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A Story of Love, Sex, and Sacrifice

A Story of Love, Sex, and SacrificeIn the past, those who promoted natural family planning (NFP) almost exclusively focused on the benefits it would bring to your marriage. But in recent years, there’s been a call from faithful lay Catholics to be more realistic about using NFP, lest couples be blindsided by the method’s sacrifices. I think there’s a middle ground with this subject, though, one that reflects both the beauty and sacrifice of following God’s plan and that’s sharing our stories. Story, after all, has the ability to resonate with people, to reach into the deepest recesses of the heart and confirm the truth in a way that dry theological reasoning rarely can. 

So here’s my story. 

In April 2003, my husband and I had our second child, a son born just 17 months after his sister. At that point, we were self-taught NFP users; I’d learned NFP out of the Couple to Couple League manual. Our lack of family support, along with our inexperience and lack of guidance on navigating the dicey postpartum period, turned our six weeks of healing abstinence into a three month dry spell. . 

At that time, it was admittedly harder for my husband than it was for me to abstain. I was exhausted from caring for two children under two, and still carried an extra 50 pounds of pregnancy weight; sex was about the last thing on my mind. One day I realized I couldn’t remember the last time we’d been intimate. I mentioned this to my husband, who said, “Oh, I remember. It was five months, two weeks, and one day ago.” I could tell from his face he was serious. 

He went on to share that I’d been so obviously uncomfortable and tired during the last trimester that he’d decided to just to give me massages and let me sleep more instead of initiating sex. After the birth, he knew we didn’t have a good handle on when I was fertile, so he didn’t bring it up then, either; he didn’t want me to feel tempted to acquiesce, which could bring about another pregnancy before we were ready. “I probably couldn’t have turned you down if you’d insisted,” he joked. “But I knew you needed me to be strong for us.” 

My husband had abstained almost half a year and had done so out of love for me and our children. He knew another pregnancy right away would compromise my health, and diminish our ability to patiently care for our two existing children. He’d taken on this enormous sacrifice without complaining about it once. 

Over the years, my husband has given me diamonds and pearls, a book signed by my favorite author, and a kitchen renovation that was the envy of my friends. But nothing will ever compare to that gift of self-sacrifice he made in 2003. I knew then our marriage could survive anything, because my husband was willing to sacrifice to serve me and our family. I still get teary thinking about it this great gift he gave me.

Yes, it was hard. Agonizingly at times. My husband, who had been Catholic for less than two years at that point, needed several discussions with our priest about abstinence and temptation. (I wish more priests realized how much they could help married men this way.) He learned to train his imagination to control his physical desires and reactions. He might have given in to sin from time to time, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. Even if he did, I know that “love covers a multitude of sins” and that Jesus lavished mercy on him in the confessional because he was at least trying to put the needs of his wife above his own desires.

A Story of Love, Sex, and SacrificeMy husband said the experience helped him grow closer to Christ, because he was often praying for the grace to stay strong. It helped him better understand our priests, and gave him greater appreciation for their sacrifice. It strengthened our marriage. It was probably one of the most spiritually fruitful periods of our 20 years together and it laid the foundation for us to survive the death of a child, a failed adoption, a cross-country move with financial hardship, bouts of depression (his and mine), and his severe post-traumatic stress disorder after his coworkers were murdered. As wonderful as it would have been to be physically intimate, even that can’t compare to what we gained in our relationships with God and each other during that prolonged abstinence. 

Many Catholics have told me they don’t agree with the Church’s teaching against contraception. “There’s no way using the Pill can be a mortal sin!” one woman scoffed. All I could think is that they’ve missed the point of Catholicism entirely. Our faith isn’t about rules, but about loving God and being loved by him. My husband and I don’t use NFP because it’s easy or convenient or more effective than condoms. We use it because we love Jesus. Through the Church, Jesus has told us that he gave us the gift of fertility and designed the marriage act to benefit us. He wants us to use our bodies chastely because it will help us grow in love and other virtues like patience and perseverance.

We expect our five children to practice certain behaviors and virtues. Our family rules don’t exist for their own sake, but to help our kids reach their fullest potential. They don’t always like the boundaries we set and sometimes, they refuse to follow them. But when they cooperate with their parents, they learn and grow and are able to become more responsible and loving people. 

Likewise, when we respect God’s design for sexuality and the marriage act, we’re able to grow spiritually and move toward the perfection He desires for us. When I think about all that comes from uncontracepted intimacy—an awe of God’s ability to create new life, knowing we’re “one flesh” with nothing between us, knowing we’re accepting the other fully and being fully accepted ourselves, a sense of purity in an act our culture has degraded…when I think about these gains, contracepted sex has nothing to offer anymore.

That’s my story, sisters. What’s yours?

Fasting Ink Slingers Lent Liturgical Year Mary P. Offering your suffering Prayer Spiritual Growth

The Fruit of Fasting

FASTING-3.2Today is the second day of Lent, which hopefully means that most of us are still gung-ho about our Lenten commitments, and are excited about the spiritual growth we hope to achieve in the coming weeks. Either that, or we’re relieved that Ash Wednesday is over so we can have the hamburger we were craving all day yesterday (and thankful that fasting no longer is required for all 40 days). Maybe it’s a little bit of both. I know that’s how I’m feeling. Every year I’m a bit split in my feelings about Lent. I am grateful for the opportunity provided by this season to grow closer to the Lord and deepen my appreciation for Easter, but I also dread the sacrifice and (minor) suffering required for me to take full advantage of that opportunity. My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak.

The weakness of our flesh – in this case, the difficulty we have in doing spiritually beneficial things such as fasting – is one reason that the Catholic Church and its rules, rituals, and liturgical seasons, is such a gift. I know that a lot of our Protestant brothers and sisters do not understand being required to fast or abstain from meat. They don’t understand the command of the Church to set aside the 40 days of Lent for making an extra effort in the areas of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Even many Catholics do not understand. Why do we need the Church to tell us to do these things? If we are going to fast, pray, and give, shouldn’t it come from our hearts rather than a sense of duty?

I concede that it would be better if we were entirely internally motivated and were not behaving simply out of obedience to Church rules when we do good works. I wish that I were more internally motivated to do a lot of things. I’ve always been the kind of person who is very high-achieving and well-behaved when there is someone/something imposing requirements on me. I respond well to rules and threats of consequences. I work well under pressure and with a deadline looming. But I’m not as good at doing something just because it’s what’s best. I confess, this is because I have an undisciplined will. It’s difficult for me to say no to myself when I can’t see the immediate consequences of saying yes. This is a weakness in my character and spiritual development, but being motivated by rules and consequences is still a praiseworthy step on the way to peak moral development – doing things solely out of love for God.

crucifixion-of-jesus-247x300The Catholic Church understands this. Even if it’s not the highest good to do something because you were told to doesn’t mean it’s not a good at all. Whether I fast because I independently choose to or because the Church told me to, I can still reap the spiritual benefits of fasting. I will experience the discomfort of hunger pangs, and that little bit of suffering can remind me to turn my attention to the extraordinary suffering of Jesus on the Cross and unite myself to him there. Hopefully I will think about how my own sins led to Jesus’ suffering on the Cross, and offer back my small amount of suffering in reparation. I may think about the people who go hungry every day because of a lack of resources, and become more motivated to serve those in need with my time and money. All of this spiritual growth can happen because the Church told me that I had to fast and I did so out of obedience.

Abstaining from meat on Fridays and giving up other pleasures during Lent are also forms of fasting, but these practices can seem even more pointless or confusing to some. How does not eating meat or candy help us to grow closer to God, especially if we are giving them up because it’s a Church-imposed season? The truth is that it probably won’t, unless we feel some degree of deprivation when we forego them, and unless we have the proper attitude while we are doing it. Many of us today do not ever have to experience deprivation of any physical comfort. We have everything we need and a whole lot more, and we tend to fill any kind of void that we feel with temporal pleasures (like coffee or chocolate). This experience of always being satisfied — never feeling physical deprivation — can mask our spiritual deprivation, our need for God. Therefore, one benefit of allowing ourselves to feel even a small amount of deprivation from giving up a simple pleasure like sweets is that it makes us more able to recognize what we are lacking in our souls and turn to God, instead of something physical, to fill the void.

Secondly, any sacrifice, no matter how small, can be offered to the Lord as a sign of our love and sorrow for our sins. To an onlooker, it might seem like “just a cup of coffee” that we are forgoing, but in the secret of our hearts, it is a gift to our Beloved, telling him that we love him more than any temporal good – if we choose to see it this way.

Lastly, these small sacrifices ultimately help us to turn away from sin. For so many of us, sin is not a result of malicious intent but a result of weakness of will when it comes to doing what’s right. We know the right thing and even want to do it, but we just … don’t. Practicing saying no to ourselves in little ways, such as not checking our Facebook page, not going for a second helping at dinner, or not drinking our favorite beer when the kids go to bed, strengthens our weak wills. The stronger our wills grow, the more able we are to say no to those things that are truly bad for us. Think of it as a weight-lifting routine – the more repetitions we do with the smaller weights, the more ready we will be for the “heavy lifting.” These “exercises” also carry us further down the path toward doing everything for the love of God rather than out of obligation.

I often have heard people say they are going to forego the traditional practice of giving up something good in favor of adding something, like more prayer time or extra confession. It’s certainly praiseworthy to add in opportunities for spiritual growth (especially prayer, since that is one of the focuses of Lent), but we shouldn’t do it in place of making those small sacrifices of good things. Remember that fasting is one of the three main objectives of Lent, and the fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are just a small part of that. If we want to be in top spiritual shape in time for Easter, we need those little sacrifices to strengthen our spiritual muscles.

This year, one of the ways I am going to practice saying no to myself is by participating in 40 Bags in 40 Days. I have a hard time getting rid of things, especially if they are in any way useful (even if I’m not using them and probably never will). This tells me that even though I’m not exactly materialistic, I have an unhealthy attachment to “stuff” and I need to break free of it. I am pretty sure that each time I try to put something into a bag to get rid of it, a little voice in my head is going to say “Keep it! Keep it!” and I am going to have to tell it “no.” In doing so over and over during these 40 days, my hope is that I will grow more and more able to say “yes” to God.


Lent Marriage NFP and contraceptives Offering your suffering Rachel M

Abundant Living During Lent

Ash Wednesday is a somber day where we begin our forty days of fasting before we celebrate our Lord rising from the dead to give us new life. It’s a day where we contemplate our chosen sacrifices and prayers to help us grow closer to our Lord. We choose to surrender parts of ourselves to unite us to our savior on the cross so that we may better understand his bleeding wounds and immense suffering.

During this season it can be difficult to come up with a authentic sacrifice beyond giving up soda, TV, alcohol, etc. Not to say that those are ingenious, but depending on your faith life, they may be somewhat juvenile. Perhaps, if your heart is willing, I have a suggestion for your 40 day journey.

Our diocese, the Diocese of Des Moines, recently held a wine and cheese social where they celebrated the beauty of the teachings of The Church on Natural Family Planning. There was wine, cheese, free childcare, and a group of Catholic friends, so ya, we went. There was a brief presentation by Bishop Pates, and then people simply sat and enjoyed the company. It was so much fun, and I even got the Bishop to take a picture with me and some of my squirmy kiddos.

As I looked around the room, I was somewhat surprised to see a lot of unfamiliar faces. I feel like my husband and I have finally settled into the Catholic community here, having moved from Nebraska to Des Moines four years ago, and we have gotten to know many amazing Catholics. But at the social, there were new faces. It was so uplifting to know that we belonged to a greater community. A group of people who love God and love The Church’s teachings on the dignity of both married life and humanity. And, it wasn’t just my circle of friends, but there were other people in Des Moines who practice Natural Family Planning (NFP).

I’m sure you have read numerous articles, publications, and perhaps even testimonies on the amazing gift of NFP. But, what I would like to share with you, is the part of NFP that I find the both the most difficult and the most fulfilling, the sacrifice. Because, it is the sacrifice that binds me to God.

In all forms of Natural Family Planning, there is a period of abstinence if you and your spouse have discerned that it is necessary for you to avoid pregnancy. Society often tells us that abstinence, especially inside of marriage has no place, that it is unrealistic. But, our Mother Church, and less importantly me, will tell you quite the opposite. When you can look at your spouse, the most desirable person in the world and say to him or her, “I love you so much that I will give up my worldly desires for you”, well, what more is there? What more could you possibly say that could better mean “I love you”.

Is this period of abstinence difficult? Well, yes, sometimes. But just as we offer our Lord a sacrifice during this Lenten season out of love, can we not offer sacrifices for those on Earth whom we love? When you view a time of abstinence of sacrifice through the eyes of our Lord, it becomes beautiful, sanctifying, and you even look forward to this time.

If in your marriage, you have not opened yourself up to this gift from the Church, I encourage you to think about it, pray about it, and discuss with your spouse and priest this opportunity. Use these 40 days of fasting as a starting point for your NFP journey, consider it a trial run, for there is no greater love than dying to one’s self for Him.

If you and your spouse practice NFP, I ask you to recommit during this Lenten season. Read a new book on marriage and love, take a new NFP class or meet with your instructor for a brush up, sit down with your spouse and look over your charts, or make a decision to discuss your chart with your spouse each night.

May God bless you on your journey during this holy season.