As newlyweds, Jessica and her husband thought they might be facing infertility. On a whim during a trip to Europe, they made a detour to visit a Marian apparition site — it was an experience that deepened her faith and taught her that children are a gift from God.
As we waited to board the plane, my husband and I laughed at the luxury of it all. We were flying there and back on the same day, and when you’re only carrying small personal items, check-in and security are a dreamy breeze of an experience. Who even does this, we joked. Who flies somewhere just for the day?
This was a side trip on a vacation that already felt rather extravagant: our second trip to Europe in a year, brought about by an excess of airline miles and a desire to make the most of our time as a married couple without children. Once the kids arrived, when would we ever get to travel abroad again?
Well, if they arrived. We weren’t sure they would. I’d been struggling with some vaguely diagnosed gynecological issues for several years, and I had never gotten a straight answer about whether these would affect my ability to get pregnant. When we got engaged, we decided that we wanted fertility awareness in our marital communication toolkit, so I started charting my fertility symptoms.
My charting revealed more questions than answers, but it also connected me with a doctor specially trained to use those charts to help diagnose and treat whatever was going on. I made some changes to my diet and started taking a few supplements, and my chart showed some promising changes. But the pregnancy tests kept coming back negative, and we were creeping ever closer to the “year of trying” that marks a clinical diagnosis of infertility.
So as long as we were going to Europe, we decided to go to Lourdes, even if it was just for a day. Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, Lourdes is the site of Mary’s appearances to St. Bernadette in 1858. The water there, from a spring dug by Bernadette at Mary’s instruction, is claimed to be the source of many miraculous healings.
I wasn’t quite sure yet that I needed a miracle, but I’d seen enough negative pregnancy tests that I thought I should maybe ask Mary for help, just in case.
I lived in Europe for two years after college and visited a number of old-school pilgrimage sites like this, and I never quite know what to make of them. The practices that surround them can seem a little superstitious or transactional. So I bathe in this water and I’ll receive healing? Pretty sure that’s not how God works.
Plus, all airport giggles with my husband aside, pilgrimage is a luxurious form of prayer; the travel involved is simply not available to many people. So miracles are only available to those who can afford them? Nope, preference for the rich is definitely not how God works.
But I’m still drawn to these places. If nothing else, they’re imbued with holiness by the countless prayers that come through their grounds. Even when they’re crowded, they tend to be saturated with peace.
With a flight to catch, we weren’t sure we’d have time to wait in the lines for the baths. Men and women bathe in separate buildings with separate queues, and the waiting was long and lonely. I was finally ushered into a narrow hall lined with benches to wait some more, then to another room to undress, then into the bath chamber itself.
Wrapped in a wet cloth that a volunteer had covered me with, I stepped down into the bath. A number of surprisingly strong women took hold of my body, and I surrendered control as I was submerged in the frigid water. It was over quickly; with so many pilgrims waiting outside, it’s not really an experience they let you savor.
One month later, we were having the first snowy day of winter back at home. My husband didn’t know I was taking this pregnancy test. We didn’t want to get our hopes up again, so we’d agreed to wait until seven weeks had passed since my last period, since that was the longest my irregular cycles seemed to go. It had been six weeks and six days, and I was supposed to wait until morning, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I started the test and told Siri to set a timer for three minutes.
The test was positive.
One month after Lourdes, I got the positive pregnancy test that would forever change our family. I had conceived one week after that bath.
But I hesitate to claim this as a full-on, outside-the-usual-course-of-nature miracle for a few reasons. I don’t know whether I was ever really infertile: I’d certainly been through a lot of painful uncertainty with regards to my fertility, but we hadn’t been trying long enough to officially receive that diagnosis. I was on the receiving end of excellent medical care, and I’d held up my end of the bargain with all the charting and keeping up with medications and changing my diet. They might not be miraculous, but these are all parts of how God works, too: through caring doctors and our own disciplines.
I’m also a little uncomfortable calling this a miracle because the whole thing is almost too tidy. Stories like this often don’t end up tied up with such a nice little bow. People struggle with infertility and subfertility for much longer, even when they ask for miracles.
When it comes to faith, I take a certain amount of pride in being in it for the long haul, of putting in the boring daily work of a lifelong commitment. So if this was a miracle, it was almost hard for me to accept such a big outright gift from God.
And in the end, that might be what matters more. Whether or not what happened at Lourdes was outside the normal course of things, it reminds me often that my children are sheer gift — not earned or deserved, not accomplishments or achievements. Receiving them as a gift changes how I see them and how I see my parenting. And maybe that is the miracle I needed.