On Periods And Placentas And Other Theological Themes
Why did God create menstrual periods?
It’s a question many women have asked in eye-rolling exasperation down the centuries. The average woman spends about 500 weeks of her life dealing with the discomfort, inconvenience and general grossness of expelling the lining of her womb, just so it can start to build up again ready for the next month’s ovulation. What was God thinking?
No seriously, what was God thinking? I hadn’t considered it until I received an email inviting me to endorse a book called A Brief Theology of Periods (Yes, Really) by Rachel Jones.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the theology of the body, what it means that we are embodied beings, what the relationship is between the soul and the body etc. You’d think it would have occurred to me to wonder at least once why women’s bodies bleed once a month for a significant chunk of their lives. And if all our bodily parts and functions were designed intentionally and deliberately by a creator who could have done anything he liked with them, why did he choose to design them like this? If everything in creation points to and speaks of God, what is our menstrual cycle meant to tell us about him?
To be honest, I’m still not quite sure. The book is very thought-provoking, and offers a lot of wisdom and wise counsel for women struggling with this aspect of their embodiedness. Pastorally, it is very helpful. But in terms of understanding how my monthly cycle is meant to point me to God, it has left me wanting more.
Jones talks about the biblical symbolism of the shedding of blood for cleansing of sins - does this link in some way with the rather cryptic verse about women being saved through childbearing? As Jen Wilkin put it in this video that Andrew shared at the Think conference a couple of years back, “Women’s bodies, every 28 days, tell them a parable about the shedding of blood for the renewing of life.” Except that if you’re trying to conceive, the shedding of blood tells you - devastatingly - that once again there has been no renewing of life. And of course, Leviticus 15 tells us that a woman is ceremonially unclean for the duration of her period - the blood isn’t cleansing her then - quite the opposite.
It can’t be to do with expelling that which is not needed for life, as both men’s and women’s bodies already have a parable about that, multiple times a day.
On a practical level, an issue of blood is a marker of your years and seasons of (if all is well) fertility, but did God have to choose such a gross, uncomfortable, embarrassing marker? Perhaps they are a result of the fall, since most other mammals aren’t subject to them (they reabsorb the endometrium back into the body). Jones ponders this too, though inconclusively, as we have no way of knowing (my hunch is no, unless the other menstruating mammals - bats, elephant shrews and spiny mice - also sinned in some way). Though since there will be no marriage, and presumably no physical reproduction in the new creation, we will presumably be period-free then. Hallelujah!
And yet… It is part of God’s design. his plan. All his ways are perfect, so his perfect nature must be, in some way, revealed through our periods. I shouldn’t just wish them away, or try to ignore them. As Jones says, “We can’t leave our soul outside the toilet-cubicle door.”
God can reveal himself through the strangest of things. Fans of Call the Midwife this week witnessed our beloved Sister Monica Joan find her way back out of her dark night of the soul through contemplation of, of all things, a woman’s placenta.
“I have examined placenta in all kinds of lights,” she explained. “I never cease to marvel at its beauty when exposed. This, the least visible of all the body’s organs, laid before us for our scrutiny. ... It grows with us, it fires us. It sustains the very beating of our blood. When I see this, with all its lines and traceries I see the miracle of God himself. I see his handiwork. And I see his love. I see where I began, what fed me, and what feeds me now. It is complete, and so - within his love - am I.”
If a placenta can point a TV audience to transcendence, to beauty and to God’s sustaining love, surely periods can do the same for those who have eyes to see. At the very least, Rachel Jones’ book has made me stop and think. It has pointed me to the intricate miracle of my interior cycle - all the hormones and processes working away like a silent clockwork month after month. The stimulation, release, preparation and expulsion. The anticipation. The possibility. The cleansing. And the starting again.
I don’t know why God made us bleed, but I’m grateful for this prompt to ponder his purposes in periods and placentas, and hope you are, too. (And if you have any further insights, let’s chat on Twitter.)