1 September 2020

Turning the page

Picture of Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the former editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic

The subtitle of Debra Vermeer’s gracious book Life to the Full could at first glance seem to appeal to a limited audience. But don’t be fooled! Despite the subject not being relevant to me, I read it in one sitting. The key is grasping Debra’s deep, faith-filled understanding of infertility. As a Benedictine oblate, she credits the nuns at the Abbey at Jamberoo, and the Benedictine way, with significant insights and unequivocal support.

Mother Hilda Scott osb writes, “…no matter what your particular ‘infertility’ in life is, you will find the whispering of God in your own heart meeting your own pain.”

Debra recalls, “One bishop told me: ‘There are many forms of barrenness or sterility in our lives … physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional. The question we have to ask … is how might the barrenness become a source of blessing?’”

I defy any reader not to be moved by the bravery of the seven couples who share their stories of love, of commitment to faith and to each other, and of infertility.

Debra sets the tone, sharing the highly entertaining story of her relationship with Tony. On marrying Tony, a widower, Debra becomes stepmother to teenagers Cassie and Zac. She prays, “Dear Lord, help me to be the person they need me to be.” Debra and Tony hoped to add to the family and when, during their nuptial Mass, they promised to welcome children lovingly as gifts from God, each of them meant it.

But it was not to be.

Debra, and indirectly Tony, are disarmingly frank in sharing their story. As it happened, each had medical issues; for Tony, reversal of a vasectomy, and for Debra, Conn’s Syndrome. However, the path to realising there will be no baby is long and fraught, and there are times – for all the couples – when it seems pretty tough that when all two people want is surely God’s will, and they are praying more than they’ve ever prayed, their prayers seem to be ignored.

Infertile women feature in the Bible – think Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth. Some of the women whom Debra interviewed struggled with these stories but eventually, as Debra points out, “God brings life from barrenness for His own purpose, which is to redeem His people.”

Briony and Jesse eventually reached a point where they were not prepared to accept the medical intervention that might have helped them conceive. Briony’s studies on the theology of infertility have led her to “understand more about the literary tools used in the Bible, including the barren woman motif …They’re trying to say, ‘How amazing is it that Jesus was born!’ …This is the line that the Saviour came from – it’s a line of miracles!”

One of Debra’s hopes in writing her book was to encourage greater understanding of infertility, pastorally and theologically. Alwyn, husband of Trudy, completed a thesis on ‘Infertility in the Light of the Catholic Tradition’.

A number of individuals who shared their stories expressed the difficulty of being at Mass on Mother’s and Father’s Days, when rituals highlight their situation. A bishop with whom Philomena and Adrian shared their experience responded; “…he said he was going to change the blessing in his diocese to encourage people who want to be mothers and fathers to come forward as well.”

The couples whom Debra interviewed are fervent pray-ers – after all, they’ve really got skin in the game – and they do reach an understanding that prayer is not always answered in the way the pray-er would choose – but it is answered.

Philomena and Adrian recall adopting WooSol – not an easy journey in itself – and conclude, “God has answered our prayers, not in the way we expected, but in a really amazing way and we are so thankful.”

One of the reasons for ordained and other ministers to read Life to the Full is that a number of couples share a sense of loneliness in their parish. They don’t belong in youth groups or seniors’ gatherings and they’re not part of the parish school community. There’s an agenda item for pastoral planners.   

The Catechism teaches that, “By its very nature, the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory” (1652). Most Catholics would know this, although they might express it in other terms. However, who knew that the Catechism also says, “Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning … Their marriage can radiate fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.”

This sentence was a game-changer for Debra, and perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the hope that pervades every couple’s story. They share their story in order to assure others that despite deep disappointment, they continue to live lives that are hope-filled, open to God’s will and most of all, fruitful.

Debra says that she and Tony see the book as “a fruit of our marriage, for sure – with a very long gestation!”   


Life to the Full is available for $24.95 from St Paul’s at: stpauls.com.au

or 02 9394 3400.


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