As many as 15 percent of couples are infertile, and many have struggled with this cross much more intensely than I have. But I want to share my story to bring comfort to others who have walked this same path. And I owe it to Our Lady to tell this tale.
I learned as a teenager that I had a much higher chance than most men of being infertile. The knowledge hung about me for years like tendrils of gloomy fog clinging to the hillsides. I wanted to get married and have a family, but I feared I would never father a child.
This fear was confirmed after I married my beautiful wife and month after month rolled by with only negative pregnancy tests. With a sickening sensation, I felt the worry turning to reality. We both new ahead of time that this was a possibility, but I think neither of us was prepared for the grief we experienced as the fear was vindicated.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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On our wedding day, I could almost feel the little souls of our children hovering around us, just on the brink of slipping through the seam of the worlds, right from the hand of God, and bursting into vibrant life. I seemed to hear the words of Psalm 127: “Blessed art thou, and it shall be well with thee. Thy wife as a fruitful vine, on the sides of thy house. Thy children as olive plants, round about thy table.” Those little olive plants felt very close on that day, as though already beginning to sprout.
But as time passed, those souls soon seemed infinitely far away. Generally, the medical community defines infertility as the inability to conceive after a year of trying. Though we knew of people who had conceived after a year, of course, we nevertheless felt the weight of that label as our first anniversary passed by with no baby. We began to try various minor treatments, particularly to help regulate my wife’s cycles, but with no success.
There were many tears, many awkward attempts to comfort my wife. There were nights, too, when I looked up at the stars and felt as though those souls, my souls (though really His, I tried to remind myself), were trapped up there somewhere, and I couldn’t rescue them. I apologized to them, wept, told them that I had tried to rescue them from nothingness but could not find a way. I could almost call them all by name, the people who were meant to be already warming our home with their unique personalities, were it not for some inexplicable wrench in the cogs of the universe.
Of course, we prayed for children every day. We offered penances and novenas. But the more we prayed the more discouraged we became. And because of my weak faith, I sometimes grew distrusting of God’s plan.
Finally, in a chance conversation, a priest I knew directed me to a devotion to Mary known as Our Lady of La Leche. This means “Our Lady of the Milk” in Spanish. It is a devotion brought to the Americas by the Spanish explorers and settlers in the 16th century. They appealed to Mary under this title for fertility and healthy pregnancies. Another priest I spoke to told me about parishioners of his who had visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche in St. Augustine, Florida, and had their prayers answered.
With hope surging inside us, we began to plan a trip to the shrine. Our Lady had taken pity on many couples there, according to the words of these priests and accounts I read online. Perhaps she would take pity on us, too, though I questioned whether I had sufficient faith or the proper motives to deserve to be heard. I tried to check my enthusiasm a little because for every person on the internet who wrote a story of prayers answered, I wondered, how many others visited the shrine and did not receive the healing they desired?
As we prepared for our 1,400-mile trip, the feast day of Our Lady of La Leche came. On that day, a massive, clearly visible rainbow overspread our house. I tried not to put too much stock in it, knowing my tendency to interpret happenings as signs when they aren’t, or at least aren’t the kind I think they are. But I couldn’t help wondering if it meant something.
Gliding over clouds that looked like massive snowy crags while reading Dante’s Purgatorio, I felt as though I, too, might be nearing the peak of a mountain of purification. At least I hoped so. And when we stepped off the plane near midnight and I smelled the rich, lively, ocean-tinted Floridian air, the hope burned brighter.
St. Augustine is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the United States and served as the capital for Spanish Florida for over 200 years. It has deep Catholic roots. The city was founded on September 8, 1565, by Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Florida’s first governor. He chose the name “San Augustin” because his ships first sighted land on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine. The streets are small and winding, clearly established in the days before automobiles dominated the thoroughfares. Many of the buildings are old and in the Spanish style. You can feel the age of the city in your bones. It was unlike any other town I had visited in the country.
On October 21, about midday, we pulled our rental car into the parking lot for the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche. The shrine is composed of a main visitors’ center and museum connected to the shrine’s primary church and a park-like area filled with statues, flowers, a rosary walk, and the humble little vine-covered chapel housing the statue of Our Lady of La Leche. Across an inlet stands an enormous cross, almost tall enough to require lights on top to alert planes to its presence. Beyond that lies a little bay and then the ocean.
We first visited the museum, where a soft-spoken yet warm and friendly older gentleman—whom I’ll call Dale—gave us a tour of the remarkable artifacts housed there, including old vestments, the coffin of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, and a recording of the Our Father in the native Indian language. There was a miniature diorama of this mission—for that’s what the shrine was originally—as it would have looked when the Spaniards first arrived: small and vulnerable and alone. It consisted of a flimsy looking palisade, a few little huts, and a priest standing at an outdoor altar with a small congregation behind him, surrounded by impenetrable forest and swampland.
Dale told us of the founding of this place, how the Spaniards sailed from Spain, sent by King Philip II, without knowledge of hurricane season in the Western Atlantic. As a result, most of the expedition perished on the way. When the ragged and storm-wracked survivors finally came to shore, right in this place, they immediately venerated the cross and then offered a Mass of thanksgiving—likely the first parish Mass offered in what would become the United States. Our Lady had brought them through. She had been their Star of the Sea, Stella Maris, their sure guide, in the most literal of senses, providing them with the crossing over treacherous waters. Fr. Francisco López de Mendoza Grajales, the priest of the expedition, described the scene in his journal:
On Saturday the eighth the General landed with many banners spread, to the sounds of trumpets and the salutes of artillery. As I had gone ashore the evening before, I took a cross and went to meet him, singing the hymn ‘Te Deum Laudamus.’ The General, followed by all who accompanied him, marched up to the cross, knelt and kissed it. A large number of Indians watched these proceedings and imitated all that they saw done.
The Spaniards eventually built a fort in St. Augustine along with the mission that grew up around their original landing point and from which they evangelized the natives. In the early 1600s, the Shrine to Nuestra Senora de La Leche, Mary nursing the infant Jesus, was established. It was the first shrine to Mary in the United States. The mission and shrine, we were told, was destroyed many times over the centuries by pirates, other settlers, and hurricanes. But it was always rebuilt, including the little chapel housing the statue of Our Lady of La Leche.
The guide also told us the origins of this unusual devotion, which the Spanish had brought with them from Spain. Some years before the coming to the New World, a Spanish peasant man had a heavy cross. His wife was pregnant, but complications with the pregnancy meant that both she and the baby were going to die. Weighed down with his grief, the man was out walking one day when he encountered a group of boys tossing an object back and forth as part of a game. Coming closer, he realized it was a statue. He took it away from the boys and their disrespectful treatment and saw that it was an image of Our Lady seated and nursing the child Jesus. He took it home and began to pray before the image, asking for a safe delivery for his wife and baby. His prayers were miraculously answered, and news of this miracle began to spread. Soon, devotion to the image of “Our Lady of the Milk” disbursed throughout Spain, and, eventually, the New World.
After touring the museum, my wife and I walked into the little paradise, the “sacred acre,” as it is known, at the center of the shrine property. There are many statues, grottos, and gravestones under the shade of the trees there. In the center, the chapel stands, looking very much like it would have looked 450 years ago.
Inside, all is quiet and calm and peaceful. There are wooden benches on the floor, wooden beams on the ceiling, stucco walls, and at the front, in an alcove above the altar, one of the most beautiful statues of Our Lady I have ever seen. She holds Jesus gently to her breast and looks down at him with inexpressible tenderness. A magnificent crown adorns her inclining head. The statue is remarkably lifelike. The overwhelming impression I felt, kneeling before it, was that she was about to speak or move at any moment. Though the statue remained motionless, I knew that Our Lady was watching us from Heaven; that she was listening to us with great care and attention. And we prayed our hearts out there, before the statue.
Later that day, we visited the beach. It was windy, and great breakers of indigo-blue waves were rearing up and falling into foam on the beach. We waded in, hand in hand, until we were shoulder deep. We let the water lift us again and again, wash over us, crash into us, but we held on to each other. Like our life, I thought. Hand in hand, we face the waves that come against us and try to overwhelm us. But we won’t let go of each other. And Mary is our guiding light, our navigation point. Ave Stella Maris. Even if we never become parents.
After a waterfront dinner at an Irish pub, we wandered the glittering, European-style streets and plazas, passed the restaurants that lined the bayside, overheard the murmuring of the milling crowds and the diners tasting fine wines and seafood on patios. We passed the old university, blanketed with Spanish moss, and passed the grand cathedral where we heard the echoing of an organ concert drifting into the street. The warm and salty air was against our faces, and the stars were beginning to come out over the ocean.
My wife held my hand tightly. “Even if Our Lady doesn’t give us a baby, I’m still glad we came,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “It was still worth it to honor her at her shrine.”
And so one of the most peaceful and happy days of my life came to a close.
* * * *
A few months later, after our return, while researching natural infertility treatments online, I learned about Maca root. Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is a root-like cruciferous vegetable from the Andes of Peru. It manages to grow in some of the harshest farmlands in the world, facing, at times, freezing temperatures, raging winds, and oppressive sunlight. This is the only food crop that can grow and thrive at such high altitudes and in difficult weather. The native Peruvians have used Maca root as food and medicine for two millennia.
But I really began to pay attention when I read about Maca’s connection to the Spanish Conquest. Soon after the arrival of the Spanish in the New World, they began to experience illness and infertility, possibly due to the adjustment to the higher altitudes of the Andes. The Peruvians advised the use of Maca, and the dramatic results formed the basis for some of the first written records ever kept of the Andean region. It is speculated that the first Spanish baby born in the Highland was conceived through the aid of Maca. Some accounts even say that the Conquistadors began requiring payment in Maca instead of gold. To this day, Maca is known to support reproductive health for both men and women.
Somehow, after the journey to Florida, I felt I was connected to that ragged band of courageous Spanish settlers and missionaries who came to the New World, and even that poor man back in Spain who had found the statue. I shared something with them. They were my brothers, for we had a common Mother. The Maca seemed to solidify this notion. Was it mere coincidence that this fertility food had deep historical links to the very people and time period connected to Our Lady of La Leche? Or was this heavenly help sent by our Mother? Either way, we had to try it.
There are moments in life, however fleeting, that are a foretaste of Heaven, when we see briefly but lucidly the demarcations of a grand plan in the universe, of which we are a part, a plan that is moving toward the ultimate triumph of the good and the rectification of all that has somehow gone wrong. We experience for a space the fulfillment of those deepest desires, some of which go too deep for words, and we know what we have scarcely dared to hope in the darkness of the trial, what we have almost let ourselves disbelieve: that God is there, that He sees our yearnings, and that He fulfills them in His own mysterious way.
The happy ending is not a myth; neither in our lives nor in history broadly speaking, though its final completion will only come at the end of time. In the meantime, we receive fragments of it, such as the unexpected blooming of new life within the flower of our little family.
For my wife is now, at the time of this writing, 17 weeks pregnant with our La Leche baby. We learned of the pregnancy on the feast of the Annunciation. And now a statue of Our Lady nursing Jesus, which we brought home with us from the shrine, sits by her bedside and watches over her and the child.
The answering of our prayers—even the most extravagant, and even in a miraculous or semi-miraculous way—is not reserved only for the saints, as I have sometimes thought. It is for you and me and all poor sinners who believe that Mary is their mother and the Star of the Sea, guiding her children through the storm.
[Photo: Our Lady of La Leche Shrine at Nombre de Dios Mission]