The pregnant body is indeed “theology in motion,” as Laura S. Jansson writes in her book, Fertile Ground: A Pilgrimage through Pregnancy. She uses this phrase to describe her own experiences as a pregnant woman, but it is surely true in a grander sense for the Christian tradition: God came into the world not in the blink of an eye, but in and through his mother’s womb—through the process of pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Just like the rest of us.
For a tradition that literally begins in the body of a mother, Christianity has dedicated remarkably little theological reflection to the experience of pregnancy. Fortunately, as the title of Jansson’s book suggests, there’s no dearth of material. Though marketed to expectant mothers—to whom it will be an especially valuable resource—Jansson’s work is also a boon for anyone interested in thinking deeply about pregnancy, birth, the embodied experience of being human, and the deeply Christian mysteries of life and death.
Fertile Ground is designed to follow the week-by-week progress of a pregnancy. I read it in one sitting, which I do not recommend. It was like eating a box of one’s favorite truffles all at once. Much better to spread it out over the months of a pregnancy and savor each chapter one at a time. That being said, no one should be discouraged by the book’s format. An expectant mother can acquire the book at any stage of her pregnancy, begin reading at the relevant week, and feel free to go back later and dip in and out of previous chapters. Others might do well to simply read it more slowly than I did.
Jansson brings a unique combination of professional training and life experience to bear on this book. She has a masters’ degree in theology and philosophy from Oxford University, and is an Orthodox Christian doula, a childbirth educator, and a mother. She has also lived in an unusual variety of settings, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Serbia, Germany, and Fiji. This background makes for a book that avoids the saccharine sentimentality that pervades much of Christian writing about motherhood, admirably balancing theological sophistication with accessibility and demonstrating an unusual level of cross-cultural sensitivity.
Jansson joins a growing number of women within the Orthodox Church who are thinking theologically about motherhood, and what she has to offer is significant. Take Chapter 14, titled “Links”—one of my favorite parts of the book. Starting with the way a pregnant woman’s bellybutton changes during pregnancy, Jansson goes on to discuss, among other things, St. Symeon the New Theologian’s advice for praying the Jesus Prayer with the omphaloskepsis (literally “navel-gazing”) method, the physical connection of umbilical cord between mother and child, the genealogy of Christ, and, finally, the icon of the foremothers of Christ, in which Christ and three generations of his maternal ancestors are nestled, one inside the other.