Fifteen years ago, when we went to the ultrasound to check on the health of our first child, I was surprised by how quickly our daughter’s heart was beating. I suppose that she, like all unborn infants, was busy growing and her heart was enthusiastically singing with the joy of newfound being. It was almost as if she couldn’t hold back her excitement to be born.
The rhythm by which an infant settles into this world, however, is not their own internal heartbeat. Rather, it’s the heartbeat of the mother. That slower, more steady rhythm becomes a source of steady comfort for the infant. Even after they’re born, mothers will lay their babies across their breast with an ear right up against their heart to calm them for a nap. The baby, hearing it, is graced with an inner comfort and trust.
The priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, in thinking of our spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, imagines that her presence cradles us like the atmosphere. He writes, “I say that we are wound/ With mercy round and round/ As if with air…” But he doesn’t relate to Mary simply as exterior to himself. He hears her heartbeat and feels her presence as if resting in the crossing of her arms. We are right up close to her, feeling her heartbeat. He writes, “She, wild web, wondrous robe,/ Mantles the guilty globe.”
When one of our children is injured, tired or in need of comfort, he or she almost never runs to me, instead running to Mom. There’s a bond between the two that is unbreakable, forged in the womb and aligned by a shared heartbeat. A mother, particularly to a small innocent child, encompasses their whole existence. They hold each other within their souls.
Fathers, it seems to me, open their hearts to their children in a slightly different but no less important way. Nurturing, certainly. Tender, absolutely. The connection, however, isn’t as naturally intimate physically, and so it must be birthed through sacrifice and love. A father’s heart must be broken open by love in order to make room to welcome the child inside.
When I have held my infant children, I felt their soft helpless bodies expand with a sigh, caught the sweet fragrance off the milky nape of their neck. It was as if an undying fire was lit in me. I have cradled their cheek against my heart, the source of those flames, and as a human being, as a man, and as a father, I have been changed. It really doesn’t matter what direction the lives of my children take in the future, because that furnace has been lit and it will never die off into embers. My heart will always beat for them.
Our family, perhaps like yours, has an image of Our Lord and His Sacred Heart hanging in our house. How many hours in the waning hours of the night, the nightbirds singing in the magnolia outside the living room window, have my wife and I cradled our babies under Our Lord’s watchful gaze?
Father Rennier is pastor of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.