Suffer the Little Children

Mothers have always crossed boundaries to save their kids

Meg Conley

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Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

You can gauge the power of an institution by the number of people lined up to beg for mercy at its door. The longer the line, the more powerful the institution, the more powerful the institution, the more preoccupied it becomes with self-preservation. Laws, traditions, and litmus tests proliferate. These can shield from very real threats, but they are also used to insulate against change, the different, the low and deserving. The world’s great religions and countries have always guarded their thresholds against the people pressing into them seeking their portion of grace.

In early modern history, there were few doors with more people in line than that of a Catholic church. And in that line, there were few people in need of as much mercy as the mother holding a dead, unbaptized baby. In Catholic tradition, the unbaptized child’s soul wandered restlessly in limbo, cut off from divine presence and eternally lost to the mother that bore it. This banishment wasn’t just a matter for the next world, it was made manifest in this world as well. The unbaptized could not be buried in hallowed ground. Denied a resting place in the church cemetery, the little bodies were buried along roadsides, planted in fields and tucked into family gardens. The mother who gave birth to a stillborn baby, or a baby who died before baptism could take place, was a mother who had conceived a soul just to have it immutably condemned.

Unless.

Unless the mother could get her baby to a church that had a sanctuary with a respite. Places of, if not resurrection, then resuscitation, respites were shrines where the distraught parent could pray for intercession, a momentary miracle to change their child’s eternal fate. Often only a few hours removed her labor, still torn and bleeding, the mother carried her shrouded baby to the shrine, placed the baby on the altar and unwrapped it. Once the child’s body was arranged, the mother, and anyone attending her, knelt down and prayed. They did not pray for life. They prayed for signs of life, a flush across the cheeks, an exhalation of breath, a drop of urine.

Often, the midwife who assisted during the birth would stand as a witness at the altar. She would send for the priest if…

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Meg Conley

✒️Women’s work, economic justice and the home. Work in Slate, GEN, Medium + my newsletter, homeculture. Subscribe at megconley.com