On that day, Yahweh made a covenant with Abram.
Pilgrims travel, not because they believe God lies ahead somewhere, but because they know God is beneath their feet. Or at least they’re suspicious of it. A pilgrim once told me, before she left the trees of Mamre, “Yahweh is in the flesh beneath your chest, which you daily anoint with tears.” I gently remind myself it isn’t true. I’ve become adept at merely succumbing to the place of pain.
I am still barren. It has been ten years.
Go in, I pray, to my maidservant—perhaps I will be rebuilt because of her.
When I feel betrayal, I feel it between my legs. Grief burns through me like shocking passion. Since I was a child, I wanted to create and sustain life. I wanted to be a Mother. For years, I have laid my hands on my stomach, praying that Yahweh might heal me. I have dreaded sex these ten years. There’s no pleasure in it for me. I can’t bear a child, and Abraham can’t bear the thought of that. Now Abraham sleeps with the woman named Sojourner, and he leaves my tent for hers on nights when the hopelessness sets in. He leaves me because he can’t see past my lack. He leaves me because I tell him to.
And God cared for Sarah just as he had said.
I sit for hours under the great trees of Mamre, aching over the transience in the swish of travelers’ cloaks as they pass by. I hear ancient whispers in it too: My people will be a people of pilgrimage. I wish love grew roots as deep and as thick in me as those of the desert trees I find reprieve beneath. I always fall most deeply in love with the ones who come and then go.
One pilgrim stayed with me for a week. She seemed something like an ancient, long-lost mother. She did strange things, like whisper her name to the roots of the desert trees each morning. She spoke aloud to them, her face so near the dirt I thought she might kiss it. “Why do you do this?” I asked her throughout the week, entranced by the mystery of her consistent reply:
“Child, you are protected by promise. You are never too old to receive a call.”
My body, unlike the soil beneath the Mamre trees, is inhospitable to life. I whisper the word “laughter” into the dust as I fall asleep in my tent, hoping that something might just take root. Is all the time that has passed making my womb more sacred?
I wonder if Yahweh punishes me for the weakness in my prayers.
Sarah was past the age of childbearing, so Sarah laughed.
Yahweh’s words are pregnant with hope for Abraham, but they contain no fullness for me. Rejection is continually finding new ways to cope with Yahweh’s denial. If I’m going to be the mother of anything, I’ll be the mother of being God’s second thought, the mother of having no purpose. I’ll be a mother for the brokenhearted.
And Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent.
If I wasn’t meant to have my own child, why do I long for this child everywhere, at all times, unceasingly?
When the three strangers first appeared in the distance, I went immediately to the well. When I approached them with a full pitcher beneath the trees of Mamre, my heart burned, and they had their hands open to me. As I poured, one leaned towards me and spoke: “Receive, daughter, and be filled.” The water hit the inside of their palms and splashed back onto my desert-warm skin.
Abraham asked that I go and prepare a meal for the visitors. I went into the tent, regretting leaving for even a moment. As the strangers spoke with Abraham, it seemed that even the branches above bent down to give ear. I listened at the entrance of the tent as the presence of Yahweh seemed to fall and rise up from the earth.
“Where is Sarah?” one of them asked. I heard a thousand other harmonies in his question: What is on your mind, daughter? What are you concerned about? Where are you? “Sarah, your wife, will have a son,” they said. Something within me broke. I tore through the tent opening, a wild thing with an emptiness that seemed to be showing. I asked, “Why do you say these things?”
The stranger looked at me with compassion and asked, “Sarah, why did you laugh?”
She thought, After I am worn out… will I now have this pleasure?
Pilgrims walk because there are certain prayers they cannot pray anymore. They wonder if by visiting the holy sites and communing with strangers, someone or something might just take up their plea. The pilgrim’s prayer becomes their staggered breath, toughening skin, aching feet; it becomes their lying down, getting up, and eating. For years, I have been asking Yahweh for the healing that would make me a Mother. I cannot bring myself to utter this prayer anymore. To speak this prayer is to be devastated.
Perhaps hope is more about resilience than fulfillment.
When I lied and said, “I did not laugh,” not one piece of me believed I had convinced the stranger otherwise, but I wondered if I could protect myself. But when he said, “you did laugh,” it felt like cool water running down my forehead, softening the blow of the last ten years. He gave my grief a name. He heard my laughter. When he left at sunset, some part of me knew he already held it all. And somehow, mysteriously, I also knew he would carry it with him for the rest of the pilgrimage, until the end of time, or however long it would be.
Maddie Vonk is from Holland, Michigan and is currently an MDiv student at Western Theological Seminary. She studied English literature at Wheaton College and is passionate about the intersections of literature and theology, faith and imagination, and Scripture and storytelling.