explore and process in ourselves. But I think it’s also fair to say that our own issues don’t necessarily delegitimize the questions themselves. And yes, this says a lot about me too, but I think this woman had a point. I personally loved being pregnant (I mean, aside from the parts I didn’t love :)), but I was pregnant by choice and with a man that I love. For me, my bigger issue for Mary’s situation was that she was put in a situation of extreme shame, where her betrothed was questioning whether to divorce her, where she could have been a victim of honor killing or religious execution, where at the very least she was in a very humiliating position among community. Presumably this was all taken care of somehow (we only see how it was for Joseph.) And yes, we get indication that she felt happy and blessed. (My personal opinion is that it is myth anyway, so the storyteller can gloss over this stuff and it can be a metaphor of Jesus taking on our shame, or whatever.) But for a lot of my life I believed this literally. And I believed it literally that God could ask Abraham to sacrifice his son with apparent disregard for the trauma that would be for Isaac. That God was ok with humiliating the prophets. And I grew up in a tradition that believed all of this is still for today, and I believed in a God that could choose to put me in any humiliating or traumatic situation at any time. And that somehow that’s an expression of love. (We redefine love all the time to try to fit with what is in the Bible, until it doesn’t even resemble love any more…I think you’ve talked about that.) I knew that I needed to be completely open and available to this God, because I desperately wanted love, acceptance, and intimacy with God…but I couldn’t make myself be open because I was terrified. I am still trying to heal from all of that. And believe me, I know that my feelings had a lot to do with my family, but it had a lot to do with the Bible and the church too. So I have some of the same questions as this woman.

    • DonRappe

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with your opinions about the nature of the sacred stories. I think you are correctly pointing out that this story, as with many Bible stories, contains a strong element of “bad things happening to good people”. Even to the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God.


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