Yvonne, my amazing friend who has previously blogged here, shared this quote with me. It’s from a book called The Gobi Desert: The Adventures of Three Women Travelling Across the Gobi Desert in the 1920s.
The three women were missionaries, Mildred Cable, Eva French and her sister Francesca. They served in China for almost twenty years, before going into the Gobi Desert. They are the first (recorded) women to cross the desert. It’s still a fierce and terrifying place, so I can’t even imagine what it would be like in the 1920s for three single English women.
The bit that moved Yvonne the most was when the missionary women spent time with the women of the Gobi Desert.
We moved in and out of that women’s court as enigmatic and inexplicable beings who were independent and unattached, celibate yet satisfied, childless yet happy. There was no son to mourn for us when we should die, and no one to secure us continuity of existence through coming generations, yet we were serene and unafraid. All these women watched us and marveled. To them continuity of life was bound up with that prolongation of existence which a son secured, one who carried on the life which he owed to his mother, and thus, through the successive generations of her descendants, she would live on. In answer to the many questions which they asked me, I spoke quite otherwise. “Life after death is God’s gift,” I told them, “and does not depend upon a son and his worship at my shrine. I shall never be an orphan spirit seeking shelter, for Christ has secured me immortality and has planned all my future.”
– Mildred Cable with Francesca and Eva French, The Gobi Desert
I think we can forget just how much sons meant to women. They meant security, dignity, and a future. They carried on the family line, and in that way, kept their parents – and their ancestors – “alive”. For a woman, having a son meant completing her purpose and securing her future.
This is a feature of so many societies, particularly nomadic or agricultural ones. It’s one we see again and again in the Old Testament, with Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Hannah. And it continued through so many cultures. (Just ask poor Catherine of Aragon.) Even today, millions of baby girls are aborted in China and India every year out of this same desire for sons.
It makes it even more incredible then, to read these words from Isaiah from the 6th or 7th Century before Christ:
“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in travail!”
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.
Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
hold not back, lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
– Isaiah 54:1-2
The promise of the Gospel is that it is the childless women who be blessed. We’re supposed to think it’s absurd but it is she who will have to enlarge her tent, and make room for all the blessings of God. It is the ones scorned by society – the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart and the persecuted – who will be blessed above all.
Because the beautiful irony is that the Gospel is the provision of a son. Not just any son, but the Son of God. It is He alone who can give us security, dignity and a future. The women of the Gobi Desert – like so many women around the world and throughout the ages – looked to live on through their sons. But the Gospel tells us that we all – women and men, barren or fertile – live through, and by, and in this Son.
No wonder the three women were “serene and unafraid.” They already had an eternal Son.