There is something in human nature that always looks for more, always reaching for the next rung or the sweeter fruit, whatever that appears to be. Instead of observing, analyzing, consulting and revisiting, we grasp for what is not given to us, and the allure of the secret knowledge remains ever persistent. Magic trumps the mundane, and we can so invisibly slide towards preferring the devil we don’t know to the doctor or doctrine we do.
Old heresies never die. They only fade away, and come back with an ever increasing permutation of applications. What was once a heresy of the early Church, Gnosticism is alive and well in the modern day, inserting itself into things that would never have seemed possible. The most prevalent example of this is the proliferation of parenting and health trends that elevate the natural, and seek to destroy every hidden toxin, every bastion of “medicalization” that would taint a “natural” life. Crossing from having the “correct knowledge” that saves to being able to eradicate all of the offending, “unnatural” elements, we move from our secret knowledge into Pelagianism and save ourselves by our own works, by seeking the pure and avoiding the “toxic”. We stop asking what we must do in order to gain eternal life, narrow our scope to gaining perfect health, or the pursuit of “the perfect birth.” We make new sins and new virtues, and reach for neither Heaven nor Eden, but a paleolithic paradise hitherto unimagined.
There is a Dominican saying that the Preacher preaches first to himself. In this case, the blogger writes first to herself as someone who once found the natural health community and its forbidden, non-GMO, pesticide free, ethically sourced, fairly traded fruit to be entirely too alluring. Home birth as it is commonly practiced in the US*, vaccine rejection, militant infant formula disapproval, strident GMO rejection, certain uses of chiropractic and essential oils are all at the core founded on the same principles: there is a secret knowledge that *they* don’t want you to have, and adhering to this knowledge is the difference between a sophisticated consumer, a mindful mama, one who might just love her children a little bit more and the “sheeple” who blindly accept wherever they are led to go.
While a healthy skepticism is always a good idea, and we aren’t supposed to make choices without engaging the issue rationally, I confess that I’ve always been a bit perplexed when I hear followers of the Good Shepherd demonstrating such disdain for those that are “sheep.” There is something to be said for following the consensus of experts even without having gone through every footnote and nuance ourselves. Nonetheless, I found myself intrigued, enchanted and ultimately sold on the virtue of home birth. Young and idealistic, with more than a few gripes about the first two hospital births I had, I carried my fervor for John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and applied its pursuit of what is theologically natural to the human person to where it didn’t belong. I gave birth at home three times in spite of risk factors.
I do not believe that every woman’s home birth is a sin, but I am increasingly confident that mine were, especially the more clear it became that I was not realistically a low risk candidate. After complications with my first home birth that had a high risk of recurrence, I didn’t rethink my choices about whether I should plan to give birth at home. Neither did any midwife in charge of my care suggest that I was an inappropriate candidate, even though I would have been risked out in other countries.
My midwives for those births and I chose to look for the “right” diet. The “right” position, “right” plan so that I could continue to plan births at home. We thought that if we just had the magical correct combination we could somehow gain The Perfect Birth. I cared too much to be not able to attain an amazing birth by sheer force of will, and *my* body wasn’t a lemon. It just couldn’t be! I just needed to find the right combination and then it would work. I am humbled and grateful that none of my home birthed children paid a severe price for my choices, although the last child I gave birth to at home spent 10 days in intensive care because of complications with her birth. In the last several years I have met more mothers than I would have imagined who were not as fortunate as I have been.
I was like the woman C. S. Lewis described in this passage from The Screwtape Letters
“The real value of the quiet, unobtrusive work which Glubose has been doing for years on this old woman can be gauged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life. The woman is in what may be called the ‘All-I-want’ state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or any friends who can do these simple things ‘properly’ — because her ‘properly’ conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as ‘the days when you could get good servants’ but known to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table.”
My choice was not a properly made cup of tea, but a “beautiful birth” according to plan as a talisman to guard against any fear that I was not worthy of motherhood. If I could give a beautiful birth to my child, I could give them a beautiful life and all I needed to do was to plan enough, hope enough, care my way to safety and health. The secret knowledge of how to get my best birth was out there, and I just needed to be smart and industrious enough to discover it.
However, there is no secret knowledge that, if accepted, will make us free from suffering, from difficulty, from life’s burdens as they come and go. There is no magical combination that if one happens on by luck or choice will guarantee that you will be a good parent. And any “knowledge” that stands in opposition to right reason has no place in the Christian life. My mistaken placement of faith and priority put me and my children at risk. Other alternative health practices and ideologies are not that extreme, but they all invariably come at a cost.
Whenever we focus on our own knowledge and choices as being the magical key to gaining what we want, by definition we become more self focused and closed in. There is only so much attention that we have, so much willpower we can give, and in choosing to give disproportionate weight to what enters our mouths, our bodies, and moralizing something as fundamental as food, we lose sight of others and of eternal things. We lose our need for a savior when we can save ourselves with a superfood or the avoidance of the alleged hidden dangers lurking around every pantry door. And we feel a legitimate right to blame those who are suffering, those who have less than us, because they could earn health if only they tried hard enough.
If I breastfeed my child, but tell the mother who cannot breastfeed that what she is giving her child is fourth rate and barely acceptable, I reduce her to one choice on which she does not measure up to my standard. Nevermind whether my standard is in line with my professed beliefs; no one can serve two masters, and too easily does a socially privileged luxury take the place of the faith we profess.
In each of the natural health practices listed earlier, I can find a similar example. Whether putting the vulnerable at risk by refusing vaccines for the sake of my child’s “purity” or offering treatment for Ebola if only one uses the right essential oil, we unknowingly focus more on ourselves and our bodies, our wellness than we would ever have imagined doing. Never have a people with access to such bounty put so much concern into the “right” thing to eat, over and above the recognition that many have too little to eat at all.
When we try to put a subordinate good like health in place of the higher goods (universal right to life, freedom to live within God’s will) on which it depends, we cut the tether lifting us to heaven, as well as the ties that bind us together as a human race.
Christ was born not in the best of circumstances, but the humblest, and if anyone had a right to privilege and perfection it would be a Prince of Peace. A stable can hardly be termed a perfect birth, but there He was born not to the richest, the most affluent, most mindful and in the deliberately chosen circumstances. Christ comes in our midst in our poverties and privations, our weaknesses, our frailties, even in our faults. And He comes for the world, not just the few who find the secret key offering them everlasting wellness.
God grant us the courage to see with His eyes, to love with His heart, and to always remember that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him. Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the unborn and of the Americas, pray for us.
* Home birth in the United States is a different issue from home birth in the UK, Canada, or any other country with a single, high standard for midwives who are integrated into the health care system and risk assess their clients properly.