Living Humanae Vitae: stories of faithfulness to the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage
May 1, 2018
How many times can she write about NFP?
I can write about it as many times as it takes in order for me to internalize the seemingly simple concepts undergirding this most perennially misunderstood of Catholic teachings: openness to life.
I’ve spilled plenty of digital ink on the splendors of HV in the past, and I don’t retract a single character of any of it, but boy, living it out day-to-day is a little different than studying it in abstraction.
I just finished reading a trilogy of stories set in ancient Rome, around 70 years AD, and the grit and virtue and boldness of the early Christians whose lives it chronicled astonishes me. Not only because of the certain death in the arena at the jaws of wild beasts which they faced if their clandestine faith was exposed, but because they were truly – at least in the fictional narrative I read- in constant conversation with one another and with God about His will.
It reminded me a little bit (and only a little bit) of practicing NFP. The willingness to look foolish, to feel foolish, and to be subject to some degree of rejection – varying from bemused to downright nasty – by the culture at large. This comparison both consoles and shames me, because on the one hand I probably don’t need to worry overly much about imprisonment and martyrdom in 21st century America (not at this precise moment, at least) and on the other hand, how embarrassing that the relatively benign cross I’ve been asked to shoulder feels so crushing upon my feeble shoulders.
Because for all the beauty and truth and goodness I perceive in the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage, living it out is often none of the above. I don’t want to spend the next 12 to 14 months “getting my body back” only to balloon to an unspeakable number on the scale again with another pregnancy. I don’t want to practice copious amounts of abstinence within marriage, feeling more like a roommate than a spouse while I learn the ropes of (yet) another method of NFP. I don’t want to peer anxiously into the mists of my 40’s and wonder if I’m going to be one of those lucky women who keep ovulating well into their 5th decade, thereby prolonging the suspense and surprise of another baby in the very twilight of my fertile years.
I don’t have the faith of Sarah and Abraham. I don’t have the confident humility of Mary. I lack Elizabeth’s joyful surrender. I spend a lot of time worrying about all of this, to be perfectly honest, and for the first time in my life, I can wholeheartedly empathize with the temptation of contraception.
(It’s a big but.)
God knows my heart better. God knows our needs better than we do. And God asks so relatively little of us modern Christians in the developed world. My children have food and medicine and beds to sleep in. There is no conflict in our region that daily imperils their lives. We have medical care to bring them all, almost certainly, to adulthood, a reality unthinkable only a few generations past. We are richly, richly blessed. My life is not without its challenges, but should I come face to face with a Christian mother from the ancient world, I don’t think she would recognize my suffering as such. Maybe she would look around at the vast temptation all our technology affords us to ignore God – to become like gods in a real sense – and she would nod her head in understanding at the real difficulties this presents in raising a faithful family. But I think she would probably also look at our overflowing closets and dishwasher and running water and marvel at the sheer wealth and provision we tend to take for granted.
And I wonder if she would look at me with my access to a clean, safe hospital (and epidurals!) and good maternal healthcare and a supportive, faithful husband and no known health issues and steady employment and wonder why I was so afraid of bringing new life into the world.
I wonder that, too.
Is it because I’ve been conditioned to not overdo things in the gestational department by a culture that hammers us over the head with the message that two is plenty? Is it because I have unrealistic beauty standards for myself based largely upon the availability and use of contraception? Is it because we have little to no daily support outside our extended family (which alone is an enormous advantage) as we parent these children of ours, the village having since passed into the realm of history and metaphor?
All I know is that we had 5 babies in 7 years, and I’m tired. I want my body back. I want to sleep through the night again. I want to eagerly count down the months until all 5 kids are in school full time and my professional life can ramp up again during those 35 available hours a week.
Basically, I want motherhood and child rearing to have been a fleeting season that flies by (as I am repeatedly told by strangers at Target) and is gone in the wistful blink of an eye, but I also want to reject the cultural narrative that my children are somehow holding me back and that my fertility is something to be tightly managed, suppressed, and ultimately discarded.
I want it both ways.
I want to live in harmony with the culture of which I am a part while also raising children who transcend the culture to seek the Lord’s will over their own. I want to be confident in our choice to live faithfully the Church’s call to marital chastity and fruitfulness and also look great in jeans and effortlessly drop the pounds that pregnancy hangs on my diminutive frame. I want to fill my home with happy children and also be handed the keys to a Nissan NV with a wink and a smile from a God who, as it turns out, subscribes to the health and wealth gospel Himself, despite what the actual Gospels say, and will surely reward my faithfulness with material abundance and children who sleep through the night from birth.
I want a lot of contradictory things.
And my greatest discomfort lies in that friction between what I claim to want as a subject of Christ and what I pant enviously after as a citizen of the world.
I have some stories to share with you from friends and fellow Christians in the coming weeks as we approach the 50th anniversary of Bl. Paul VI’s prophetic text, Humanae Vitae, in July. They are stories of suffering and heartache. Stories of loss and betrayal. Stories of hope, of fidelity, and of a peace that surpasses understanding. They are the stories of ordinary men and women who are using NFP and struggling, failing, confessing, and getting back up again to keep at it because the struggle is worth it. Because the Church asks us to do this thing in Her wisdom, not in Her sadism. Because either we trust in the Apostolic authority handed down from Peter or we are each our own little magisterium and, as such, are tasked with an exhaustive and impossible list of things to discern for ourselves using the quivering compass of our own consciences.
The Church asks us to do much harder things than what Humanae Vitae contains. We worship the Creator of the Universe contained in a scrap of bread. We proclaim the Resurrection of the dead and immortality. We turn our cheek to let an enemy get a better angle for the second punch. And yes, we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice even in the bedroom, which is the very last place our culture encourages us to exercise any sort of restraint or charity.
It’s a wild ride. It’s an impossible mandate without Jesus. And it is going to the stuff that 21st century saints are made of, I’m firmly convinced.
I think after reading some of the stories I’ll be sharing over the next 2 months, you’ll think so, too. We hear plenty of stories of people who find the demands of Christ impossibly high and, like the rich young man in the Gospel, walk away.
But sticking with it when the going gets tough? Relying on the unfathomable depths of Jesus’ mercy when we inevitably stumble and fall?