Now, it is certainly required that what is subject to change be in a sense always coming to birth. In mutable nature nothing can be observed which is always the same. Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as a result of external initiative, as is the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a [spiritual] birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be … moulding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.
~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2.3
Birth is a common spiritual metaphor, but—at least in my own case—I do not think the depth of this metaphor is contemplated often enough.
In the Christian context, perhaps the most common use is the idea of being born again. While this has a unique meaning for American Evangelicals and some other Protestants, traditionally it referred to baptism.
St. Justin the Philosopher described it this way in his second-century defense of Christians in ancient Rome (who would rather that Christians did not exist and actively sought to exterminate them):
At our first birth we were born of necessity without our knowledge, from moist seed, by the intercourse of our parents with each other, and grew up in bad habits and wicked behavior. So that we should not remain children of necessity and ignorance, but [become sons] of free choice and knowledge, and obtain remission of the sins we have already committed, there is named at the water, over him who has chosen to be born again and has repented of his sinful acts, the name of God the Father and Master of all. Those who lead to the washing the one who is to be washed call on [God by] this term only. For no one may give a proper name to the ineffable God, and if anyone should dare to say that there is one, he is hopelessly insane. This washing is called illumination, since those who learn these things are illumined within. The illuminand is also washed in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Spirit, who through the prophets foretold everything about Jesus.
After all, Christ himself even told Nicodemus,
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” (John 3:5-7)
Baptism is the entrance of a person into the sacramental life of the Church, the Christian rite of initiation. St. Paul even describes it as dying and rising with Christ, a theme central to my conception of asceticism.
St. Gregory of Nyssa expands the image, as others have done with death and resurrection, to refer to life in a world of constant change, a world of which we are a part and, thus, ourselves constantly changing.
Birth is then an image of our whole spiritual life. For the Christian, we can say that “it is all in your baptism.” Baptism simultaneously marks the start of our salvation and the pattern for its progress. And baptism is not only a death and resurrection; it is a second, spiritual birth.
My wife and I are expecting our second child in about a month or so. Biologically, the dad doesn’t contribute all that much, as the comedian Jim Gaffigan has pointed out. The mom carries the child in her womb for nine months, gives birth to it, then nurses it for months.
Naturally, when expanding upon the metaphor of birth, Jesus doesn’t dwell upon the father’s role: “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (John 16:21).
Surely this is an ascetic metaphor. Through asceticism, we labor until the joy of virtue is born in us. In this way, “We are in some manner our own parents,” says St. Gregory.
But this is hardly the end of the metaphor. The baby’s perspective is just as important. We are not only giving birth, but being born. What is it like for a baby?
For the child in utero, the womb is her world. She catches glimpses of muted light from the world beyond, hears muffled voices, feels softened touches of her mother and father and brother. But she knows very little about that world. Not only is this due to her circumstances, it is also due to her limited cognitive capacity at such an early stage in human development.
To be born means leaving the only world she has ever known and entering one that is utterly alien. It is alien not only with regard to the external environment, but also due to her own heightened senses. Unimaginably more of life is revealed, while at the same time one has a sense of how very little one knows.
Indeed, for the immobile infant, the mother remains something of a world—the earth at least, while all else is the sky. As she learns to crawl and then walk, it is like a bird pushed from the nest for its first flight. And before we know it, it becomes second nature: our world has grown again.
The Scriptures and the fathers speak of death as a birth as well, and we can get some idea of the world beyond the grave in such a way. But perhaps we ought to be more amazed that they speak of our lives now in this manner. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, even within us, for those with eyes to see it.
Thankfully, one need not worry whether one has been born with the right capacity. This birth “occurs by choice.” If our spiritual senses are currently dull, we need only to choose virtue and endeavor after it through every moment of our ever-changing lives, and we will find the eyes of our souls opened to a world of wonder and beauty that we could scarce have ever imagined before.