Joyful Mysteries

Author: Mary-Kate Burns Corry ’16

I. The Annunciation

It was a Wednesday. My husband and I woke to heavy snow burdening branches outside our West Washington walk-up. Work was canceled, Notre Dame closed and the two of us left puttering about our one-bedroom apartment.

Patrick occupied his kitchen table perch where he flipped through Aristotle and Augustine. I poked around the cupboards for breakfast and found a fresh loaf of banana bread. Opening it, I immediately gagged — my stomach had been in revolt for days — and opted for a plain tortilla.

As I settled into the day’s work, questions flared up in my mind. The banana bread incident wasn’t isolated. There was the persistent queasiness, the extreme fatigue and the oddly pointed aversion to my husband’s favorite snacks. Was I getting sick, or . . . ?

Patrick and I hadn’t tried to get pregnant but we hadn’t tried not to, either. Planning to conceive a child felt like penciling a paralytic walking or a multiplication of loaves onto the calendar. Could a miracle now have happened without our noticing?

I resolved to take a pregnancy test in a couple days and went back to work, but a last question blared. Why the intense desire for chicken nuggets?

I put my computer aside. A friend was coming over in an hour, and I couldn’t imagine holding court with small talk and tea. I took out a pregnancy test from the bathroom drawer, read the instructions and set a timer for five minutes.

Sixty seconds in, I took a peek. My heart started racing. It looked like . . . but I still had four minutes to wait. My phone buzzed against the sink. It was my friend Maureen. She couldn’t come over because she had mistaken the time of a meeting. I typed out a reply, and the five minutes were up. I looked at the pregnancy test, looked at the instructions, looked back at the pregnancy test and tiptoed into the kitchen where Patrick was deep in Aristotle.

“Ummm, Maureen’s not coming over anymore,” I hesitated. “Aaaand I don’t know how to read this.”

Patrick put down The Nicomachean Ethics.

“This one means positive?” he asked, pointing to the instruction booklet.

“Uh huh,” I barely uttered.

“Well,” he said brightly after a minute of consideration. “I think it’s positive.”

Positive. The word resonated with a truth hidden within me. A truth small, silent and still. A single fleck of snow, long accumulating, now come down to settle on the earth. A child. We sat at the kitchen table, every assignment, chore and plan interrupted by this smallest reality: our child. It was no longer just the two of us in our apartment.

Later I would recall the words of a poem by Rev. John Duffy on the Annunciation: “Nothing again would be casual and small, But everything with light invested, overspilled.

But for then we had no words, at least not adequate ones. We spent the afternoon hugging, smiling and marveling at my stomach. At dinner time Patrick put on his hiking boots and ran five blocks through the snowstorm to the McDonald’s drive-through. He came back with 20 McNuggets.

Nothing again would be casual and small.

I recall it was a Wednesday.


II. The Nativity

I was 30 weeks pregnant and we didn’t have a place to live. Patrick’s Ph.D. program started in a month and the baby was due in two. We spent hours every morning sending inquiries to new Philadelphia listings. At last, one seemed promising. We signed the lease sight-unseen and two weeks later caravanned with my parents to Philadelphia in cars packed full.

Patrick and I talked excitedly as we got closer. “I bet my parents are gonna get nervous driving through these neighborhoods,” I joked. Then I looked at the GPS and my own heart sank. We were 0.2 miles from our new home.

“This is it,” I said, parking the car. The yard was overflowing with ivy and trash. Flies buzzed around overfull bins on the curb.

The landlord walked up behind us. He apologized for the trash and whisked us inside. The hall was dusty, strewn with construction supplies. Inside the apartment, the floor tiles were chipped and the hardwood speckled with paint. The wonky window frames let in the noise and stench of the street below.

“So, any questions?” the landlord asked, handing us our keys.

“Uh, no, everything seems good,” Patrick said.

Two minutes after we arrived, he was gone. Patrick looked at me.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. I was blinking back tears.

“It’s just, it’s . . . it’s loud and dirty and small. And it doesn’t feel like home,” I cried. Patrick took me into his arms and I cried harder. He told me everything would be OK.

My parents and brother called soon after to tell us they’d arrived. I wiped my eyes and smiled before opening the door, trying to seem positive. This was our home now. We all made the best of it. Our assembled crew went to work. They unpacked the cars, bleached the floors and unearthed piles of cat hair from the radiator. I’d never been more grateful for family.

We didn’t have a bed yet, so we fell asleep that night on a semi-deflated air mattress. My back ached from being eight months pregnant and on my feet all day. I slept poorly and woke up discouraged. It was the Sabbath day.

We had chosen to live in that neighborhood for the church: a grand, domed structure, beautiful and alive. Its three doors opened to the neighborhood all day with a sign welcoming people in for the Eucharist. Passersby stopped in and nearby elementary-schoolers paused their recess revelry to peek inside.

Our home was one block from the church. That Sunday, we walked through the muggy morning into the nave where old women fanned themselves with bulletins. It didn’t escape my attention that the homily was about poverty. A sense of homecoming crept into my soul. We were in our Father’s house.

Stepping outside, the air felt almost breezy. Patrick held my hand on the walk home.

“This morning I remembered that God chose his Son to be born into literal poverty in a cave. I feel proud that He chose us to live somewhere with a yard full of trash,” he said, and he gave me a big grin. 

In spite of myself, I smiled, too. In spite of my hopes and disappointments, this was our home. We set up our bookcase and assembled the new bassinet. This was the home where our son would be born.

In the evening we walked the block back to the church and prayed evening prayer. Closing the breviary, we sat under the scaffolding on the cement steps and watched the passing life of the sidewalk. We were both present and apart, in the midst of the heat and chaos, and in the presence of our God. His Son was born into a poor and murderous world. And there, hidden and at rest, in the manger of His West Philadelphia church, He still lay.


III. The Presentation

I didn’t know how to be pregnant during Lent — no meal fasts, meatless Fridays optional, asceticism possibly dangerous. What could I offer to the Lord? My husband and I shared our list of penances. I felt guilty for how small mine was in comparison, but trusted God to transform my inadequate offerings.

At Ash Wednesday Mass, I watched young moms shepherding their little flocks to the altar. The priest traced a cross in ashes on each of their foreheads, even on the smallest forehead of the bundle in its mother’s arms.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

My husband processed ahead of me and received his cross. I received my own. Back in my pew, I rubbed some ashes from my forehead onto my finger and made the sign of the cross over my stomach.

In that moment, a truth of motherhood was revealed to me. A sword would pierce my heart. In fact, it was already taking shape. I felt all its forms at once: the possibility of miscarriage, the fear of a newborn’s vulnerability, the pain of a child leaving home, the certainty of his suffering, the inevitability of his death.

But death was not the only significance of the cross. My son rested in my womb, was nourished by my own oxygen and blood, but he was not mine. The cross that marked him for death also marked him for Christ.

What could I offer to the Lord? What was I willing to offer?

The suffering of motherhood was unavoidable. Only its offering could make it something glorious. Only God could transform such small, hideous and painful moments into such great joys.

They are mysteries beyond explanation. I cannot say why the story has gone this way, not which way it will go. I can only offer you these things that I hold in my heart.

Mary-Kate Burns Corry’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2022 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She lives in West Philadelphia with her husband and son, where she joyfully carries out her mission to serve the needs of her family, church and community.