Thursday, October 23, 2014

When NFP is hard to swallow

The funny thing about talking shop about NFP (Natural Family Planning) with other users is that the conversation, either online or in person, usually goes one of two ways.

Exhibit A: NFP blows. Meet my fourth daughter, Maria Faustina, miraculously conceived 13 days post peak. She's our 5th child in 6 years. Still, be it done unto me according to my chart...

or else

Exhibit B: NFP is so magical. It will change your life, divorce-proof your marriage, and guarantee smoldering, ecstatic sex almost every day of the month (except for a teeny tiny window, if you're seeking to avoid pregnancy.) You're an idiot if you find it challenging. Because science.

I guess I fall somewhere in between there. And I'd guess that many of us do.

I had the opportunity to speak to a group of beautiful mamas at my own parish yesterday (talk about humbling) and it was just so refreshing to be able to speak openly and honestly about the beauty AND the struggle of NFP. Because, like so much else about love and marriage, it's not always easy and it's not always clear. Because sometimes it's cloudy. Or cloudy-clear.

Aaaaaanyway, the thing is we aren't doing ourselves any favors as a Church or as couples in desperate need of support, fellowship, and wisdom from other families in the trenches if we don't speak openly about this thing that we're all expected to do (wink, wink) but that few of us are actually doing. And those of us who are doing it? Well, we're idiots. And sometimes we believe that to be true.

It's not easy being open to life in a culture so utterly opposed to it.

Our neighbors think we're weirdos. Our parents think we're irresponsible. Our bosses think we don't know what causes that. And our cashiers at the grocery store wonder if we know where the condoms are stocked.

Here's the thing though; Jesus doesn't promise convenience, lack of suffering, or predictability. There was something about a cross and lifting it upright and, you know the rest.

We live in a time and a place where convenience is the highest good. I think some of us actually worship it. I think of this most often when I'm doing the microwave dance, reheating my morning coffee, wondering how 28 seconds can pass so slowly and if I stare intently at this glowing box, will it heat any faster?

But Christianity is not convenient. 

Forgoing contraception and having difficult, meaningful, frustrating conversations about love and eternity with your spouse month after month after month...is not convenient. Having a baby 11 months after the last one was delivered, or facing down months and maybe even years of abstinence due to a medical diagnosis is not convenient. Learning to practice temperance, self control, and chastity within - yes, within marriage - is not convenient.

But convenience doesn't guarantee happiness. Or rather, it doesn't guarantee joy.

Using NFP will not make you happy. It will not earn you a free ticket to heaven or a front-row seat at a papal audience. It's not a panacea for marital woes, and it's definitely not some baptized, back-assward Church-approved method of contraception.

It's more than that. But also less.

NFP is, first and foremost, a tool. It's something the Church, backed by scientific research, offers to her children as a means to understanding the mysterious and often confounding gift of human fertility.

Contraception, on the other hand, is the deliberate dismantling of fertility. Rather than seeking to understand, it shuts down, short circuits, or disables it.

NFP and contraception have something in common in that both can be used to avoid pregnancy. But only so much as both an umbrella and a nuclear bomb can shelter you from the rain. One works within reality, the other creates an alternate reality. And it's not pretty, though it might be very effective at keeping you dry.

NFP isn't Catholic contraception. But as long as those of us who bow our heads and bend our knees to the teachings of Christ and His Church on the matter try to compare it as such, whether in our mirrors or in conversions with each other, we're going to come up short. 

Contraception offers apparent freedom and happiness to couples longing for love. But it doesn't deliver. It can't. It cuts off love at the root, making small what could grow into something grand and majestic. 

NFP isn't a failsafe, foolproof guarantee against marital unhappiness. But it isn't self destructive, either. It's actually morally neutral; we inform the morality by our own use of it, and the choices we make.

So let's have this conversation, shall we? Let's admit that yes, living the Church's teachings on sex and marriage is difficult, insanely difficult in some circumstances. Especially in this culture, in this moment in history, in this climate of me-ness and mine-ness and all the nesses. But let's go further. Let's let people in for a glimpse at the messy, the chaotic, the honest, and the beautiful. Because for everything this culture lays claim to, beauty is not a credible option. We are starved for beauty, searching for meaning, and desperate to find - and to be - love.

And marriages that are truly open to life have a depth and a sincerity to them, even in the difficult moments, that is wildly attractive. That's the real reason people can't stop talking about it. Sure, some people are legitimately disgusted by the sight of more than a couple children trailing a simliar-looking adult in a crowded shopping center. But they're the minority. 

People are naturally drawn to what is true, good, and beautiful - so let's draw them in. And let's not be afraid to look them square in the eye and say, yes, you're right, my hands are full, and somebody just pissed on my foot in the Chipotle bathroom a few minutes ago...but I'm still going to keep them.

Click here for the rest of the series.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

JPII, we still need you

A couple of decades ago the world was introduced to a new kind of pope when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s, arms held high in greeting to a massive crowd who could not pronounce his name.
Cardinal who?
It was a tumultuous season in the life of the Church, and in the world. Communism held eastern Europe and Russia in a death grip. The West was in the throes of the fallout from the sexual revolution. War was everywhere. The family was under siege, both in the media and in the news. The Church was struggling to communicate the fullness and freshness of the Gospel to a world grown cold and indifferent to the message of Christ.
In short, it wasn’t a whole lot different from where we stand today.
Pope John Paul II was exactly the man for the job. Born into a loving Polish family, Karol would lose everyone who mattered most to him by his 21st birthday. With each subsequent heartache, each desolating loss, young Karol found himself drawn further and further into the mystery of the heart of the Father. Rather than running from God in his grief, he allowed his suffering to transform him, and his heart was enkindled with an unquenchable love for human love.
This man who lost mother, father, brother, and friend to all manner of hideous diseases and atrocities at the hands of the Nazis was transformed, by God’s grace, into one of the greatest lovers the world has ever known.
Maybe it’s strange to think of a celibate man as a great lover. Or maybe it’s just an unfamiliar application of the word. Our modern concept of sexual love is very narrow, and it’s very limiting. Sexuality has been reduced to mere animal lust, its scope and grandeur stunted by the pornographic times we live in.
But it’s true, JPII was a great lover. He was able to see into the depths of the human heart and, through his work with countless hundreds of young people and married couples, he had a unique perspective on human love. You might say he was an expert on matters of the human heart.
He saw the divinity in our humanity, and he stretched our minds to the breaking point trying to communicate it through his years-long series of Wednesday addresses, which we know today by another name: Theology of the Body.
George Weigel, the late pope’s official biographer, made a sort of prophesy about Theology of the Body more than 20 years ago, calling it:
“A theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences sometime in the third millennium of the Church… It has barely begun to shape the way the Church understands herself and thinks about herself, barely begun to shape the Church’s preaching and education, but when it does it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the creed.”
A theological time bomb? Sounds like we could use one of those right about now.
Set to change the way the Church thinks about herself and virtually every major theme in the Creed?
Sounds kind of like a big deal.
Now, you could say that Weigel was overstating his case or that his prediction was mere conjecture, but you cannot deny the dire need for the Church to re-propose the Gospel and the meaning of life and love to a world such as ours, in a time such as this.
We are at war. We have always been at war in this fallen world, it is true. But today we are warring in a particular way for the very soul of human love.
Everything that we know to be true is open for debate: Marriage. The dignity of the human person. The meaning and purpose of sexuality. The fundamental right to life itself. Every bit of it is being reexamined and reconfigured by a world in crisis.
And we have all the answers. Literally at our fingertips. Because the internet. Because massive literacy levels across broad sections of society in many cultures. Never before has information been so easy to disseminate in all of human history.
And yet we sit idly by as our civilization self-destructs, one marriage and one family at a time.
Listen, fellow Christians…this is on us.
We were each of us hand-selected for a time such as this, and we’ve been entrusted with a powerful message from the Creator to the rest of creation in this Theology of the Body.
This stuff is visionary. It’s powerful. And it isn’t going to transform a single heart or convert a single soul so long as it remains untaught, unread, and inaccessible to the average person in the pew or on the street.
St. John Paul II, we need you. More today than when you were here with us on earth.
Pray that we may find the same kind of courage that faced down communism, defied tyrants and dictators, and saw in the face of every person an unrepeatable icon of Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Suffer the children: the highest cost of divorce

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with a fabulously talented writer and speaker who was in town to give a lecture on motherhood. Since the event was in the evening, she had some time to kill and I figured what more relaxing thing could I offer her than brunch at my favorite restaurant surrounded by 3 mewling, jam-covered children? What mother of 8 who, having flown across the country to escape her own brood, wouldn't relish the opportunity?

Anyway, that's how I ended up eating eggs benedict with Lisa Lickona, who was gracious and funny and entertaining and didn't bat an eyelash when I stripped Evie from the waist down on the patio lawn in plain view of all the other diners because I didn't feel like heading to the restroom for the 15th time for something as simple as a diaper change.

We circled around all kinds of fascinating topics, but there was one thing she shared in particular that really stuck with me. Her own parents, she explained, divorced when she was in grad school, sending shock waves through her universe.

Throughout the tumult and pain of the years following, she recounted that it was her mother's difficulty with the Church's teachings on divorce and remarriage that kept her in relationship with Christ through it all. 

Her mom, she explained, was so mad that she couldn't receive Communion. She was so hurt that her new "marriage" wasn't recognized by the Church as such. And she wanted her children to take sides. Hers, particularly, not the Church's.

Then she told me something wild. She said that in a very real way, the Church's response to her parent's divorce provided a tremendous source of comfort to her and her siblings.

You read that right. She was comforted by the Catholic response to divorce and remarriage, which says, essentially, not ideal to the former and not possible of the latter. 

In other words, divorce is never the solution, and remarriage is actually not possible. 

There is a common misunderstanding that instead of divorces, we Catholics have annulments which are basically just religious divorces. Or something.

But that's not the case. The Catholic Church teaches - has always taught - that what God has joined, no man must separate. And in fact the Church does not have the power to dissolve a licitly contracted marriage. Plain English: if two people contract a valid, sacramental marriage...there's no getting out. Well, there's one way, and it's through the morgue.

Catholics cannot get divorced because marriage is a lifelong covenant. As long as both spouses are living, the marriage is, too. 

Annulment, which I'll cover in greater detail another day, is the process by which the Church determines the validity of the marriage itself, in other words, was a marriage actually contracted? Was something missing from the get-go (free consent, openness to life, exclusivity, to name a few...) that prevented a sacramental marriage in the first place?

When Lisa's parents called it quits on their marriage, they weren't just walking away from their covenant with each other; they were also walking away from the covenant they'd made with God. And God doesn't walk out on covenants.

What was incredibly painful for her mother was actually immensely comforting to the children left in the ruins, because the Church recognized, as they did, that something had gone wrong. 

That there was a real wound, a real suffering, and a real loss when mom and dad walked away from one another. And that it would be fair to no one to permit things to continue on, business as usual, when in fact their family had suffered a terrible rupture. 

That's why remarriage isn't an option for Catholics. Because as long as both spouses are alive, they're still married...to each other. Even in the most unimaginably difficult circumstances. Even if one, or both, get "remarried" to somebody else.

Do you see the complications that ensue?

But more importantly, do you see where the greatest suffering lies?

It's in the lives of their children.

Children are the real victims of divorce, and they're the reason that marriages must be preserved at all cost. Sometimes at unimaginably great costs. 

But what's the alternative? 

Look around. Look at our society, so full of insecure and wounded people whose parents thought first of themselves and only later of the innocent little lives torn apart by adult decisions. Look at all the young people unwilling or unable to commit to relationships of their own, so scarred and gun-shy from the experiences of their youth. 

We spend a lot of time talking about the need to support and minister to divorced couples, but very little time addressing the needs of their children, for whom the fabric of the very universe has just ruptured.

The Church's firm and loving response to divorced and "remarried" Catholics is actually the most sane, compassionate, and logical response possible: "you have made a mistake, come, let us try to make it right, and let us not further your destruction by refusing to acknowledge the mistake."

And, perhaps most importantly, she says to the children, your suffering is real, and you have lost something irreplaceable. We cannot look the other way and pretend otherwise.

It's a small comfort in a crisis of epidemic proportions, but it's something. 

Click here for the rest of the series.
p.s. For a better, smarter, and far more in depth treatment on the topic, you really ought to click over and read Lisa's piece on Children of Divorce

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sprinkle with Sparkle

I don't do reviews or product placements. I just don't. I've had a handful of requests the past month or so and I always say no because I'm just not that kind of blog (and I'm emphatically NOT judging your fabulous blog which is able to feature incredible brands), and because, honestly, I don't get that many requests.

But I do have a soft spot for mamas running small businesses. And for people who offer freebies to my daughter. So when Amanda contacted me offering to make a sweet little lovey blanket for Evie doll ... well, I was basically powerless.

Her Etsy shop is adorable, and she's able to offer custom colors and combinations to make something for your little person, too. (And, from now through October 25th, she has generously decided to offer 20% off when you use the promo code "Coffee" at checkout.)

I have to say that while Genevieve mostly chews on toy trains and the stray matchbox car, she has been quite taken with her darling little blankie, which I purposely ordered in atypical girly colors, just to throw some contrast into her pink and cream-colored universe.

Check out Amanda's darling goods for yourself, and feast your eyes on Evie's first sponsored photo shoot:








(Thanks Amanda!) Etsy.com/shop/sprinklewithsparkle.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Let's talk about "openness to life"

In a Catholic wedding, just before the exchange of vows, the priest or deacon receiving the couple's promises to one another and to God asks a series of three questions. I thought they were part of the vows themselves, but they're actually preliminary questions which allow the vows to proceed, if that makes sense. 
They're conditional, in a way. A sort of final litmus to test the sincerity of the couple entering into Holy Matrimony, making certain the conditions necessary for a valid marriage are in place.
"(Name) and (name), have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage?" 
"Will you honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?" 
"Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?"
That last line always gets me. I said those words with such sincerity, and without the faintest idea what I was actually getting myself into.

How hard can it be, right? 

Dave and I were well prepared for marriage and kids, both by the examples we had in our own families and in our varies jobs. We were professional oldest siblings, bossy as hell (well, one of us) and super mature.

We were so set.

Then went and like, had a child of our own and we were all, oooooooohkay, this is a little different then what I was expecting.

With each additional kid we've added to our ranks, I've observed an odd mixture of increasing love and parental competence accompanied by stark, raving terror. Because more kids are more work, yes, but also because with each new baby bump my anxiety level ratchets up another thousand points because love invites loss.

There's a very real point at which openness to life intersects with openness to loss.

There are the more obvious examples; infertility, miscarriage, still birth, infant death, loss of a child, major illness...and then there are the less apparent losses. Loss of autonomy. Loss of control. Loss of income. Loss of (perceived) ability to know the future.

I get why a culture such as ours, hell bent on control and predictability, has such a hard time accepting children. And actually, I don't think it's unique to our time. What is unique is the accessibility and widespread acceptance of contraception.

We still pledge to accept children lovingly from God, but we do so with fingers crossed behind our backs, knowing that at the end of the day, we don't really have to rely on God in that arena in this day and age. I mean maybe we think He'll send a couple our when we're good and ready, hopefully healthy models that tick all the right boxes...but we don't honestly plan on throwing caution to the wind and sailing bravely into the unknown, opening wide to the adventure of marriage and parenthood.

But what if we did?

What if agreeing to accept children lovingly from God was more than just an archaic line in an ancient religious ceremony? What if we actually lived that promise, (and I'm not talking about going quiver full or moving to Arkansas, though we do love a good Duggar episode in this house) giving our future over to God and asking for His plans, not our own, for our families. And what if His answer looked completely different from what we'd hoped?

What if there were no children at all, or only a precious one? What if there were 6, and we felt stretched past our breaking point and ready to drop dead? And what if, no matter what story He wanted to write with our fertility, we bowed our heads and whispered, not my while, but Yours, be done.

Maybe we'd be happier. Maybe our marriages would be richer. Maybe our houses would be destroyed and maybe our hearts would be broken open by disappointment and difficulty and sorrow ... and maybe they would be so much larger for it.

I know this is a crazy thought, but what if God knows better than we do the plans He has for us ... plans for our welfare and not for our woe? Plans to give us a future, and hope?

I struggle every single day with relinquishing control. From my first cup of coffee until my eyes close at night. I have three beautiful children. I've got it made. And I'm so lucky. Why rock the boat? Why be open to more difficulty? Why risk the chance that things might get messy(er)/painful/uncertain?

Well, this is why. Faith like this woman's. That's the kind of boldness I want to practice. That's the stuff saints are made of. Radical openness, wild trust, and abandon to divine providence.

Now, to find the courage. Because quite frankly, it's still a terrifying prospect.

Click here for the rest of the series.