To Prepare a Place

The first chapter of Sirach says that God begins bestowing wisdom in the womb. Few of us think of brand-new babies as budding sages, but for decades now scientists have been refining our understanding of how much babies are learning in utero. Even before viability, babies are soaking up information about the world around them, preparing for the world they will enter at birth.

They learn about the foods they will be eating. The foods their mothers consume change the taste and smell of the amniotic fluid that surrounds them, and those early exposures prepare them to like those foods down the line. A six-month-old baby tasting solids for the first time is more likely to accept a taste that she was exposed to gestationally. Without even realizing it, mothers are equipping their unborn babies to thrive in the food culture they'll be born into.

Babies also learn about the language they'll be learning, and the voices of the people who love them. Experiments have shown that newborn babies can already distinguish the sounds that belong in their own language from the sounds that occur in different languages. A newborn will know -- and show a preference for -- his mother’s voice over the voice of a different woman. Through the weeks of late pregnancy he has been learning about the world he could not yet see.

"It is in dying," says the prayer attributed to St. Francis, "that we are born to eternal life." If you are reading this essay, it has been a while since you burst into an unknown world you had never seen before. But we are all of us preparing for that birth into eternity. 

In earlier times Christians put more emphasis on the practice of memento mori, an awareness of the inevitability of one's own death, and of the importance of preparation for it. In the same way that mothers teach their gestating babies about the words they'll hear and the foods they'll eat, Our Lord teaches us, his sheep, to know his voice. Week after week at Mass we learn to love the living bread that came down from heaven. "I go to prepare a place for you," he said the night before he died. Even now he is preparing us to reach that place.

The practice of hospitality -- extending welcome to others -- is one means by which we can grow in holiness in preparation for heaven. Here in Respect Life month it is especially appropriate to extend a warm welcome to babies born and unborn. In a culture that often views babies as noisy, messy, and inconvenient, we can welcome Our Lord by welcoming little ones. We are all called to prepare a place in this life for the babies soon to be born into it -- whether we do so by offering welcome and encouragement or by providing concrete supports like diapers and health care. In doing so, we also prepare our own souls for their birth into eternity.